Katherine Beem and Andy Paciorek, eds.
Folk Horror Revival: Field Studies
Wyrd Harvest Press, 2015
The term “folk horror” is a relatively recent invention that can be applied to a wide range of artistic creations, not all of them belonging to the horror genre. It was popularized by the 2010 BBC TV documentary A History of Horror where the term was used to describe three horror films: Witchfinder General, The Blood on Satan’s Claw, and The Wicker Man. All three films deal with an atavistic eruption of pagan energies and this is a theme that is central to understanding folk horror as a (non) genre. All three films are also set in the British Isles and, whilst the impressive range of contributions to Folk Horror Revival: Field Studies seeks to widen the scope of study, it is evident that the old, eldritch isle remains the dominant focus for folk horror students.
Folk Horror Revival: Field Studies was born of a Facebook group, and the selection of essays presented therein retains the eclectic nature of such a forum whilst maintaining a higher quality control than you would associate with that particular social media site. The book is self-published via Lulu and, perhaps for that reason, contains quite a few typos. There is also a curious range of typographical styles that vary between essays for no apparent reason. Happily though, the quality of the contents more than makes up for these minor quibbles, even for an irritable pedant like me.
Andy Paciorek, the creator of the Folk Horror Facebook group, has written an introductory chapter which tries to delineate the contours of folk horror but he admits that it’s like trying “to build a box the exact shape of mist” (p. 8). Nonetheless, he does go on to list British horror films of the late ’60s/early ’70s, children’s TV shows with a supernatural bent, various non-British horror films, psychogeography, Backwoods horror, Nigel Kneale’s TV productions (Quatermass and The Stone Tape), the science fiction books of John Wyndham, H. P. Lovecraft, hauntology, and public information films. Just about every one of these subjects, and many others, are covered in the pages of FHR: Field Studies, and you are left with the overriding impression that folk horror is not so much a genre as an irrepressible intrusion of the wholly other into the modern world. In other words, the peripheral flowering of a post-modern religious sensibility.
One of my favorite chapters makes something of this point. Jim Moon’s “M. R. James: The Presence of More Formidable Visitants” is almost a piece of James revisionism. Moon rejects the lazy notion that M. R. James’ stories are concerned with quaint little spooks that give sequestered gentlemen a bit of a fright, and instead emphasizes the visceral, uncanny nature of James’ revenants. They are “an intrusion of the unseen world into ours” (p. 300). He also emphasizes James’ knowledge of folklore and the continuity of his ghost stories with traditional folkloric forms. That such revisionism concerning James is necessary, Moon suggests, is in no small part due to Jonathan Miller’s 1968 TV adaptation of Oh Whistle and I’ll Come to You, My Lad. However, having made the point he doesn’t pursue it and rather lets Miller off the hook. Miller’s film is a particular bête noir of mine because it chooses to psychologize James’ horrors, insisting that the supernatural is a projection of the interior neuroses of the protagonist. Now, whether or not one accepts the reality of supernatural phenomena, it seems to me absolutely necessary that any fictional ghost story should start from the premise that the horror is real. Otherwise it becomes merely an exercise in humanist sneering (which is what Miller’s adaptation is). In this sense horror is closely related to the experience of the numinous.
Another essential chapter is written by John Coulthart and concerns the work of the dramatist David Rudkin. One of the keynotes of Rudkin’s drama is the existence of supernatural presences as part of the landscape. In the case of Penda’s Fen and to some extent Artemis ’81 these encounters with objectively real supernatural entities facilitates an alchemical disintegration of personality and a reconstruction of the self as a mystical androgyne. One of the reasons why there is a resurgence of interest in Rudkin’s work is that he combines these supernatural themes with notions of sexual and gender fluidity. Whereas an interest in the deep, mystical emanations of landscape would once have seen you labelled as a chthonic nationalist, Rudkin’s work shows that it is possible to mingle such interests with very contemporary, Cathedral-sanctioned notions of New Left identity politics. This is an important key to understanding why folk horror in general is able to generate such a progressive charge. Coulthart’s essay provides an excellent and sympathetic overview of Rudkin’s oeuvre.
Possibly the most important item in the folk horror cannon is the 1973 film The Wicker Man. In the confrontation between the Christian policeman and the pagan islanders, and in the ultimate triumph of the pagans, we can see the sort of spiritual antinomianism that seems to coalesce around the notion of folk horror. There are a couple of essays on The Wicker Man and an interview with its director Robin Hardy in FHR: Field Studies. The tendency is to emphasize the free, liberated sexuality of the pagans in contrast with the repressed virgin Sargent Howie.
This is fine as far as it goes, and I would tend to concur. But it strikes me that there is much more to the story than this. Why, for example, does no one ever seem to point out the hierarchical, patriarchal nature of Summerisle, ruled by its eponymous and aristocratic Lord? And what about the fact that they invite in an outsider to be their sacrifice? Isn’t that indicative of a small minded xenophobia? And is not Howie’s immolation the sort of thing that another atavistic cult currently operative in Iraq and Syria would approve of? Could we not see Summerisle as a small fascist principality, a quaint brethren to Pasolini’s Salò?
Now, I wouldn’t want to push this line of thinking, but the point is that certain elements thought to be progressive are foregrounded when thinking about what constitutes folk horror. I think that there is already a largely unspoken assumption that folk horror is intrinsically wedded to a vaguely Left-wing politics.
This is brought out more clearly with reference to Ben Wheatley’s unsettling film Kill List. There are two essays here dealing with this film. Andy Paciorek’s reading of Kill List as an Arthurian allegory is enjoyable if ultimately unpersuasive. But Aaron Jolly’s “Kill Lists: The occult, paganism and sacrifice in cinema as an analogy for political upheaval in the 1970s and the 2010s” gets right to the heart of the matter.
Kill List is set in England and tells the story of two hitmen who are veterans of the Iraq war. They are persuaded to carry out a job for a very wealthy client which entails assassinating three people on a kill list. As the story progresses there is an unnerving sense that there is more to this than meets the eye. As the protagonists move towards the third name on their list, an MP, the bigger picture is revealed to some extent as a powerful and sinister cult comes to the fore. Evidently, the cult is embedded within the power structure of the UK in some way, but things are left unexplained at the end of the film.
Jolly’s reading of Kill List, which is contrasted with a reading of The Wicker Man, is pure orthodox Marxism. The tropes of folk horror which crop up in the early ’70s and the 2010s are, according to Jolly, determined by the economic circumstances of the times. A number of unconvincing quotes are used to bolster this argument but the essence of it is that in the 1970s the proletariat were symbolised by the cultic residents of Summerisle rebelling against the bourgeois policeman, whereas in the 2010s the proletariat are represented by the assassins who are victims of the corrupt bourgeois cult: “The metaphor here is Jay [one of the hitmen] symbolising the working class that is being forced to do work, that he doesn’t want to, for economic gain and to play into the hands of the cult members who symbolise the bourgeois upper classes . . . Jay is only brought to this conclusion by being led through this ritual by cult leaders who symbolise the bourgeois conservative government forcing the working classes, in this case Jay, into an economic recession” (p. 279).
Kill List is a very good film and is much more ambiguous than this analysis would suggest. Yes, it does play on the contemporary mythology surrounding paedophile cults in high places. But there is also a different sense of morality that plays out in the film. In particular, Jay is never presented as a hapless victim forced into becoming an assassin by the evil bourgeoisie. He is shown to be a morally flawed individual who makes bad choices based on a mixture of selfishness and impulsiveness. He has moral agency and is seen to exercise it badly. At the end of the film, when he is tricked into stabbing to death his wife and young son, his share of moral complicity with the cult is revealed. Kill List is more nuanced than Jolly will allow.
The reason why I have suggested alternative interpretations of The Wicker Man and Kill List is not a question of wanting to impose a particular political perspective onto an otherwise apolitical subject; readings of folk horror are already inflected with a particular ideological slant whether or not the authors are consciously aware of the fact. And the most effective ideology is that which is not noticed by, or is even consciously denied by, the subject. No, the reason for offering at least the possibility of alternate readings is that folk horror is quietly predicated on certain assumptions. These assumptions include the notions that identity is fluid; that identity is not related to ethnicity; that the history of a land is the history of immigration; that discontinuity is more real than continuity; that landscape should be viewed through a lens of class conflict; and that an interest in the mystical is usually no more than bourgeois obfuscation.
I think that part of the reason for these assumptions is to do with hauntology and the way in which it has developed. The term hauntology was coined by Jacques Derrida in his book Specters of Marx. It was intended as a way to reinvigorate Marxism by understanding it as a readily reinterpretable discourse, rather than as an historical theory. The scope of hauntological study has since been extended, most notably by Mark Fisher, to encompass areas that were never really touched on by Derrida. This has had the effect of popularising the subject but has also caused some concern that it no longer really belongs to Marxism. This was a criticism made by Terry Eagleton who wrote that:
For what we have in this text [Specters of Marx], by and large, is a political discourse of an averagely-intelligent-layperson kind, and a philosophical rhetoric, of spectrality and the messianic, which is at once more subtle and a good deal less convincing. The two registers subsist cheek-by-jowl without ever adequately interacting; the former committed yet rather crude, the latter exciting yet evanescent.
Nonetheless, hauntology has never lost contact with the ideological orientation of its genesis. In many respects I feel that it provides a sort of safety valve in that it allows people to develop an interest in themes of ancestral magic, mystical landscape, or nostalgia for the relative simplicity of childhood without feeling that they are straying into ideologically dubious territory. In this sense, hauntology gives ideological permission to indulge in guilty pleasures.
These considerations remind me of the process of Interpretatio Christiana. This refers to the process whereby pagan places were rededicated to Christianity. When Pope Gregory I was advising Christian missionaries in the late sixth century, his astute instructions for conversion made it clear that it would be easier to convert pagans if the Church did not destroy their temples. Wherever possible continuity with the past was to be maintained but sites must be reconsecrated to the new god: “that the temples of the idols in that nation ought not to be destroyed; but let the idols that are in them be destroyed . . . For if those temples are well built, it is requisite that they be converted from the worship of devils to the service of the true God.” Additionally, many sacred sites were rededicated to Christian saints. Of course, this is why so many churches can be found on holy sites such as burial mounds. With hauntology a similar process seems to play out. Inherently “conservative” notions of reverencing the past and sacralising the landscape are permitted to continue so long as the correct ideological veneer is applied to them.
Now, having said all of that, I don’t want to dismiss the contents of FHR: Field Studies because there is an excellent variety and depth of material in here. Other chapters that I particularly enjoyed include Gary Lachman’s memories of Colin Wilson, Andy Paciorek’s chapter on the supernatural in children’s TV programs and Dan Hunt’s “Other Thoughts, Other Voices: Cults, Hive Minds and a New Philosophy of Horror in the Work of John Wyndham.” Best of all, for me, was Karl Shuker’s chapter on the green children of Woolpit, a strange medieval tale of two unusual young children who seemed to appear from the underworld (or perhaps Belgium). This is a brilliantly written account of a very Fortean tale.
As the book is already 500 pages long it might seem strange to discuss what is missing from it. But perhaps one oversight is the absence of video games. Dear Esther and the recently released Everyone’s Gone to the Rapture (both produced by The Chinese Room) are conceptually and aesthetically brethren of the folk horror ambiance. There are presumably plenty of other games too that would be at home in this collection.
Folk Horror Revival: Field Studies is not an overtly political book and as all profits from its sale go to the Wildlife Trust I can recommend it unreservedly. But it is worth remembering that a lot of ideological spadework had been carried out well before anyone had thought of the term “folk horror” and a lot of the perspectives brought to bear on the subject are, knowingly or not, already influenced by that background. If this review has chosen to focus too much on the question of ideology then that is only intended to redress the balance in some small way.
1. The term, “chthonic nationalist” was brought to my attention by a commenter on my article about Penda’s Fen. It was used by the poet Tom Paulin to refer to Geoffrey Hill in a letter to the London Review of Books in 1985.
2. Terry Eagleton, “Marxism without Marxism,” in Michael Sprinker, Ghostly Demarcations: A Symposium on Jacques Derrida’s Specters of Marx (London: Verso, 1999), 85.