The Rise Of Folk Horror


Lately a wealth of film footage has been restored and returned to cinemas, especially by the BFI, and in the light of British film’s ever-increasing financial instability it seems a good option for young filmmakers to mix existing footage into new forms. Terence Davies did it with ‘Of Time and the City’, about Liverpool, and ‘The Show of Shows’ did it with rare fairground archive material and a Sigur Ros soundtrack.

At the end of the film ‘God’s Own Country’, a dark look at like in rural Yorkshire, there was a montage of happier times featuring old colour footage from earlier in the 20th century. Now comes ‘Arcadia’, which seems at first like an expanded version of that end scene, but takes a swerve into something stranger and more ritualistic.

It dovetails into a new movement that has appeared in recent years called Folk Horror.

Adam Scovell’s fine study entitled ‘Folk Horror: Hours Dreadful and Things Strange’ is an intelligent look at rural mythologies on film. ‘Folk Horror’ has become recognised as a movie sub-category, although it should more accurately be called ‘Folk Supernatural’. It understands that the ancient mysteries of the land affect those who still live there in profound and lasting ways, and suggests that it is here that the true spirit of a nation resides.

Folk Horror, once the province of MR James and Arthur Machen, is largely about atmosphere and suggestion, and always leaves something unknowable behind. My first awareness of it came with ‘Night of the Demon’. When I was 20 I was invited to a party in a barn in Cornwall, and we drove back through a tunnel of trees that looked exactly like the terrifying one in the film.

‘Folk Supernatural’ includes films like ‘A Field in England’ (probably the strangest example), ‘Witchfinder General’, ‘Wake Wood’, ‘Blood On Satan’s Claw’, ‘The Wicker Man’ (original UK version), ‘Penda’s Fen’, ‘Kill List’ and ‘The Ritual’. Perhaps ‘Arcadia’ is best placed in that category. Clearly some of the footage is shot at Lewes on Guy Fawkes Night, which I’ve attended a few times and included in the B&M novel ‘The Burning Man’.

There are other stories to be told in this area. ‘The Lore of the Land’ by Westwood & Simpson is a huge tome compiling all of the folk rituals and beliefs of the UK, and if you’re short of ideas there’s enough in it to fill a hundred novels or films.

16 comments on “The Rise Of Folk Horror”

  1. Adam says:

    ‘Folk supernatural’ is perhaps my favourite genre of films and books. There is something genuinely disturbing in old timeless rituals, tied to the land. My wife’s grandfather bought me Lore of the Land a few years ago, and it is a fascinating read. What strikes me is the number of very similar legends from all over the country, which demonstrates a commonality in core fears and beliefs.

    There is a rich tradition in folk music. The Scarecrow by Hull singers Lal & Mike Waterson is the most authentic and unsettling song that I’ve come across, that leaves an impression long afterwards (although apparently Mike Waterson wrote it whilst cleaning his windows)

  2. snowy says:

    [Apologies in advance, brevity is best served by the demotic.]

    There are many films that use elaborately dramatised versions of Folk rituals, to ‘season’ yet another re-telling of a story of ‘A Stranger in an Alien Land’. But it is important to distinguish between these and ‘Arcadia’, which appears to be a steaming pile of clueless, pretentious, metropolitan, pseudo-anthropological wank.

    [Should the Distributors need a poster quote, my rates remain eminently reasonable.]

  3. Ken Mann says:

    There is a legend about a newlywed bride suffocating in a chest while playing hide and seek on her wedding day that seems to get attached to any vaguely coffin sized chest in any old building. It would seem that in medieval times suffocating in chests was a major cause of death amongst teenage female aristocrats.

  4. John Griffin says:

    Most of the plots of such films are contained in folk ballad collections from the late Victorian period onwards, and there are more than a few extant or revived rituals that contain elements of latent violence and magic (any ‘Obby ‘Oss, Ashbourne Football Game) although often gutted by revival (e.g. Abbots Bromley Horn Dance). The Watersons were probably one of the most authentic groups as they were not entirely revivalist, being little influenced by the purists of the 60s revival. Those who wish to find ‘Scarecrow’, the album ‘Bright Phoebus’ has recently been remastered; ‘Scarecrow’ is haunting and quite difficult to sing.

  5. Ian Luck says:

    Ken – The ‘Suffocated Bride’ legend actually has a name. It’s usually referred to as ‘The Mistletoe Bough’, and it is generally thought to originate at Minster Lovell Hall, near Witney, in Oxfordshire. Several other places in the UK have similar tales. If you’re interested in British folklore, then the best book I’ve found on the subject has to be ‘The Reader’s Digest Book Of Folklore, Myths and Legends Of Britain’. A large, and still absolutely beautiful book, it will prove that, however strange and sinister you might think that ‘Folk Horror’ movies are – compared to the real thing, they haven’ t even scratched the surface. The book will set you back about £25, but it’s worth every penny, even though it dates from the 1970’s. Full of specially commissioned illustrations, some of which will stick in your mind for a very long time. It comes in a black dust jacket with an embossed gold ‘Oosier’ on the front. What’s an ‘Oosier’, you say? The book will tell you. In places, it can be genuinely chilling and disturbing, especially if you look in the lavish gazeteer section, and find a particularly weird or unpleasant entry for where you live, or a ruin you used to play in, or a copse where you walk the dog… It’s an ideal shelfmate for the equally weird and wonderful ‘The Modern Antiquarian’, by occasional rock star, Julian Cope.

  6. Roger says:

    There was a band at the beginning of the ’70s called “Mr. Fox”, based in Yorkshire, which specialised in grim modern folklore. All the same, Folk Horror’s always been part of English literature – M.R. James writes the High Lit version, with Sweeney Todd at the other end.
    Even if there’s nothing to be afraid of, you can be afraid of nothing:

    Oh never fear, man, nought’s to dread.
    Look not left nor right.
    In all the endless road you tread
    There’s nothing but the night.

  7. Roger says:

    There was a popular Victorian ballad of “The Mistletoe Bough”.
    One of the earliest existing British films was based on it:

  8. snowy says:

    Being abroad in darkness was always a sure way of getting the willies.~

    “Like one, that on a lonesome road
    Doth walk in fear and dread,
    And having once turned round walks on,
    And turns no more his head;
    Because he knows, a frightful fiend
    Doth close behind him tread.”

    “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”
    by Samuel Taylor Coleridge

    [~ Offer may not apply in areas of
    Hampstead outside of the Heath.]

  9. Brian Evans says:

    To my mind “The Wicker Man” must be the most overrated underrated film of all time. Chris Lee with his black robes skipping around in front of the witches is hilariously bad. The restored full version is very clumsily done the way the bits have been edited back into the print, and they add nothing. The cut version is the better version.

    Ian, I couldn’t agree more about the Reader’s Digest book. I have had it for years. I think I picked it up in a second hand book shop.

  10. Ian Luck says:

    Roger – ‘Mr Fox’ is an ancient tale from which more modern ‘Bluebeard’ tales originate. Basically, the tale (and I don’t have it to hand, so I won’t even try the repeated phrases in it; a precis will have to do), concerns a beautiful young girl. (Of course it would), who is due to marry a man called ‘Mr Fox’. One night, a few days before the wedding, she has a nightmare featuring her future husband, in which she visits his home. He’s not there, and despite signs warning the curious off, she ventures deeper into the house, and finds a room deep within that is full of bones, blood, and the butchered bodies of girls and women. On awakening the next day, she decides to visit Mr Fox’ home, a large manor house, for real. On arriving, there is nobody there, but the signs, in her dream, are. She searches the house, and, to her dismay, finds that the charnel house within is real, also. She then hears something – it’s Mr Fox, back home. The girl hides in a corridor, and is appalled to see Mr Fox dragging an unconscious young woman down the corridor. Worse, he stops, not far from his fiance’s hiding place, and tries to remove a large ring from the finger of his victim. It won’t come off, so he draws his sword, and hacks her hand off. It flies through the air, and lands in the dust next to his fiance. Mr Fox looks for it for a bit, and then drags his victim towards the charnel house. His fiance grabs the severed hand, and makes good her escape. That evening, Mr Fox is summoned to his fiance’s home, where he finds all her family present. His fiance then tells her relatives what she saw that day, and at every turn, Mr Fox tries to ridicule her, calling her ‘hysterical’. When she says about the severed hand, Mr Fox demands proof. His fiance holds the hand, complete with ring aloft. The end is simply: ‘Then her brothers and uncles drew their swords, and cut Mr Fox into a thousand pieces.’ Lovely.

  11. Martin Tolley says:

    Ian & Brian, I too have the RD F M&L book and it’s a gem. Whenever I or Mrs T go anywhere new in the country we sneak a peak in here beforehand and often find something interesting to visit- a haunted inn, a gallowstree crossroads and so on.

  12. Roger says:

    Snowy: As Housman pointed out, though, you don’t even need the fearful fiend to get the willies.

    Ian: The band “Mr Fox” did a version of the song they’re named after. There’s another traditional version called “Reynardine” which ends where the girl runs off with the werefox. Her fate is unknown…
    My note on “The Mistletoe Bough” “is awaiting moderation”. Google it with “Thomas Haynes Bayly” and you’ll find the ballad which spread the legend. Google it with “1904” and you’ll find one of the earliest folk-horror films.

  13. snowy says:

    If his reputed dalliances with a Gondola pusher are true, I guess he would have known. [Never been able to ‘tune into’ A E H. my fault I’m sure.]

    Tales of a bride immured in a chest, does positively scream, [perhaps an unwise choice of words, or not], of the Gothic tradition, [the late 18thC into the early 19thC bit], there is an almost exactly similar account in the pages of “The Monthly Anthology, and Boston Review” [1809]. Which purports to have originated in Germany.

    There is a third? tale involving a ‘Mr Fox’, set in Oxford. A student having done what young men do to local girls plots to rid himself of this problem by arranging a moonlight meeting outside of the town. She being smitten or perhaps wise arrives very early and conceals herself from view in the branches of a tree. When the appointed time came she was surprised that her love came not alone but with a companion and became more disturbed when they proceded to dig a grave.

    The night passed and eventually the men grew tired of waiting in the dark and returned with their plans only half done. Not knowing he had been observed, he called upon the girl’s house, perhaps to enquire why she had not kept their tryst. Invited in he greeted her and her family and since this is a folk tale she returned his greeting him with a rhyme;

    “As I went out in a moonlight night,
    I set my back against the moon,
    I looked for one, and saw two come.
    The boughs did bend, the leaves did shake,
    I saw the hole the Fox did make. ”

    His evil design revealed, he became enraged and in the manner of these things, stabbed her through the heart and fled the scene. This provoked a fierce battle between ‘Town and Gown’, blood ran in the streets, but it was no consolation to the girl who was laid to rest in the grave that lay freshly dug.

  14. Ian Luck says:

    There are some other things that would slot nicely into ‘Folk Horror’. Things like ‘The Witch’ episode of the ‘Smallfilms’ programme, ‘The Pogles’ – shown once, and never repeated as the puppet of the witch was bloody terrifying, and a lot of mums woken by their kids’ nightmares complained. I have seen the actual puppet, and I’d not be happy confronting it on a dark night. ‘Noggin The Nog’. Another ‘Smallfilms’ show – they also created the wonderful ‘Clangers’, by the way, but try to imagine a Norse saga for the tinies, very dark and creepy in places, with hints of ‘Beowulf’s’ darkness, and you’re nearly there. And then there’s the amorphous music known as ‘Hauntology’. Music made to disquiet. To be inherently creepy. To evoke fears such as those brought on by Public Information Films, such as ‘The Spirit Of Dark And Lonely Water’, to keep kids away from dangerous ponds. Watch it on youtube and you’ll see why it was effective. And yes, the voice is Donald Pleasence.

  15. Ken Mann says:

    Thanks, did not know about the Mistletoe Bough. I came across the legend at Bramshill House in Hampshire.

  16. Porl says:

    for more folk horror you should be sure to check out Chris Lambert’s “Black Meadow” series of books, albums, podcasts and radio documentaries!

    There’s also a cracking fringe theatre show called Unburried by Hermetic Arts which you should google and check out

    And the brilliant website!

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