What is folk horror? Like many subgenres of horror cinema, folk horror is an expansive theme without one simple set of standards. Often defined by the presence of pagan practices, a pastoral landscape, and often a battle of morality, folk horror has managed to maintain its integral roots while continuing to further its reach beyond traditional expectations. Though its respective themes were easily represented in horror films of the past, the subgenre stands as a conditional influence unreserved to date or location.
Moving from esoteric pieces to popular mass releases, folk horror has experienced a compelling current resurrection. This ongoing revival, a mod renaissance of folk composition, has fixed itself to cinema as an increasing amount of films throughout the new millennium capitalize on both conventional and adapted applications of its form.
In the period of time between the 50’s and 70’s, where horror began a gradual shift from monster flicks to a larger variety, folk elements graduated the genre from raw shocks to disillusioned arts. Subtly layering terror within softer scenery and incorporating dark content within bouts of opulent nature, folk horror films like Witchfinder General, The Blood On Satan’s Claw, and The Wicker Man and even The Texas Chain Saw Massacre began to present frightening narratives in a new light. Tons of light, actually. Many of the films during those decades embraced worship and ritualistic debauchery set against a bright, organic palette, establishing most of what audiences associate with folk qualities still today.
“Though its respective themes were easily represented in horror films of the past, [folk horror] stands as a conditional influence unreserved to date or location.“
As another subgenre with an equally provisional definition hit the scene, the slasher, folk horror’s fresh appeal seemed to dissipate from interest until right before the turn of the 21st century when a unique found footage film sought out an omniscient witch in the woods. The Blair Witch Project told folk horror mythology through a modern American lense, ultimately changing the genre forever. While many sought to adapt the attraction of its found footage medium, they ignored what really created the film’s dreadful command: simple folklore.
Once a few successful releases returned to folk’s vibrant dread, elementary storytelling, and novel deviation, the resurrection ensued. With folk horror now being such a blur of features, it’s near impossible to relay all of the amazing compartments and analyses of this subgenre’s recent peak. To observe the resurrection’s trends, I’ve selected a few key releases that have enhanced horror cinema as well as favored singles to note, all falling into three common categories of folk heritage. A lot of blood, sweat and fears have been shed through this revival and there’s still so much more to offer.
The term ‘folk’ may translate to ‘fiction’ for some, but when it comes to the warm blood of the subgenre’s content, it is very much pulsed with some strain of spiritual truth. With so much of folklore influenced by all types of religions and the occult, it is hard to ignore the notes of faith associated with the majority of its oeuvre. Religion is one of the most primary themes contributing to the genre’s beating heart as it is a tremendous indicator of lifestyle choice and ideology as well as the basis for some of the world’s most real evils.
As witchcraft became a significant component of folk horror, the contrast sect of christianity created the subgenre’s initial aforementioned trinity with Michael Reeves’ Witchfinder General in 1968, Piers Haggard’s The Blood On Satan’s Claw in in 1971, and Robin Hardy’s The Wicker Man in 1973. As folk themes expanded, especially after the dawn of the millennium, the focus of religion, worship, and lifestyle have bled through horror with films simulating a variety of cult style groups. From Neil LaBute’s failed, yet fan favorite remake of The Wicker Man in 2006 to Ben Wheatley’s polarizing 2011 slow burn thriller, Kill List, the subject of cults and spirituality in film has run a dominating gamut of films with no sign of slowing anytime soon.
“The term ‘folk’ may translate to ‘fiction’ for some, but when it comes to the warm blood of the subgenre’s content, it is very much pulsed with some strain of spiritual truth.“
One of the most widely acclaimed folk horror films to usher in the resurrection lies within Robert Egger’s period piece, The Witch: A New England Folktale in 2015. Bringing atmosphere, authenticity, and tension to radical puritanical politics, the film marked another major genre milestone. Released that same year, demonstrating a close connection to The Witch’s tone and presentation along with an adjacent storyline to a present day private school, Oz Perkins’ The Blackcoat’s Daughter dabbles with satanic temptation in the wake of Christian disconnect.
Rendering a more lighthearted hand at ceremonial witchcraft adorned with traditional folk aesthetics, Anna Biller’s The Love Witch in 2016 pays homage to the heavy colorful style and pastoral environment of the subgenre’s beginnings and invests a more natural, intuitive practice in alternative religion. As the years progressed, folk horror saw a grittier, scarier approach to rural village belief hysteria with Na-Hong jin’s Korean demonic mystery The Wailing in 2016, Lukas Feigefeld’s German 2017 heathen reversal story Hagazussa: A Heathen’s Curse in 2017, and Gareth Evan’s earthy communal power battle, Apostle, in 2018.
Paranoia, superstition, and inherent faith have contributed greatly to the resurrection of folk horror throughout the millennium as a cross section of gods and monsters finds power in three heavy hitter films by two heavyweight filmmakers. At the first of his many peaks of success, M. Night Shyamalan followed up his paranormal masterpiece, The Sixth Sense, his comic epic Unbreakable, and sci-fi drama Signs with 2004’s The Village. Known for his unforeseen twists and ability to blindside audiences, The Village sees a narrative revolving around an isolated village with clear folk influence surrounded by the impending danger of mythological creatures, yet hidden from a more foreboding, hidden threat. Utilizing a specific traditional sense of community to escape the wickedness of the real world, The Village goes a long way to compare and contrast the influence of harvest and harmony with sacrifice and grief.
In 2018, Ari Aster broke the genre scale with his horrific, emotional cult drama Hereditary. While it does not possess the more obvious elements of folk horror, it calls on the everlasting effects of pagan idolization and the blood that runs deep in worship. The film led the way for Aster to don the ultimate folk horror revival crown with his 2019 sophomore hit, Midsommar. As a lost young woman finds herself in the epicenter of an intense Swedish festival, Aster successfully resurrects folk horror among all kinds of viewers with drastic colors, incredible symbolism, and a pervasive cult mentality that has pumped fresh blood into the subgenre with one of the most memorable, galvanized portraits of revival in the 21st century.
When it comes to the core of folk horror’s pedagogy, fables are used to convey the intrinsic message. Lore and mythology spin worlds of alternate systems of belief, rewrite the rules of natural understanding, and craft otherworldly beings as a means to produce an engaging narrative. Prior to the millennium, folk tradition set in mythos had audiences sweating over their moral constitutions with stories grounded in familiar quasi-zealot lessons before transforming into more creative narratives fit for contemporary consumers.
In 1967, Soviet horror Viy brought a beautifully gothic landscape to life and filled it with monsters, witches, and demons summoned to taunt the faith of a priest as he stood watch over a corpse for an evening. Dario Argento’s 1977 Italian giallo, Suspiria, saturated itself in sublime fairytale colors and features while placing an innocent ballerina at the heart of an ancient coven’s survival scheme. Later in 1999, Tim Burton adapted Washington Irving’s popular legend with Sleepy Hollow, drawing a unique gothic look to the film as well as adding the essence of witchcraft to The Horseman’s tall tale. As fantasy played a dominant part in the early years of folk horror’s build, it would be quite a while before it really found a niche in the genre.
“Lore and mythology spin worlds of alternate systems of belief, rewrite the rules of natural understanding, and craft otherworldly beings as a means to produce an engaging narrative.“
As the year 2000 rolled around, the world found itself sweating over more advanced issues than monsters and witchcraft. Sinister whimsy and fairytale-based folk horror took a step behind the teen slashers and sci-fi craze of the 80’s and 90’s. However, the intriguing mind of Guillermo del Toro followed a young girl into a dangerous world of make-believe with Spain during World War II in the background. As one of horror’s most notable fairy tales, Pan’s Labyrinth revived folk fantasy interest with such panache in 2006 that it’s still yet to be matched and only inspiring films like Corin Hardy’s The Hallow in 2015 and Issa López’s Tigers Are Not Afraid in 2017.
While those films continued the imaginative branch of war-lorn and environmental worries combined with supernatural effects, films like Liam Gavin’s A Dark Song in 2016 and David Bruckner’s The Ritual in 2017 sought to mix alternative worship with mystical beings as ways to comment on more individual and interpersonal anxieties.
Rainer Sarnet’s 2017 odd and eclectic November used folktale style lore to teach medieval lessons in love and survival while Adam MacDonald’s Pyewacket, released the same year, used folklore to heed similar warnings through a modern era teen’s complicated relationship with her mother. Nearing two decades into the millennium, the vein of fantasy returned with adaptations of more familiar stories like Luca Guadagnino’s retelling of Suspiria and Panos Cosmatos’ bloody, cosmic revenge fairytale Mandy in 2018 as well as Oz Perkins’ take on the Grimm Brothers’ classic, Gretel And Hansel in 2020. Though cast in very separate periods and spaces, all hold relevant messages draped in signature aesthetics that speak to today’s audiences.
As the moral lessons of fable lore and the faithful systems that occupy our lifestyles culminate, folk horror finds a distinctive intersection that continues to develop while the subgenre steadily regains traction again. As the evils of religion and fantastical terrors cover the more otherworldly threats, homegrown horrors push a more cautionary agenda by bringing more realistic fears to life.
Social commentaries veiled with folk horror motifs of the past use the rural, pastoral landscape to push the style forward while speaking to the narratives’ ulterior meaning as seen in Tobe Hooper’s 1974 genre giant, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. John D. Hancock’s ethereal Let’s Scare Jessica To Death in 1971 expresses the conscious awareness and subsequent concern that stir around mental health issues. Peter Weir’s Picnic At Hanging Rock left audiences of 1979 unsettled and uneasy as themes of sexuality, classism, rebellion, and time haunted the film’s empty ending.
Almost a decade later, Fritz Kiersch adapts Stephen King’s short story by the same title, Children Of The Corn. Returning to folk friendly farmlands and working off of pagan god sacrifice and juvenile prophecy, the film also illustrates the growing fear of group mentality as well as generational mortality. The folktale type of settings among other themes and visuals of these films not only update the subgenre content, but bring timely social anxieties from far off woods to our own backyards.
“[…] folk horror finds a distinctive intersection that continues to develop while the subgenre steadily regains traction again.“
Carrying on the cautionary folk tales planted in rural, isolated environments like that of The Blair Witch Project in 1999, folk horror films released post millennium have taken on a comprehensive, contemporary grasp of social fears. As surrounding cultures and climates become more integrated, communication goes viral, industry booms, and empowerment movements are heard, all new stories are produced to comment on the terrors existing within the world we actually inhabit.
As production becomes more mechanized and labor employment less sustainable, Marcus Nispel’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre of 2003 started a new slew of remakes and retelling for the series including Johnathan Liebesman’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning in 2006, John Luessenhop’s Texas Chainsaw 3D in 2013, and Alexandre Bustillo and Julien Maury’s Leatherface in 2017.
Even Picnic at Hanging Rock saw a life in 2018 as more people embrace feminism and sexuality openly. Gore Verbinski’s The Ring, an American remake of Hideo Nakata’s Japanese horror Ringu, might not have the typical bright visual disposition of most folk films, but it is born in a pastoral lore that results in a deadly viral videotape that expresses worldly fear of technological advancement. In 2018, Jordan Peele made one of horror’s most important films, Get Out, that happens to be a possession folktale telling the story of a black man tricked to visit the countryside only to be taken by a white organization, sold, and his body swapped with a member of the opposite race for their own racial gains. Though it’s extremely subtle, the psychological mythos is present in Peele’s film, granting it one of the most unique and important modern horror folktales of the millennium.
While most folk horror, by typical definition, breaks away from real world horrors, audiences are experiencing the resurrection of folklore in film through ironic ways that are relevant to them here and now. As society evolves giving us more to fear now than ever, folk horror will surely strive in its resurrection and give horror fans a fulfilling revival worthy of praise… and worship.
What do you find the most interesting about folk horror and its current resurrection? Which folk horror film before the turn of the millennium is your favorite? Which recent folk horror film do you enjoy the most? Let us know your thoughts over on Twitter, Reddit, or in the Horror Movie Fiend Club on Facebook!