Horror as Folk: Just What is Folk Horror, Anyway?
There’s an image generated by S. J. Bagley, a variation on the butterfly meme. In it, the anime guy is labeled “horror fans,” the butterfly is labeled “literally anything,” and the caption reads, “Is this folk horror?”
It’s what I kept thinking about as I was watching Kier-La Janisse’s exhaustive (exhausting?) survey of the subject. After a reading of a suitably spooky poem, Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched opens with a chorus of different voices positing a variety of takes on what folk horror really is. “Folk horror is based upon the juxtaposition of the prosaic and the uncanny,” one speaker opines, while another argues that,
This wide array of possible definitions serves as a good segue into the documentary itself, which is as much an attempt to answer that question as it is a wide-ranging celebration of the unofficial genre it concerns. Countless different elements go into these various definitions, such as “the darkness in children’s play” or a connection to the land. Indeed, so many that almost anything could probably be considered folk horror if all of them were taken as gospel – and one of the most common criticisms I see of the doc itself is that it casts its net far too wide.
It’s one of the difficulties that comes up when one tries to rigidly define a genre – see also perennial arguments about what is and isn’t horror, in the first place. For many people, the question of “what is folk horror” seems to be best answered in the way that Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart famously defined obscenity in 1964: “I know it when I see it.”
Mark Gatiss and the Definition of Folk Horror
Yet, if you want to talk about a genre, you have to be able to define it, at least a bit, and for most of folk horror’s modern popularity, that definition has traced back to Mark Gatiss, who is credited by many with coining the term in his 2010 BBC documentary series A History of Horror. Of course, with any term as likely (and handy) as folk horror, it obviously existed before Gatiss used it in the documentary, a fact that he acknowledges in Woodlands Dark, citing a few of the earlier instances of the phrase.
For our purposes, however, Gatiss may as well be the phrase’s originator, for his identification of it in that 2010 documentary certainly helped to open the floodgates of its current popularity, and it could easily be argued that neither Woodlands Dark nor this column would be here had he not done so.
In A History of Horror, Gatiss and collaborator Jonathan Rigby link the term to three specific films, which have since become known as the “unholy trinity” of folk horror: Witchfinder General (1968), Blood on Satan’s Claw (1971), and The Wicker Man (1973). Since then, just about every exploration of folk horror has begun with those three films as a jumping off point, and has often been an exercise in identifying either what they have in common, or how to incorporate all three into a pantheon that also contains whatever other examples of the form one might wish to include.
But of course, just as the term folk horror goes back further than Gatiss, the genre goes back further than any of those three films. As Woodlands Dark points out, one of the earlier examples of the term being used was linking it directly to the early days of gothic fiction, while no meaningful definition of folk horror in film could fail to include something like Haxan (1922).
The Unholy Trinity
So what is it about that “unholy trinity” that makes them so special? For Gatiss’ purposes the answer was essentially twofold: they were British (he identified them in a segment called “Home Counties Horror,” about the British horror film) and they were representative of a small but significant movement that happened in specifically British film in the ‘60s and ‘70s.
Indeed, much of what we think of as folk horror comes out of the British Isles, and Woodlands Dark spends the majority of its first hour or so there. But as the rest of the documentary makes clear, folk horror is far from a uniquely British phenomenon, and when Gatiss “coined” the phrase, he wasn’t actually trying to define an entire subgenre. He was simply looking for a way to lump together a small handful of movies that, to his eye, had something in common.
In fact, I’d be willing to argue that one of the “unholy trinity” actually doesn’t match most of the definitions of folk horror used by most modern people trying to codify the genre, including the majority of the voices we hear from in Woodlands Dark.
Whatever definition we’re operating from, in almost all cases, the horror element of a folk horror story comes from the folk traditions themselves; from the past, from a belief system that was once prevalent and is no longer. They may be stand-ins for any number of things: decadence, regression, counterculture, the “back to the land” movement, or a hundred other subjects, but folk horrors are almost always rural, and they almost always come out of the past, out of the land.
Witchfinder General’s Tricky Relationship With Folk Horror
In Witchfinder General, on the other hand, the horror comes not from the past, from a belief system that has been left behind, or that exists outside the status quo. The horror comes very much from the present, from the forces of law and order. It is Matthew Hopkins (Vincent Price), the eponymous Witchfinder General, who is the film’s monster, and it is upon the folk and their beliefs that he enacts his cruelties. And Hopkins, though self-appointed and ultimately nothing more than a serial killer, represents not a return of the repressed, but the very system of colonial repression itself.
In Woodlands Dark, author Howard David Ingham identifies the “fundamental tension of folk horror” as follows: “We don’t go back.” It’s a line that comes from “Murrain,” a 1975 episode of the TV series Against the Crowd, and it lends itself not only to the title of Ingham’s own book on folk horror, but to a chapter of Woodlands Dark, as well – and Witchfinder General is one of the few times that “we don’t go back” is the rallying cry of the villain, not the hero, in an ostensibly folk horror tale.
We’ve obviously not yet hit upon a fully functional answer to the question “what is folk horror?” – and maybe we never will – but join me next time as I continue to dig into this conundrum while also talking more about Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched…
Besides his work as Monster Ambassador here at Signal Horizon, Orrin Grey is the author of several books about monsters, ghosts, and sometimes the ghosts of monsters, and a film writer with bylines at Unwinnable and others. His stories have appeared in dozens of anthologies, including Ellen Datlow’s Best Horror of the Year and he is the author of two collections of essays on vintage horror film.