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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.

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.

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.

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​

Ben Myers’ novels include Pig Iron and Richard, a Sunday Times book of the year. His writing has appeared in The Guardian, NME, Mojo, Time Out, 3:AM Magazine, Caught By The River and many others. www.benmyersmanofletters.blogspot.com

This article first appeared in the 13 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Maybot malfunctions

SCIENCE AND SOCIETY PICTURE LIBRARY
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A Lab of One’s Own: the forgotten female scientists who shed stereotypes about women’s abilities

Every woman in this book deserves a biography of her own.

You might assume that there’s not much left to be written about the suffragette movement. But what has been ignored is that in the quiet corridors of university science departments, important battles were fought by women whose names were quickly forgotten. They weren’t always high-profile campaigners, but by forcing open the gates to the male-dominated worlds of science and engineering they helped shed stereotypes about women’s abilities.

In A Lab of One’s Own, the Cambridge historian Patricia Fara documents these scientists’ stories, painting a picture of a world that clearly wanted to remain male. It was the First World War that gave women unprecedented access to careers for which they had until then been deemed unsuitable. From all walks of life, they began working in munitions factories, developing chemical weapons (at one point, 90 per cent of industrial chemists were women) and building war machinery, while male scientists were on the battlefield.

These weren’t safe jobs; 200 women producing TNT died from poisoning or accidental explosions. Their achievements were so immense that even the prime minister Herbert Asquith, who opposed female suffrage, was forced to admit that there was hardly a service “in which women have not been at least as active and efficient as men”.

There is understandable anger in Fara’s voice. Despite their skill and dedicated service – often working for less pay than their male counterparts, or none at all – female scientists faced appalling resistance. Women were shunted into the worst roles, mocked for what they wore (trousers or skirts, they could never seem to get it right), and their ideas were ignored. Trade unions fought to protect men, meaning most women went unrepresented, promptly losing their jobs once the war was over.

Again and again, they had to carve out spaces for themselves then battle for the right to keep them. Britain’s scientific societies pulled elaborate tricks to block female members in the first half of the 20th century. One graduate, Emily Lloyd, managed to gain admission to the Royal Institute of Chemistry only by cleverly using the gender-neutral “E Lloyd” to sit the qualifying exam.

But getting through the door was only half the challenge. At Cambridge, men stamped their feet while women walked to their reserved seats at the front of the lecture theatres (imagine how they must have felt when Philippa Fawcett, daughter of the suffragette Millicent Fawcett, beat them all to come top in the Cambridge Mathematical Tripos exams in 1890). Women-only labs were given inferior facilities. Even scientists who worked alongside their husbands sometimes weren’t given credit when their joint work was published.

Every woman in this book deserves a biography of her own. Martha Whiteley, for example, who did pioneering work on mustard gas and wounded her arm when she tested it on herself. And the chemist Dorothea Hoffert, who researched varnish and food before having to give up work when she got married. The personal tales of these remarkable figures could benefit from more spacious storytelling, but as a scholarly account, Fara’s book offers a window into this fascinating chapter of history.

What’s also intriguing is the unease that men felt on seeing women doing “their” jobs. Soldiers worried about “the masculinisation of women” back home. There were fears that uniforms and protective overalls would drain femininity, and that by choosing to study and work rather than reproduce, clever women were depriving the nation of clever babies.

Unsurprisingly then, after the war, things went back swiftly to how they were before. Even in medical schools, where women had made huge strides, “the traditional masculine culture reasserted itself”. Women did win the battle in the end, although the war continues. As Fara makes clear, this was not only through the force of their intellects but also by taking the example of male clubs and forming their own networks. Women’s colleges became hotbeds for campaigning, particularly Newnham in Cambridge. The Women’s Engineering Society, the British Federation of University Women, and others were set up partly to help women fight entrenched efforts to hold them back.

“It is with much interest that we learned a few weeks ago that women chemists in London had formed a Club,” a snobbish editorial in the journal Chemistry and Industry began in 1952. “Most men are clubbable one way or another, but we did not know this was true of women. We wonder if this formation of a Club for women chemists is another sign of female emancipation.”

It was. By banding together and defending their rights, women found a strength that many before the war assumed they would never have. These pioneers not only helped win women the vote, they changed what it meant to be a woman. l

Angela Saini is the author of “Inferior: How Science Got Women Wrong – and the New Research That’s Rewriting the Story” (4th Estate). Patricia Fara will appear at Cambridge Literary Festival, in association with the New Statesman, on Friday 12 April.​

A Lab of One’s Own: Science and Suffrage in the First World War
Patricia Fara
Oxford University Press, 352pp, £18.99

This article first appeared in the 15 February 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The polite extremist