Folklore is culture and story expressed through oral tradition — shadowy half-remembered tales told, whispering words echoing through the woods or creeping their way through the roots of twisted family trees. Folk horror twists and turns folk tales until they are just on the edge of recognition, thriving in liminal spaces and fringes of society. Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched: A History of Folk Horror tells you everything you could possibly want to about folk horror, sacred rites, pagan ceremonies, strange traditions, and spooky spirits on film. Director Kier-La Janisse is a film programmer and scholar of the horror g
enre, perfectly suited to teaching this course on Folk Horror 101, while production company Severin Films is noteworthy for restoring and disturbing the dark lore of cult movies of yore; this syllabus carries us from the 1960s to the present day, from manifestations in the Americas, Asia, Australia, and Europe.
First lesson: folk horror is a “mode,” not a genre, almost like a musical key or collection of tropes that filmmakers draw upon when making their cinematic melodies. A chorus of voices and interview subjects explore the peculiar pleasures of folk horror, mixing sunlight and shadows, the prosaic and the dark, the familiar and the strange, and celebrating the power of ritual and collective storytelling. As one interviewee puts it, folk horror is “the devil having a cup of tea with you,” creeping terrors finding you in the moments where you might least expect it.
Running at over three hours long, this film is as much a crash-course seminar introducing viewers to this mode of filmmaking as it is an indoctrination into the deliciously wicked cult of folk horror. Even those already steeped in a love of horror have new things to discover through the hundreds of films mentioned and the countless interview subjects, sure to add countless films to add to your watchlist and send you down a dark rabbit hole. The foundational readings are the unholy trinity of folk horror —Witchfinder General (1968), Blood on Satan’s Claw (1971) and The Wicker Man (1973). From the terror of female sexuality and the youth population, to radical rejections of the past, to rural, back-to-the-land traditions, folk horror is filled with timeless issues and raises endless (witch-)burning questions about why we fear the things we do.
While academic and informative in nature, the film is endlessly interesting and never remedial. Interspersed with interviews are clips of formative moments of horror, letting the films’ power speak for themselves. Yet the film is also stylish in its own right via the visuals and sounds, making use of paper collage and animation, poetry readings, and haunting folk melodies. These stylistic devices appear somewhat haphazardly, and the lyrical poems and pastoral footage do not always propel the narrative forward. Yet they do add to the ominous atmosphere. Returning to nature and going back to the past means to enter a realm of superstition and madness, where things are never quite as they seem. Despite the extended runtime, this documentary never stalls, diving deeper and deeper and deeper into the darkness.
Just as you think you’ve reached the end, Janisse shows more, weaving a tangled cobweb of a cultural analysis through the many faces of folk horror. For instance, the section about the folk horror revival and a burst of films about witchcraft explores the connections between depictions of witchcraft and mental illness, showing women existing outside of what is expected. Much of the cinematic depiction, though, still shows these women on the outside as white, conventionally attractive women. Yet this tangled web can still sometimes be a little too tangled, without enough segmentation of different arguments as it rushes through some sections. The documentary has some of the same limitations as the cult canon it dissects, placing a large focus on American, British, and other European films, with the rest of the world mostly lumped together as the “Global.” As one interview subject puts it, “witchcraft is the only religion that the UK gave to the world,” and perhaps because of this idea, the majority of the focus is on British and American films.
Yet even as it could do more to expand its geographical scope, the film does excellent work making a statement about horror’s role in historical narrative-making and erasures. Folk horror seems inseparable from colonial history, and it is no coincidence that many films from the nightmarescape involve colonists and colonizers. In the United States and other colonial American lands, violence and oppression were necessary to the very existence of white-dominated society; these fears of white settlers’ sins seep into horror films, via the ever-present fear of someone (killer, ghost, monster) coming to take your home from you. While Indigenous ghosts in films can render Native people as people who will inevitably disappear, they also show the horrors white settlers have enacted continuing to haunt them, for what the colonizer fears the most is to be colonized. Folk horror is all about unresolved pasts and unsettled presents, worlds where old ways seize back control and oppressive outsiders who try to disrupt tradition are made to suffer.
As a self-proclaimed horror fiend, I had this as a much-watch for the festival, and it delivered plenty of evil and chilling folktales in its expansive academic investigation. This film is sure to be popular on future festival circuits and in horror or midnight programming, but also warrants a place in university courses or with self-taught scholars, as a mesmerizing essential text of folk horror.