Folk horror is like obscenity in Potter Stewart’s famous definition: you know it when you see it. Characterised by eerie rural landscapes, malevolent forces that work through ancient objects unearthed by hapless farmhands, and bloodthirsty cults that flourish in secret behind a peculiarly British veneer of village green propriety. Closely associated with the 60s and 70s, it’s the sort of stuff that was a mainstay of late-night television during my adolescence. Does folk horror then refer to a style of horror past – to once-chilling fireside ghost stories that are now occasionally disinterred for a nostalgia rush or for camp value?
Recently though, filmmakers such as Ben Wheatley and Peter Strickland, and TV programmes such as Inside no. 9 (witness the episode “The Devil of Christmas”, which weds a note-perfect Nigel Kneale TV play parody to a nightmarish post-Yewtree commentary) have shown a canny use of folk horror themes that are used with such an assurance that outlives their original context and gives them a new relevance. Meanwhile the cultic afterlives of old films and programmes have strengthened, resulting in fervent online communities and often regrettable remakes. And in addition, the loose cultural movement known as hauntology has grown up, encompassing everything from academic research to popular music but always exploring the connections between nostalgia and the uncanny. This is the context in which author Adam Scovell delivers Folk Horror: Hours Dreadful and Things Strange, a book poised between encyclopaedic overview and recondite post-post-structural analysis.
Scovell notes in the book’s introduction that folk horror can never be rigorously defined; it is as he perplexingly puts it, “a chain.” Following Mark Gatiss’s documentary A History of Horror, Scovell uses Witchfinder General , Blood on Satan’s Claw and The Wicker Man as the three emblematic films of the genre, calling them an “unholy trinity.” He discusses these three founding films of the genre, in which he considers the “abundant intertextuality between the three films in spite of their differences” surmising that in all three, landscape is “far more than a backdrop.” But what really links these three very disparate works other than a mood largely created by quotidian production details of the era, and Gatiss picking them as personal favourites? Arguably Witchfinder General isn’t horror at all, but a hard-as-nails Don Siegel inspired revenge drama in which the protagonist rampages through the East Anglian countryside rather than stalking the sidewalks of a sprawling American metropolis.
The next chapter builds on Scovell’s interest in landscape, looking at the way it figures in folk horror, including MR James’s and Alan Garner’s supernatural stories and their many televisual adaptations, along with certain key stories from Doctor Who‘s original run (The Daemons is a folk-horror overload, a veritable village green desecration society) and cult series Children of the Stones. It is here that Scovell’s case for folk horror is most persuasive, as he mines a rich vein of fiction in which evil forces brood beneath the surface of quaint English villages.
However, Scovell’s assertions become less plausible in the next chapter, which he devotes to a discussion of the notion of “rurality.” While there is an undeniable mood linking the three films discussed in Chapter One, and uncannily common themes linking the material discussed in Chapter Two, the rurality that here links material as diverse as the experimental Requiem for a Village with the Australian Picnic at Hanging Rock (a gorgeous fever dream) and the American The Blair Witch Project (only real 90s kids will be remotely interested) remains unclear. As the book progresses, what had hitherto seemed the uniquely British essence of folk horror dissolves.
In the next chapter, the centrality of the rural landscape to folk horror is reversed, as Scovell introduces us to “the Urban Wyrd.” Drawing heavily on Mark Fisher’s influential work, he analyses Nigel Kneale’s Quatermass (Kneale’s The Witches, written for Hammer, is not discussed in any detail, though it is a powerful example of folk horror). The subject soon moves to a discussion of the paternalistic attitude of public information films in the light of the subsequent revelations of Operation Yewtree, concluding that the 1970s themselves can be viewed as a kind of “folk horror” because of the contrast between the glossy veneer of pop culture and PIFs and the grim reality, citing Jimmy Savile’s once fondly remembered clunk/click campaign (which was removed from the National Archives after the sickening revelations of the abuse he committed) It remains unclear how this in fact deeply fascinating notion of the-70s-as-folk-horror links to the occult-focused horror works that are discussed in the remainder of the chapter – though incidentally, your curate would hungrily devour a tome dissecting the folkloric and horrific aspects of public service announcements, urban myths and other playground ephemera – especially if written with the flair of someone like John Grindrod.
The final chapter discusses modern folk horror, which is often self-conscious and self-referential, and sometimes pure parody. The social media design project Scarfolk and the record label Ghost Box, and the films of Ben Wheatley are all parsed here. The hauntological view would be that folk horror – especially the seemingly infinite amount produced by the BBC – was a product of postwar Britain and Reithian values, long since offered up to the gods of the free market by Margaret Thatcher. For Scovell though, folk horror isn’t so inextricably linked to the postwar consensus – the genre persists because of what he sees as its social relevance, and so he grapples with the 2008 horror Eden Lake, which is less a folk horror film than a British Deliverance fuelled by class hatred, before concluding with Brexit, drawing an analogy between the referendum and The Wicker Man: an island mentality and the importance of a big, sacrificial gesture that may prove self-destructive.
Attempting to prescriptively define nebulous and value-laden concepts like genres is rarely if ever a fruitful task. But on the other hand, but Scovell’s passion for the mood or aesthetic that he evidently loves – and which your humble curate shares with him – can obfuscate his own conception of folk horror, such as when he argues unconvincingly that English Civil War films such as Cromwell and Winstanley can be considered within a folk horror context. I suppose this is because the desolate landscapes and dirt-under-the-fingernails period details are redolent of Witchfinder General and The Blood on Satan’s Claw, but “this tends to be the linking with history, but a history that is aesthetically realised through the guise of rurality” is Scovell’s way of putting the same sentiment. A further digression considers Ingmar Bergman and Andrei Tarkovsky’s use of rural locations. The end result is that folk horror is defined rather too broadly, and there is a palpable lack of focus. At the same time though, these digressions hint at the potential the folk horror of other cultures for further research (could Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives be considered a Thai example of folk horror, for example?)
Furthermore, there seems to be a concept creep in how “folk horror” itself is used in the book, apart from the broadness in scope of the media that I mentioned above. Usually folk horror refers to the genre itself, but sometimes Scovell seems to be using it as a name for his own approach.
The style of the book shifts between the accessible and the academic; chapters often begin with a serendipitous anecdote, such as an out-of-the blue phonecall from director David Gladwell as Scovell is researching him, before plunging into detailed analyses. Plot synopses of key works are hemmed in to subsections, bullet points delineate key concepts and points, and the filmography will be a useful resource for fans and researchers alike. Despite this, concepts listed as key terms on the book’s back cover – psychogeography, hauntology, and topography – appear throughout the text without ever being fully explored. Doubtless readers of The Scientific Anglian (assuming there are any) will be well-versed in at least the first two of these fields of inquiry, but it would be useful to know exactly what they mean to Scovell and how they are being deployed here.
In addition, patches of purple prose abound, such as when he makes the unlikely pairing of The Blair Witch Project and Häxan: “the rurality of documentary creating a psychologised and deeply effective horror through the potential of an unseen and underground alternative rural sociology.”
Despite the density of the prose, readers are likely to come away from Folk Horror with a sense of the richness, depth, and diversity of the genre, a stream of consciousness abuzz with the many suggestive ideas broached, and a lengthy list of films and television programmes that this project has unearthed.