Folk horror has had a major resurgence over the last decade. Considering our collective anxieties about environmental devastation, technological changes, and collapsing political institutions, its revival should come as no surprise. Yet, at the same time, folk horror can be difficult to describe. Unlike, say, the slasher or zombie movie, it doesn’t always have specific tropes. It’s much broader.
Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched: A History of Folk Horror is a stellar, comprehensive documentary. Clocking in at nearly three and a half hours, the doc addresses dozens of films and features commentary by several scholars, writers, and directors. The historical breadth and the social and political context are fascinating, making the long runtime well worth it.
The Shudder exclusive, which debuts on January 10, is one of the first must-watches of the new year.
Folk Horror’s History and Roots
As noted already, defining folk horror is a tough task. A quick Google search describes it as a type of horror film or television which uses elements of folklore to invoke fear. Again, this is a very generalized definition. Directed by Kier-La Janisee, author of House of Psychotic Women, the documentary opens with several directors and scholars giving various definitions of the subgenre. Some of my favorite descriptions include, “strange things found in fields,” “darkness in children’s play,” “being lost in ancient landscapes,” and perhaps my most favorite, “the devil having a cup of tea with you.” At its core, folk horror represents the old Freudian idea of the “return of the repressed.” In other words, something survives, often pre-Christian, which clashes with the present. No matter how much you try to bury the past, it resurfaces.
Despite the difficulty in trying to offer a straight definition of the subgenre, the documentary does note that literary scholar Oscar James Campbell first used the term folk horror in 1936 when analyzing 19th Century English Romantic poet William Wordsworth. He related some of Wordsworth’s poems to the origins of Gothic literature.
The term was later used and popularized during Mark Gatiss’ three-part BBC documentary, A History of Horror, broadcast in 2010. He uses the term in part 2 to discuss a “new kind of horror film.” These films avoided“Gothic cliches” of the 1960s Hammer films. The “unholy trinity” of folk horror includes Witchfinder General (1968), Blood on Satan’s Claw (1971), and The Wicker Man (1973).
The doc’s first hour primarily focuses its attention on these British films and folk horror’s roots. It even gives a shoutout to British authors like M.R. James and argues that their ghost stories can be considered folk horror. One commentator mentions that James’ stories contain earthy ghosts with connections to bloody history “buried beneath the façade of civility.”
Folk Horror’s Social and Political Context
Because the documentary mentions so many films, it would be impossible for any of the commentators to offer a truly in-depth analysis of one specific film. Rather, the documentary contains a barrage of clips and titles, one after the other. So, grab a pen and paper or your phone (if you don’t prefer the old ways) to write the titles down. However, the doc does present overarching historical and political trends that gave rise to folk horror, specifically in the 1960s and 1970s, trends re-occurring today.
In Britain, the 1970s were marked by a period of upheaval and austerity. In the U.S, there was Watergate, the Vietnam War, the Civil Rights Movement, the rise of the Black Power Movement, and the Women’s Movement. Further, both countries had “back to the land” type movements that questioned if the old ways were indeed better. This question is at the heart of folk horror. The shadow of the Industrial Revolution loomed large as cities grew more crowded by the second half of the 20th Century.
In fact, this is one of the documentary’s real strengths. Much weight is given to the subgenre’s cultural, political, and historical context. These segments are the most fascinating, even more so than some of the film analysis.
I especially enjoyed the commentary about witches and the interest in the occult that exploded throughout the western world in the 1970s. This coincided with distrust in institutions. Sound familiar? Witchcraft become more modern, as one scholar notes, adding, “Everyone knew someone who knew a pagan.”
The documentary makes the standard argument that witches became associated with feminine power during third-wave feminism. Prior to that, horror and its monsters were largely male-dominated. The middle of the documentary shifts to American folk horror, including the Southern Gothic, and global folk horror.
Common Tropes and Themes
The documentary argues that even if these films are from various parts of the world, they do have some commonalities and speak to each other about similar anxieties. These may include repercussions of colonization, the city dweller encountering rural country folks, and modernity clashing with the past. Much time is spent analyzing the history of genocide against Native peoples in these films. Here, the doc gives attention to Puritanism and the othering of Native Americans. However, the doc also explores the erasure of indigenous people in global cinema, especially Australian films. This overall analysis is another highlight.
Even in a film like Lake Mungo (2008) or Wolf Creek (2005), there’s an acknowledgment that there are things about the land that we don’t fully understand, a history there that predates us, as one commentator notes. Perhaps most importantly, the section on global folk horror reminds us that as humans, we do share collective anxieties that show up in a subgenre of films from all over the world. At the same time, the attention to global folk horror shows how diverse the subgenre can be, that it’s no longer bound to the U.K. or U.S.
Folk Horror’s Revival
The documentary ends on a rather perfect note, questioning why folk horror has had such a revival. Compare the early 21st Century to the 1960s and 1970s, and it’s easy to see why. Once again, traditional institutions are failing. Democracies are backsliding worldwide. Climate change is here and now. Environmental devastation remains largely unchecked. In the U.S., debates rage about how history is taught. This has even overtaken school board meetings. Yet, as folk horror reminds us, the past will come back to bite us, always. It’s the return of the repressed.
Further, we’re always plugged in and there’s that constant yearning for community. Were the old ways indeed better? That’s one of the central questions that folk horror contemplates. As we look around at a world on fire, it’s hard to say that our current ways work. The pessimism that plagued the 1960s and 1970s is here with us again. Likewise, so are social and political movements trying to build a better, alternative future.
Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched is sure one long documentary. Yet, even for the lukewarm folk horror fan, there’s something enchanting. The depth of the historical, social, and political context is the real highlight. At the very least, you’ll come away from the doc with dozens of films to watch.
If you need more folk horror in your life, browse Shudder’s folk horror collection, unrolling all through January. It includes the “unholy trinity” and other films mentioned in the doc. Meanwhile, check out my weekly Shudder Secrets column for more on the streaming service’s latest exclusive and original content.
Brian Fanelli is a poet and educator who also enjoys writing about the horror genre. His work has been published in The LA Times, World Literature Today, Schuylkill Valley Journal, Horror Homeroom, and elsewhere. On weekends, he enjoys going to the local drive-in theater with his wife or curling up on the couch, and binge-watching movies with their cat, Giselle.