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26 July 2017

Folk horror, a history: from The Wicker Man to The League of Gentlemen

Author Adam Scovell’s tone is perfectly pitched between articulate academic and box-set binger.

By Ben Myers

In 1801, the proportion of the population of England and Wales living in towns and cities was just 17 per cent, but by the close of that century, as landowners were displaced and industry boomed, it had jumped to 72 per cent. The most recent UK census showed that 81.5 per cent of the population of England and Wales now live in urban areas, with less than 10 per cent residing in what would qualify as villages or hamlets.

This mass movement from agricultural to post-industrial life has detached us from the land that fed and clothed us for thousands of years, with the countryside becoming increasingly alien territory, avoided or misunderstood by those who have little contact with mud, dead animals, or the stench of excrement. Such urbanites have scant knowledge of farming or food production and patronise ancient local traditions. They are unnerved by the space, the silence. They fear their countryside, their own past.

Folk horror plays on such fears and explores the narratives lost during this migratory shift. Though its origins surely stretch back to the fireside telling of cautionary tales, the genre as we recognise it now was first named as recently as 2003, during an interview with Piers Haggard, the director of The Blood on Satan’s Claw (1971), and subsequently crystallised by Mark Gatiss in his 2010 BBC4 series A History of Horror.

In his comprehensive study, the writer and film-maker Adam Scovell, like Gatiss, identifies Haggard’s film and the two with which it forms an unholy trinity – Witchfinder General (1968) and The Wicker Man (1973) – as the first links in a “folk-horror chain” that continues to run through film and alternative pop culture. But it’s a chain that is intuitive rather than formally identifiable. Folk horror is a feeling. Those who know know. Scovell cites the writer and illustrator Andy Paciorek’s definition: “One may as well attempt to build a box the exact shape of mist; for like the mist, folk horror is atmospheric and sinuous. It can creep from and into different territories yet leave no universal defining mark of its exact form.”

The continued resonance of these films lies in the social climate of their creation, with 21st-century folk horror’s foundations laid during a late-Sixties counterculture in which attempts were made to reverse the creeping urbanisation and reject war-torn modernity for simpler rural lives of wholefood, weed, barefooted children and The Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter by the Incredible String Band on repeat.

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It is best exemplified by the clash of pagan and Christian belief systems in the post-Manson communal climate of The Wicker Man, in which Edward Woodward’s virginal policeman is lured to a promiscuous Scottish island whose fruit crop is ailing, in order to investigate the suspected sacrifice of a child, only to become the sacrifice himself. Scovell notes that the film asks not only what could have been, but tells us: “It can be, right now, if you want it.” Its combination of “esoteric belief systems with free-love eroticism” is entirely credible.

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Folk horror has gained greater traction in a new century defined by financial crises, terrorist attacks and digital threats. It offers a double dose of nostalgia – not only for those wonderful novels of Alan Garner or Susan Cooper, which invited children to exist in worlds neither adolescent nor adult but simply other, or Play for Today episodes such as A Photograph and Penda’s Fen, or the uncompromising public information films of the 1970s – but also for a Hardy-esque idea of an England of foaming ale and romps in the hayricks during harvest, perhaps this time with the benefits of modern medicine and multiculturalism. The folk-horror chain offers continuity and a reconnection with a romanticised rural past.

Scovell, who writes essays for the British Film Institute and has collaborated on films with the landscape writer Robert Macfarlane, is a keen-eyed and enthusiastic curator, his tone perfectly pitched between that of the articulate academic and the box-set binger. He knows that folk horror provides succour as well as visceral thrills and draws clear links between topography, rurality and emerging “hauntology” theory. He spawns new terms, too, such as “eso-erotic” for sexual subtexts, or  “occultivation” for those dark works concerned with the violence that arises when old agricultural ways are challenged by “progress”.

Consideration is rightly afforded to such films as David Gladwell’s moving Requiem for a Village (1975), in which a Suffolk village is consumed by suburbia, and whose dead literally rise in defiance, as well as the many BBC adaptations of M R James’s ghost stories and the man-as-meddler dramas of Nigel Kneale. Foreign directors see Britain with fresh eyes: Jerzy Skolimowski’s The Shout (1978) and Roman Polanski’s Northumberland-set Cul-de-Sac (1966) are two psycho-landscape masterworks.

What emerges is the notion of a body of work concerned with conflict – between past and present, religious and atheist, physical and spiritual. Folk horror represents a fear of being governed by outside forces while exploring identity confusion.

Scovell also examines contemporary additions to the canon. Although today’s interconnectivity would destroy many a plot line of old, he notes that social media have created new fears, primarily that of the isolation one experiences when deprived of one’s technological dummy. The spirit of folk horror is alive and well in Richard Littler’s wry fictional town of Scarfolk, the Ghost Box record label, the films of Ben Wheatley and Ben Rivers, and the music of English Heretic, Laura Cannell and Richard Dawson. It will, one assumes, also be apparent in the rumoured reunion of The League of Gentlemen, the original success of which could be argued to have instigated the current fascination for folk horror.

Indeed, the comedy’s idea of parochialism as a malevolent force, shared by so many works cited here, is telling. If folk horror playfully revels in all things rural/local, it is by definition the enemy of globalisation and capitalism. For some of us, the idea of our island becoming little more than a series of interlinked retail parks with its countryside reduced to a brisk, cordoned-off procession around some Neolithic standing stones is a far more horrific prospect than the fantastical powers of an unearthed relic, ancient rituals or rustling in the hedgerow. And, let’s face it, it’s more likely, too.

Ben Myers’s latest novel “The Gallows Pole” is published by Bluemoose Books

Folk Horror: Hours Dreadful and Things Strange
Adam Scovell
Auteur, 216pp, £18.99​

This article appears in the 12 Jul 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Maybot malfunctions