Folk Horror


Folk horror is not yet well defined or studied. This site makes a contribution by drawing together a small selection of works of literature, cinema and television under one preternatural umbrella. There are countless others.

What is folk horror?

Folk horror is a sub-genre of horror fiction (or of Occult fiction in WorldCat Genre terms) characterised by reference to European, pagan traditions. Stories typically involve standing stone circles, earthworks, elaborate rituals or nature deities. While the genre is not overtly concerned with Christian ideology, frequently used terms such as 'demon' and 'devil' appear to associate folk horror with Christian demonology.
However, while many stories will initially imply that menacing forces are Satanic, the same forces are often found to pre-date established Christianity. Folk horror is discordant with Neopaganism, in its portrayal of magical agencies as rarely (if ever) benevolent.
The degree to which any folklore referenced by Folk Horror does actually pre-date Christianity (or is even older than the late 19th century), is irrelevant to the success of folk as a horror genre.

Writers of folk horror

British writers of supernatural fiction such as; M.R. James, Arthur Machen, L.T.C. Rolt, Robert Aikman, Alan Garner and Algernon Blackwood have produced some of the finest examples of folk horror. Each writes of huge, menacing and ultimately unknowable forces which besiege mankind. The depiction of these forces as in some way 'natural' (as opposed to supernatural) in no way detracts from the terror they inspire. For more on M.R. James see my Thin Ghost site.

Folk horror on the big screen

As indicated by Mark Gatis in A History of Horror, folk horror movies enjoyed international success in the late 1960s and early 1970s, many produced by Hammer Films in the UK. An interesting theory is that this boom was, at least in part, due to the hippie philosophy 'gone bad' as earlier hopes of man and environment in harmony looked, by then, unlikely to be realised. Blood on Satan's Claw (1971), Witchfinder General (1968) and The Devil Rides Out (1968) are all excellent examples but all are now overshadowed by the defining folk horror movie The Wickerman (1973).

But this particular boom by no means marks the full extent of folk horror on the big screen. Earlier examples like Curse of the Demon (1957) and much later ones such as Wake Wood (2011), show a genre significant before the 60s and still very much alive today. While US contributions, notably Children of the Corn (1984) and The Blair Witch Project (1999), tell us that a European sense of pre-Christian terror is by no means restricted to Europe.

Folk horror on the small screen

Even more than cinema, television has been the medium through which folk horror has developed and thrived. Modest budgets, limited duration and sometimes even two dimensional characters have all added to the odd sense of 'ritual' so important to the genre, as though whole productions were actually only 'standing in' for some aspect of folkloric tradition which has long been forgotten.

Tribal Goat

Tribal Goat by R.Porter

The Children of the Stones (1977), The Owl Service (1969) and The Mind Beyond: Stones (1976) are prime examples. Productions such as these, many commissioned as children's entertainment, are nonetheless both serious and sinister.

One man, Nigel Kneale, was responsible for a plethora of televisual folk horror including The Stone Tape (1972), Against the Crowd: Murrain (1975) and Beasts (1976).

With the resurrection of Hammer Films, some acknowledgement of Horror Folk as a sister musical genre and a large number of fan-made short films on the web, folk horror now looks set to emerge from the darkness once more. An excellent list of Folk Horror titles has been compiled by Mighty Emperor.

All illustrations by Stephen Gray unless otherwise credited.

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