In The Tall Grass And The Problem Of Rural Horror
There is a chill in the air, pumpkins waiting to be carved, and leaves turning so it must be Fall. Autumn has long been the season for spookiness and scary movies. A vast number of those movies feature rural settings, farmland, and scarecrow guarded crops. What is it about the backwoods, small town, food growing parts of the world that invite so much creepy imagery and storytelling?
The harvest season has been a time associated with pagan tradition and devil worship since the Druids. Stonehenge is thought to be an altar for celebrating the Summer Winter Solstice and the Fall and Spring Equinox. The Fall Equinox aligns with Samhain a holiday mistakenly confused with dark witchcraft and devil worship. In reality, it is a Gaelic holiday marking the end of harvest. With so much fertile ground ripe for demons and ghosties it is no wonder there have been so many films devoted to it.
There is something in the fields.
Farming is hard work and large farms tend to be fairly isolated simply by land mass. That isolation breeds wariness. There is your family or small community and everyone else. The idea of “otherness” has long been used to instill fear and paranoia. You can still see that today traveling through many small towns. Stopping for breaks becomes a trip to side eye land as the town folk watch the interlopers with distrust. The fields themselves are often massive, filling acres with waist high and taller crops. It is easy to imagine being lost there. Stephen King’s classic from 1984, Children of the Corn capitalizes on that which can’t be seen. Look know further than He Who Walks Behind the Rows to feel the soul-crushing fear of rural America. All the children kill anyone over the age of eighteen in deference to their demon corn King. The rustling of the corn husks and hollow eyed creepy kids wielding scythes are a lot to handle. Even after 25 years it still has the power to scare. King reentered the field in his novella turned Netflix film In The Tall Grass with son Joe Hill. This time the story revolves around a time looping, reality bending ancient evil who preys on those who attempt to be a hero despite having serious moral flaws. It is far darker than the Children of the Corn and more than a little ambiguous. A melding of cosmic and rural horror the novella is terrifying. The Netflix film wasn’t perfect, but a fairly decent adaptation.
Scarecrows are freaky.
Scarecrows have been around since early civilizations. The first known use of scarecrows to protect wheat fields was the Egyptians in 2500 BC. A version of wooden crosses with nets thrown over were also used by the Egyptians to hide in. When birds came close people jumped off the crosses with the nets and caught the birds. The Greeks, Romans, and Japanese all had their own forms of the stylized trickster. The Japanese went so far as to depict their scarecrow as omniscient. The Germans used children to patrol the fields and scare birds and later stuffed rags and propped them in the field to deter birds. In early America, German immigrants brought their “bootzamen” or scarecrow to their farming. The word “bootzamen” later became the boogeyman. It is not just the act of scaring a another living thing that makes scarecrows frightening. Humans are conditioned to be alarmed by the “Uncanny Valley”. That which looks like something we recognize but not quite. It is the reason certain animation like that in Polar Express, and realistic robots are so difficult to process. In the dark of night it would be easy to think you see someone standing in the field. The scarecrow in Scary Stories To Tell In The Dark is a prime example of what we expect to see when alone and scared.
Speaking Different Languages.
Folk Horror has coexisted with rural horror out of necessity. Nobody quite knew what either was and thus didn’t know how to define either. Good examples of Folk Horror would be The VVitch and Hagazussa. They both feature gorgeous pastoral settings and are heavily influenced by demonic possession or witchcraft. They are not Rural Horror because the fear comes from something else that happens to live in the setting, whereas Rural Horror derives the fear from the setting itself. The small town setting that creates a breeding ground for bigotry, or bullying as in Straw Dogs, or the foliage is the danger itself as in The Ruins. Although not rural America it could easily be argued the remoteness of Mexico coupled with the deadly vines make it firmly Rural Horror. You can’t have a conversation about Folk Horror without including Ari Aster’s bizarre trip to Scandinavia Midsommar. Similar in tone and color to the original The Wicker Man it is an idyllic fever dream turned technicolor nightmare. This surreal film revels in its own pagan rituals including some very graphic and tortuous as in the Blood Eagle. Children of the Corn differs from these as the corn field and small town the children live and worship in is an allegory for stranger intrusion. The corn demon may be the face of evil in Gatlin, but the children’s dislike of strangers cause them to be the hammer.
Just because the film is set in a small town or on a farm doesn’t make it Rural Horror.
This is a tricky one. It is easy to start including everything with backwoods hillbilly killers as in Wrong Turn and Tucker and Dale vs Evil(A personal favorite) because they are set in a rural area. The great Jeepers Creepers and M. Night Shyamalan special Signs would also qualify for locale alone, however they are both about an other worldly killer and less the setting. Both of these creatures could easily chase people down and kill them anywhere. Wrong Turn and Tucker and Dale are about the people in the community and not a demon or witch wreaking havoc on that community. The distinction is slight but significant. Films like Texas Chainsaw Massacre although set firmly in rural Texas, are not centered on the rural nature of the town, it just capitalizes on it. To be clearly defined as Rural Horror the evil must come from things indicative to rural landscapes.
The best Rural Horror.
There are a lot of great films in this subgenre library. Quatermass II from England’s Hammer is arguably the first landscape based fear premiering in 1959. In this film the encroachment of industry on the rural community is shown through the lens of extraterrestrial invasion. The original Village of the Damned featured similar scary children as Children of the Corn but the residents fearing takeover by the children choose to commit suicide by bomb instead of waiting to be picked off. The Ruins I have mentioned earlier is a particularly nasty look at killer nature set in an extremely remote location. The Crazies is an excellent example of small town isolation in the form of a virus that causes everyone to become bloodthirsty killers. The government quarantines the town to protect from exposing the rest of the country. Backcountry is a little known killer bear movie that warns of the ignorance of nature and reliance on technology. If deadly beasts are your thing Razorback and Boar are both terrific creature films. The unknowable nature of the elements is shown to full effect in The Wind which has one of the best sound designs of any movie I have seen. Lastly, it is impossible to have a Rural Horror list and not include the seasonal classic Pumpkinhead. Without a field of pumpkin vines their would be no orange demon. More importantly, the big city strangers are the truly terrible people despite the events that unfold. This is by no means an exhaustive list.
Halloween is just around the corner. There is no better time than now to get your Rural Freak on. Maybe just avoid road trips for a while though.
As the TV/Streaming Editor for Signal Horizon, I love watching and writing about genre tv. I grew up with old school slashers, but my real passion is television and all things weird and ambiguous. When I’m not watching and writing about my favorite movies and series, I’m introducing my family to the wonderful world of sci-fi, fantasy, and horror. My only regret, there is not enough time in the day to watch everything.