Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched: A History of Folk Horror by Kier La-Janisse is a comprehensive, richly detailed documentary. Split into six parts, it covers the history of folk horror from the ‘Unholy Trinity’ of Witchfinder General, Blood on Satan’s Claw and The Wicker Man, to folklore from around the world, and finally, the Folk Horror Revival. Interviews with multiple experts from varied backgrounds, including film makers, academics, and authors, provide a deep and thoughtful exploration of what makes a folk horror, and what sustains our ongoing fascination with the wicked things that lurk in the woods.
What makes Woodlands Dark so engaging, and insightful, is this range of voices. Often, the focus when discussing folk horror is on the Unholy Trinity and other examples of a Eurocentric, white, portrayal of folk tradition from which the horror springs. But if we return to the most basic meaning of folk, we refer to the traditional art or culture of a community. This clearly allows for a global exploration of both folk traditions, and folk horror as a genre. We see throughout Woodlands Dark that there is a wonderfully varied global tapestry of folkloric expression from which filmmakers may draw inspiration. Whilst the prevailing narrative of folk horror has leaned on the 1970’s British expression, full of misty green pastures and Maypoles, the examples on display here are much more widespread. These glimpses into offerings from other cultures allows us to see how varied folk horror can be, with creators drawing on culturally specific rites, legends and practices that may be unfamiliar. This adds another layer of complexity to the notion of folk horror and gives the viewer an ever-growing ‘To Watch’ list. The diverse range of voices Janisse has included provides us with a multi-layered documentary that explores the themes and motifs of folk horror, whilst also exploring the wider factors that impact on the films discussed.
As with all things, context is key. The significance of the political, social, and cultural events that take place around the creation of the films discussed is never minimised. When considering the Unholy Trinity, a trio I have discussed previously, the prevailing issues of 1970’s Britain are clear to see; from the shadow of Mary Bell in Angel Blake to the fears of a crumbling aristocracy in Lord Summerisle. The dark shadow of colonialism and religious persecution hangs heavy over many of the films here. The horrors of these racist, misogynist and classist systems are unflinchingly investigated and their influence on the folk horror genre is made thoughtfully explicit. This reminds the viewer that we are never removed from the past and that the influence of our history remains in the art we make. The use of harmful, disrespectful tropes like Indian burial grounds, and failure to distinguish between non-Christian religions and practices, reinforces that the oppressor is awarded the privilege of telling the story. The inter-generational impact of colonialism is woven throughout the discussion, and this gives space for examination of a vitally important, but often minimised, element of the genre. We see in films like Eve’s Bayou, how the traditions of people trafficked to the southern United States has shaped into new beliefs, and potential horrors, in a new environment. Similarly, space is given to the experiences of those residing in the Appalachian Mountains, giving a snapshot of the rich vein of folk tradition that cleaved into the earth like a miner’s pick, influenced by the varied backgrounds of the people who travelled there. This notion of the old ways influencing new spaces is an interesting one, and it is good to see this area being discussed so thoughtfully. Without resorting to the loathsome phrase, ‘melting pot’, it is evident that the influx of people from other cultures and communities has had a significant impact on folk horror from the Americas, leading to a complicated cultural expression of what folk horror means, when the folks both haunting, and being haunted, hail from such different landscapes.
It is interesting to see an analysis of what makes folk horror so frightening, and what deep seated terrors it taps into within our psyches. The impact of psycho-geography is explored, noting how a previous psychic imprint seems to press into the land, like a boot into mud, only to be unearthed in the present. This tension between the old ways and modernity is a familiar trope for lovers of folk horror, and it is fascinating to see how this tension has been explored by filmmakers from various time points and geographical contexts. Similarly, the concept of hauntology pervades the discussion of many of the texts, bringing to light the eerie filaments of memory that remain, long after people and events have passed. This ghostly thread from the past, the remains of a history that refuses to stay buried, is evident in many of the films.
The echoes of the past, the political and social upheavals that influenced the films, are held up to the light in Woodlands Dark and it would be foolish of us not to see the obvious parallels with our current reality. The threat of environmental disaster, political corruption, and the struggles of societies forced to labour under capitalism are uncomfortably familiar. This also serves to remind us not only that those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it, but also that there is nothing new under the sun (that all-seeing, often vengeful sun). These periods of social and civil unrest are evident in both the story telling and the production of classics of the genre and feel even more pertinent when watched with a contemporary eye.
It is clear from watching Woodlands Dark that there is a certain universality in our fears. The landscape may change, the traditions may differ, but at the heart of the horror lies a collective truth. The past haunts us, and the land will reclaim what we have stolen. Our push for modernity, our desperate climb skywards, in tower blocks and high rises, the relentless march of progress, won’t save us from the tangled vines of our communal past. Ghosts wait, half buried in the soil, traditions refuse to be crushed under the boot of the ruling classes and the old ways will return to the land they once occupied, whether we are ready for them or not.