“From the brown, bark trees, the green hanging leaves, the stone faerie forts to the power and fury of the horned, cloven-hoofed god.”
It could be said that where science fiction is concerned with the future, and fantasy with a time that never was, the genre of the supernatural is almost always moored in the past. Nowhere is that more evident than in the genre of what has come to be known as ‘Folk Horror.’
From as long as I can remember I have always been attracted to ‘horror.’ I think it grew out of my magnetisation to magic, fantasy and escape. I think that as a child (and probably beyond) I lived a deep, internal life in my imagination. An internal life that had me muddling the real world with the world of the imagination for longer than was good for me. I wonder whether this was partly due to being so incessantly immersed in books and television. Over the years that attraction to horror became more of an attraction to the idea of horror than the actual output of product that was around. Whether that was a good horror film, or a good piece of horror writing, be it a novel or short format. This was because by the mid 1980’s, even though there was something of a horror boom going on with American slasher films like the Halloween franchise, the Friday the 13th series as well as imitators like the popular video rental ‘The Burning,’- something was missing for me. Call it a sense of the uncanny, if you will. The Nightmare on Elm Street series, which did so well commercially and critically, left me feeling underwhelmed- disenfranchised almost, as everyone else thought they were great. This was because I was beginning to think that the horror genre was not for me. My problem with Freddy Krueger was that I did not know what his bane was and it did not evoke something in me. No nerves were touched. My suspension of reality did not linger after the credits rolled. Was I entertained? Yes of course. Was I frightened? No, certainly not. Though the soundtrack was creepy there was nothing haunting or truly evocative about the Nightmare on Elm movies for me. I found little that teased and tormented the imagination. I was not inspired by what I saw.
These trend setting slasher-gore films coming out of America sat comfortably alongside similar Italian fare produced by Dario Argento, such as Cannibal Holocaust or the Demons series, because they were coming from the same mindset of crazed violence and gore. Though I found them worthwhile to watch, I never sat through any of these movies twice. I was not enthused by what I saw. Such films never really held my imagination to ransom. I never thought about them once the credits had rolled and the screen turned to black. And when they were returned to the video rental shops from whence they came, were never borrowed by me again. It was darkness I was after, not blood.
Horror, for me, is always a battle of the sacred and the profane over the right to determine who should command those labels. I realised that what I like about the horror, supernatural and ghost genres were not just the senses of dread, enchantment and transportation they gave you, but also the way they tapped into those hard to articulate and deep-seated fears of the dark and unknown. I liked the way these genres of the weird and uncanny nudged at those uncomfortable thoughts that were embedded in our psyches from earliest childhood. How such fears get there I can’t say, but I daresay they are there in all of us. However, these nocturnal and internal fears that give impetus to one’s mind to throw up disquieting images in the cinema screen of the mind; as well as the unique sensations of thrill, excitement and fear that the supernatural genre give are things everybody can relate to across all cultures. When at its best there is an unlikely sense of gravitas in horror and things dealing with the supernatural. This is something well-demonstrated in the supernatural fiction of M R James, Sheridan Le Fanu, Edgar Allan Poe, Dickens and James Herbert. There is a quality in their most powerful works that makes us question what we really know about the world we live in.
Which brings me to the genre of Folk Horror. I got introduced to the genre and many things folk related via Simon, my fellow contributant to this blog. His love of folk music, the English landscape and cinema had a huge effect on me in the early 2000’s and when he played me Swaddling Songs by Mellow Candle a flame inside me was lit. He later reintroduced me to long forgotten films like The Blood on Satan’s Claw and And Now The Screaming Starts (1973) with Herbert Lom, Stephanie Beecham and Ian Ogilvy. The film was based on the novel Fengriffen by the American gothic fantasy novelist David F. Case. This was a rare gothic period piece by Amicus Productions who tended to stay in the twentieth century. Viewing as a child, films made by Amicus were often mistaken by me for being outputs from Hammer Productions. They had the same look and often featured familiar Hammer stalwarts like Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee and Michael Ripper.
However, saying that, Amicus often tended to obtain the services of several actors that you would never see in Hammer Films. An example of some names are Joan Collins, Tom Baker, Burgess Meredith, Charlotte Rampling, Terry Thomas, Ingrid Pitt, Jon Pertwee and Jack Palance. The two key differences between Hammer and Amicus were that Hammer Productions were almost always placing their stories in the gothic past. Amicus in comparison tended to place their action in the present time, which then was the world of the 1960’s and 1970’s. The second difference was that Hammer made single story features on the classic tropes of vampires, werewolves and mummies.
Amicus films were ‘portmanteau’ affairs- meaning that they would usually have theee or four stories held together with a framing device. My interests in supernatural media, music, the English countryside and memories of childhood sort of rolled into one generalised whole. Simon and my own interest in all things Folk became one of the threads that bound us together I guess. I however drew the line as far as dabbling in Magick and Wicca were concerned. And though there was some persuasion I had and have, no plans to follow him into wearing a black robe and joining a Mystical Order.
There are three films that make up the original unholy trinity of the genre. These are WitchFinder General (1968) The Blood on Satan’s Claw (1971) and The Wicker Man (1973). I will give my thoughts on these three seminal films later on in this piece. There are also a spate of documentaries and books from that time period which could be said to fit nicely into the genre. Now, these early films and writings were not a part of some thought-out movement. There was no name for such fiction. Not even an established trope, or pattern to chart the road by. There was little. Most of what we had in the twentieth century English language were the works of Dennis Wheatley and ‘ideas’. An abstraction, borne more out of fancy and instinct than by any well-laid out planning on the part of the writers and directors involved. The folk trope of the late 60s was something birthed as a defiant response to the world at the time. Much of what was produced in the west pertaining to ‘the creative arts’ during the 60’s through to the mid 70’s was rather an outgrowth of the prevailing spirit of escapism of the time. That, and the (for want of a better expression) hippy decadence of the new permissive age. I also suspect that the spirit of the time was a natural by-product of an age of relative economic prosperity. Such periods always engeander the kind of social security that allows the mind to wander. Since times are less perilous, the young and participants of the artistic and literary community get to enjoy a greater luxury of time and space for the exploration of alternative ideas. There was a sudden surge of freedom in general, especially for those young people who were not faced with having to work as soon as they left school. Ideas such as the Wicca and all things occult; the mythic idealisation of the land and romanticisation of nature as an ideal in the face of growing high rise buildings and grey, looming factories with smoking chimneys were all factors behind the rise of the New Age movement in Western Europe. There was also the new fangled spirit of free love which brought along with it a sense of stubborn rebellion. A ‘rebellion’ powered by a blind yearning for the different, the unusual and the exotic. You had all the aforementioned ingredients layered over with the surface cause of the Vietnam War and a nation gleefully coming out of the austerity of post- war 1950’s Britain. The collective consciousness of those not yet born during the second World War brought about a cultural zeitgeist in the 60’s and 70’s that, for good or bad, psychologically remodelled the western world … But that discussion is outside of the remit of this piece and perhaps an article for another day.
So what exactly is meant by the term ‘Folk Horror?’ There has certainly more than one attempt at definition, since the term is a relatively newly coined one. To my mind what has become known as Folk Horror is something usually composed of the following five features.
Firstly, the rural landscape of the English countryside, which is so integral to the genre. Second, the re-emergence of some ancient evil or blood thirsty pagan belief. Thirdly, a rejection of the moral values of the modern world, especially Christianity. Fourth, a sense of an unidentifiable compound of isolation, helplessness and strangeness and finally a violent or supernatural reckoning.
Another great appeal of Folk Horror is how it is so well framed towards the hazily, evocative images of childhood. We are talking about half buried, perhaps even fictional memories of maypoles, flutes, pipes and hurdy gurdies and strange symbolism that appears to venerate the natural world. Basically, what we are seeing are the fables and fairy tales of the past unsanitized, twisted and remodelled for more mature eyes and ears and a delicious exploitation of primal fears that form the foundation of our sense of the unknown, of dark inevitable perils that may lurk beyond the fallows and fertile fields.
Folk Horror at its best, and in recent offerings in the recent Folk Horror Revival with films like Midsommar, directed by Ari Aster, depicts a forbidden, buried past that has crept back, bringing along with it, old, semi-neglected deities who want to either cause havoc, gather obedience- as once enjoyed in the distant past- or unleash their vengeance. These gods may offer free love and shortcuts to power and success in the material world in return for obeisances given. In short, a revival of the pagan and wicca ecosystem that was decimated by the coming of Christianity and the changes brought and wrought by the coming of Roman civilization. In 1960’s Britain with the new permissive society and ‘back to the land and nature’ movement (in tandem to the folk music revival) there was the pre-Christian past and also witch-hunts and burnings of the 16th century to mine, explore and craft for creative purposes. However, Folk Horror is not just a British concept emerging at the tail end of the 1960’s and early 1970’s, to be rediscovered and revived in more contemporary times with films like Wake Wood (2011) Or Ben Wheatley’s trilogy of Folk Horror tinged films- Kill List (2011) Sightseers (2012) and A Field in England (2013) – or offerings like Laurie Brewster’s Lord of Tears (2013) as well as the bigger budgeted The Witch (2015) and the slow burn daylight horror of Midsommar (2019). All films have this in common, they were made on location rather than in a film studio and the locations were an integral part of the psychogeography of what you saw.
By no means however is this artistic and cinematic depiction the sole province of the British. There are many foreign examples of what we can call Folk Horror both predating and running side to side with the brief flurry of those iconic three films produced in the UK between 1968 and 1973. The following is a list of European films dealing with the sinister realms of witchcraft and paganism:
Häxan (Denmark 1922),
Burn Witch Burn 1962
Il Demonio (Italy 1963),
Viy (Russia 1967)
Hour of The Wolf (1968)
Kladivo Na Čarodějnice (Czechoslovakia 1970)
Valerie and Her Week of Wonders (Czechoslovakia 1970)
Mark of the Devil (West Germany 1970)
Leptirica (Yugoslavia 1973).
America also produced its own films of this type. Two examples are Crowhaven Farm (1970) and The Dark Secret of Harvest Home (1978). Yet for me these films that floated across from the other side of Atlantic all lacked the heavy usage of the sleepy pastoral landscape; a feature as vital as any plot element.
I find that I am not so enamoured of American forays into the genre. Though I do like the Southern gothic of Night of The Hunter (1955) and feel that that great holy grail of slasher movies, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, has many identifiables of the folk horror trope. The film has a rural setting, isolation and folk music playing in the background. The British do this kind of thing (as well as ghost stories) so well, and with a quiet dignity and restraint, that I find they render the competition almost obsolete by comparison. I suspect this is because a strong sense of cultural history, place and anachronistic European architecture must be involved in the creative fermentation process. Something the new world lacks. American artforms depict the Southern Gothic and colonial era vis-a-vis the Salem Witch trials well enough. But that is as far back as the memory reaches. I think this is because the country has a history of eradicating cultural memories from the old world. Therefore, they cannot reach back into the cultural past to produce evocative depictions that linger on with you like lullabies that haunt and make the small hairs at the back of your neck stand up. A serious sense of history, as well as a respectful reverence is lacking. The sort of mindset that makes you think that the writer, director- hell, all personnel involved, really believed in the veracity of what they were doing. No wonder the Americans and Canadians largely stick to slasher movies or paranormal phenomenon.
However, there has been more than a trickle of noteworthy material produced outside of the British Isles that definitely deserves to be celebrated. The first of two worthy mentions on the international front is the Southern folk and supernatural Americana output of the prolific weird fiction writer from Chapel Hill, North Carolina- Manly Wade Wellman (1903 -1986). He published literally hundreds of tales between 1921 and his death in 1986. He had a sincere affection for the people, music and the authentic folklore of the south. And it certainly showed in his work. Wellman mined the folklore of the Carolinas in particular. This exploration of Southern myth and folklore came together most spectacularly in the short stories featuring his most iconic character- ‘Silver John’. In actuality, the character was only ever referred to as plain ‘John.’ The appellations ‘Silver John’ and ‘John the Balladeer’ were used by publishers as a form of disambiguation, much to the chagrin of the author. The stories were written and set during the 1950’s. John was a wanderer traversing the length and breadth of the Appalachian backwoods with a silver string guitar slung across his back and not much else. John was shown as wise, simple and pure of heart. Good men trusted him and women easily fell in love with him. It has been said that he was possibly even a reincarnation of the biblical John the Baptist. He battles with forces of supernatural evil in every tale. He resembles a kind of fearless Johnny Cash cooly taking on witches, hoodoo men and other weird beings that perhaps owe a debt to H. P Lovecraft. Wellman vividly captures the regional flavour of the superstitous mountainfolk of the Appalachian Mountains and simple, hoodoo fearing, farmstead dwellers of the Ozarks and the Carolinas. There is a unique authenticity in his stories, that alongside the vivid descriptions and authentic customs and vernacular, also made sure the reader got to know about long forgotten folk songs like ‘Vandy Vandy’ and ‘Round is the Ring’. At their best, the John stories, unique and different to so much that we know of American literature, almost rise to the level of genuine anthropology. His first cycle of short stories featuring John appeared in 1951 and the last in 1958. Wellman’s supernatural fiction was, for the most part, mostly dark fantasy than out and out horror. Both Wellman and Silver John enjoyed an unexpected renaissance later in the 70’s. More stories of the character appeared in both short and novel formats.
I always found the novels less enjoyable than the brisk, shorts. You got the sense that he had painstakingly stretched what should have been short stories into modest length novels at the behest of his publishers. A film was made in 1972 called Who Fears The Devil featuring folk singer Hedges Capers as our hero. It was based on a couple of stories- ‘ O Ugly Bird’ and ‘The Desrick on Yandro’, grafted together into one shaky narrative. It is a poorly scripted and low budget affair that ends with John marching up the capital steps in Washington. It shows up on videotape every now and again. Wellman was an excellent writer though and deserves a mention in this piece for his unique writings on American Southern Folklore. Many of his stories stray into the old world lore of pre- renaissance Europe. Perhaps the best example of this is his southern gothic masterpiece ‘Fearful Rock’. Published in the March and April 1939 editions of Weird Tales magazine. The tale begins during the American Civil War. This was a subject on which Wellman had written both fictional and non fictional books about. The evil in the tale, sinister and satanic, comes courtesy of an ancient cult that traces its roots back to ancient Gaul in its worship of ‘The Nameless One.’ The protagonist of the story is a memorable character called Sergeant ‘Bible’ Jaeger. Jaeger is a heavy set, bearded preacher of the Bible and a Sergeant in the Union forces. He often misquotes scripture and can be simple in outlook, but he is also brave, a bit of a blunderer and sincere in his wish to help others and see good prevailing over evil. Bible Jaeger is outraged at the old world witchcraft practices that he is forced to fight against and is constantly having to explain his motives to his superiors, who though credulous at first always respect him. Bible Jaeger features in two other stories by Wellman. Coven, first published in Weird Tales July 1942, is about a Coven of Devil worshippers determined to run Jaeger out of town. It is a good tale in it’s own right and has an almost western flavour; but does not reach the stylistic level or prose quality of Fearful Rock. Toad’s Foot, first published in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction April 1978, is his third and final Sergeant Jaeger story. Though far from a bad piece of work ( I don’t think Wellman ever wrote a poor quality story) is noticeably inferior in quality to what came before it. Wellman also drew on the folk practices, and even something of the landscape in a lot of his stories. His classic 1938 werewolf novella ‘The Hairy Ones Shall Dance’ is a good example of this usage of landscape and setting as a crucial feature to the story. In this case the New England countryside is the setting. The Hairy Ones Shall Dance featured his second most popular character, John Thurnstone. He had four recurring characters in his fiction. The other two were Judge Pursuivant and Lee Cobbet. Both the aforementioned characters feature in Chastel, his 1979 classic weird fiction tale of vampirism, which was almost as good as his peak work in the 1940’s and 50’s. Thurnstone is very different to John the Balladeer. For one thing, he is an urbane, occult detective working the shady, world of New York nightclubs and hidden secret societies in the 1940’s and early 50’s. Thurnstone battles practitioners of the dark arts, hoodoo, voodoo, devil worshippers and an atavistic race called the Shonokins. I always felt that Thurnstone was a kind of idealised alter-ego of it’s author. In his last outing Thurnstone is seen venturing into the backwoods in search of a female vampire. A precursor to the Americana folk that was coming just around the corner. However, there is a certain cultural and psychological gulf between the Folk of the American Southern States and the practices of Old Europe. The landscapes are different and the classic American folk horror tale deals with hot climes as opposed to the deathly winters and cold, austere Autumns of Europe. There is a very different ‘psychogeography’ at work here. The difference in weather and collective cultural historic memory is huge and different enough to not include the folk of our American cousins in the classic Folk Horror canon of film and literature. My second worthy mention is the excellent Estonian Folk Horror of November (2017) directed by Rainer Sarnet and based on the novel Rehepap ehk November written by Andrus Kivirähk. The film is very different to all the others discussed or name checked in this essay. It has a wonderful, almost dreamy, quality to it, and though more of a dark fantasy than a horror picture, is a remarkable rendering of folk, magic and psychology. To my mind it is a justified (and welcome) addition to the Folk Horror canon. And this is not only due to it’s skillful depictions of desperate village peasants clinging onto the magic that the church believes has been tamed, but also on its very dialogue and skillful use of sound. At times it feels like an almost surreal documentary that has transported you back to a hinterland Estonian village creeping towards the cusp of a hideous implosion. The black and white cinematography features a lush dreamscape that a colour picture never could hope to achieve. It is like the Grimm Brothers fairy tale that they thought was best left untold.
A quick explanation of the three films mentioned at the start of this article is in order here as they are the three films that set out the scope and setting of the genre and still occupy a halo space against which later films are compared.
The Wicker Man from 1973, directed by Robin Hardy is by far the best known and well regarded of the three. It is loosely based on the 1967 novel Ritual by David Pinner. The striking image of Christopher Lee, as Lord Summerisle looking like a psychedelic doll whilst leading a pagan parade, really held my attention as a child. I first saw the photo I have put above the start of this section in The Encyclopedia of Horror. Mark Gatiss also mentioned the book in his wonderful History of Horror series on the BBC. The Wicker Man demonstrates all of the above mentioned features of the trope. One of the features that make it stand out is that it was set contemporaneously.
It boasts mesmerising performances by Christopher Lee as the lord of the manor on that remote island in the outer Hebrides and Edward Woodward as the Christian policeman tasked with saving the May Queen. Some of its shots, scenes and images are unmatched and totally unique as far as what we had seen on our screens before- and some may even say since.
The ending too is unexpected and harrowing.
The other two films were both produced by Tigon Pictures. The first of which is 1968’s Witchfinder General, directed by Michael Reeves. This film, despite its reputation, does not in all honesty impress me as it does so many others. It features a fine enough performance by Vincent Price as Matthew Hopkins, the Witchfinder General. A young, dashing Ian Ogilvy is also in fine form as the Cromwellian soldier driven to a frenzy of vengeance. The picture takes a more robust take on the real Matthew Hopkins who was responsible for much the same thing Vincent Prices’s character does in the film. I however find the film to be quite one-note and more of a bloody drama than a proper ‘horror’ movie. In fact, I find nothing about it for it to claim itself to be a horror film; and though it uses the countryside of Civil War era England in which to place the action, there is nothing of the uncanny or supernatural in it. Not that it is by any means a bad film, but in my opinion it is not a great one either and I am a little bemused as to why it gets the respect it does. As far as the Devil goes, though Vincent Price gives a truly demonic turn, Satan and his cohorts are noticeably absent. There is no actual witchcraft in the movie.
My favourite of this trio of films is The Blood on Satan’s Claw directed by Piers Haggard. Made in 1971 and set during the period after the English Civil war. The Blood on Satan’s Claw is menacing in the way it uses an excellent music score along with excellent use of the landscape as a virtual character in the movie. The film shows the shattered innocence and disruption in a village caused by the emergence of an ancient evil. A diabolical entity which rapidly coerces and corrupts the teenagers of the village. It isn’t long before the majority of them are turned into devoted minions of the Devil.
I thought the addition of two aged members of the cult, in the most harrowing scene of the movie, taking a childish glee at the clandestine rituals of the Satanic cult, was a stroke of genius on the part of the director. The film was originally intended as a compendium of three stories which accounts for the slightly disjointed nature in which some storylines are started and not conclusively resolved. I myself have no problem at all with this and the finished film is far from disjointed. The climatic final scene where the returning Justice of the Peace confronts the Devil features a brilliant sequence that was as economic as it was unique and has been widely imitated since. Linda Hayden and Patrick Wymark as the antagonist and protagonist of the piece are excellent. Special mention should also be made of the sinister soundtrack of Blood on Satan’s Claw which is an integral part of the magic of the film.
Linda Hayden’s performance is absolutely phenomenal, especially when you take into account that she was only seventeen years old at the time of taking on the role of Angel Blake in the film. But these three films were also joined by stuff we saw on TV in the 1970’s. Cry of The Banshee from 1970 and directed by Gordon Hessler could easily nudge Witchfinder General out of its place in the classic trinity of the genre. It is almost like someone skillfully blended the other two films to make a supernatural version of Witchfinder General with a genuine Witchfinder battling genuine witches. The ill-fated and semi forgotten Tam-lin (1970) directed by Roddy McDowell and starring Eva Gardner and Ian McShane is another cult favourite of the genre. The screenplay of the film by William Spier was based on the traditional Scottish poem The ballad of Tam Lin. The film was released in the US under the title The Devil’s Widow in 1972 and then later as The Devil’s Woman. Hammer Films Twins of Evil (1971) with Peter Cushing dressed as a puritan in a rare slightly dark role, could easily slot into the genre as well. As could David Gladwell’s Requiem for a Village from 1975. Then there are kids TV shows like Children of the Stones (1976) and Owl Service (1968). There are also some timeless British television plays to note. Oh Whistle and I’ll Come To You my Lad (1968) – which was an excellent adaptation of the M R James story masterfully directed by Jonathan Miller and all the better for being shot in black and white. Michael Horden gives a great turn as the eccentric and slightly arrogant academic- Robin Redbreast (1970) A Warning To The Curious (1972) another M R James adaptation (this time in colour) from the BBC’s much remembered ‘A Ghost Story for Christmas’ tradition. Peter Vaughan is very good in it as the unfortunate treasure hunter. And finally, the lesser known Penda’s Fen (1974). These have all been issued on DVD and Blu Ray in recent years, so get them while you can before they become as rare as the Tigon box set. In the 1980’s we also had the enigmatic British motion picture The Company of Wolves (1985). The film had a wonderful cast featuring Angela Landsbury, Sarah Patterson, David Warner, Stephen Rea, Brian Glover and an uncredited Terrance Stamp as the Devil. The jury is still out on whether this film could and should qualify as an entrant to the genre. I would say no. Because it’s subject matter deals with dark, village fairy fables as opposed to dark, village beliefs and practices. There was also a wonderful series on the BBC called West Country Tales aired in 1982/83. This featured what were alleged to be real life contributions from the public regarding weird and supernatural episodes they had experienced in the English West Country. The show may not technically be ‘Folk Horror,’ but it is certainly something that’s sure to please fans of the genre. It was very well made, despite being produced on a limited budget and having virtually no special effects. However, both the acting and the manner in which the scenes are shot are faultless and at times inspired. Each episode goes at a subdued pace and there is an understated and genuinely haunting aspect to the better episodes. The gentle narrative voice, which takes precedence over actual character dialogue, works better than expected as more ground is covered in the telling of the tale in the limited time frame allowed. The electronic, very 1980’s synthesiser soundtrack also deserves special mention for adding to the eerie feel of the tales. I think West Country Tales is a hidden gem that does not deserve to be forgotten as it seemingly has.
I am surprised that the two seasons of the series never made it on to a VHS release let alone a DVD release. Fortunately, you can catch most of its episodes on YouTube. Albeit in a grainy quality that in my opinion only adds to its eerie charm.
To pivot back to the integrity of the construction of the genre, I would also note how it is steeped so much in a history and past that Europe turned its back on with the coming of Judeo- Christian beliefs and the ensuing demonisation of the gods and spirits of the pagan past. What we are seeing in these pastoral films and tales is the sinister re-emergence of a lost world, gone, but never wholly forgotten, in those places where the roads were bad and modernity had yet to encroach. These aspects of actual history and cultural memory add a nice layer of depth to the genre. Whether we are dealing with an actual, or an idealised past is not important. What is important is that so many would have liked to see that past recreated, as a stark response to the western world’s industrial complex of the last two centuries. This in itself asks you to take the genre seriously. Or, at the very least, not to diminish the subject matter to mere hocus pocus cartoonishness as is so often the fate of the horror and supernatural genre.
Folk horror tropes cut across the swathe of North, Western and Eastern Europe, but not so much Southern or Mediterranean Europe. Only Galicia (home of the Spanish Celts) can count on that score. It’s interesting to note- and not a coincidence- that they inhabit identical physical landscapes, so essential to folk horror, and share the same root culture as their Celtic cousins in France, Ireland and Scotland. Lithuania became Christian in the 17th century. As such the old pagan ideas held on there for much, much longer. You saw images of young people dancing around totems with ringlets of wildflowers in their hair for much longer there than the rest of Europe. The slow incursion of Christianity in that Baltic corner of Europe keeping alive the belief that nature itself is to be revered and acquiesced to, rather than some monotheistic force allegedly behind the forces of the natural world, as is the position taken by the Abrahamic faiths of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. The roots of all these pagan Europe traditions and belief systems were all Indo-European in origin. What I’m referring to here is an identifiable proto culture that unites on many psychological levels. And this proto culture coming out of the Caucasian mountains was agriculturally centred. It based it’s value system and ideas of the sacred versus the profane on the dictats of the land and the cycle of the seasons. Cycles that, as demonstrated in The Wicker Man, and more recently Midsommar- sometimes demanded blood sacrifice. What we are looking at here is a world that was ‘pagan’ or worshipped the natural world that produced the crops, cows and wheat, in all its facets of order and structure. Furthermore, this unified ‘old religion’ was not merely limited to pre-Christian Europe. Within North Indian Hinduism, as practiced by the invading Aryans, you have the same rubrik of the idealisation of the fields and the herds- hence the Hindu prohibition on eating beef. You can observe how these values were codified in The Laws of Manu. It is the same essential system of belief of venerating the mother of the soil, complete with its rigid, priestly, warrior, yeoman, craftsmen and peasant groupings. You also have the idea of the ‘sacredness’ of the long hair and flowy beard of the yogi and the druid. All the original philosophical and linguistic concepts of Europe can be witnessed in fellow Indo European northern Indian and Iranian customs. Two examples of which are Baisakhi and Nauroz- translated as ‘New Day.’ These are counterpart festivals to those ancient European festivals that were replaced by Easter; celebrations and rituals with eggs and baskets that symbolised and signaled the onset of spring. Both festivals are still celebrated by the way, but have been adopted by Sikhism and Iranian Shia Islam as their own. The word ‘pagan ’ for those who don’t know, translates as ‘nature worshipper’- from the Greek word ‘paganos’. I think these points are relevant to some of the depictions, such as ritual human sacrifice, anti-monotheism and cremation as opposed to animal sacrifice, Abrahamic monotheism and burial in mud or sepulchre, that lie deep at the heart of the genre. Going from reverence to revulsion as far as the church and churchmen are concerned.
For my part, there is something so very enchanting, captivating and haunting about the genre. It stays with you and resounds like the magical tales you heard in your earliest formative years The books and films never leave you feeling stupid for investing time in them. And on top of that they have become a part of the wider canon of ‘The Folk Revival’. I find these books and films entwined with other art forms, particularly that of music- Irish and English Folk in general. And then there are artists like Fairport Convention, Sandy Denny, Trees, Culpepper’s Orchard, Mellow Candle and more latterly the wonderful, Irish nouveaux folk of Lankum, the fantastic New Zealand whimsy of Aldous Harding, the forgotten brilliance of Linda Perhacs as well as the psych folk genre that, for me at least, rolls the spectrum of everything folk into one big entity for me; weird cowled figures, old bones, strummed guitars, unholy chants beneath centuries old willows and all! This love of all things Folk- be it landscape, film, music, even clothing and architecture is rare from someone like me, the son of Pakistani immigrants. As far as I know I exist in a minority of one.
At the present time I am in the process of finishing the first draft of my Folk Horror novel. It is set just over a hundred years ago in rural Northern France. The chief antagonist of the piece is strongly associated with the colour green and the subverting of nature. I hope to follow my own guidelines for what I believe surmounts to a true and proper Folk Horror story, though I have already failed in arguably the most important aspect of setting the tale in the English countryside. However, I do hope to hit the other markers and most importantly to see if I can evoke the same sense of entertainment, enchantment and dread as those old tales of ghosts, witches and creepy things in the woods did to me back when I was seven years old. Back then, on more than one autumnal night, I fancied that I heard beautiful, sonorous lullabies coming from the trees outside my bedroom window. I would lie back and close my eyes with the covers pulled up high. And my young mind imagined that the unintelligible words my ears heard were sung by someone who wanted to put me on a stone altar and caress my face before sacrificing my body and soul to Pan or some other forbidden God of Yore!
By Nasir Ali Hussain Copyright 16/08/2021