If you’re a fan of the recent resurgence of folk horror with films like The Witch (2015), The Ritual (2017) and the upcoming Midsommar (2019), then I urge you to check out the OG folk horror film, Piers Haggard’s The Blood on Satan’s Claw (1971), if you haven’t already. If someone were to ask me to show them one film to explain folk horror in a nutshell, The Blood on Satan’s Claw would be my first pick.
The Blood on Satan’s Claw has everything you might hope for from a folk horror film; beautiful pastoral shots, children in flower crowns, and a lurking supernatural presence. In a small village somewhere in 17th-century England, a plow turns up a strange decaying body in a field. Soon, strange things begin happening: people sprout strange claws and patches of furred skin, and children begin to commit violent acts in the cultish honour of a demonic entity. A character known only as The Judge (played by Patrick Wymark in what ended up being his last English-language film) tries to get to the bottom of the mystery and eradicate whatever is infecting the village with such strange violence. Standout moments include a high-tension game of blind man’s bluff in a ruined church that ends in violence, and any scene featuring Linda Hayden as Angel Blake, best described as a child cult leader, who is equal parts beautiful and commanding in her pale dresses and heavily charcoaled eyebrows.
This film is one of a trio of horror films that tends to be credited with the birth of folk horror as a horror subgenre, the other two being Witchfinder General (1968) and Robin Hardy’s The Wicker Man (1973). You might notice that Michael Reeves’s Witchfinder General is chronologically the first of the three, but The Blood on Satan’s Claw was the film for which the term “folk horror” was coined. And it is deserving of its title, as it solidly defines all of the elements that we’ve come to identify with the genre.
Defining folk horror isn’t as straightforward as it seems. If you try to picture it in your head, it’s easy: it’s rural and isolated and possesses an undercurrent of something supernatural. It’s fields and forests and runes and rituals. In this sense, folk horror is almost more of an aesthetic than a subgenre.
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Adam Scovell took this idea and developed it into what he has named the Folk Horror Chain. The chain consists of four linked aspects, each building on the next:
Rural Location – Isolated Groups – Skewed Moral and Belief Systems – Supernatural or Violent Happenings.
If we hold up Scovell’s Folk Horror Chain to The Blood on Satan’s Claw we can see how everything lines up:
- Rural location? Check. From the very first shot we’re taken into field being plowed, establishing the setting as firmly in the countryside and nowhere else.
- Isolated groups? Check. We spend most of the film in one village and its surrounding woods. There are other villages nearby but not so close that it’s easy to communicate.
- Skewed moral and belief systems? Check. As villagers are taken in by Satan’s thrall, major conflict arises with figures of the church and some of the most pious characters, as well as innocents, are punished.
- Supernatural or violent happenings? Check and check — we have both!
What’s neat about Scovell’s definition is that you mind hold it up to other movies that you never thought to consider as folk horror before and find yourself questioning the definition. Is Straw Dogs (1971) folk horror? How about The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974)?
While I can’t answer those questions, I do think there’s something missing from Scovell’s definition. Something that truly captures the essence of folk horror. There’s a line in The Blood on Satan’s Claw, delivered by The Judge as he looks over pages from a book about witchcraft:
Are you bent on reviving forgotten horrors?
This, I feel, is the crux of The Blood on Satan’s Claw and of folk horror in general. It is the resurrection of old powers that aren’t acknowledged by current society and haven’t been for a long time. And with these powers come fears and horrors that we’ve long forgotten, along with the rituals to protect ourselves against them. In folk horror we get to see these old horrors in action, pulling at the fabric of whatever society it is revisiting, and tearing apart the seams of current morals and beliefs. They demand sacrifices and they promise us that we’ll live deliciously. In It’s not always witchcraft, but it’s always something old and either forgotten, or merely practiced by a small group of devotees.
Folk horror, as a subgenre, is bent on reviving forgotten horrors and reminding us of them.
How do you define folk horror? Do you think The Blood on Satan’s Claw should reign supreme as the first folk horror film, or should another film merit that title? Let us know on Twitter, Reddit, and in the Horror Movie Fiend Club on Facebook!