5 Reasons Why Folk Horror Reigns Supreme (& 5 Films to Prove It)
Whether you know it or not, you’ve seen (and probably enjoyed!) a folk horror film. Do blissed-out, hallucinogenic scenes of grass growing through the palms of troubled protagonist Dani Ardor ring a bell? How about Thomasin’s svelte body rising from the ground as she levitates into womanhood? If these two characters sound familiar, they should: Ari Aster’s Midsommar (2019) and Robert Eggers’ The Witch (2015) entered the cultural zeitgeist as soon as they dropped. When Ariana Grande, arguably one of the world’s most popular pop stars, throws a birthday party inspired by a fictional Swedish cult…it’s safe to say that this subgenre is leaving a collective impression.
I’ve always been a fan of folk horror, even when I wasn’t aware of it. As a young woman in undergrad, I fell in love with two 19th century American texts: Sarah Orne Jewett’s “A White Heron” and Herman Melville’s Moby Dick. Their themes of ecofeminism and environmental justice, paired with a reverential recognition of nature’s beauty/cruelty, set something off in my brain. I don’t know if it’s because I feel a spiritual connection with the outdoors or because I’m also terrified of the sea, but the combo of tree + scary? That’s the good stuff right there.
Wikipedia (I know) defines folk horror as “a subgenre of horror film for cinema or television that uses elements of folklore to invoke fear in its audience. Typical elements include a rural setting and themes of isolation, religion, the power of nature, and the potential darkness of rural landscapes. Although related to supernatural horror films, many derive their horror from the actions and beliefs of people rather than explicitly supernatural elements; the primary focus of the stories is often upon naïve outsiders coming up against these forces.” Essentially, creepy dark field + shunned stranger + indescribable ancient forces = folk horror classic, call up A24 right now.
My love of this genre led to Three of Swords’ current collection: O Unholy Earth. It would make me ecstatic to imagine my customers placing orders from this drop because they’re just as fascinated with folk horror as I am, but I know that most of y’all just like the cool graphics. I get it! They are pretty cool!
However, I wouldn’t be me if I didn’t try to convince you to check some of these beauties out. Although the trilogy of quintessential folk horror = 3 old British films, folk horror is experiencing a revitalization that has led to some fantastic modern flicks. Below, here are 5 reasons why this horror subgenre comes out on top:
1. IT’S ACTUALLY SCARY
Vampires? Not scary. Aliens? Not scary. Ghosts? Arguably scary…but usually just “ooh, that made me jump a bit”. Imagining yourself alone and afraid among an isolated community where everyone’s in on the spooky shit except you? Knowing that your miles away from modern civilization and your life is in the hands of women who may or may not be Lucifer’s mistresses?? Battling forces that lurk under the ground and were created among the stars??? Just take me out because I’m already gone.
This one is multifaceted and often leads to twisty, thought-provoking discussions. Since we’ve already discussed The Witch, let’s do it again. Look at the final 10 minutes.
SPOILERS FOR THE WITCH BELOW
Our fave girl, Thomasin, makes a deal with Satan, signs her name in his book, and joins a gaggle of nude witches as they revel in the power of witchcraft, womanhood, and kinship. Is this a feminist scene? Is there an inherent feminine power that all witches possess? Why is Satan a man? Why did she have to be nude? Folk horror, a subgenre dominated by male directors, is full of scantily clad women and sexually charged rituals. What does this mean? It’s a question that will never be fully answered, and it’s a question that makes these films all the more engaging.
3. CELEBRATES NATURE’S GROTESQUE BEAUTY
Like the second point, this has already been touched upon, but it’s worth revisiting. When we think of nature, our minds tend to jump to fields of abundant flowers, the cozy crunch of fall’s leaves, and the warm kiss of the sun. These are all deserving of praise, and life would be considerably darker without them. However, isn’t there an allure to dead roses pressed between book pages? October’s chilly, hazy skies filled with the scent of burning foliage? The moon coming out to play, causing the tide to sweep away unsuspecting victims? Mother Nature is a beast and a tyrant, and her destruction can be gorgeous. Check out the first few scenes of The Blood on Satan’s Claw and tell me that shot of the mangled face, sandwiched between dark English dirt, isn’t stunning.
4. IMPORTANCE OF AESTHETIC
Now this is 100% an opinion (like this entire post), but many horror subgenres just don’t look GOOD. They don’t have shots worthy of being framed in someone’s home. Now I’m not expecting giallo, but slasher flicks aren’t particularly striking when it comes to the visuals. Same for zombie classics…monster classics…camp classics….etc. But folk horror? Show me A Field in England’s psychedelic scenes until I’m in the ground. Throw Häxan: Witchcraft Through the Ages on in the background if you ever need an hour-long visual feast. A Nightmare on Elm Street just does not hit the same, I’m sorry!
5. NOT LIMITED TO ONE ETHNICITY OR COUNTRY
The folk horror of today is not the folk horror of the 1970’s. In the mood for something from Japan? Kwaidan. South Korea? The Wailing. The Black South? Eve’s Bayou. Russia? Viy. Thailand? The Medium. Some subgenres often read incredibly white (see: psychological horror), but this one? Throw a dart at a map and you’ll find something great.
If I haven’t convinced you to embrace the glory that is forest + devil, that’s sad to hear, but let these 5 films do what I couldn’t! Check out these 5 recommendations, handpicked because they are (1) quintessential, (2) fantastic, and (3) will allow you to grasp the major themes.
5 FOLK HORROR FILMS FOR THE BEGINNER:
1. The Wicker Man (1973)
My all-time favorite. Represents the pinnacle of folk horror for a reason.
2. The Witch (2015)
You haven’t seen this yet? You’ll never look at babies the same way again!
3. A Field in England (2013)
A 17th century alchemist tripping out of his MIND in the English countryside. Hijinks ensue. Actually sat in awe during the credits when I first watched this.
4. Eve’s Bayou (1997)
Spooky Southern Gothic classic directed by a black woman. Literally SELECTED BY THE LIBRARY OF CONGRESS and preserved by the National Film Registry in 2018 for being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant”. Kasi Lemmons, go off.
5. Midsommar (2019)
You know it and you love it. Great homage to its predecessors, gorgeous, and perfectly casted.
Now, I’m off for a rewatch. If any of these films become new favorites, let me know via the Contact page or at firstname.lastname@example.org!