Witches will always reign amongst the supremes when it comes to horror. They’ve got the backstories, the spooky factor ramped up to ten, and almost always have impeccable fashion. While they’ve hit a certain resurgence the past few years, catapulting them into modernity, there’s just something so devilishly good about the classics. That’s where folk horror comes in. It’s the vein that runs through horror. Terrifying rituals, blood cults, and a sprinkle of Satan worship often conjoin with witches to make horror just a little dynamic.
After all, it’s not about what lurks in the shadows that’s the scariest, it’s what is hiding under the flower crown.
10. Pumpkinhead (1988)
American folk horror has great potential. With the dark tales that stem from New England all the way to the potential vampire nests in California. Fortunately for us, that means the Pumpkinhead franchise. Pumpkinhead has it all: tales of revenge, spooky cabins, and the heartache of parenthood. A man suffers through the death of his son, prompting him to consult a witch in the woods in order to exact his revenge. The deal comes with an unheeded warning – vengeance always comes with a terrible price. The film follows the creature that Haggis conjures, a spindly demonic being named Pumpkinhead. Pumpkinhead unleashes hell and misery on everyone around him, keen on fulfilling the tasks he was conjured to do.
Who she is: Haggis is the real reason the film is so creepy. Everything about her is spooky from her voice, her mannerisms, and her claustrophobic cottage. With each long talon she manages to dig a little deeper into your psyche, reminding you that while Pumpkinhead was scary, she’s the real one to be scared of.
9. Mark of the Witch (1970)
Mark of the Witch is a synthy dream that follows the story of a witch, dead for 300 years, who has come to terrorize the descendant of the man who persecuted her. It’s a classic story, a cute co-ed goes to a class about the occult and ends up becoming possessed by a witch. The opening shots revolve around the witch being betrayed by her coven. She has the last word before the execution: the man who betrayed her will suffer through his family having to bear the witch’s mark until she comes back to exact her revenge. It’s not until 300 years later that she pulls it off, back through a sex-addled campus. The film is rife with bloody kisses, howling screams and some of the finest campy acting around.
Who she is: Marie Santell plays the titular witch with such finesse during her execution it is beyond a pleasure to watch. There’s something so scary about her, with eyes so manic and bulging I can’t imagine what it’d look like in 3-D. Later in the film Jill (Anitra Walsh) plays at being possessed by the witch. Her take is more seductive, a bit more subtle, as she slashes her way through the flick.
8. Season of the Witch (1973)
Season of the Witch was written and directed by George A. Romero (Night of the Living Dead) which he had described himself as a “feminist film.” It had a rocky start, as the film distributor initially cut it and marketed it as a softcore porn under the title Hungry Wives. After a re-release under the title Season of the Witch, the film managed to find a bit of its footing. The film follows Joan, a disenfranchised housewife who has an encounter with the strange new neighbor who just so happens to be the leader of a local coven. Joan’s life spirals as she gets more and more involved with witchcraft, from casting love spells to murder. In the end, she’s initiated into the local cult and revels in her newfound status.
Who she is: Joan’s charms lie within the idea that anyone is susceptible to the lure of witchcraft. She falls into the role so easily, from dealing with Satanic nightmares, to a dumpster-fire of a husband. It’s easy to watch the film and think that just maybe, you’d do the same thing too.
7. The Love Witch (2016)
The Love Witch is one of the more recent films on the list but still a folk-horror masterpiece. A clear love letter to the technicolor dreamscape of the visceral horror of the 1960’s. The film focuses on Elaine, who maybe-probably-most definitely murdered her husband. A modern-day witch, Elaine pulls off multiple love spells and murders with the ease of an expert. She does it all under the premise of finding the man of her dreams. We watch as she finds love, hope, and companionship as she sprinkles with a dash of blood and mayhem. It’s a powerful movie and one where each metaphor pricks at the soul with the sharpness of a witch’s dagger.
Who she is: Elaine is powerful in that she’s what every little girl who wishes to be a witch wants: She’s stunning, she’s smart, and she’s incredibly powerful. It’s easy to gloss over the fact that she’s a literal murder when she’s got lipstick so sharp it doesn’t look real. But that’s where the fear resides. She’s beautiful, but the underbelly of death and deceit is hard to ignore.
6. The Blair Witch Project (1999)
A folk horror movie the nineties deserved and you can’t change my mind. The film was one that truly brought the “found footage” style to new heights and made sure that I had to sleep with the lights on for a full week after seeing it. The premise follows a group of film students following the legend of the Blair Witch. Naturally, they camp in the woods and soon find that they might not be alone. The film bounces back and forth between skepticism and full-blown fear and capitalizes every moment with so much tension and fear but also makes one wonder if it’s irrational or not.
Who she is: We’re not entirely sure. That’s what makes the Blair Witch so great. We never see her, she never gets a moment of curses or even a slight cameo. Instead, we rely on sounds: twigs snapping in the woods, a breeze that might be a whisper. It’s hard to say, especially since we never get a glimpse. But that goes to show her actual powers. Terrorizing an entire group without ever showing us her face.
5. Sleepy Hollow (1999)
If one were to go into Sleepy Hollow blind, it would take maybe three seconds to realize it was directed by Tim Burton (Edward Scissorhands). The film is lush and gothic, playing on the original tale of the Headless Horseman. We follow the spindly and nervous Ichabod Crane (Johnny Depp) travel to Sleepy Hollow to investigate some brutal decapitations. He soon discovers that legends often veer closer to truth than fiction and blondes can be incredibly dangerous.
Who she is: The real MVP of Sleepy Hollow is Lady Mary Van Tassel played by Miranda Richardson (Churchill). Tassel ends up being the biggest twist of the movie: she’s the witch who ends up being the puppeteer of the Headless Horseman. A classic power move, she sells her soul in order to have the Horseman at her will and exact revenge on the townspeople. But her power not only resides in the occult, but her general wiles and wits. She’s a smart cookie, and even after she’s whisked away to hell after a bloody kiss with the Horseman, there’s just a smidge of appreciation for her work ethic.
4. Viy (1967)
Viy hails from a 60’s era Russia, and retells a tale of murder, witchcraft, and rowdy seminary students. It is a visceral, harrowing movie that capitalizes on what it was able to do in Soviet Russia. The film was the first horror film for the USSR, and was able to wiggle its way around Soviet-era restrictions by deeming it a “folk tale.” The quick pacing of the movie paired with its vivid imagery are a pleasure to watch as seminary students end up killing the young, local witch and one is forced to stand and pray over the body for three nights. But, since she is a witch, it doesn’t happen easily. The student is faced with hordes of cats, curses, and walking skeletons. The witch gets the last laugh in the movie, capitalizing on her powers to evade death and leaving us to wonder the actual fate of the student.
Who she is: The witch here is both maiden and the crone, capable of transforming from an old woman to a younger girl. She is clearly powerful, summoning demons, local fowl, and even the hardest to govern: cats. It’s interesting to watch, as her mannerisms and acting lend to the scarier moments in the film with the bat of an eyelash.
3. Cry of the Banshee (1970)
Another movie featuring Vincent Price (House of Wax, 1953) who this time plays a terrifying magistrate named Lord Edward Whitman in England. He terrorizes the land, burning and murdering anyone who seems in any way witchy. After breaking up a Black Sabbath, Whitman pisses off the wrong witch Oona, who calls up a “sidhe” to exact her vengeance. The sidhe takes up residence in Whitman’s servant’s body, causing the formerly kind and gentle man into a murderous fiend. Whitman manages to kill off Oona, but it is clear at the end that Whitman doesn’t get off the hook.
Who she is: Oona is a bonafide bad-ass. The leader of the coven and she conjures a sidhe with ease. It’s a powerful moment watching her bring the curse to life in the woods. The conjuration of the sidhe shows her clear prowess and power. Not to mention that even after she’s gone, chaos reigns.
2. The Witch (2015)
At some point, we’ll reach a time where this doesn’t end up on multiple lists. But it’s hard, because it’s just so damn good. An American folk horror story that shows we can be just as spooky as our friends across the pond, The Witch shows just what’s so killer about folk horror. It’s ripe with ambiance, terror, blood, and religious fanaticism. Not to mention, goats. The creepiest farm animal finally gets his day.
Who she is: While Thomasin falls into witchy ways near the end, it’s the witch of the wood that catches our eye the most. It’s a short scene, but she’s one of the scariest witches we’ve seen in years. We watch as she steals a baby with ease, grinds him to a pulp and uses the bloody bits in a gory ritual. It’s a scene that sticks with you long after the film is over, and one that reminds you just who these witches were thought to be.
1. The Blood on Satan’s Claw (1971)
One of the classics of the genre, and for good reason. It’s one of the “holy trinity” of folk horror, paired with The Wicker Man (1973) and Witchfinder General (1968). It’s easy to see why. The film revels in demonic debauchery paired with killer visuals and an ambiance so tight you can practically hear it snap. Life in the film’s village gets weird when a mysterious skull is found and people around town start sprouting fur and claws. The youth of the village fall prey to a Satanic creature and are more than happy to cause mayhem. As it turns out, Lucifer himself is trying to reincarnate himself on earth. The film is peppered with sex, mayhem, and enough violence that it’s clear why it’s one of the masterpieces of the genre.
Who she is: Our main girl Angel, played by Linda Hayden, is an absolute powerhouse in the film. While she lacks the sort of prowess some of our other witches had, she conquers any moment she’s in. She makes it obvious that, no matter what the local judge (Patrick Wymark) insists, witchcraft is not dead.