Folk Horror is an interesting sub-genre. It can take so many different forms that it’s difficult to nail down what, exactly, is a folk horror film and what isn’t. A found footage film is easy to spot, as is a giallo or a slasher, but folk seems to encompass films from all categories. This isn’t a bad thing, though. Not at all. It’s this wide range of styles that makes folk horror so special. The styles may change, sure, but all folk horror has one common thread running throughout their films.
As we all have learned throughout our time in school or church or surfing the voluminous walkthroughs for Final Fantasy games, deities and gods can take many forms. Some are benevolent bearded fellows that hang out in the clouds. Some are an eight-armed warrior goddess riding a tiger, or a plumed serpent. Folk horror deities take just as many forms, and each are worshipped and respected in their own horrific ways. In this article, I’m going to take a look back at ten of the best deities we have been given through folk horror films. Now, like I said before, folk horror is a nebulous concept, so please don’t come to my house and beat me up if you disagree with a film or a character’s inclusion. If you have any grievances, do what any sane person would do and hit me in my mentions.
10. Her – Apostle (2018)
Say what you want about the film, but there’s no way we can have a list of folk horror deities without including Her, the goddess being held captive by Prophet Malcolm and the other inhabitants of the remote Welsh island. After she saved the three original shipwrecked and starving inhabitants of the island, Her was held hostage and used for her fertility powers. She kept the crops growing strong and the livestock fat and plentiful in return for sacrifices of blood.
Her represents a subset of deities known as a “dying god”. These gods are known for their ever-refreshing life cycle, where they must die to be reborn again. When Malcolm and the others hold Her prisoner, she is unable to complete her cycle, causing the island to slowly die no matter how many babies or jars of blood she is given. Her immolation by the interloper Thomas wasn’t an act of vengeance on his part, he was, in fact, setting her free.
9. Roderick – Cry of the Banshee (1970)
There are few things more pleasurable in life than seeing someone get exactly what they deserve. This is what happens to Vincent Price’s Witchfinder, Lord Edward Whitman, in 1970’s Cry of the Banshee.
You see, Whitman is sure that there be witches in them there woods, so he sets out with his two older sons to break up the coven. When he stumbles upon said witches, he breaks up the party, killing several in the process. The leader of the coven, Oona, calls upon a demonic spirit to exact their revenge. The spirit takes over the body of his servant Roderick, who is also the paramour of one of Whitman’s daughters. Now, let me tell you about this dude. Not only does he systematically kill the members of the Whitman family, but he also takes a shot to the head, gets buried, and continues to kill. If you decide to go out into the woods looking for something you don’t understand, you might incur a great curse upon those you love the most. In Cry of the Banshee, Roderick is that curse.
8. The Blair Witch –The Blair Witch Project (1999)
I’ll be the first to admit that the Blair Witch is my babe. We’re going steady, you might say. I have been in love with this film ever since I first rented it in secret and watched in on my grandparent’s VCR after they had gone to bed. This, to me, is a perfect example of a modern folk horror story, and the Blair Witch is the deity that controls the entire tale.
Some of you might be thinking that she isn’t that powerful of a witch, if she even exists at all. Well, you’re wrong, because she does exist, and we are engaged. Also, look at the people of Burkittsville when they are asked about her. She has completely taken over the area, filling the dreams of its inhabitants with ghastly visions and warnings not to go into the woods. Think about Rustin Parr, the hermit who lived in the woods and murdered seven children for her. To get a crusty old hermit to do anything besides eat beans and scream at the clouds sounds pretty damn powerful to me.
7. Hairy Satan– The Blood on Satan’s Claw (1971)
When you go plowing the fields of rural England, you might just find something no one was meant to see. That’s how Piers Haggard’s The Blood on Satan’s Claw begins, with a gentle farmer finding a deformed skull in his field. The skull disappears, but its influences remain on the village and possess the young people to go out into the woods and “play their games” (a.k.a. Bone and Sacrifice).
They develop patches of hair on their bodies, called “The Devils Skin”. Fevers and Hysteria plague the village. They meet in the woods to worship the one who has taken over their bodies. They use their satanic powers to seduce the local clergy and to violate the bodies of young women. In The Blood on Satan’s Claw, the “new” world sees what happens when they open the pages of pagan history up and let it back out into the world.
6. Desperation – Onibaba (1964)
When the two women in Onibaba set upon deserting and wandering samurai during a 14th-century civil war, they aren’t doing so to satisfy a specific god. They aren’t doing it to make the crops grow or to ensure a plentiful harvest. They are doing it for one reason and one reason only; they are desperate.
It’s this desperation that comes out of even the best of us during times of war. It’s a fickle deity, one that has catastrophic repercussions if you continue to give in to it and succumb to its power. When the older woman sees the samurai wearing the hannya mask, she doesn’t stop to consider what donning the mask to satisfy her desperate need for love might cost her. She sees what it did to the samurai but didn’t heed the warning. When you give in to your desperation and try to take things for yourself that belong to others, you become desperation yourself. The mask becomes a part of you, and you will never again be who you once were.
5. He Who Walks Behind the Rows – Children of the Corn (1984)
As a man who grew up in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by cornfields and nothing else, I can attest to the power those rows contain. There was nothing scarier (or more exhilarating, than walking through the fields at night, listening to the whisper of the leaves as the stalks swayed in the breeze. If you stood still enough, you could almost hear a voice, calling out to you, begging for you to walk deeper into the darkness.
It’s this unknown voice that fuels 1984’s Children of the Corn. While Malachi and Isaac are terrifying in their own right, it is the powerful unknown god in the field that commands the most fear. It’s this god that the Children sacrifice the villagers to and spill their blood for, and if you know anything about corn, you know that it is a thirsty crop.
4. Revenge – Witchfinder General (1968)
What would you do if the person you love most in the world was set upon by a man devoted to a cruel and unforgiving god? Would you thank the heavens for their mere survival, or would you take to the streets to feed the burning god that is growing in your belly? I can tell you one thing, dear readers, if something were to happen to my family or those closest to me, the god Richard worships in Witchfinder General would find himself seated at an all-you-can-eat buffet.
It isn’t a god we know well, or even one that has a true name. Richard devotes his sanity and his life to one thing after his beloved is raped at the leisure of a “godly” man. Revenge. We see this at the end of the film, where his insatiable need for more blood takes him over the edge. When it is taken away from him, he screams for more. He needs more. It was taken away from him before he had his fill. You see, revenge might be a dish best served cold, but it is even better when you can go back for multiple servings.
3. Black Phillip – The Witch (2016)
What can I say about this film that I haven’t said already or written in my emotions journal? In my mind, it’s a perfect film. It takes us deep into the psyche of the early settlers of New England and shows us the fear that dominates their everyday lives. What is great about the film isn’t the very real witch that is seen grinding poor baby Samuel up into flying-juice, but rather the god that the witch in the woods serves.
That god is Black Phillip. While it’s never said who exactly inhabits the goat’s body, it is a god that has one mission in this world; to destroy the world of men and harvest the souls of the innocent. He lies in wait for the entirety of the movie, pulling the strings from the shadows, and offers a delicious life to those who would serve him. While Black Phillip is an unassuming figure, the god inside the goat is a perfect parable for our unseen fears that might, actually, turn out to be true.
2. Gods of the Harvest – Wicker Man (1973)
I have to make an admission before the court. This might get my HorrorFilmTwitter membership card revoked, but I have to say it:
… I only watched Wicker Man for the first time last week…
I’ve seen the remake memes, yes, and I always had a loose grasp on the story, but I had never actually sat down to watch this terrific folk tale until my 34thyear on this planet. When I finally did take the time, I was treated to a beautiful story of an island devoted to the gods that give them the harvest in return for a virginal sacrifice every once in a while. It’s a member of the original “unholy trinity” of folk-horror films, and for good reason. These people aren’t deranged, or mad, or insane. They worship the one who gives them life. They take a single life to satisfy the one who rains blessings down on the many. The titular Wicker Man is iconic, and imposing, and absolutely the perfect offering to their god.
1. Möder – The Ritual (2018)
Call it sacrilege, if you want, but I have to put Moder at the top of any list I make about folk horror. Where else have we seen a god so perfectly represented in all of horror cinema? Is The Ritual the best film on this list? No. Is it the scariest? Absolutely not. What it is, however, is the ultimate tale of a god who violently demands worship from her followers.
The Blair Witch is never seen. The Hairy Satan Skull is pretty silly looking when you get down to brass tacks. He Who Walks Behind the Rows is never revealed in his true form, and Black Phillip spends most of his screen-life walking around eating grass. The only folk god fully realized in all their glory on this list is Moder, and she is the embodiment of nightmare fuel. She stands tall in the trees of Scandinavia, part animal, part human, all-god. She protects those who worship and punishes those who wander into their world without due payment of blood. She prolongs the lives of her children, and they return the favor by giving her the sustenance she needs. If you think that Moder doesn’t belong in this list, let alone at the top, do yourself a favor and watch the film again. Watch her as she bends down to look in the buildings. See her as she tears apart those who oppose her. Behold her in her full form. She is your god, and you will kneel before the god. If not, it will hang you from the trees.
There it is, folks! These are ten of the best folk horror deities we have ever been given on the big screen. What did I miss? Hit us up on the twitter and let us know! For more folk awesomeness this month, join the Nightmare on Film Street Community over on Twitter, our official Subreddit, and the Horror Movie Fiend Club on Facebook!