Scary Folk

Genre is a useful category.  It can be misused, however.  Straightjacketing a piece of literature, music, or film can lead not only to confusion, but to constraining creativity itself.  Nevertheless, the category of Folk Horror is certainly expansive enough for a book-length treatment, such as Adam Scovell has given it.  Unless you’ve read quite a bit about the subject you might wonder what folk horror is.  A good part of Scovell’s work is definitional—providing the reader to an answer to that very question.   Although it has earlier roots, folk horror was initially a British genre that became particularly noticeable in the late sixties and early seventies.  It comprised movies and television programs that dwell on specific aspects of the landscape—particularly the rural—and isolation within it.

What I find particularly compelling about folk horror is that it is often based on religion.  In the countryside you encounter people who think differently about things.  Believe differently.  Their convictions are enforced upon the stranger who may be there by design or by accident.  Ironically the genre largely emerged in a nation that prides itself for its role in civilized behavior.  It speaks volumes about belief.  Civilization has produced more refined strains of religion, but on its own religion will tend to grow wild, even as the weeds in your yard are distantly related to the cereal grains we cultivate.  Examples of this are everywhere.  Fans of horror can name them off, but even those who don’t care for the genre know the kinds of belief this indicates.

Not all folk horror is about religion, of course.  It can be rural ways in general.  No matter how you classify it, most people can identify Deliverance and the danger it implies about being far from civilization where those who live in the woods can do as they please.  Scovell delves into the urban settings of folk horror as well—most of his examples are British—because it is possible to hide in the city also.  Although the genre reached a high point in the 1970s, it didn’t die out.  The book ends with consideration of some more modern examples, such as Robert Eggers’ The Witch.  The problem, as those of us who write about film know, is that just because you’ve written a book it doesn’t mean future examples won’t change the picture.  The Lighthouse and Midsommar were both released in 2019, after the book was published.  And they demonstrate that the scary folk haven’t gone away.

Ethics of Nations

If it hadn’t started two world wars last century, Germany would likely have a stellar reputation.  I don’t say this because of my own Teutonic blood, but rather because as a nation they seem both intelligent and troubled.  Philosophical, if you will.  A story in Times Higher Education explains how Germany is planning its reopening with the input of humanities experts as well as scientists.  The stance is driven by ethics.  We know that when strictures are loosed more cases of COVID-19 will break out.  More people will inevitably die of it.  Germany realizes that this makes it an ethical issue as well as an economic one.  And ethics are best discussed by those who study humanities.  I noticed that they’re even including theologians on their panels.  This seems smart to me.

Meanwhile Boris Johnson’s reopening team in Britain is secret.  Not wanting the public to know who’s making the decisions that will certainly kill some of them, they prefer to act under cover of darkness.  The thing about the cone of silence is that it never works.  Historians will scratch their heads over how, in the course of one century, the good guys became the bad guys and the bad the good.  Have the Allies become an—to borrow a phrase—axis of evil?  The wealthy alone are worth saving, and the economy takes presedence over the welfare of the greatest number.  Back in my philosophy classes we learned about utilitarianism and also its problems.  You see, being a humanities specialist means learning to think through thorny issues, looking at all different angles.  Being a conservative means looking only at the bottom line.

Humanities are related to the concept of humanitarianism.  I know that’s a big word, and it doesn’t bring in much mammon, but still, it encompasses all of us.  This crisis could bring out the best in humankind, or we can let the narrative go to the Clorox-eaters and those who believe winning elections are all that’s important, even if there’s nobody left to govern when its all over.  Being a politician is a zero-sum game I guess.  Looking at the numbers, Germany seems to have brought the number of deaths down when measured against the count of established cases.  That to me seems like a human goal worth striving for.  Of course, we could just incite riots in our own countries to infect even more people.  Being reelected so as to give oneself even more tax breaks is all that really matters.  At least among the axis powers.

On a Jet Plane

So I’m heading to England.  Not for pleasure—this is a business trip.  Long ago, back when I worked for Routledge, I discovered that I dislike business travel.  Unlike vacation planning where the possibilities spread out beautifully before you—for this is free time and you decide—business travel is, like Peter was told, “thou shalt stretch forth thy hands, and another shall gird thee, and carry thee whither thou wouldest not.”  Indeed.  Business travel is at the whim of the man, and you can’t really look forward to the sights, the relaxation, or even being given the choice of where to go.  You’re on assignment.  Or consignment, I can’t recall which.  The carefully honed routine with which you hold back the chaos of the world is blown apart.  It begins with the red eye.

You see, companies don’t like you to make your own travel plans.  You might chose a flight that’s pennies more expensive than some itinerary that routes you through Albuquerque at four a.m.  It’s not like you’ve got anything better to do, right?  And since you’re exempt, we’ll take your Sunday, gratis.  Where’s your team spirit?  As I’ve grown older, I’ve become a creature of habit.  The hour of the typical red eye is when I get up to write.  That can’t be done in an airport, or on a plane, where everyone can see you.  No, this is a private thing.  Everyone else must be asleep.  Most of them, preferably, in another house.  So I’m flying to London and catch a late-night bus to Oxford.

Part of my worry, dear readers, is you.  As this blog approaches its tenth birthday, I’ve been in the habit of posting daily for many years.  Mostly at the same time—weekends and commuting days are exceptions, of course—and when you’re changing time zones you might do well to have Rod Serling with you.  I can’t figure them out.  British hotels, also, do not offer wifi in their rooms unless the boss wants you to pay extra for it.  And considering the mandated flight behavior, that’s best just taken off the table.  So, as I prepare to leave before sunrise on one of the longest days of the year, I don’t know if or when I’ll get to post over the next few days.  I won’t even know what time it is.  Like pay toilets, charging for internet access ought to be criminal these days.  But opportunities to take money are everywhere.  And those of us who travel for business always rely on the kindness of capitalists.

Pagan Virtue

We are products of our place of birth. One of the truly amazing things about human culture is how quickly it can evolve. As biologists have noted, populations separated by natural barriers such as mountains, big rivers, or oceans, tend to evolve in different directions. They adapt to their environment. So far the world-wide web hasn’t flattened our differences out completely with a cultural creole, and it may be best to celebrate it while we still can. In an article in The Atlantic, “Why the British Tell Better Children’s Stories,” by Colleen Gillard, answers her titular query with religion. The British, she suggests, are better attuned to their pagan past. In the United States children’s stories tend toward the moralistic, reflecting the Puritan values that some decry as absent from culture. British stories lean toward magic and earthiness in a way that American stories don’t.

Any generalization opens itself for criticism. (Including the generalization I’ve just made, I suppose.) Still, I think Gillard is onto something. Children are magical thinkers and have to be taught not to see what they think they see. We acculturate them into the dull, adult world of making money instead of magic. American kids get started on the entrepreneurial pathway with early moralizing about hard work and attaining goals—just glance at the titles mentioned in the article and see if you can disagree. Christianity arrived in Britain much, much earlier, of course. There it encountered a pagan sensibility that tempered its increasingly harsh edges. Puritanism took the remaining joy from the good news and made it into a very serious belief system, indeed, with eternal consequences that persistently threaten any enjoyment of life. You constantly have to examine and prove yourself. The British allowed their former earthiness to survive, as early epistles to Augustine (not of Hippo) demonstrate.


The article ends by reflecting on recent American dystopian novels for young adults. These, Gillard suggests, reach toward fantasy in a way earlier efforts didn’t. I wonder if a bleak future is the natural consequence of founding a nation under the eye of an ever watchful, and vengeful, deity. Even a Trump may appear righteous with a Pence in his pocket. We’ve got to return to those old Puritan ways of subjecting women to men to make America great again. As this mass insanity continues to grow and infects the internet, dystopian futures appear to be strangely prescient. The C. S. Lewis of real life was not the grinning evangelical that modern-day candy Christians suppose. He knew a faun wasn’t what it seemed.

Pagan Paean

ImaginingPaganPastThe old gods still live. In literature. The modern world with its open spirituality has continued the process of rediscovering ancient deities. Marion Gibson’s Imagining the Pagan Past: Gods and goddesses in literature and history since the Dark Ages offers a glimpse into how British writers since the earliest days have wondered about the gods. Of course, many of those early writers were already Christianized, and treated the old gods as curios that might be placed on an intellectual shelf of bygone days. Some, however, came up with an idea that can still be found, on occasion, among dwellers in the British Isles—the idea that the original British religion was monotheistic. Indeed, some believed that the religion of Noah made its way to Britain, establishing a debased, but yet roughly correct worldview that was only contaminated by Roman polytheism. There are books suggesting, a la Latter-Day Saints, that the lost tribes of Israel found their way to Britain. Joseph of Arimathea planted his staff at Glastonbury, after all. Nothing satisfies like being the chosen people.

Gibson explores both the Celtic gods and the Norse gods. British literature has drawn upon both deity pools to populate a literature with colorful, if sometimes dark, deities. Beyond the literary, many of these gods survived in popular culture throughout the ages. Some of my fondest memories of the UK are driving to prehistoric sites with friends and finding the gods alive and well. As the sun, feeble at best in a British December, sank one afternoon we pulled into Wayland’s Smithy, a neolithic long barrow. I’d never heard of Wayland before. Gibson reveals the story of Wayland, as well as Woden and Thor, as the gods jumble in a Gaimanesque celebration of cultural diversity. Even on hikes to obscure sites the locals often knew the stories of the gods that had once passed this way.

There’s a virtual Sutton Hoo’s trove of information in Gibson’s brief study. At many points I found myself pausing to think, “that’s where that idea came from” as I followed the trajectory of her explorations. Even some of the deities she does not explore found their place in my three short years in the enchanted countryside where pagan Celt met pagan Saxon met pagan Roman, leading to a heady brew from the well-known Diana to Julian the obscure (there is some witchery afoot here). Even that Anglicanism that once circled the globe did not rid itself of this great cloud of witnesses. We keep our deities alive by preserving them in scripture, whether sacred or secular, and we have done so for hundreds of years. And the old gods, in this monochromatic world of science and industry, remind us where the rainbow really originates. Imagining the pagan past is sometimes the most human thing to do.

Prehistoric Steps

Britain has always had a share in the great events of the past (speaking strictly from a western hemisphere point of view). Not only did the ten “lost tribes” of Israel end up there (according to some, with apologies to Joseph Smith), but young Jesus traveled there with Joseph of Arimathea (according to others, with no apologies). While these stories are obviously non-historical, Britain does have an illustrious heritage that has left Stonehenge and the Cerne Abbas giant in its wake. It is thrilling to read, then, that fossilized footprints from some 850,000 years ago were recently discovered. Coastal erosion, similar to the event that revealed Skara Brae to the world, uncovered the footprints for a short time in Happisburgh, near Norfolk. About 50 footprints were discovered, according to The Independent, with a group comprised of women, men, and children. They were walking alongside a stream, apparently looking for the Pleistocene version of carry-out fish-n-chips at least 844,000 years before Adam and Eve.

The British landscape boasts an ebullient antiquity. Our years spent in the British Isles involved exploring everything from Lanyon Quoit in Cornwall to the Ring of Brodgar on Mainland, Orkney with our friends. It is a land where the past lives on into the present. No wonder some speculated that the biblical past made its way here as well. At least now we know that some very early humans did as well. Homo antecessor, the makers of the prints, visited a Britain replete with elephants, hippopotami, rhinoceri, and hyenas. It is speculated that they may have domiciled on off-shore islands to keep safe from the predators that roamed pre-Roman England. One thing we know for certain about people is that they do get around.

Chirotherium storetonense  trackway, photo credit: Ballista

Chirotherium storetonense trackway, photo credit: Ballista

Homo antecessor is an extinct species. Many of the hominids that contributed in some way to the possibility of our existence are long gone, creating endless headaches for scriptural literalists. Their lives, as The Independent speculates, may have involved being preyed upon by large predators and the constant search for food. They also liked to walk on the beach. I wonder how far they had come on the road to religious belief. Constant fear of predation must surely have played into it. We don’t know how far back the evolutionary chain religion goes, but we do know that it is a profoundly human outlook. You can’t stand beneath the towering Neolithic menhirs of the Ring of Brodgar and not feel it. Sometimes a walk along the shore is all it takes.


There is something extremely satisfying about bookends. Bookends are those events that bracket moments of our lives and give them a frame, a perspective they would otherwise lack. If my readers will indulge my recollections of my trip to Britain for a day or so longer, some of this may become apparent in esoteric ways. Our kind hosts in London live in Highgate. Our first bleary-eyed morning in the city we wandered to Highgate Cemetery. This burial ground is divided by Swain’s Lane and that makes it frightfully convenient to charge separate admission fees for the two halves. Both, however, are worth the pounds dropped to gain entrance. Our first visit was via tour group on the western half of the grounds. The ornate—indeed grand—architecture of this necropolis bespoke the mysterious connection between the living and the dead. Tycoons are buried there, as is the non-conformist Michael Faraday, a name that lingers on from my childhood physics classes.

Highgate Cemetery West

Just before leaving to board our flight back to the States, we completed the bookend by visiting the eastern half of the cemetery. Here the most famous residents seek eternal rest. The most famous of the dead on this side is Karl Marx. Visitors speaking Cyrillic or Sinitic languages milled about, but even an American idealist might find some grounds for admiring a man who felt deeply about the plight of the workers in society. Just across the lane lies Herbert Spencer, one of the founders of sociology. Less than two minutes will take you to the grave of Mary Anne Evans, known to the literary world as George Eliot. She is not far from Douglas Adams, inventor of the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Across the path from Adams rests Anthony Shaffer, writer of both Sleuth and of the screenplay of The Wicker Man.

Highgate Cemetery East

Perhaps it seems macabre to travel such a distance only to bookend a visit with treks to Highgate Cemetery. Death, however, is the ultimate bookend to life, with each generation shoring up those that come after through its unique perspective on what has brought us here. Not even a visit to Westminster Abbey is complete without paying respects to the most noteworthy of the Brits found both within and without its walls. This trip to England will remain in my memory as the pilgrimage bookended by the solemn parentheses of death. With such august company, however, one might have less to fear from that final veil that all must face.

Rule Britannia

Being back in Britain serves as a constant reminder of how conspicuous consumption has come to be a hallmark of American culture. When my wife and I moved to Britain back in the 1980s we soon became acclimated to the shift in scales to a size that seemed much more within our grasp. Yes, civilized people could live without undue excess and still be quite happy. Living in the States swiftly eroded the confidence that less is enough. Those who do not climb die. Back in Britain, there is evidence that the unabashed capitalism is spreading like a poison through this nation as well. Too readily the draw of gain and personal comfort outstrip our concern for other people. On a whole, however, the ideals of a society where all have health care and the elderly are not simply forgotten still remains intact.

Perhaps it is the benefit of having once been an empire that spanned the globe, or perhaps it is a hangover from having borne the burden of monarchy and a stratified society where noblesse oblige ensures that those below are not left behind. Not that such a system is without its faults. A century ago Titanic was setting forth from these ports and sank with the humble classes going first. Such tragedies show that even where noble ideas hold sway, the inexorable draw of evolutionary development will favor those who assert themselves. The monkey on top when the ship sinks gets to draw the last breath.

Back in my Nashotah House days I used to have recurring nightmares of sinking ships. In our attempts to extend mastery over the largest environment on our planet, the one in which we cannot survive, we face an uncomfortable reality. Even if those whose names still register a nod of recognition are those who had amassed the most wealth, they are equally as deceased when the hull strikes the Atlantic floor. Is it such a difficult matter to make sure that everyone has enough before allowing those enamored of wealth to accumulate superfluous amounts of it? When the ship sinks, those with the wealth to buy themselves extra minutes may have time to think. And if those thoughts are honest, they will realize that the cost has been too great all long.

Pharaohs of Stonehenge

Stonehenge on Easter Sunday is a remarkably popular place. Tourists from all over the world crowd the pathway around those ancient stones as if they hide some arcane secret in their tumbled, massive form. Stonehenge may be the most iconic location in Britain, surpassing even such modern structures as Westminster Abbey and St. Paul’s Cathedral. Far pre-dating the art of writing, the purpose and nature of Stonehenge involve considerable speculation, but given the unquestionably costly years of labor required to plan, dig, transport, and align the monument, it stands to reason that it must have been religious in nature. One of the standard—perhaps even hackneyed—critiques of archaeological interpretation proves true in this case: if you can find no sensible reason for it, it must be religious.

The main phase of Stonehenge, the one that incorporates the iconic monoliths instantly recognizable today, came under construction some six hundred years after the pyramids of Egypt. In the case of the latter we know their language and we know the motivation behind the structures. More than just buildings to demonstrate the power of the king, they were celestially aligned portals to the afterlife. Although the Egyptians had no word for religion, the pyramids were as religious as the great temples that would soon surpass them in the energy consumption of the empire. In England of the time, we know no names, nor even an accurate assessment of the “nationality” of the inhabitants. Even nations, as we know them, did not yet exist. The builders of Stonehenge surely had something close to our concept of religion in mind. Otherwise, like the great cathedrals of millennia later, it would have been simply a waste of time and resources.

Wiltshire Downs on the Salisbury Plains is studded with ancient locations of significance. On the near horizon, among the eternal green of the English countryside, are dozens of barrows where people of unknown significance are buried. In that respect Stonehenge is emblematic of the individual struggle for eternal recognition. The name Menkaure stirs instant recognition among few. His pyramids stand as eternal monuments to a decidedly faded greatness. Stonehenge and its environs hold the remains of unknown numbers of unknown nationality bearing unknown names. It symbolizes the fate of us all. Yet on Easter, many believers in resurrection crowd in and gaze in awe at a pagan monument to human striving that no one truly understands.

Just Druid

Suggestively between the autumnal equinox and fall’s cross-quarter day, yesterday British authorities announced that Druidism is now an official religion. Such an announcement, naturally, does not endorse or censure the belief system but only affects its legal status. That status relates to taxes, the handmaid of the One True God, Money. Tax-exempt, Druids are now free to worship nature free of charge.

In the recent resurgence of interest in paganism, the Druids have attracted a considerable New Age following. There is, however, no doubt that Druidism is an ancient religion predating the Christian conquest of Europe. The origins of the Druids are lost in obscurity, but they are one of any number of ancient nature cults that have become fashionable in a post-Christian society. What does it matter if a society recognizes a belief structure as a religion or not? (Apart for tax liabilities, of course!) One of the issues at stake is the perennial question of who determines what is a religion and what is not. In a society where religion is defined purely by belief, the doors are cast wide, if not blown completely off their hinges, when a group declares itself a religion. Who is the final arbiter? Today the world resoundingly answers “Mammon.” When you pass that collection plate, or basket, or gourd, does the government take its cut or not?

Religions will always struggle to convince the many that they each possess the one, true faith. Some will do it through magic, others through nature, and others through divine revelation. All will be subject to the scrutiny of government fleshpots greedy for a share whenever money changes hands. Druids have lurked in the shadows for thousands of years. By publicly receiving the blessing of tax-exempt status, they are free once more to disappear into the mists and attract the envy of more imperially minded religions.

A Druid attempting tax evasion?