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[Article] – The Revival Of Folk & Rural Horror

 

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Posted May 25, 2016 by

 
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Folk horror is a genre which emerged in Britain during the late 1960s, reviving the popularity of the horror genre after predictable Hammer Horror narratives began to fall flat with audiences. Moreover, the focus on sinister, ritualistic tales set in idyllic landscapes boosted the popularity of the folk horror genre, and now its legacy can be found in many modern horrors. Robert Egger’s recent film The Witch (2016) is a key example of how this sub-genre has been revived, but how has the genre been present in the last 50 years?

During the 1950s, Hammer Film Productions were successful in reviving the Gothic horror film, and their popularity had been consistently increasing since the release of The Quatermass Xperiment in 1955. Even though Hammer films had been popular in the past, the release of The Quatermass Xperiment seemed to signal a breakthrough for the production company, and their box office hits started to soar. The company started to use the horror icons of Dracula and Frankenstein’s creature to really emphasis the Gothic genre, and the copious amount of Dracula/Frankenstein sequels seemed to keep audiences happy for a while. However, during the early 1960s, popularity for Hammer Horrors started to dwindle as more daring, frightening films were released by competing production companies – Hammer Horror films started to look tame, and their narratives were starting to become predictable, compared to new, innovative horrors such as Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960). Moreover, the decline in popularity for Hammer Horror resulted in the birth of ‘folk horror’, a new sub-genre of horror which provided the sinister narratives that audiences were demanding.

It seems that the folk horror genre was established with three main films, but before discussing these, it is important to outline the features which make folk horror a genre in its own right. Firstly, folk horror films are set in empty, desolate environments, whether it is a field in the British countryside, or quiet villages with traditional communities. There is a clear emphasis on idyllic surroundings, which are soon juxtaposed with sinister events, making the tone of the films rather unsettling. Another common feature which appears in many folk horror films is a focus on paganism, witchcraft and superstition which prove to be increasingly unnerving for audiences, particularly the pagan rituals, which are still practised in many cultures today. Moreover, the fact that many folk horror narratives are plausible make the films much more unsettling, compared to a vampire or monster narrative.

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Witchfinder General (1968)

Many believe that the folk horror genre was born in 1968, with Michael Reeves’ film Witchfinder General. The film stars Vincent Price as Matthew Hopkins, a witch hunter who travels from town to town with his accomplice, aiming to uncover suspected witches through brutal methods of torture. This film started to outline the features of folk horror, with its focus on witchcraft, rural Southern villages and a more sadistic level of violence that hadn’t been seen before in mainstream films. Moreover, Piers Haggard’s The Blood on Satan’s Claw (1971) also, despite its increased focus on the supernatural, successfully evokes a real sense of rural horror. The film follows the community of a small town who become possessed by the devil, and form a cult led by the young Angel Blake, and the happiness and merriment that Blake’s pagan cult embodies only creates a further sense of uneasiness to the film.

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The Wicker Man (1973)

Finally, the third film that is regarded as the epitome of folk horror is The Wicker Man, directed by Robin Hardy in 1973. The film follows Sergeant Howie as he arrives on the idyllic island of Summerisle, investigating the disappearance of a young girl. Throughout his stay, Howie starts to uncover unsettling secrets about the island community, and it is soon revealed that they are a pagan cult, whose rituals result in a disturbing climactic scene at the end of the film. The Wicker Man can be seen as a perfect embodiment of folk horror, and at the time, it proved to be highly popular with audiences – it provided a new type of film which played on real fears, and created an increasing sense of uneasiness for viewers. However, this increase in popularity for folk horror began to fade, particularly throughout the late 1970s, and 1980s, with the introduction of ‘slasher horror’ – films like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) and Friday the 13th (1980) provided much more bloodthirsty scenes, and surged in popularity within young adults, leading to the near extinction of folk horror.

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Kill List (2011)

Despite small exceptions like The Blair Witch Project (1999), folk horror seemed to vanish from mainstream cinema after The Wicker Man, showing a general lack of interest for the genre from audiences. However, in the past decade, it seems that folk horror has been revived and there have been an increasingly large amount of films which contain the defining features of folk horror. The director Ben Wheatley is successful in incorporating these elements into his films, particularly in Kill List (2011) and A Field in England (2013). The distressing final scene in Kill List is perfect in capturing the sinister nature of a pagan cult, whilst the idyllic natural landscape juxtaposed with the frightening effects of hallucinatory substances in A Field in England really emphasises the features of folk horror, and creates a disturbing experience for viewers. Moreover, films such as The Hallow (2015) and Regression (2015) also incorporate elements of folk horror, and successfully tell sinister tales of superstition, demonic forces and witchcraft in contrast with an idyllic environment.

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The Witch (2016)

Whereas, the film that seems to have really emphasised the genre of folk horror, is Robert Egger’s latest film The Witch which was released earlier this year. The film focuses on a family during the 17th century in New England, who is exiled from a Puritan community and are forced to provide for themselves in the isolated wilderness. However, when the youngest child mysteriously vanishes, rumours of witchcraft arise and the narrative shifts into an uncomfortable tale of pagan rituals and superstition. For me, The Witch perfectly embodies the original features of folk horror, which were trying to be portrayed in the 1970s. Whilst recent films have integrated features of folk horror in with elements of secondary genres, The Witch is successful in presenting folk horror as the dominant genre, playing upon the defining features of witchcraft and paganism and creating a truly frightening film which plays on the fear of isolation and the unknown.

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Lyndsay Townsend
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