Signal Horizon

See Beyond

Horror as Folk: Just What is Folk Horror, Anyway? (Part Two)

Looking for academic work that highlights Folk Horror Explained? You can find Part 1 here.

In the decade-and-change since Mark Gatiss popularized the term, interest in folk horror as a distinct subgenre has grown considerably. There have been numerous books (both fiction and non-) on the subject, not to mention new prospective entries into the canon, and the exhaustive, three-hour documentary that is helping to kick off this column, Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched.

Indeed, the closing chapter of the documentary is entitled “Folk Horror Revival,” and it’s mostly all of the talking heads who have already had something to say over the course of the film coming back and hypothesizing about why right now is the time when the form is having a “moment” again, with movies like The Witch, Midsommar, and the debatable inclusion of Hereditary, to name just a few.

Global Folk Horror

Between where we left off last time and now, though, does the documentary get us any closer to a definition of folk horror? Maybe so. Leaving Europe behind for a while, Woodlands Dark dives first into the rich but too-often unexplored waters of American folk horror, before departing for other points around the globe.

In doing so, it draws on a number of both parallels and differences between Anglophone and non-Anglophone folk horror, with maybe the most telling distinction being the observation that Anglophone folk horror seems to usually be afraid of the “folk” themselves, while non-Anglophone entries are more likely to be ethnographic in nature, dealing with folktales and local beliefs, often as if they are true.

Despite this, many of the people being interviewed also point out the similarities in stories from one culture to another. “These myths are all around the world,” Abraham Castillo Flores, head programmer of Mexico’s Morbido Film Festival, says, “they just have different names and we make it local.” I think that gets at some of what’s going on with folk horror – taking somewhat universal themes and making them specific. Tying them to a place. Making them local.

One of the other interviewees seems to agree when she points out the three things that she says folk horror films all share: ritual elements, landscape, and communities. Landscape seems to be important, as the presenters include films like Lake Mungo or Wolf Creek, which would initially appear to not have much of a folk horror element aside from that tight connection to place. Which also brings us to perhaps the neatest summation of the dominant themes of folk horror presented anywhere in the documentary:

“There are things about this land that we don’t know and that we don’t understand and we will never understand.”

Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched.

Is that a definition? The answer is still no. But I think it gives us a solid rubric to work from as we delve into the (numerous) films contained in Severin’s All the Haunts Be Ours boxed set and, from there, explore the wider world of folk horror. We may not yet have a conclusive definition of what folk horror is, but we have a lot of boxes that we can check films against, and that will help us to contextualize them not only within their own histories but within this hypothetical movement or genre.

Folk Horror as Mode

Indeed, perhaps the closest we will ever come to a definition of folk horror – what it is, how it operates, and why it continues to resonate with us now, maybe more than ever – we get from author Adam Scovell in the documentary, who argues that it is a mistake to regard folk horror as a genre, or expect it to operate as one. “The best way to see it is as a mode in the musical sense,” he says.

What is a mode, in the musical sense? According to Wikipedia, the term has several definitions but, “Its most common use may be described as a type of musical scale coupled with a set of characteristic melodic and harmonic behaviors.” In Scovell’s definition, essentially, folk horror is a series of “notes” or indicators, which mean something on their own, but which change their definitions when played in a different order, or a different key.

It’s something I’ve long argued about horror, as a whole. Genre definitions are, at the end of the day, largely marketing terms anyway, divorced of much in the way of critical use. It is more fruitful to think of horror in terms of these sorts of modes – shared tropes and signifiers and techniques that, together, make up the psychogeographical landscape we call “horror.”

Applying this to folk horror as well makes a lot of sense, especially in trying to reconcile the various films discussed in Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched, which often share a certain look or style with one another, even when they find their subject matters diverging or even at odds. And I think that outlook will be useful – maybe even necessary – as we begin exploring the form through the films included in All the Haunts Be Ours.

Where We’re Going, Where We’ve Been

Which is what I will be doing in this column, going forward. When I pitched this to Tyler at Signal Horizon, the idea was to do a column examining folk horror, but I knew that, if I was going to say anything profitable about the subject at all, I would need some sort of hook. For that, I chose this substantial collection from Severin films, which opens with Kier-La Janisse’s expansive documentary on the subject.

I had been looking forward to working my way through the boxed set anyway, and knew that I would have a lot of thoughts on the subject as I went. So, for the immediate future, at least, that’s the plan. Don’t really expect reviews, per se, any more than what you just read was a review of Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched, but rather thoughts and musings on how the films fit into the mode of folk horror, how they don’t, and what that means for our understanding of the subject.

And also probably lots of odd digressions. This is me, after all.