The Maypole Cycle:
Folk Horror Afterlife
Chris Andrews discusses the resurgence of folk horror, its origins, and the notion of a 'yearning for the past' in a modern context...
It’s hard to say where or when folk horror first materialised. Look up the word folk in the Oxford English Dictionary and it states:
‘People from a particular country or region, or who have a particular way of life.’
‘[art] in the traditional style of a country or community.’
Hardly sounds that frightening, does it? Just to build on that, I would imagine for most the words ‘nature’ and ‘mysticism’ also spring to mind when considering the term folk. Folk horror stories then can be traced back to the ancient Egyptians, ancient Greeks, the Bible and so on. But it was here on these ancient British Isles and across the shores of Europe where the big bang of folk horror really took place.
Perhaps it has something to do with our bloody history. For the past thousand or so years, Britain has been somewhat of an open house to invaders, each leaving a trace of their superstitions in the soil, some of which have woven their way into our modern world. To think, it’s only four-hundred years ago since Matthew Hopkins was tearing across Essex torturing and murdering those accused of Witchcraft or consorting with the Devil almost doesn’t compute.
The stories are now legendary. Malcolm Gaskill’s incredible 2005 book Witchfinders: A Seventeenth-Century English Tragedy reads almost like a torture shopping list. For the most part, the grim tale plays out the same; a person in a village is unliked or has a dispute with another village member. By way of revenge, the villagers accuse the said person of witchcraft. In rides Hopkins to interrogate (torture) the accused until they either confess or give up the names of their fellow witches, who are then hung or burned until dead.
Vincent Price would of course immortalise the role of Matthew Hopkins in Michael Reeves still brutal Tigon classic Witchfinder General (1968). It would probably be labelled torture-porn today, but the earthiness of the locations and Price’s detestable delivery have rightly so ranked this a classic in British horror. If Price sneering to his cohort John Stearne, ‘We’re doing God’s work… God’s work,’ doesn’t get under your skin, well, to quote the Black Christmas (Bob Clark, 1974) tagline, it’s on too tight!
So why then, if the risk was death, did these stories continue to circulate? There was clearly an appeal with witchcraft, the devil and the black arts and the accusers, probably, were more knowledgeable of the dark laws than those they were pointing the finger at. Of course, fear makes it easy to control, so it can partly be put down to that, but there’s no denying the forbidden fruit has huge appeal. Did they get their kicks from sharing stories they knew could (and probably would) have them killed? Anyone of a certain age will remember what it was like to have a bootleg copy of Evil Dead (Sam Raimi, 1981) or The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (Tobe Hooper, 1974) hidden in their bedroom and worry the police would one raid your home to take it away. Were stories of witchcraft the Video Nasties of their day?
Although the phrase was not been coined until recently and usually attributed to Mark Gatiss via his documentary A History of Horror (2010), folk horror in cinema can be traced back to the very beginning of the art form’s existence. From the expressionist films of Europe to Benjamin Christensen’s phantasmically phenomenal pseudo-documentary Häxan (1922) which not only features a witches’ sabbath but an awe-inspiring black mass involving none other than the Devil himself, which remains unbeaten ninety-eight years later.
It’s no surprise, though, that as we basked in the heyday of British horror (the 1960s-70s), the output both on the big and small screen of folk-related horror really started to flourish. The aforementioned Witchfinder General is now linked with Piers Haggard’s dark and dirty The Blood on Satan’s Claw (1971) and Robin Hardy’s hugely influential The Wicker Man (1973), now affectionately known as The Unholy Trinity.
While cinema audiences were recoiling in folk-fuelled fear, families at home were treated to all manner of dark delights. From anthologies such as the Thriller (1973-76) episode ‘A Place to Die‘ and Dead of Night‘s (1972) ‘The Exorcism‘ dipping their gnarled toes into tales of witchcraft and devilry, Play for Today (1970-84) occasionally shocking audiences with planned human sacrifice, and even Mrs Peel and Steed facing strange goings in little local villages.
While youth culture was coming toward the end of the hippie movement, the open your mind and be one with nature messages were still very much in the air. Proximity to nature is undeniably crucial to the folk horror movement. What’s curious is many of these stories are either set in the past or involve reaching backwards in time. Much of the time the protagonist has no truck with or is ignorant of the behaviours he or she happen upon. Edward Woodward’s Sgt. Howie can’t comprehend the blatant Pagan worship on Lord Summerisle’s island, while countless academics come face-to-face with the impossible unknown throughout the M.R. James ghostly tales.
As the 90s rolled in the mood shifted. Shows like The X-Files (1993-2018) which became a pop culture phenomenon was clinical and scientific. They may have dealt with the strange and unusual, but you could in no way call them mystical. But all was not lost, the cycle was about to begin again.
Dare I say, folk horror is now considered somewhat trendy. The past six years have seen an incredible wealth of new material emerge from the ether, including fantastic zines such as Weird Walk and Hellebore, labels such as Folk Horror Revival and, of course, in film.
Not to take anything away from them, but it’s a shame a number of the films produced during this latest movement follow the tried-and-tested Wicker Man formula when one only has to look back to those produced fifty years earlier or dig into some of the fiction old and new to see there’s an absolute treasure trove of stories to be told.
In fact, some of the best material to appear in recent years that most closely fit within the mood and feel of the genre aren’t even horror. Mackenzie Crook’s gloriously melancholic BBC TV Series Detectorists (2014-2017) will leave you feeling warmer than a witch’s cauldron and really taps into the old village/community tradition feel, albeit wrapped in a cosy, quiet comedy. Crook also directed Worzel Gummidge’s return, which again is full of country magic, and even manages to sneak a few scares too. A special mention must also go to Mark Jenkin’s BAFTA-winning film Bait (2019), a story of Londoners relocating to a Cornish fishing town and the clash of cultures that ensue. Miraculously the film manages to feel as if it was ripped from another era, adding to its unease.
While it may seem strange that folk horror has chosen to make its return now, maybe the signs were there all along. Esoteric thinking has been growing for years, with an Esoteric section even to be found in some major bookstores, and like it or not, religion is still a major part of life in the UK. Britain (along with most of the world) is in a divide, with the likes of Brexit suggesting people yearn for the past (once again, maybe a past that didn’t exist?). And as for the nature side? Not a week goes by where global warming is not a top news story, with recycling, solar energy and greener living hot topics.
Does folk horror affect the way we live? Or were the incantations and rituals of modern folk horror mysteriously shaping our future. I guess we’ll have to wait until the next cycle rolls around to find out, but if the stories have taught us anything…it’s dangerous not to believe.