Folk Horror. In the horror movie realm, it’s quite possibly my favorite subgenre. So a couple weeks ago a reader/friend of mine, Ann R, asked if I’d seen the new Shudder documentary called Woodlands Dark And Days Bewitched: A History Of Folk Horror. I had not. Naturally I had to remedy that situation immediately.
Okay, maybe immediately isn’t quite the right word. It is 3½ hours after all, but it’s in no way a slog. It’s a fascinating overview and analysis and worth pretty much every minute really. Now, if the title sounds familiar, that’s because there’s a 2017 book by Adam Scovell called Folk Horror: Hours Dreadful And Things Strange (Scovell is also one of the many folks interviewed by director Kier-La Janisse).
And if Janisse sounds familiar, you may have come across the book she co-edited with Paul Corupe, Satanic Panic: Pop-cultural Paranoia In The 1980s. Folk horror seems like a natural enough progression. Anyway. It’s a fine doc and described as “the first feature-length documentary on the history of folk horror.” It was also a Midnighters Audience Award winner at SXSW 2021.
Janisse starts off with what is widely regarded as The Unholy Trinity of Folk Horror films: Witchfinder General, The Blood On Satan’s Claw, and The Wicker Man. I won’t go into much detail as more than enough has been said about their contribution. To be honest though, I’m not sure Witchfinder General is a folk horror film and sometimes suspect that somewhere along the line someone just really wanted a triumvirate of films from around the same time period.
What makes Witchfinder General the weak link to me is that it lacks most of the elements that are hallmarks of Folk Horror. Sure, it’s rural. Sure, it’s steeped in superstition. But the supernatural element falls short. Yes, people are killed for being witches, but they aren’t sacrificed as part of any pagan or cult ritual. There are no ancient gods to be confronted and/or appeased. It’s the same reason I wouldn’t put Mark Of The Devil in this category either.
From there, the film delves into a big ol’ heapin’ heppin’ of the pop-cultural and political ramifications forming much of Folk Horror’s subtext. From the website:
While exploring the key cinematic signposts of folk horror—touching on over a hundred films, television plays and episodes as well as early inspirational literature—the film also examines the rise of paganism in the late 1960s, the prominence of the witch-figure in connection with second wave feminism, the ecological movement of the 1970s, the genre’s emphasis on landscape and psychogeography, and American manifestations of folk horror from Mariners’ tales and early colonial history to Southern Gothic and backwoods horror.
In doing so, Janisse covers scores of films and includes a treasure trove of clips. That alone makes the film well worth a look. Seriously. The number is staggering, 222 according to user Jon Ursenbach on Letterboxd.
Me, I’ve always kinda fancied myself as sort of self-taught but fairly knowledgeable about Folk Horror films and literature, so I was surprised to discover A) how many of these I never realized qualified as folk horror (like Messiah Of Evil and Don’t Torture A Duckling) and B) how many I hadn’t even heard of. Indeed, I added a good 88 movies to my Watchlist.
Of particular interest is the idea that Folk Horror films revolving around witchcraft provide a fine lens through which to view the rise of feminism. This of course includes the fear and persecution of female power and autonomy especially by Old White Dudes With Money And Power (or, depending on a given movie’s time period, Elde Wytte Duddes Withhe Monye & Powre).
Finally, like Witchfinder General, there are some films I have a hard time situating in the Folk Horror realm. They’re certainly Folk Horror adjacent, sure, but movies like Border, The Fog, even my beloved Texas Chainsaw Massacre ultimately lack some salient Folk Horror quality or other. Still, Janisse raises many fine points and makes Woodlands Dark And Days Bewitched an indispensable resource for Folk Horror newcomers as well as long-time followers.
BODIES- Not applicable
Streaming- AMC+, Kanopy, Shudder
Rent- Apple TV, Flix Fling, Google Play, Vudu, YouTube