Green Pagan

The folk tradition doesn’t encompass folk horror only.  I’ve been working on The Wicker Man, one of the initial folk horror classics, long enough that I sometimes need to remind myself of that.  Of course, it was the cover image featuring said movie that drew me to David Huckvale’s A Green and Pagan Land: Myth, Magic and Landscape in British Film and Television.  The descriptive subtitle more or less informs the reader what the book is about although it reaches further than that.  Huckvale also interprets novels, short stories, and classical music pieces according to landscape.  And sometimes it ranges beyond Britain, especially to other Anglo-Saxon cultures.  Richard Wagner, for example, plays a prominent role in one of the chapters.

Having written about popular media myself, I’m aware of how such issues can easily arise.  A movie too good not to discuss falls out of the precise range you’ve set for yourself.  And no matter how much media you can consume there will be tons more that you could, had you the time, add to your experience of it.  This book looks at mostly British media with an eye toward the pagan landscape.  That doesn’t always mean horror, but sometimes it does.  Huckvale always has interesting things to say about the media he addresses.  Whether the pieces go back to Arthurian legend or to more recent fictional pasts, the landscape has a role to play.

Indeed, folk horror is generally defined by landscape.  That makes sense considering that it’s all around us.  Many people in urban settings may have to struggle to find it.  Indeed, when they want to get away they head for it.  In Britain—and anywhere in which invasion has taken place—the earlier pagan ideas are imprinted on the land.  In Britain they’re perhaps more obvious; think of Stonehenge.  As later interlopers modern people see them and wonder.  And then we create stories—literary, musical, or visual—about the experience.  I’m so used to reading about folk horror that I’d finished the book before I realized it wasn’t really the focus of the entire thing.  While I don’t live in a major city, I too have blinders on for much of the time.  I’ve got a book deadline and I wanted to read this before making final revisions.  I’m glad I did.  There were places where I was just in the backseat, along for the ride, but there were also chapters where The Wicker Man was a crucial component.  And it reminded me of why I enjoyed living in that landscape for a few years.


Devils and Days

The kind of devil envisioned by Andrew Michael Hurley in Devil’s Day may not be the traditional one, but it’s scary nevertheless.  In his follow-up novel to The Loney, Hurley demonstrates that he knows the devil can still be frightening.  The Endlands, in northern England are hemmed in by the moors.  The landscape plays such a commanding role here that this can only be folk horror.  And it fits folk horror to a tee.  Tradition, an unchanging life in a land untouched by technology, and forbidding moors where survival is difficult, all amid an English sensibility brings this tale into the folk category neatly.  As should be clear already, Hurley is well aware that religion and horror belong together.  This novel makes their companionship clear.

John Pentecost (note the name) has decided that he and his young, expectant wife—both of whom hold professional jobs—are going to move back to the family sheep farm.  The death of John’s grandfather means that his own father is left to run the farm alone.  Knowing that he belongs there and that his unborn child will need to tend the farm when he dies, a visit to help with the gathering of the sheep, and the celebration of Devil’s Day, turns into a lifelong commitment.  At the same time, the devil has been body-hopping as sheep are killed and family members die and a family of bullies cause more harm than their due.  There’s an inevitability to all of this and at the end you’re not really sure who the devil really is.

The story builds slowly.  By the day of the gathering you really have trouble putting it down.  Putting the Devil into a story can be a dicey proposition.  It’s been done successfully a handful of times, but that doesn’t make it an easy sell.  Our worldview has moved beyond a literal netherworld and the theology that accompanies it.  That doesn’t mean we can’t spot legitimate evil in the world.  Or that evil isn’t often vested in the garments of righteousness.  Ways of thinking that jeopardize others for theological purposes that simply don’t match what we know to be just and fair.  Powerful exploiting the weak.  Wealthy taking advantage of the poor.  Bullies getting their way through brute force.  In this novel the devil is active in a number of characters for a short time.  And you never know where that devil might turn up next.


Rusticated Fears

I don’t recommend sick days.  This one was weird with all the symptoms of illness but really having them just be the side-effects of a shingles vaccine.  I don’t recommend it, but I was able to use the day, between dozing off, by watching Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched: A History of Folk Horror.  This late 2021 documentary is over 3 hours long and I’d been wondering when I’d have the chance to view such a lengthy movie.  Besides, when you’re feeling utterly miserable, horror is a kind of elixir to make it all better.  Watching the film made me aware of just how many movies I haven’t seen.  Another way of putting it is that I still have my work cut out for me.

Folk horror, you see, has a natural appeal for those of us who grew up away from urban centers.  Much that we did in the small towns of my childhood was, frankly, weird.  As the interviewees make plain, cities are the centers of economic and cultural power.  The big educational institutions are there and those of us from the hinterlands might not obey the rules that city dwellers seem to absorb through their feet.  In reality, I suspect, urban culture largely derives from folk culture.  Those who venture away into the large cities take pieces of their home with them.  Cities tend to blend all this together and transform it into something different.  Those in rural areas, however, have their own way of doing things.

Perhaps it’s embarrassing to center this much, but it was clear to me in watching Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched that much of the fear showcased to city folks (for movies tend to be shown in urban settings) is the weird religion of the country cousins.  Both the words “pagan” and “heathen” are references to those who dwell outside urban areas.  “Pagan” comes from Latin for rustic, while “heathen” means those out in the heath.  Mainstream religion is that of the cities—the Vatican is located in Rome, and the large mosques, synagogues, and cathedrals are in population centers.  There’s no telling what the country dwellers might get up to if left to their own devices.  And religion taken seriously can be quite dangerous to outsiders, as we’ve seen time and time again.  Folk horror never really went away but it is undergoing a resurgence at the moment.  As the documentary suggests, this tends to happen in times of social instability.  At least we have something to look forward to as the world collapses around us.  Folk horror will help us cope, if my experience is anything to go by.


Devils and Witches

If you’re a regular reader (thank you!) you know that I’m currently under contract to write the Devil’s Advocates series volume on The Wicker Man.  As an editor myself I’m aware that academic series, often unlike fictional series books, tend to vary quite a bit from one another.  I want to try to get my submission close to the goal, however, so I’ve been reading volumes by other authors.  You may also know that The Wicker Man is part of an “unholy trinity” of early British folk-horror, with the other films being Witchfinder General and The Blood on Satan’s Claw.  Of the three my least favorite is Witchfinder General, so I’ve put off reading the particular volume on that film by Ian Cooper.  That has nothing to say about the author, but rather a lot to say about the base film.

The book is quite good.  Cooper is clearly aware of the controversy surrounding the movie and he points out some of the difficulties with it as well as what it does well.  His treatment is quite insightful.  The movie is violent and it’s an representation of the historical violence we thought we outgrew.  Matthew Hopkins was an historical “witch hunter” who was, in reality a serial killer,  mostly of women.  Fearing witches, while getting paid to find them, he was responsible for over 200 deaths.  As Cooper makes clear, the film lingers a bit too long on the abject nature of many of the tortures, not allowing us to look away.  For this reason many critics found the film distasteful.  I personally found it hard to watch.  Education isn’t always easy.

There’s quite a bit of film history in the book.  Cooper does a great job placing the movie in its cinematic context.  Like The Wicker Man, Witchfinder General is sometimes said not to be a horror film.  Indeed, there’s nothing supernatural about it.  Still, it fits the bill for many of those in-between movies that cross over into horror.  In this case it’s due to the violence.  For me, monsters are preferable to human monstrosity.  They’re easier to walk away from.  Although the witch hunts ended centuries ago, violence against women has remained.  Whether it’s legislative or physical or economic, women deserve better treatment than they’re offered by the male establishment.  Movies, and books about movies, like this one may be difficult to watch/read, but they carry important reminders that power continues to corrupt and it must be challenged and changed when it reverts to the mentality of Matthew Hopkins.  His spiritual kin, unfortunately, continue to thrive. 


Haunted Landscapes

The Devil’s Advocates series consists of short books focused on a single horror film.  For horror fans they’re a great resource, as they will hopefully also be in teaching settings.  David Evans-Powell’s recent volume on The Blood on Satan’s Claw is a fine example of just how intelligent horror can be, and how it can be interpreted so.  This particular movie from the early seventies was never a major revenue earner, but that in itself is a lesson.  Influence, measured in smaller scales, can still create an impact on people’s lives.  Evans-Powell’s treatment takes several angles, each of which casts light on this unusual movie.  Reading this little book brought quite a few ideas to mind, both about social structures and religion.  The film is set in the early 18th century, with a city judge who is problematic actually saving the day.

Since The Blood on Satan’s Claw is folk horror, quite a bit of the discussion focuses on landscape.  Paying close attention to landscape reveals hidden information.  It becomes almost a character.  At the risk of too many spoilers, the film is about uncovering Satan—or a demon, it’s not terribly clear on the point—from a farm field.  As this evil character gains power the local children are drawn to him and the village authorities are unaware of what’s going on in the nearby woods.  Landscapes reveal and conceal as the creature gains power and the children engage in acts of violence.  The response of the judge is a violence of its own.  The movie doesn’t really deliver all that it promises in that regard, but Evans-Powell explains how the film was made and that, in turn, explains some of the rough edges.

Religion and horror go naturally together.  I suppose any film with “Satan” in the title will address religion somehow.  Not all horror is religious, of course, but many of our fears derive from religious subjects.  It’s almost as if as we ceased to fear the landscape—nature having been tamed to some degree—we began to find fear in religious thinking.  Put another way, religion has kept fear alive.  The Blood on Satan’s Claw was never a major, big-budget release.  Except for fans of British horror it has largely escaped notice.  Folk horror, because of its recent revival, brought interest back to some of these older efforts to explore such themes, many of them implying a religion hidden in the landscape.  This book provide a useful map in exploring that territory.


Next Trick

Book contracts make me happy.  For my next trick, I’ll be writing a book on The Wicker Man for the Devil’s Advocate series.  This will be a short book, and hopefully priced down where individuals can afford it.  The Devil’s Advocate series was initiated by Auteur Publishing some years ago.  The series covers individual horror films in about 128 pages.  I pitched the idea of The Wicker Man for a couple of reasons.  One, Auteur didn’t have one in the series.  And two, I’ve been working on holiday horror for some time.  Holiday horror encompasses movies where a holiday features in the story, generally in a significant way.  Think Halloween, or April Fool’s DayThe Wicker Man takes place during a pagan celebration of May Day, falling neatly into the category.  You may see, in coming weeks, posts about various Wicker Man books.

While still in the horror genre, this next book will be a departure from the supernatural horror of Nightmares with the Bible.  Demons are frightening, no doubt, but Wicker Man is more about how religion can motivate people toward evil.  It is part of what has been termed the “unholy trinity” of early folk horror, classed with Witchfinder General and The Blood on Satan’s Claw.  This “unholy trinity” overlaps in time another famous threesome: Rosemary’s Baby, The Exorcist, and The Omen.  There can be little doubt that modern horror really began in 1968, which also gave us Night of the Living Dead.  Folk horror utilizes both folklore and the landscape—generally rural—as the basis for its fear.  And you can’t get much more isolated than Summerisle.

The hope is to get this book out in 2023.  That will be the fiftieth anniversary of the release of The Wicker Man.  Although it came out when I was eleven, I didn’t see it for another thirty years at least.  By that point in time I’d watched and read about enough horror to find out about and appreciate this particular, indeed, peculiar movie.  I was blown away the first time I saw it.  It is quirky but stunning.  Christopher Lee maintained throughout his career that it was his best movie.  I haven’t seen all of Lee’s movies (who has?) but I’m inclined to agree.  I’ll be getting to know this movie in some depth over the next several months.  Having watched it many times already, I’m drawing a map for a journey to Summerisle. You’re welcome to come along.


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.


Witchfinder, Generally

In Holy Horror I describe the “unholy trinity” of movies that figure strongly Christian themes: Rosemary’s Baby, The Exorcist, and The Omen.  These movies span 1968 through 1976 and all were extremely successful.  Another writer earlier dubbed another three horror films from the same era the “unholy trinity” (I didn’t realize I was being trite) of folk horror: Witchfinder General, The Blood on Satan’s Claw, and The Wicker Man.  These three were low budget and not particularly successful at the box office.  They’ve all become cult classics, however.  I suppose that together these six films help mark the late sixties and early seventies as the beginning of a new realm of horror films.  Folk horror continued to exist but wasn’t terribly common.  It has recently been given a high profile by The Witch and Midsommar.

Of all of these films Witchfinder General stands out as the least obviously marked by horror tropes.  It’s set as a fictionalized account of the historical Matthew Hopkins, a man actually responsible for about a fifth of all British witch executions in the seventeenth century.  There’s nothing really supernatural in the film and its horror reputation is attributed to the cruel tortures depicted—these really pushed the envelope in 1968.  Not only was Rosemary’s Baby released that same year but so was Night of the Living Dead, another defining horror film.  The sixties were a chaotic time—the birth pangs of a new outlook that is still being resisted by many politicians.  We all know about the music of the era, but the cinematic impact was also immense, as these six films show.

As different as they are, these two trinities all feature horror that is fueled by religion.  Although this had been pointed out earlier in the century, people were now being made aware that, apart from the good religion does, it also brings potential evil into the world.  There’s no question that misguided over-protectiveness of Christianity led to many, many innocent deaths.  The more cynical might note that the Christianity being “protected” is actually key to an economic system that benefits the rich—that supports the interests of the wealthy.  The historical Matthew Hopkins was the son of a clergyman.  Apart from his reprehensible role in rekindling the witch trials in England, not much is known of his life apart from his preoccupation will executing “witches.”  As time has gone on, we’ve unfortunately circled back toward the religious conflicts in the folk horror trinity.  Watching horror may yield some valuable lessons.