In case you haven’t noticed, Folk Horror is having a moment. British director Ben Wheatley, who helped revive the genre with Kill List (2011) and A Field in England (2013), has a new film getting released this week titled In the Earth (2021). It is being described as a modern Folk Horror film with psychedelic flourishes that addresses the current pandemic. And Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched: A History of Folk Horror (2020) is the evocative name of a new documentary about the history of the genre currently making the festival rounds.
What we now call Folk Horror became widely popular during the 1960s-70s or as I like to call it, The Age of Black Aquarius. But during the last ten years or so there’s been a revived interest in all things associated with Folk Horror that has spurred a wave of new films and television programs. It’s a topic that I’ll be exploring more here at the AstroMagick Lounge in the future but for now I thought I’d offer a brief introduction.
Back in 2010 the popular British actor, comedian, producer and writer Mark Gatiss (The League of Gentlemen, Doctor Who, Sherlock, A Ghost Story for Christmas) wrote and hosted a fascinating documentary about horror films for the BBC titled A History of Horror. In episode two he described a subgenre of horror set in rural Britain with folklore and pagan themes. Some of the films he singled out included personal favorites such as Blood on Satan’s Claw (1971) and The Wicker Man (1973). This helped to popularize the term Folk Horror among horror film fans like yours truly.
A year later I wrote a review of Ben Wheatley’s Kill List (2011) for Cineaste magazine when the film was released in the U.S. where I used the term to describe a batch of films that may have influenced Kill List as well as various modern movies in a similar vein. My Cineaste piece provides a short overview of the genre and includes some recommendations if you want to investigate Folk Horror cinema further.
Kill List is rooted in a long tradition of British horror and fantasy fiction written by authors such as M. R. James and Algernon Blackwood. These writers manipulated mythology by interweaving folklore traditions into their stories, which often took place in the countryside where rolling hills, ancient ruins, dense forests, and forgotten churchyards carried an element of menace and mystery. Many acclaimed British horror films—such as Curse of the Demon (1957), City of the Dead (1960), Burn, Witch, Burn! (1962), Blood On Satan’s Claw (1971), and The Wicker Man (1971)—have sprung from a similar source and they all seem to enjoy exploiting our age-old fear of strange, pagan death cults. Recently, films like Left Bank (2008), The Last Exorcism (2010), Black Death (2010), and Wake Wood (2011) have attempted to explore “folk horror” territory with varying degrees of success. Kill List trudges down this well-tread path, but it takes many unexpected turns and refuses to be easily defined by genre expectations.Kimberly Lindbergs, Cineaste magazine
Of course, Folk Horror isn’t a genre confined to British cinema. Nearly every country in the world, including the U.S., has its own version of Folk Horror. And American filmmakers such as Robert Eggers (The Witch; 2015) and Ari Aster (Midsommar; 2019) have recently made hugely successful Folk Horror films. But the genre is particularly popular in Britain where it has been championed by historians, culture critics, film scholars, and filmmakers while providing material for a flurry of recent books and small press zines.
In the future I’ll be writing more about films and television shows that might interest Folk Horror fans but if you’re unfamiliar with the genre I hope this introduction will pique your interest.
❝ That’s the weird thing about folk horror in general, it seems like it’s about history, but it’s not. And a lot of it is owed to the ’70s. A lot of it is owed to the Victorians as well. And it’s shifting sands of reality with this stuff…– Ben Wheatley, from a 2021 interview with comicbook.com
- Kill List reviewed by Kimberly Lindbergs for Cineaste
- Official site for In the Earth
- History of Horror with Mark Gatiss
- From the Forests, Fields, Furrows and further: An Introduction by Andy Paciorek
- Where to begin with folk horror by Adam Scovell