With the release of Midsommar, Ari Aster’s follow-up feature to last year’s Hereditary, folk horror is enjoying much deserved time in the spotlight. While the niche horror subgenre is known to many a horror fan (folk horror is one of my favorite subgenres), many curious viewers are at a loss when it comes to folk horror. What is it exactly?
Of course, as many folk horror fans will try to explain, the subgenre is difficult to pin down. Some consider it a subset of religious horror, and while I see and respect that viewpoint, I don’t necessarily agree with that. The two subgenres are related; I see them as distinct. Perhaps folk horror and religious horror are sisters. They both explore man’s fear of his beliefs, of one’s faith being tested, and of watching religion corrupt its practitioners. But folk horror has a particular flavor, a certain aesthetic, which religious horror does not replicate.
Specifically, folk horror:
- Uses pagan elements, often incorporating ancient religions, witchcraft, or folk rituals that have been cobbled together into a belief system.
- Explores the conflict between rural communities and urban settings.
- Confronts clashes between insular communities and intruding outsiders.
- Focuses on the tension between man’s assumption that he is modern and logical vs. his fear that he is and always will be superstitious and irrational.
- Includes rituals and ceremonies as major set pieces.
- Examines nature as an overwhelming presence in the film, whether it is a driving force, an antagonist, or merely indifferent to the unfolding human drama. Nature can reveal itself as an atmospheric setting, monsters, or spirits.
In short, folk horror is an examination of what people do when logic and rationality fail them, for whatever reason. In short, folk horror can be summarized with this exchange from The Blood on Satan’s Claw (1971):
The Judge: Witchcraft is dead and discredited! Are you bent on reviving forgotten horrors?
The Doctor: How do we know, sir, what is dead? You come from the city. You cannot know the ways of the country.
So, if you’re curious about Midsommar, have plans to see it, or have already seen it and want to know more about this funky little horror subgenre, here is a list of some of my favorite folk horror films.
The Virgin Spring (1960)
This movie isn’t a horror film, but it explores many of the overarching themes of folk horror as well as containing multiple terrible scenes of violence. Famous for its brutal rape and murder scene and its equally brutal revenge sequence, The Virgin Spring exemplifies to conflict between pagan ideals of vengeance and Christian morality. (It’s also famous for inspiring Wes Craven’s The Last House on the Left, but honestly, Craven’s exploitation film doesn’t come close to matching this film.)
Set in medieval Sweden, the story explores the conflict between civilized Christianity” and “uncivilized paganism” in an isolated rural setting. When the story takes place, Christianity was taking over Sweden, but the old religions had not yet been stamped out. As such, the main characters wrestle with their practice of both, often resorting to pagan practices in the face of heartbreaking situations. One character, a pregnant servant girl, gives into her resentment to call on Odin to curse her young mistress. Another, the matriarch of the family, gives into her jealousy, harboring hateful thoughts towards her husband. And after the film’s infamous rape and murder scene, the father of the victim casts aside his Christian devotion, calls upon pagan rituals, and takes his vengeance on those who attacked his daughter.
The film’s suggestion of supernatural elements is subtle. Its narrative is rooted in a gorgeously rendered natural landscape. Its depiction of violence is unflinching, realistic, and brutal, eschewing distractions like dramatic camera angles or score. Finally, its human drama is straightforward, which makes the film all the more harrowing and tragic. As such, The Virgin Spring has left indelible fingerprints on the tradition of folk horror.
Witchfinder General (1968)
When we talk about folk horror, many critics and horror aficionados alike point to three British horror films that form the foundation of the genre. Those films are Witchfinder General, Blood on Satan’s Claw, and The Wicker Man. A rich and gruesome film, Witchfinder General tells the story of Matthew Hopkins (Vincent Price), who traveled around England in the 17th century charging obscene amounts of money to whip villagers into a frenzy, torture local scapegoats, and execute them for witchcraft.
Of the three seminal folk horror films, Witchfinder General does the most to explore man’s capacity for using religious hysteria to exploit others. And it does this without any supernatural events. The film hits on multiple horror subgenres—period horror, religious horror, and yes, folk horror. Its use of the idyllic English countryside serves to underscore how cruelly indifferent nature is to human drama as well as emphasize the ugliness of superstition chaos and violence. In a disturbing twist, the film fulfills a major tenet of folk horror by treating the interrogation, torture, and execution of Hopkins’ victims as rituals in and of themselves. Thus, Witchfinder General offers a searing indictment of those who use their power to abuse and terrorize others, those who participate in those horrific deeds, and those who stand by and watch, content to sacrifice some else to the community’s irrational fears.
The Blood on Satan’s Claw (1971)
The Wicker Man (below) is the folk horror film everyone talks about (with good reason), but The Blood on Satan’s Claw deserves a lot more love than it gets. Don’t be fooled by the year—The Blood On Satan’s Claw is incredibly tense (yet beautifully shot) film with genuine moments of horror that still hold up. This film is shocking. Like, I watch a lot of horror, and even I was taken aback by some scenes.
Compared to The Wicker Man and Witchfinder General, The Blood on Satan’s Claw is unambiguous in its treatment of the supernatural—evil is afoot, and no manner of logic or reason or science will defeat it. To that end, the film is the moodiest of the original three folk horror films, taking full advantage of its rural scenery to create an unsettling atmosphere. Its story unfolds in unexpected directions. Its rituals are disturbing and involved. Its use of deft editing, careful framing, and intelligent sound design instill dread in the audience, dread that delivers some truly messed up stuff moments that build to the fever pitch we’ve come to expect from folk horror. The Blood on Satan’s Claw is an underrated horror classic.
The Wicker Man (1973)
The Wicker Man isn’t the first folk horror movie, but you’d be hard pressed to find any serious horror fan who doesn’t acknowledge this movie as the gold standard for all folk horror. Equal parts weird and creepy, The Wicker Man is a stunning film that explores the conflicts between paganism and Christianity, sex and chastity, modern logic and ancient superstition, the rich and the poor, the rural and the urban, the community and outsiders. It’s also a film about what people are capable of, what zealots will do when they have the utter conviction of their religious beliefs. And it does it all without relying on tons of blood and guts, which makes The Wicker Man one of the more cerebral and gore-less horror films of the 1970s, especially compared to its British horror films contemporaries which loved gore as much as they loved compelling narratives. (think A Clockwork Orange, The Devils, or really any Hammer Horror film).
But you watch the end of this movie and tell me it doesn’t leave you unsettled. Especially with Christopher Lee leading the village in a merry song and dance as the flames rise.
Whatever you do, watch the original before you subject yourself to the 2006 remake. It’s…not very good, which kills me because I would have loved to have explored the above themes but through an American lens. What a missed opportunity! But if you need a movie for a Bad Movie Night with your friends, Nic Cage has got you covered.
Jug Face (2013)
I feel like I’m the only person in the world who saw this movie, but I loved it, so I’m going to talk about here in the hopes that more people learn about it. Basically, Jug Face is a striking low budget folk horror film. It’s a very well written film chock full of strong performances and gritty realism, set in a remote locale where a very creepy community practices a strange kind of nature-spirit worship involving clay jars, a pit in the woods, and sacrificing members of their own group.
My favorite part about the film, aside from the writing and most of the performances, is the unsettling mythology behind the town’s worship of the pit. It’s wholly original and arresting folk-religion, especially since the film makes clear that the entity inhabiting the pit is real. This isn’t psychological horror—the pit controls everything, and the townspeople are at its mercy. There is no way to escape it—no logic, rationality, or emotional appeal will dissuade it from getting what it wants, and the townspeople will abide no matter the cost.
The Witch (2015)
It’s no secret that I absolutely love this movie for all its expert character development and atmosphere. Every time I watch it, I notice some new detail to obsess over, and it’s never any less horrifying to watch the family tear themselves apart. The Witch is a very tense movie, forcing the audience to confront from the beginning the very real possibility that shit is going to end badly. That’s because, as far as Folk Horror goes, The Witch is a prime example of how the folk horror tropes and dynamics, which traditionally focus on larger communities, can work on a micro level.
It’s awful watching the family turn on Thomasin, but not entirely unexpected considering how much of folk horror focuses on scapegoats. What makes The Witch so disturbing, on top of the plot, is how the Devil and his witches manipulate the family, and how their attempts to cling to religion only draw them further into Satan’s trap. Talk about dramatic irony!
Another striking aspect of the Witch is just how much the setting is a character, as if it has not only a terrible mind of its own but a terrible drive to corrupt those who dare enter its boundaries and give shelter to those with evil intentions. And this poor family, cast out from the protection of their community due to the father’s hubris, is no match for the fear and darkness of the forest.
The Ritual (2017)
What an unexpected Netflix gem this movie is! Based on Adam Nevill’s 2011 novel, The Ritual neatly combines survival horror and folk horror into an unrelenting nightmare for four college buddies who take the worst hiking trip ever. The Ritual has it all—a terrifying forest that is definitely luring the main characters away from safety, creepy artifacts that may or may not be cursed, an enigmatic and chilling folk religion, and a bunch of other stuff I don’t want to spoil for you.
What makes the Ritual so compelling, in addition to the horror of getting lost in those horrific woods, is that the forces at work here, both human and supernatural, are so efficient at ripping the friends apart. In many ways, The Ritual reminded me of The Descent because it just keeps getting worse and worse for the main characters no matter what they do. The Ritual also has some of the best art direction/design I’ve seen in a long time (SPOILER: The creature design is A++/*chef’s kiss*). As far as folk horror goes, The Ritual is not one to miss. And it will convince you not to take that hiking trip after all. Seriously. Just go party in Oslo and call it a day.
The most recent folk horror film on this list is a doozy, and I mean that both for the cult storylines and the violence. In Apostle, a cult has settled on a barren island and, desperate for supplies to sustain itself, has taken to luring or outright kidnapping victims to ransom for good and money. As with many folk horror films, the cult seeks to gain dominion over its physical setting. But Nature will not be manipulated for man’s end; on the contrary, nature reigns supreme in Apostle.
Like many of the films on this list, Apostle dives right into a weird community set totally apart from mainstream society, a community that has become hostage to its own beliefs and which teeters on the edge of hysteria. That the cult has some ostensibly (though warped) Christian characteristics adds to the weird and uncomfortable rituals and beliefs. The people of the village have picked and chosen Christian elements and Pagan beliefs and rituals to address the hardships and challenges of the island on which they live, as even the most rational people do every day to make sense of their world.
What’s interesting about Apostle is how vulnerable the cult is to outside influence. In many folk horror films, the cultish community is unbreakable, unified, monolithic in its conviction. In Apostle, that is not the case. The cult is utterly at odds with the environment it worships. Those in power are slowly losing their control over their public and personal lives, which makes them even more desperate and more dangerous. That, and Apostle nightmarish, violently gorgeous aesthetic alone merits a spot on this list. Read more about it here.