The majority of horror subgenres boast basic characteristics that make them easy to summarize. For example, slasher films focus on killers who stalk and slash their victims. Haunting movies, meanwhile, center around people being tormented by poltergeists and other supernatural menaces. You get the idea. Horror might be fascinated with strange forces, but its various subgenres’ rules and conventions are simple for the most part.
Folk horror, on the other hand, is a difficult subgenre to canonize. As genre scholar and author Adam Scovell notes, the term fluctuates so often that its definition is not always easy to pin down outside of a few popular examples of movies, TV shows, etc. So, what exactly is folk horror?
The definition is often simplified as the symbiotic relationship between horror and folklore. Whether that’s stories mined from real-world folk tales or fictional ideas with a folkloric aesthetic, this definition is logical. Unfortunately, it’s only one strand of a subgenre that encompasses so much more than that.
Not every folk horror story explores folklore. Some of them are rooted in the occult and witchcraft. Others adopt a more realistic form of storytelling and chronicle terror that doesn’t feature deranged cults and witches. But there are certain themes which unify a myriad of works and make them folk horror.
Landscape and environment is an essential theme of the genre. These tales are set in the countryside or rural regions, and often present the juxtaposition between lush, pastoral scenery and cruel, horrific terror. These settings give the films a strong visual aesthetic, but they’re also a key component of another theme that defines the genre: isolation.
Folk horror is concerned with characters and communities who are located out of the way of urban environments. As such, they have developed their own skewered belief systems, which results in violent and twisted acts being carried out on the unfortunate victims who find themselves caught up in the madness. These communities have ranged from pagans to hoodie gangs, and they can be any group of people who live beyond the fringes of normal society.
The origins of folk horror can be traced back to the silent film era. The Golem and The Phantom Carriage take their cues from folklore and superstition, but it was 1922’s Haxan — with its disturbing images of witchcraft and ancient belief systems intruding on rural settings — that laid the foundations for traditional folk horror to grow from decades later.
Three particular films — the “Unholy Trinity” — are often hailed as the progenitors of folk horror: Michael Reeves’ Witchfinder General, Piers Haggard’s The Blood On Satan’s Claw, and Robin Hardy’s The Wicker Man. Let’s take a look at them.
Witchfinder General (1968)
Based on Ronald Bassett’s novel of the same name, which sensationalized the exploits of the 17th-century witch-hunter Matthew Hopkins, Witchfinder General is a cruel and shocking film about a lawyer (Vincent Price) who’s been appointed by the British Parliament to investigate sorcery, Satanism, and witchcraft in the English countryside. However, he uses his position to advance his own interests at the expense of innocent people.
Despite its historical inaccuracies and exaggerations, the terror that takes place in Witchfinder General is presented so sincerely that its depiction of the past seems authentic. It’s a movie about politically motivated evil and how human paranoia can be manipulated by those in power with their own selfish agendas at heart.
The story’s rural setting and engagement with isolated belief systems provides the folk horror component. That said, Witchfinder General differentiates itself from its genre peers by being more overtly political and less interested in adhering to a typical horror movie framework.
The Blood On Satan’s Claw (1971)
This movie is a prime example of the intersection between folk horror and occult horror. While both subgenres are entirely different, they have been frequent bedfellows throughout the years and they complement each other well.
The Blood On Satan’s Claw takes place in Medieval Britain and sees the children of a local village convert to devil worship. The movie retains certain hallmarks of Satanic and possession flicks, but the isolated setting and the community members with deranged beliefs makes the movie unmistakably folk horror.
The Wicker Man (1973)
When it comes to movies about odd communities with their own wacky belief systems causing mayhem, Robin Hardy’s 1973 movie is by far the most popular of the bunch.
The story revolves around a Christian policeman (Edward Woodward) who visits a Scottish island in search of a missing girl. What he finds there, though, is a group of inhabitants with a penchant for singing, dancing, public nudity, and ritualistic sacrifice.
The Wicker Man is a movie about conflicting ideologies, which is a recurring theme in folk horror films. The practitioners of the latter need to commit atrocities in order to preserve their traditions and way of life, but like the denizens of other movies of this ilk, their isolation has led to collective madness.