At once sublime and horrifying, the English countryside is increasingly the backdrop in horror that explores a growing unease about our place in the world. Melissa Elborn digs deeper into why the ground beneath our feet is revealing our darkest imaginings…
Our relationship with the places we inhabit has never been so magnified as right now during a national lockdown. Told to stay at home wherever possible, every time we take a step outside our front door it is an adventure as our senses are overloaded with the sights, sounds, smells and feelings of a different space. These heightened sensations are something I am very familiar after many years of working to overcome agoraphobia – it is the sensory search to feel grounded and convince yourself that you are safe.
When we step outside, millions of years of human instincts kick-in scanning for anything that could threaten our survival. Our ancestors learnt the dangers of our lands and these fears have been left in our DNA. In open fields, we are vulnerable to predators and stay near the edges; in the woods, we cannot easily detect predators or people who mean us harm; in caves, we could be surrounded and trapped; in marshes, we could sink without a trace; in the lakes or sea, we could drown or be attacked; and in the mountains, we could fall or injure ourselves.
Over time we have created our man-made places, free from the threats of nature – the pubs, shopping malls, motorways, airports and cinemas. While many of these places are closed during lockdown, our parks and rural places have remained open. Many of us are re-discovering the countryside and are walking, hiking and biking through spaces where the door to nature has been left open.
Putting aside the strangeness that the pandemic has brought into our lives, the rural countryside was already entering the realm of the uncanny due to the alienation caused by urban living. In 1801, the proportion of people in England and Wales living in towns and cities was around 17%. Today, only around 16% of the UK population live in rural areas and since the 1960s, our rural population has shrunk by 360,000 while our urban population has exploded with an additional 14.81 million people.
This means that for most of us, the unique smells, sights and sounds of the rural is completely unknown. In 2010, it led to the National Trust Director-General, Dame Fiona Reynolds, to say that: ‘Today’s generation runs the risk of being terrified of the countryside.’ Reynolds described the differences that people growing up in a city might notice in the countryside – fewer buildings, more darkness and silence, the risk of getting lost or being unable to follow a map. All the perfect ingredients of isolation that feature in much horror fiction.
The move from urban to rural is often the catalyst in recent rural horror fictions. In Andrew Michael Hurley’s The Loney (2014) a church group travel from London to a remote part of the Lancashire coast in a religious pilgrimage, and in Hurley’s Starve Acre (2019), a couple moves from Leeds to the Yorkshire dales in search of a more wholesome life. In Lucie McKnight Hardy’s Water Shall Refuse Them (2019), a family looking to escape grief travel to a village in the Welsh borders. And in Adam Neville’s The Ritual (2011) a group of university friends reunite for a hiking trip, leaving behind their homes in the UK for the Scandinavian wilderness. While in Ben Wheatley’s Kill List (2011) it is only when the two hired killers travel into the countryside that the plot shifts into its horrific climax.
However, the isolation of a rural location is just the jumping-off point. In Adam Scovell’s 2017 monograph Folk Horror: Hours Dreadful and Things Strange, an isolated landscape is the first part of a folk horror chain that leads to ‘skewed morality and beliefs’, and a manifestation of these beliefs through some form of summoning or happening. Scovell’s work creates a definition of the term ‘folk horror’ that became popular in 2010 when Mark Gatiss in the BBC4 documentary A History of Horror used it to talk about an ‘unholy trinity’ of British films: Witchfinder General (Michael Reeves, 1968), The Blood on Satan’s Claw (Piers Haggard, 1971), and The Wicker Man (Robin Hardy, 1973). Since the 2010s, we have seen a revival of folk horror that has expanded out of film into prose fiction, poetry, art and music and spearheaded by groups such as the Folk Horror Revival who have over 23,000 members in their Facebook group. 
Today’s writers and filmmakers of folk horror have inherited a rich well of works to build on from the late 1960s and 70s. Authors such as Alan Garner and Susan Cooper, and TV adaptions such as the BBC’s eerie A Ghost Story for Christmas series which drew on the earlier works of M.R. James whose stories such as ‘A View from a Hill‘ and ‘A Warning to the Curious‘ transform idyllic landscapes into scenes of terror. What is interesting is that rural and isolated landscapes have always been there but what is it that has captured our dark fascination in these times?
Horror has always worked in cycles and reflected the cultural fears of its generation. Right now, there are a specific set of cultural undercurrents that cannot be fully repressed and are seeping into our nightmares.
In Scovell’s folk horror chain, isolated communities develop skewed moral beliefs, often pagan, that jar against accepted social norms. This brings to life the tension between rural communities and ‘outsiders’ from the cities. This tension still exists today, though it is expressed through different means. An example of this can be seen in our French neighbours, where parliament has now passed a law that protects countryside noises and smells as national heritage. This followed a series of well-publicised cases in French rural villages where local ways of life such as the smell of manure, roosters crowing, and early morning tractors caused complaints from people on holiday, second homers, or those who had moved from the cities. Back in Britain, you can see echoes of this tension through the levelling up political agenda, and the re-balancing of the needs of London and the home counties with the rest of the UK.
Britain also has its fair share of laws protecting its heritage. What has become more noticeable is the sense of holding on and preserving the old ways of living – a looking back rather than a looking forward. The preservation process turns everyday items into ‘relics’ to be revered. The tides of time cast a sense of awe that we can touch something today which our ancestors held centuries ago. With this reverence comes a sense of our mortality – that the things we make with our hands can last longer than we do.
Many of the relics and evidence of the past are buried underneath the ground we walk on, and it is no surprise that this unearthing of the past is also a common trope in rural horror. In Hurley’s Starve Acre, the narrator of the story becomes obsessed with digging up his barren field to unearth an ancient tree that was used for hangings and finds the bones of a hare. When he decides to bring the skeleton inside his home it sparks a catalyst of another kind.
Nature writer, Robert Macfarlane, described this unearthing as a fascination that artists and writers have with revealing ‘the skull beneath the skin of the countryside’. Macfarlane observes that artists have moved away from the bucolic and pastoral images of the countryside to the eerie, which is not easily defined or explained – it is the quiet sense of unease – unlike the horrific it does not reveal its monstrosity to us.
It is not surprising that the images of the rural are penetrating our culture with repressed fears about the global climate crisis coming to the surface. In Britain alone, we are becoming more aware of the human impact on nature. Almost a quarter of mammals and half of bird species in the UK are under the threat of extinction6, and 97% of our wildflower meadows have been lost since the 1930s.
This awareness of what we are losing in our countryside has led to the movement of ‘rewilding’ our lands. If we look at gothic literature, wild landscapes are often romanticised such as the Yorkshire Moors in Bronte’s Wuthering Heights (1847). In reality, humans have always feared the wilderness and we have strived to tame the land through farming, enclosures, deforestation and at the same time, taking away places where any natural predators of humans could thrive.
This growing fear about our environment has intertwined with hauntology where our past hopes and visions of the future were so much better than the reality we now face of climate crisis, global pandemics and the rise of nationalism. It is the tensions between these cultural undercurrents that are fuelling the revival in folk and rural horror. This horror takes our romanticised ideas of a rural idyll along with our past hopes for a better future and sets an incendiary torch to it. The landscapes of folk horror show us the savage still living inside each of us and the inescapable viciousness of the cycle of life.
Ultimately, what rural horror shows us is that nature is emotionless, staring back at us with an unflinching gaze. It thrives, it survives, and it returns. It was here before us and will outlive us. Our decaying bodies in the earth feed it. There is an eeriness when we look at pictures of abandoned buildings or structures slowly being taken back by nature. We are reminded that nature will adapt and do what it takes to continue – even if that means the expulsion of the human species.
None of this should detract from us enjoying the unquestionable benefits of nature for our mental and physical health. Like everything else though, the countryside casts its own shadow reflecting the human histories of violence and tragedy it has witnessed. In these places, healing can turn into trauma, and beauty into horror.
1. Statista: Urban and rural population of the United Kingdom (UK) from 1960 to 2019.
2. The Guardian: Britons ‘terrified’ of the countryside, National Trust warns.
3. Adam Scovell: Folk Horror: Hours Dreadful and Things Strange, Auteur Publishing.
4. Folk Horror Revival and Urban Wyrd Network.
5. The Guardian: The eeriness of the English countryside.
6. RSPB: The State of Nature 2019.
7. Plantlife: Real action needed to save our vanishing meadows.
 Statista: Urban and rural population of the United Kingdom (UK) from 1960 to 2019.
 The Guardian: Britons ‘terrified’ of the countryside, National Trust warns.
 Adam Scovell: Folk Horror: Hours Dreadful and Things Strange, Auteur Publishing.
 Folk Horror Revival and Urban Wyrd Network.
 The Guardian: The eeriness of the English countryside.
 RSPB: The State of Nature 2019.
 Plantlife: Real action needed to save our vanishing meadows.
Main image: Annie Spratt via Unsplash