Monday, 17 October 2016

Folk Horror at the British Museum, and the interminable problem of sub-genre

Yesterday, I attended the first ever Folk Horror Revival Conference, held at the British Museum. It was a one day event consisting of talks and film screenings, and boasted an impressive line-up, with such luminaries of Ian Sinclair, Adam Scovell, and Reece Shearsmith, and culminating with guest of honour and weird-folk luminary: Shirley Collins.

The programme was a diverse mix, which gave a comprehensive introduction to the ‘folk horror’ sub-genre and its accompanying art and music, providing some terrific insights into the roots of folk culture and its metamorphosis into film in the late 60s. It also touched on wider subjects which, though not directly linked to folk horror per se, nevertheless had common themes, looking at ideas of psychogeography, occultism, independent film production, gothic horror, and the history of England’s canals.

On the whole, it was a thoroughly illuminating day, and inspired me with a renewed energy towards exploring these themes for myself. Yet towards the end I found myself faintly troubled by the definition of folk horror in operation throughout the proceedings. As the number of films covered mounted, including many I’d known and would not have immediately associated with the sub genre, I began to suspect the passion for categorisation shared by these advocates of the ‘Folk Horror Revival’ had perhaps overtaken the analysis of the genre itself. It seemed that to be classed as ‘folk horror’ a film need only feature some element originating from a folk tradition. Thus, any number of supernatural horror films, from British Hammer films to Twin Peaks or even The Texas Chainsaw Massacre could suddenly, and retro-actively, fit into this genre.

This led me to question how I would define folk horror, myself. It was beginning to feel similar to how I had experience weird fiction (as I’ve blogged about before), which later acquired a measure of currency and a capitalisation. While it later became very much a sub-genre in its own right, when it was written about by Lovecraft and his contemporaries, they knew it simply as that particular quality of ‘the weird’, arising from a collection of subjects and formal elements. Was ‘folkiness’, similarly, a strain of supernatural in horror and other genres, rather than a genre in and of itself?

The day concluded with a panel discussion between the hosts: Andy Paciorek and Darren Charles, and a number of the guest speakers, followed by a Q&A session. During this, the question of Folk Horror and the contributing factors behind its emergence in the late 60s and early 70s was raised. Perhaps the best answer came from Paciorek, who cited the end of the hippie dream as the moment that really precipitated the movement to come. Over the proceeding decade, he argued, the post war generation had abandoned the modern precepts of their industrial, urban lives, and embraced the idea of nature as a means of enlightenment and self discovery. What they found was disillusionment, addiction, and ideological failure. In the wake of this, nature - which had once seemed this great idyllic thing filled with potential - now seemed cold, alien, remote and hostile. This sudden unease can be found at the very core of films like The Wicker Man and Witchfinder General, where isolation and the nature of the countryside itself form the bedrock of the horrors that take place.

One final questioner pitched a rather unexpected question: why, in a genre tied in so closely with legend and the supernatural, were there so few folk horror films dealing with the middle ages and earlier? Witchfinder General and Blood on Satan’s Claw (representing two thirds of the ‘unholy trinity’ of the folk horror movement, the third being The Wicker Man) are both set around the 17th century, at the height of the English witch panics. There were, after all, just as many witches and folk-devils in preceding generations. This was left largely unanswered, and I found myself later trying to think of examples, with Bergman’s The Seventh Seal and Tarkovsky’s Andrei Rublev as perhaps the closest examples, though neither being especially identifiable with how we would class the genre.

For my part, I eventually settled on the fact that the 17th century was the first time when what we could commonly think of as the ‘modern’ really began to emerge. There was still as much poverty, ignorance, and illiteracy as there had been centuries before, but at the same time, thanks to innovations like the printing press, language began to shift towards standardisation, political systems become more formalised, and people began to think in a recognisably modern way. This was even true of ideas we would now consider backward, such as attitudes to witchcraft and the supernatural. Perhaps the best example can be found in king James’s Daemonologie and Newes from Scotland. Though long derided as folly and paranoia, was still making an effort to approach these ideas with the light of renaissance learning. His interest was not ultimately to foster panic and suspicion (even if this was its principle result), but to codify it, so that evidence of truly demonic activity could be distinguished from superstition or charlatanry.

Superstition or charlatanry, it would seem, lie at the heart of folk horror. If we look at the ‘unholy trinity’ (the three films which together are thought to represent the formation of the genre), one thing we see recurrently is a tension between modern, sceptical thinking and folk beliefs. In both Witchfinder General and The Wicker Man, we see two arch villains exploiting popular superstitions for their own selfish ends. In the case of the former, this is enacted against the unfortunate sceptic in the form of Sgt. Howie. Unlike the other two, the third of the trinity, Blood on Satan’s Claw, does in fact incorporate a literal element of the supernatural into the reality of the film. But here, too, we have the figure of ‘The Judge’, coming to the country folk determined to stamp out the old ways, to his own, terrible undoing.

It would seem that at the core of folk horror, the stress is really on the folk element more than anything else. This is a trend that has continued into the new wave of folk horror, in films like The Witch and A Field in England. The latter is more ambiguous in this respect – although the influence of hallucinatory mushrooms is introduced early, the idea of crossing the border into the realm or the faeries (or wherever it is they really go) seems to be taking place in a more or less literal fashion, but the presence of the ‘shrooms is always present to sow some doubt as to the reality of what is happening.

[The following section contains some spoilers]

The Witch, however, is rooted firmly in the idea of hysteria and isolation as the principle factor in the family’s undoing. Although the supernatural element is visible and explicit throughout, it is made clear that what we are watching is not a depiction of reality, but the perceived reality of people living through in the days of the New England witch panic. The script itself, written in authentic early modern English, is based entirely on real accounts described by contemporaries of the people depicted in the film. The film’s creators also seeds a handful of subtle suggestions that all is not as it seems, such as the sub-plot of Black Phillip the much-harassed goat, and glimpses of blighted corn hinting at a possible ergot poisoning incident.

But the true horror resides not in the purely supernatural terrors the family face in The Witch. Much else aside, what made the film so compelling for me is the intensity of the suffering which the family face: the isolation, the wretched self-inflicted hardships, and their profound inability to cope with the realities of unknown New England demonstrate, in stark detail, the horror of the unforgiving countryside.