This article is part of our ongoing series, 31 Days of Horror Lists.
Folk horror has experienced a resurgence in recent years. Movies like The Witch and Midsommar have enjoyed mainstream success, while gems like November and Hagazussa: A Heathen’s Curse have impressed in their own right despite not receiving as much exposure as their more famous counterparts.
As such, there’s been a renewed interest in the genre lately, but folk horror will always have its fans since it’s an eclectic genre that offers a variety of thrills. Unlike slashers and other common horror sub-genres, folk horror isn’t a singular thing. As Adam Scovell — who wrote an entire book on the subject — notes, the term, which was coined by Blood On Satan’s Claw director Piers Haggard, fluctuates so often that it’s difficult to canonize. Folk horror can encompass everything from folk tales and legends to stories about ghosts, the occult, and deranged communities. What binds these disparate elements together, however, is a connection to the landscape and a fascination with isolation and/or archaism. That’s just a generalization, though. For a deeper explanation, read this article.
With this in mind, the Boo Crew — Chris Coffel, Valerie Ettenhofer, Anna Swanson, Brad Gullickson, Rob Hunter, Meg Shields, Jacob Trussell and myself — formed like Voltron to bring you this list of great folk horror movies. This selection is the result of a rigid democratic voting process, so if your favorite isn’t here just know that it pains us as well.
10. Kuroneko (1968)
“What ghost would dare hate us?” From the master Kaneto Shindô, Kuroneko is a Sengoku-set fable about a malevolent force that has been ripping the throats out of roving samurai. Naturally, when a war hero is sent to deal with the vengeful presence, he winds up face-to-face with his own demons. The film is fantastically eerie, with exquisite cinematography from Norimichi Igawa and Kiyomi Kuroda, and a shocking feminist bent. Kuroneko is a gorgeous and quietly creepy masterpiece; a haunting, lovely, and unnerving account of the thin line between the living and the dead. It’s just as liable to rip your heart out as any other organ. (Meg Shields)
9. A Field in England (2013)
Set amidst the English Civil War, A Field in England is an uncomfortable fever dream of a movie. Men break off from their herd in search of ale and stumble into a mystical field of mushrooms. What’s the problem with a little nibble? Munch, munch, munch they go and the universe opens up to their dastardly imagination. Ben Wheatley cracks wide the chest and mind of man, pulling both the heart and brain into the fresh, exposed air. The result is a grotesque exercise in depravity that speaks to the timeless selfishness of humankind. A Field in England is a trip and one I delight in taking over and over and over again. Do I feel better for it? Not really. But its taste is intoxicating if not delicious, and unlike any other cinematic treat you could devour. (Brad Gullickson)
8. Witchfinder General (1968)
Most folk horror on this list typically deal in rural communities practicing in pagan or satanic rituals that they keep hidden away from the world, but with Witchfinder General, the titular villain commits his atrocities all in the name of God, subverting much of what folk horror is based in. From the book by Ronald Bassett, and pulling from the stories of the real life Matthew Hopkins, the film stars Vincent Price as the titular sadistic general murdering anyone he deems a witch as he travels across the countryside of East Anglia.
While the salaciousness of the film is undeniable, especially for the time of its release, it’s given an air of class thanks to Price’s turn as Hopkins, breaking from his career legacy of campy performances to create something that is both ruthless and terrifying. Price found working with director Michael Reeves to be unenviable, constantly being pushed for greater intensity against his natural instincts, unsure of what Reeves ultimately wanted from him. It wouldn’t be until Price saw the completed film that the direction clicked and he came to see Witchfinder General as one of his greatest performances. If you want to see a side of Vincent Price you’ve never seen before, watch Witchfinder General. (Jacob Trussell)
7. Kwaidan (1964)
Masaki Kobayashi’s anthology adapts four haunting Japanese folk tales about ghosts. In the first, a poor swordsman leaves his wife and marries another woman for her money, but it doesn’t take long until he regrets his decision. In the second, a ghost spares the life of a man, provided that he never speaks about the situation to anyone for as long as he lives. In the third, a blind musician must perform his songs for an audience of the dead. In the last segment, an author relates the story of a warrior who sees another man’s reflection in his teacup. All four stories are culturally rooted in Japan’s spooky folk history, and the atmosphere contained within each segment is exquisite. (Kieran Fisher)
6. Viy (1967)
When it comes to haunted folk tales, Russia and her neighboring countries boasts some of the spookiest out there. Slavic history is littered with legends of witches and demons, so it makes sense that one of the finest movies about this subject matter came from that corner of the world. Based on a story by Nikolai Gogol that was lifted from Ukrainian myths and folklore, Viy tells the story of a young priest who must preside over a corpse of a witch for three nights, and dealing with the ghosts and demons that show up to cause mischief. Viy is a surreal piece of rustic horror that generates maximum thrills from a minimalist approach, and it deserves to be celebrated. (Kieran Fisher)
5. Hagazussa: A Heathen’s Curse (2019)
I find in most folk horror movies, folk has the power. Secretive cults, forest-dwelling witches, and well-worn wives tales that turn out to be true. “The Old Ways are real, and here to re-christen some ancient deity into the present day.” That kind of thing. Hagazussa flips this script. It’s a horror story about what it’s like to be treated like the thing that goes bump in the night: to be the kind of person folk tales would have branded as a witch. To be on the receiving end of superstition, and forced into nightmarish corners in order to supply a community with a scapegoat. Albrun’s heathen ways are a curse only in that they invite the cruelty of a community willing to push a sick mind to its breaking point. And what a breaking point. Never fuck with a woman with an apparent plague immunity and access to a water source. (Meg Shields)
4. The Wailing (2016)
While folk horror is most commonly applied to films hearkening back to ye old English traditions and beliefs, this list shows that every language and culture has its own fears, tales, and local horrors. South Korea is no different as another nation filled with religions, mythologies, and other publicly accepted forms of mental illness, and one of the best films to explore such things is Ha Nong-jin‘s The Wailing. There are murders plaguing a small community, and as the story unfolds blame is laid at the feet of an outsider even as black magic, exorcisms, and supernatural visitations haunt the surrounding forest. Local beliefs and superstitions shape human behavior in increasingly dangerous ways leading to an ending that mesmerizes even as it opens the floor for discussion and interpretation. (Rob Hunter)
3. The Wicker Man (1973)
People love to poke fun of Nicolas Cage and Neil LaBute‘s adaptation of David Pinner‘s 1967 novel about a police officer investigating the alleged disappearance of his daughter on a weird-ass island, but I sort of love it. For starters it has Cage, so d’uh, but also I hate bees so I can relate. And… wait, what? Really? Hmm. Well, I’ve just been informed that I’m supposed to be writing about 1973’s The Wicker Man directed by Robin Hardy and starring Edward Woodward. Yeah, that’s a pretty cool movie too about a devout Christian disgusted by a Scottish island for practicing pagan rituals. There’s a haunting burning man finale that’s quite memorable, but I still think the Cage one is funnier. (Chris Coffel)
2. The Witch (2015)
No horror movie in the past decade has had better production design than The Witch. The fact that director Robert Eggers previously worked in production design might have something to do with it. A commitment to natural lighting, painstakingly accurate dialogue, and set and costume construction done largely with period-specific technology makes this Puritan horror story, subtitled “A New England Folktale,” come to life. The heart of folk horror lies in the setting, and The Witch uses its landscape to shake us to our core. Often while in theaters, I found myself covering just the corners of my eyeline, made innately uncomfortable by wide open shots of wooded horizons and dead grass, all of it heightened further by dissonant musical notes. These shots have the tightly wound tension of an anticipatory setup without offering any of the catharsis that comes with a jump scare, which makes the brittle land and shadowy forest feel sinister long before the film’s ecstatic pagan climax. (Valerie Ettenhofer)
1. Kill List (2011)
One of the most striking aspects of Ben Wheatley’s Kill List is how much the film tangles its own folk horror ideas. Both prodding into Pagan histories and keenly aware of the film’s place in contemporary Britain, Kill List toys with questions of belief right up until the film’s devastating gut-punch of a finale. Kill List is an unforgettable experience that brilliantly transforms quaint locations into terror-inducing nightmares. Following two hitmen from a small English town who become entwined in a labyrinth of increasingly suspicious events, the film balances ideas of cult conspiracies and coincidences perfectly, leaving just enough bread crumbs from both sides to make us wrestle with any preconceived notions of what this story is or what turns it could take. (Anna Swanson)