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British Folk Horror Is Back, and It's Scarier Than Ever

Move over zombies—a new subgenre is here to spook us all.

Crystal Ponti

A24

Enough with the undead. The predictable outcomes—zombie eats human, human slays zombie, human turns on human, because we're a bunch of dumb asses who never learn—have left a worn circle. If I'm subjected to one more thrifty production of the undead, in any form, I might eat my own brain in protest. The Walking Dead's had a brilliant, albeit contentious run, predated by and prompting nearly a decade of respectable zombie classics: World War Z, iZombie, and Pontypool, to name a few. Otherwise, we've reached apocalyptic exhaustion.

Thankfully, there's plenty of carnage beyond virus-infected organ guzzlers. Horror has countless subgenres with rich and underutilized themes. One that's risen from the ashes is folk horror, a category that draws on the dark, often perverse, influences of society—characterized in part by European pagan traditions. Sacrificial offerings, psychogeography, erotic religion… for horror fans seeking complex plotlines with strong intellectual overtones, it doesn't get much better.

"Folk horror postulates, celebrates, and explores all the distinctly seamy, dreadful, and macabre elements of the folk phenomenon," explained John Revill, a folk horror fan who was introduced to the subgenre while studying film history at Manchester University in England.

The term was coined by British film and television director, Piers Haggard, in a 2003 interview with Fangoria magazine when he was asked about his own film The Blood on Satan's Claw. It later went mainstream when English actor and screenwriter, Mark Gatiss, used it to describe various films in his documentary A History of Horror. However, the subgenre reached its height in the late 1960s and early 1970s, during the Golden Age of British horror. Now, it's making a quiet comeback in Britain, with renewed interest in old classics and the production of new independent films and other multimedia projects.

Traces of the folk horror are also appearing in the United States. "It's been interesting to see how the growing enthusiasm for 'folk horror' has affected what customers are buying," said Katie Kierstead, proprietor at Boston-based Roses and Rue Antiques and a member of Folk Horror Revival, a Facebook group with nearly 20,000 members. "There hasn't been this much hoopla about the occult since the 1970s and that overall aesthetic is very much present in current trends."

Josh Saco of Cigarette Burns Cinema and curator of Into the Woods, a folk horror film season that took place at London's Barbican Cinema in May 2017, doesn't think interest in these productions ever went away. "It's a label that has been applied retrospectively to a wide range of films with common themes," he told me. "None of the films I screened were British films from the 60s or 70s, but all fit into folk horror as a genre."

Even with a label, what constitutes folk horror is somewhat subjective. "This is surprisingly tricky, but essentially it's a subgenre of horror media that often deals with landscape, belief, folklore, superstition, and the supernatural in various mixes," said Adam Scovell, filmmaker and author of Folk Horror: Hours Dreadful and Things Strange. It usually portrays clashes of belief systems, but blurs the line between which order is the moral superior: cult or so-called mainstream.

Among fans, the appeal is the what ifs from an inherited past. The nuances of folk horror force us to look in the mirror. The evil is tangible, and usually human. We're rubbernecked with morbid curiosity in the same way we are paradoxically drawn to the scene of a car crash or celebrity scandal. There's death and sex and manipulation and violence. Folk horror tests our moral compass. Do we look or run away?

Devotees of folk horror often cite the "Unholy Trinity" as a starting point for those new to the subgenre. The trifecta includes Witchfinder General (1968), Haggard's The Blood on Satan's Claw (1971), and The Wicker Man (1973). The three films set the defining narrative—an ancient landscape, an isolated community, and folklore—yet, The Wicker Man stands out as the de facto standard. John Caliber, also a member of Folk Horror Revival, described the film as "the perfect gateway."

"An entire island community ripe with Pagan fertility, led by the benevolent, yet sinister Sir Christopher Lee, collaborates to bewilder and entrap in a deadly game. Edward Woodward portrays a devout Christian Policeman (who is ultimately offered up as a human sacrifice) investigating the disappearance of a girl local to the island," Caliber described the film.

Today, fresh blood is pumping through the subgenre with innovative projects that test the boundaries of art and media. "Folk horror is heavily multimedia and its character can be found in literature by the likes of Arthur Machen, M.R. James, and Susan Cooper, and in electronic Hauntology music such as The Advisory Circle and Grey Malkin, amongst many other forms," said Scovell.

Folk horror's newer cinematic examples include Ben Wheatley's Kill List (2011) and A Field in England (2013); Peter Strickland's The Duke of Burgundy (2014); and Robert Eggers's The Witch (2015). Across the pond, Americans may not even realize they've already had an on-and-off love affair with manifestations of England's shadowy folklore dreams in iconic films such as Children of the Corn (1984) and The Blair Witch Project (1999). Now, we're seeing instances of folk horror appear again in theaters with The Heretics and Children of the Corn: Runaway and on TV with The Mist, American Gods, and American Horror Story: Cult.

In a wider (and more potentially uncomfortable) context, folk horror has obvious potential to comment upon the darker character of nationalism and various other distressing aspects of our society. "This can be surprising to some and perhaps even seem blasé to draw links between pulp media and the genuinely serious social and political problems we face today," Scovell said.

American Horror Story producers Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuck have done just that, drawing a connection between politics and dark elements of folklore, in the new iteration of their popular series. The seventh season parodies the cruelty, disconnection, and paranoia of Trump's America.

On a lighter note, screenwriter and director, George Moore, attributes the current folk horror movement to a lack of "myth" in modern culture. "Folk horror reconnects us to a sense of universality and archetype, a sense of something eternal in the landscape and in our psyche that not much art connects with anymore," he told me. "The idea that there's more out there that we see day-to-day also helps comfort those with itchy feet in a world where all the corners of the maps are filled in."

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