Wednesday 14 August 2019

We Don't Go Back: A Watcher's Guide to Folk Horror and Pagan Film

The Gorsedd, Singleton Park, Swansea. 
Updated: 6th April 2021

Towards the end of October 2016, I thought, "I know! I've got this copy of The Witch sitting here and I could spend a few days going through some of the other stuff I never got round to watching and it's years since I had a Halloween movie binge, and hell, why not write about them?" I had a copy of The Wicker Man I'd found in a record sale in 2010 that I'd never watched; a copy of Beasts that cost me 50p at a stall in the Summer. I last watched Simon Magus before I had kids, and now my oldest is 11. I planned my viewing carefully.

It spiralled out of control.

Dozens of films, serials and TV plays later and I have to admit it's become an obsession with me and it's been an education too.

I'm by no means an expert, oh no, so my response to these media has on the whole been personal, or has drawn on what experiences and knowledge I do have. In the post-Wikipedia age, anyone can have a basic access to the facts, but that only frees us to concentrate more on the personal responses we have, to read these texts, because that's what they are, with the freshest eyes we have.
I called the series We Don't Go Back, after a line in Murrain, the end of an exchange in which reason faced off against the old ways, pagan superstitions, old beliefs. We investigate. We divine the rules, discard the old, and make new rules. But we don't go back.

It seemed to me to be the line that defines the tension of folk horror, the thing that makes it horror. Out in the isolated places unusual superstitions flourish, and these are the places we came from. The old places. Even if the old gods have died, there's something about these ancient geographies that makes new gods flourish where the old once reigned. The old grounds, lain fallow, are fertile for this sort of thing. But we don't go back. That way leads to madness.

Adam Scovell, a true expert, defines folk horror in his talk The Folk Horror Chain as a chain of three conditions: an isolated location, unusual beliefs, and a happening, whether violent or supernatural. These are pretty good prerequisites for inclusion in the genre, and they allow for edge cases. For example, it places The Passion of Darkly Noon and Martha Marcy May Marlene firmly within the subgenre. The Shout, too, with its magician who appropriates and twists tribal religions, counts. Sometimes though, it's only an atmosphere or a feeling that makes me want to include a piece of media in my selection.
Carnival of Souls.
Carnival of Souls counts, in my opinion, in its juxtaposition and opposition of a haunted fairground with the austere pews of a church, and The Stone Tape too, with otherwise sane engineers, faced with an undeniable haunting, embracing New-age pseudoscience in a vain attempt to monetise a ghost. The weird beliefs in Valerie and Her Week of Wonders are no other than the fervid dreams of a teenaged girl on the cusp of womanhood; the same could be said for The Company of Wolves, with its matryoshka uncovering of superstitions within superstitions. Stigma's extreme economy of form shows the aftermath of magic, the weird beliefs of an age gone assumed, their malevolent effects brutal, lethal.

Do all of these films have happenings that count? The Moon Stallion is surprisingly dark, surprisingly mature for its time and place, with its tale of a white horse that proves fatal to whosoever witnesses it by night and its battling paganisms. Century Falls has practically no one who doesn't somehow get drawn into its psychic war over the personified spirit of an isolated, dying village. Simon Magus is defined by what doesn't happen and what will happen outside of the film's scope; it points to a horror caused by superstitions that are too terrible for a supernatural drama to even approach.
Penda's Fen.
Penda's Fen, although often included in folk horror lists, travels outside and beyond the territories sketched here; yes there are plural paganisms, and yes there is a happening, but that happening is the alchemical transformation of a adolescent heart into the heart of a man. Penda's Fen perhaps falls into another, sister genre, of pagan film.

Other characteristics of folk horror are not universal, but you can still see threads through many of these.

Inevitability is a theme that runs throughout folk horror. Protagonists find themselves trapped along deterministic paths; it was you they wanted from the beginning. It's not that there isn't any escape, more that escape is wholly irrelevant.

Folk horror media often have significant roles for women and are about the women, which is true perhaps of horror more than any of the other genres. From The Witch, where the constant maligning of Thomasin's sex leads her to resign herself to the role forced on her, to The Stone Tape, where the lone woman is nearly as terrorised by her oblivious coworkers as she is by the phenomenon, to Stigma, where the Crone brings death to the Mother and life to the Maiden. But it almost goes without saying that few of the films and TV on the list, but primarily Winter's BoneThe Company of Wolves and Moondial, have a significant contribution behind the camera from a woman.

Many works in this field are cheaply made, and work around the constraints of budget, allowing a quiet, brooding dread to develop, and using existing landscapes, the ancient places on our doorstep. The tying of the genre to recognisable places that are near yet isolated, remote in time yet present, allows a certain variety of identification that other sorts of horror do not always have. Folk Horror, not dependent on special effects, is rarely the horror of jumps and scares.
Night of the Demon.
And of course, Folk Horror is, if made before about 2010, accidental. It's a genre in retrospect, made of common themes that are often British, but which run through film and TV made all over the world. Japan, which has a similar geography to Britain, in that it's a post-imperial island nation with a geography that's really lived in, has produced some particularly potent examples, and probably the best known in the West is Ring.

Most of what we recognise as Folk Horror is ethnically white. Kill List and Sightseers might be set in modern day, multicultural England, but there's barely a person of colour to be seen. The Shout depends upon a certain parochial racism, but it's easy to make it about that racism. The erasure of a indigenous Australian magician arguably gives its villain his terrible power; he is empowered by the dark side of our colonial past.

Whoever waits in the alien forest of the New World in The Witch, the indigenous people aren't among them.

In most of these media, the land itself carries a sort of psychic force. Folk horror is the loneliest horror.
Wisconsin Death Trip.
I liked some films more than others. Out of the things I've seen so far I rate The Wicker Man far more highly than I once did. I fell in love with Penda's Fen. I was surprised to find The Moon Stallion was as good as it turned out to be (so much so that I showed it to my kids, who were enthralled by it). It's a hidden gem and you should see it. Children of the Stones lived up to its reputation, as did Robin Redbreast.

Some didn't, in my opinion, live up to their reputations. I was deeply disappointed by Blood on Satan's Claw. I loved The Passion of Darkly Noon as a younger man, but I became keenly aware of its flaws this time round. And let's face it, The Wicker Tree was never going to live up to its expectations, but how desperately short it fell.  

Some films are scarier than others. Kill List is still the most flat-out horrific of all the actual horror films on this list, emotionally harrowing and gut-wrenchingly nasty. Martha Marcy May Marlene is genuinely frightening also. I was surprised at how much of an effect Stigma had on me. I might have to psych myself up before I can watch that one again.
Blood on Satan's Claw.
Rather than number them as I have been doing (and will continue to do), I've grouped them into rough themes. Some I dithered with – is Wisconsin Death Trip British TV or Americana? If Cry of the Banshee is in the Canon, why isn't The Shout? – but most of the categories should be fairly obvious.

The category of Folk Horror Visits, where TV shows visit folk horror places and don't stay, is really there as a contextual exercise, of showing how you can see other TV using folk horror tropes, and what that does with them.

I suppose I could have divided the films on different lines, quite easily. You could make a case for a category of pagan coming of age films (Penda's Fen, Valerie and her Week of Wonders, Red Shift, The Company of Wolves), witch cult films (Kill List, Blood on Satan's Claw, Häxan, The Witch), pagan village conspiracy films (Robin Redbreast, The Wicker Man, A Photograph), hauntology (that is, hauntings and analogue technology: Ring, The Stone Tape), ghost stories (The Exorcism, most of the MR James stories) and so on. The larger the sample gets, the more subgroups we find.
The Stone Tape.
Folk horror as a genre is subjective. There are things I'd include that you might not (Carnival of Souls is the most obvious to be honest) and I know that there's lists out there that have stuff I'd balk at (I've seen Quatermass and the Pit and there's no way it counts, and I don't care what the BFI reckon, although having said that, it's central to the idea of Urban Wyrd – see below). But here we go. The result of a fun few months watching more creepy films and classic TV than I've seen in ages.

Not all of the films have posts yet. Gradually that will change and as I write new posts and find new things to review I'll come back and edit the list.

Now that I've gone way beyond my original remit of eleven films, I think it's useful to pick out the most essential or important films and TV programmes, the ones you should watch first. These might not necessarily be horror, or even be the ones I think are the best (for example, I think Moondial is better than Children of the Stones, but I'd be insane to pretend that Moondial is more important to the genre, as much as I would like it to be), but they're the most influential to the aesthetic and the development of its family tree. I've marked these with a dot (•).

Because this project is so personal, and because it depends on things that interest me to keep me writing, I work on the "brilliant until proven rubbish" principle: that is, I go in expecting to like what I'm watching, and I'll try to find reasons to like it, although occasionally I'll find things I don't really rate (the most notable being Blood on Satan's Claw and Cry of the Banshee). The one exception to that was The Wicker Tree, which I knew was bad when I started, and it was no fun at all to write about. I don't tend to enjoy something ironically. Either I enjoy it or I don't. I don't think it's fair on me or the movie to watch a terrible film deliberately in order to laugh at how terrible it is. This list is informed by my tastes, too. A commenter suggested, for example, Tombs of the Blind Dead and its sequels, and while I reckon that yes, probably a folk-horror zombie movie might be an interesting thing for my project to cover, the simple fact is I really, really don't like zombie movies, and this very personal bias is going to make it hard for me to be fair to a movie like that.

I will, on the whole, pick films I think I'm going to like to write about, so very few of the critical essays here are negative in tone.
My personal tastes tend to favour things that are a bit artsy (or at least which try to be artsy) or which try to do something interesting, or say something true. I would rather watch an incoherent, cheap movie that tried to say something new or unusual or strange or interesting than an efficient big-budget Hollywood franchise product. There is a perfectly reasonable case that Rogue One is a better movie than Psychomania, for example, but one of those films is a really good Star Wars movie and one is an unglued tale of cartoon outlaw bikers from beyond the grave and frog-worshipping satanist butlers on the mean streets of Surrey and if you can understand why I would rather see more of the latter, then there's a good chance you'll like a lot of the films I write about.

Finally, this project is here to share things with you. I want people to see these films! I want people to think about them, be moved by them, and love them, just like me. I want more people to see these films, and talk about them, and share them further.

We Don't Go Back

Last updated: 6th April 2021

All We Don't Go Back posts

Most of these essays include spoilers. The images in most are not necessarily unsafe for work, but occasional horror, mild nudity and swearing means that they're not exactly safe for work either (and what are you doing reading about folk horror at work anyway?)

This project is now a book, which is nice. We Don't Go Back: A Watcher's Guide to Folk Horror was released in 2018 and was nominated for a Bram Stoker Award. There are essays here on the site that aren't in the book, and not just newer ones.

Neopagans, Neoreactionaries and Folk Horror
Richard Blackburn Interview


Side Project – On a Thousand Walls: The Urban Weird

All On a Thousand Walls Posts
This isn't part of the main series so much as a related subseries. The urban weird (or wyrd if you prefer) could essentially be described as folk horror, only in cities, but goes to slightly different places, and has slightly different emphases. The occultism of the urban landscape and the divisions between people become magical, and dangerous. The city is no more safe from occult terrors than the countryside. If everywhere is built, the hauntings of history persist, everywhere.

Sound of My Voice.

Side Project – Cult Cinema

All Cult Cinema Posts
A short series about films and TV centring on cults, their abuses, and their members. Some of these fall into the folk horror territory. Mainly it's because the modern cult (or, properly, New Religious Movement) is something I'm really interested in.

 Cult Cinema is now a book! 

You can find it on Amazon on most marketplaces, including: 

The Question in Bodies

Films and TV which explore what I call Identity Horror, where transgressions of the boundaries of body, mind and self threaten on an existential level. I was honoured to be the recipient of the 2020 Rocky Wood Memorial Scholarship from the Horror Writer's Association to be able to pursue this project.
I'm honoured to be supported by a modest stipend at Patreon. 

All support is gratefully received, and no donation is too small.