Folk Horror: In the Fields and the Furrows
The Veil Interview with Andy Paciorek
With the recent success of films like Midsommar, The VVitch and The Ritual, the folk horror subgenre is having a bit of a cultural moment. Their retinas seared with images of human sacrifice and eerie landscapes, folk-horror converts are rushing home from the multiplex (or scanning the “others like this” menu on Netflix or Apple TV) to search for more stories of bumbling town folk stalked and trussed by their pagan country cousins.
What is folk horror? Broadly speaking, in a folk horror movie or text, the forces of modernity and rationalism are often confronted by an atavistic, seemingly barbaric reminder of our collective pre-modern past. That reminder can be an agrarian cult, a pagan festival or even a (hungry) nature deity, while the confrontation is marked by violence, terror and awe as the ancient gods and their servants reclaim their hold on the landscape. Folk horror’s ur text is and ever shall be Robin Hardy’s 1973 film The Wicker Man. Here the forces of modernity are given form in a devout Christian police officer who is lured to Summerisle, a remote Scottish island where erotic and other pre-modern fertility rituals are openly practiced. (We will not mention the Nicholas Cage remake here.)
To kick off Folk Horror Month, The Veil interviewed Andy Paciorek. Besides being an accomplished artist, anthologist, and author, Andy is the creator of The Folk Horror & Urban Wyrd Project and the founder of Wyrd Harvest Press, which publishes “books exploring the landscapes of Folk Horror and related realms in film, TV, books, art, music, events and other media and also psychogeography, hauntology, urban wyrd, folklore, cultural rituals and costume, earth mysteries, archaic history, hauntings. southern gothic, ‘landscapism/visionary naturalism & geography,’ backwoods horror, murder ballads, carnivalia, dark psychedelia, wyrd forteana and other strange edges.”
(Thanks to Andy for the interview and the haunting images and photography.)
The Veil: Folk horror is sometimes reduced to a catch-all description for any work that pits culturally sophisticated urbanites against primitive rural types (and their pagan rituals/gods). What elements need to be in place for a work to be considered folk horror?
Andy Paciorek: The writer Adam Scovell neatly summarised key factors of folk horror as a chain, the links being: location; isolation (geographical and/or cultural); skewed moral or belief systems; and a “Happening” that could be supernatural or violent. Not all of these elements need to be present, but in some of the more well-known examples of folk horror, all or most are.
The Veil: Why is landscape so central to folk horror?
AP: Place forms part of the plot and can be a character in its own right. This is very noticeable in Australian films where the Outback is often the most powerful element of the drama. Landscape is significant to folk horror as it can place the protagonist in isolation, separated from their norms and comfort zone and subject to the intentions of people or forces that are closer to wild nature, spiritually or physically in tooth and claw. Also, a noteworthy factor of folk horror is the aesthetic and ambience, of which landscape and location play a significant part.
The Veil: In your essay “Cursed Earth: Landscape and Isolation in Folk Horror,” you describe an encounter, common to the genre, between a protagonist (Sergeant Howie of The Wicker Man) and a “people whose beliefs are so alien to his own that he struggles to barely comprehend them.” Do you think, in our age of homogenized global corporate culture, that such an encounter actually holds a great appeal for many people? Is folk horror playing with that desire for an encounter with genuine cultural difference?
AP: I think for some people there has always been that desire. It is what has historically led people to become explorers. In the age of international vacations some travellers still prefer to get off the beaten track and not to spend their time abroad reclining on loungers beside a hotel pool, but to get out among the local people and environment and to experience local culture, which in some cases can be rather alien to their home lives. I was very fortunate to have worked on a travelling carnival that visited South East Asia and the Middle East. An intriguing aspect of that time was to spend time with local people and experience aspects of their lives and cultures. Relevant to my later work within folk horror was hearing the local folklore first-hand from people I would talk to.
Certainly within a lot of folk horror fiction there is that aspect of the “other”—of the protagonists finding themselves within the habitat of or being visited by people of a culture or creed that is profoundly different from their own. There is a risk of demonizing the “other” for simply being different, so the creators of new folk horror fiction need to broach the subject carefully and with consideration so that the lore, beliefs and customs of other cultures are not treated offensively or in patronizing way.
The Veil: What particular emotions are aroused by the best folk horror? There’s obviously something more than just fear and revulsion at work.
AP: I think that’s subjective according to the individual viewer. For instance, I have noticed that some people of differing religious beliefs hold opposing sympathies towards characters in The Wicker Man. But as a general overview, a feeling of uncertainty and from that a frisson of anxiety or dread could be found in watching folk horror, just as it could be in reality if you found yourself in an environment or situation outside of your understanding or comfort zone. This uncertainty does not need to be, as in numerous folk horror examples, linked to a monster or preternatural force. Even when there is a supernatural element involved in folk horror, frequently a great source of danger still remains other people. They may not on the surface appear to be cold or fiendish characters, such as might be found in slasher or some “backwoods” films, but actually rather charming albeit sometimes a bit peculiar, apparently everyday people. As such there is not the suspension of belief forming a safety net, as anyone could find themselves at the mercy of strangers who have a different way of thinking. Rather than jump scares the horror may slowly crawl under the skin.
The Veil: Can you set a work of folk horror in an entirely urban setting? What would that look like?
AP: You can apply Scovell’s folk horror chain to an urban setting but you likely won’t get a “pure” folk horror as such, because the natural environment is missing and that forms a significant aesthetic factor. What you may find, though, is the mode Scovell dubbed Urban Wyrd. That is not to say that all urban wyrd is just folk horror set in a townie location. That is too simplistic as urban wyrd modalities can also be found in works that bear little apparent similarity to folk horror. But there are links to be found, whether they be occult, hauntological or psycho-geographical. It is too convoluted a matter to answer adequately within a paragraph, so I would suggest anyone interested in pursuing this subject in greater depth to check out the books Folk Horror Revival: Urban Wyrd volumes I and II. Possibly the film that combines rural folk horror and urban wyrd to the best degree is Ben Wheatley’s Kill List. From there you can move further from the bucolic into more urban wyrd territory in steps by viewing the films A Dark Song, Possum and Dead Man’s Shoes.
The Veil: Your work is steeped in folklore, landscape, dark fantasy, and horror. Were you drawn to those images and stories at a young age or did you come to them later?
AP: I was drawn to such things at a very young age. I was quite an early reader and I loved fairytales and mythology, particularly the darker, weirder and more grotesque characters. I remember I won an inter-school fairy tale art competition held by a local library with my portrait of Cinderella’s ugly sisters. “Hansel and Gretel” is probably my all-time favourite fairy tale, though. The prize was book tokens which I cashed in on a book about birdwatching and another about “the world’s greatest freaks.” Medical anomalies is another subject of interest that has remained with me from a young age. It started with me wandering from the kid’s section at the library into the adult section and being regularly mesmerized by a book called Victorian Grotesque.
I also loved mythical and fictional monsters. I had a Ladybird early-reader’s book that had tales of the Minotaur and Medusa in it. My interest was engaged further by a book I got for my birthday or Christmas when I was about five or six, Usborne’s Mysteries of the Unknown: Monsters, Ghosts & UFOs. I loved the Japanese TV show Monkey and Ray Harryhausen films. The first art exhibition I visited as a child was Ray Harryhausen’s stop-motion models. In the adjacent gallery I viewed prints of Gustave Dore’s illustrations for Dante’s The Divine Comedy and Milton’s Paradise Lost. So my childhood, even from infancy, was very formative towards the creative work I do today. I also got into horror films and comics at a very young age. Being part of that UK faction of Generation X that the writer Bob Fischer very aptly named the Haunted Generation, I grew up at a time when we were spoiled for grisly choice. Weekends were looked forward to for the scary movie double bills on TV. Another well-thumbed book I received as a gift when I was just a nipper was Alan Frank’s Movie Treasury: Monsters and Vampires. I also got monster make-up as a gift one year. For a while I wanted to be a movie special effects artist when I grew up. Other career choices I pondered were zoo keeper, astronaut, artist (then as now I drew a LOT) and…a priest—the latter because I thought they only worked a couple of hours on a Sunday and apart from occasional weddings and funerals got the rest of the week off!
The Veil: Were you raised in the countryside?
AP: I was raised in rural County Durham on the edge of Weardale. As a kid, I was far more into making dens and climbing trees in the local fields and wood than sports. I have always loved animals and nature (though I am not keen on biting insect, as they are very keen on me) or houseflies and rats, and I don’t trust baboons or poodles very much either) In my diverse work history, I have also worked in environmental education and protected-species surveying, as well as having done varied voluntary countryside conservation work. When I had to give up that work to become a home-carer, I still felt a need to give something back to nature, so taking a leaf out of Cumbrian Cthulhu creator Andrew McGuigan’s books, where he donated profits from sales of his short-story anthologies to charity, when Folk Horror Revival set up Wyrd Harvest Press, it was decided from the outset to donate sales profits to the Wildlife Trusts. They were selected because, apart from the excellent work they do, they enable you to specifically donate to individual wildlife conservation projects at grassroots level. By posting a poll of project choices on the Folk Horror Revival Facebook group, it also gives our followers more of a direct say about where the money goes. We have donated a good amount to Wildlife Trust projects around the UK that concentrate on different species or habitats or education programs, so it is nice to think that not only have we produced some fantastic books featuring a great wealth of literary, cinematic and artistic talents, but we have also helped to try and look after critters and our little bit of the planet.
The Veil: Is there something about the UK, or the UK countryside and the kingdom's history, that has made folk horror such a fecund genre there?
AP: The British Isles (including Ireland) have a long pedigree of horror of numerous varieties both in folklore and in fiction. These are very haunted isles in numerous ways. Folk horror is one facet of that. The history of different cultures leaving their mark - the Celts, Romans, Anglo-Saxons, Normans and Vikings have all contributed to the lore of the land. As have their religions and the conflicts between these religions. The druids, mystery schools, the coming of Christianity, through the witch trials to the esoteric practices of the likes of The Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn and Aleister Crowley through to the birth of Wicca and the occult revival—these are all influential to the folk horror school of fiction. As is the land itself, with “place writers” such as J.A. Baker and Robert McFarlane and the authors of the New Nature Writing genre employing poetic mysticism into their description, which whilst generally not “horror” as such, also serves as an inspiration and influence on folk horror media. Likewise with the British and Irish folk music traditions.
The Veil: Was there a particular film/story/work of visual art that drew you into the horror/folk horror orbit? How did it speak to you in a way that nothing had before?
AP: The Wicker Man is a very singular movie. A bizarre pagan musical. It was possibly the first folk horror film I recall seeing and I liked it instantly, but I think later upon seeing The Blood on Satan’s Claw—a controversial but quite powerful film—I was drawn more deeply into the folk horror field (and furrows). There is a particular scene that has led to the film’s notoriety, controversy and necessary debate, but without getting drawn into that, there is a simple eeriness and otherness about the film that beguiled me. There are numerous films that are related to folk horror (sometimes more tangentially) that, rather oddly perhaps, enchanted me even as child, films such as the Australian movies Picnic at Hanging Rock and Walkabout, the Japanese Onibaba and the aptly-named American The Beguiled. These are perhaps slower and more complicated films than would normally interest a child, but there was something about their look and feel that captivated me even then.
JG: Do you have any recommendations that even folk horror fans may not be familiar with?
AP: Folk horror has become so ubiquitous recently that I don’t know if there are many films that would be unfamiliar to followers. There’s Witchfinder General, of course, and if we go back before again going forward you have Häxen, the 1922 Swedish-Danish silent movie (this is pretty much where it all started). Masquerading as a documentary, Häxen is perhaps “folk horror phantasmagoria.” There are some visually stunning and also unsettling scenes that make this film ahead of its time. And so to a more recent film that I consider one of the truly great works of folk horror: The VVitch. It has an authenticity and attention to old folkloric detail that makes it both a strangely beautiful and darkly enchanting film. Unlike certain other recent folk horror films that have been lauded, The VVitch feels more of an independently and originally styled vision rather than just another rehash of the Wicker Man theme (regardless of how pretty the cinematography might be in such films). Robert Eggers’ use of dialogue in both this and his film The Lighthouse may not appeal to everyone but I admire and enjoy it. I will also mention again Ben Wheatley’s Kill List, as it doesn’t just stick to a formula but takes folk horror into different directions by blending it with different genres such as gritty crime drama and kitchen sink realism.
Of older films, the Serbian movie Leptirica, the Italian Il Demonio and the Russian Viy are certainly worth a look. As may be, though more on a tangent but related by style and atmosphere, the films Spirit of the Beehive (Spain) Wake in Fright (Australia), Poison for the Fairies (Mexico), Don’t Torture a Duckling (Italy), The White Reindeer (Finland) and numerous Japanese films such as Onibaba, Kureneko, Kwaidan, The Ghost of Oiwa, Ugetsu Monogatori and Under the Blossoming Cherry Trees. Czech New Wave cinema is also worth exploring, particularly Valerie and her Week of Wonders, as are Soviet and Slavic fairy tale films such as Morozco and Evening on a Farm near Dikanka.
More recent films that include November (Estonia), The Juniper Tree (Iceland) and The Daisy Chain (Ireland). Out on a limb but possibly still of related interest are the Canadian films Black Robe and The Blackcoat’s Daughter, the American films Winter’s Bone and The Devil All the Time (as well as other Southern Gothic and Midwest Gothic movies), and the atmospheric and beautifully unsettling documentary Wisconsin Death Trip (the book of which is also an intriguing trip into isolation and darkness).