The fear of other people: these Folk Horror ghost stories are perfect for Brexit Christmas

Telling the story of the EU referendum through the haunting, parochial tales of MR James.

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“Folk Horror” was coined by Piers Haggard in 2003. It was an attempt to define his 1971 film The Blood on Satan’s Claw, and was popularised by Mark Gatiss’ 2010 BBC series A History of Horror. There it described a phase in British filmmaking that incorporated Haggard’s picture, Witchfinder General and The Wicker Man, which have since become known collectively as the “unholy trinity” of Folk Horror.

All three combine a rural setting with a sense of unease and disquiet, and all offer portraits of hysteria among the population of that setting, related to a deep conflict between past and (then) present.

Put like that, we should have seen this coming: the wide fields of contemporary Pembrokeshire or East Anglia, with their “Take Back Control” billboards displayed across land underwritten by EU subsidies, offer the perfect setting for Folk Horror. June’s EU referendum campaign, with its demand that the public divide into binary, opposing hysteria-inducing tribes, provided the subject.

David Cameron’s turning over of internal party management to a national plebiscite saw him, like Lord Summerisle loading Sergeant Howie into the Wicker Man, creating a vessel that became the focus of multiple hopes and fears.

It led to a bus painted with lies touring the shires, peddling fantasies about immigration threatening public services, with exactly as much empirical evidence for their claims as Matthew Hopkins had for blaming witchcraft for the failure of harvests. It led to unearthing buried hatreds as bleak as anything found in Gower’s field.

The anxiety unleashed by the referendum, not just among Remainers who feel their world has been uprooted, but also among Leavers – the angriest, least graceful winners in history – has produced a country smothered in Folk Horror’s unease and disquiet. A place where, despite only around ten per cent of people seeing “Europe” as the most important political issue facing the UK before the referendum, communication between the tribes created by the campaign has become often impossible. This invokes the most literal meaning of Folk Horror: fear of other people. Fear of Folk.

MR James (1862-1936), a Cambridge medievalist who wrote ghost stories to read aloud over Christmas, is regarded by many as the father of Folk Horror. Television versions of his stories transmitted under the banner A Ghost Story for Christmas were a BBC tradition for much of the 1970s, and have been revived more than once since.

The key James television adaptations belong to the same era as the “unholy trinity” and share with them stylistic attributes, but the resemblance is deeper than that. James was considered reactionary, anti-modern and anti-progress by contemporaries – even by his friends – but his work repeatedly articulates the central fear of Folk Horror: that of the past reaching out to confuse, frighten, overwhelm and even destroy the present.

To see the infrequently superficially plausible Daniel Hannan MEP reduced, like the professor in James’ Whistle and I’ll Come To You, to desperately refusing to consider the possibility that those who warned him were right all along, is to see a moment of classic Jamesian terror. To see a storyteller being consumed by his own tale, gasping in horror at what has resulted from their insouciance to consequence.

Hannan’s horror was at discovering some of his fellow Leave voters saw the result as an endorsement of their xenophobia. I do not propose to label all Leave voters and campaigners racist – as long as you do not insist on pretending that racism and xenophobia played no part in the referendum.

I grew up in the countryside, in an area where pretty much everyone, taking their cue from Margaret Thatcher, regards the EU as literally “Germany’s third attempt to take over the world”. There is a horrible irony in Britain, having conquered and occupied much of the world, losing itself in an appropriated victimhood fantasy of occupation by a foreign power. (Hannan’s recent writings include him regretting the Norman Conquest.)

Boris Johnson’s ashen face the morning after the vote tells its own horror story about the tears that follow answered prayers. Johnson, like Mr Abney in James’ Lost Hearts, is a superficially jovial man blundering through spheres of thought beyond his meagre abilities, sacrificing the children of others’ futures in pursuit of personal glory. There’s yet another story in how that result aftermath swallowed the career of his erstwhile friend and colleague Michael Gove.

Gove himself is a classic Folk Horror figure. A man lost in his own limited capacity for abstraction, seemingly unconnected with the world in which his decisions take effect, and unaware of how it views him. A hypocrisy similar to that of Hannan and a small faction of vocal Leavers – helped by an almost limitless amount of press support – asserting that the Brexit vote is a specific message from the disenfranchised to an idle elite.

These emerging clichés of Brexit have a dubious factual basis. Haringey, the country’s most Remain area, has some of its deepest pockets of poverty. To insist that the working classes of these areas, facing intolerable pressures from the cost of living are part of some pampered global elite is simultaneously banal and obscene. The people of thumpingly Remain Liverpool are no less northern, no less poor, no less abandoned than those of Leave Sunderland. Much of southwest England voted Leave. Scotland voted Remain. This is not a question of a North/South divide.

The principle dividing line between Leave and Remain is age. Here there is clear correlation.  This makes the Leave coalition vulnerable to a demographic time bomb. Its voters are (or were) disproportionately old. They’re dying faster than Remain voters, whose numbers are swelled every day by those turning 18, who – in the exact inverse of their great grandparents – are more likely to want to Remain. This is a problem for those who insist Brexit offers a brave new world. It isn’t one wanted by those who’ll actually have to live in it.

Leavers and those who feel that, whatever their own views on the referendum, “the result must be respected”, are not grappling with this issue yet. The process of the UK leaving the EU will be long and complex.

Even without anyone changing their minds, the Leave coalition will demographically evaporate by natural causes around the time the UK leaves the European Union, assuming the Prime Minister achieves her aim of activating Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty at the end of the first quarter of next year. Where is Leave’s legitimacy then?

The term “zombie government” has never been more apt. What could be more Folk Horror than a government determined, to the horror of the living, to execute an instruction received from the parochial dead.

James Cooray Smith is freelance writer specialising in TV and film history.