Folk Horror Revival at the British Museum

❉ On 16 October, the British Museum held a special Halloween event devoted to the Folk Horror Revival – the first event of its kind.

Planning a Folk Horror theme to your Halloween party? What eldritch chills would you queue up for the proceedings? You’d probably have to start pretty early in the evening – when shadows first begin to creep across the cornfields, perhaps – to do the theme justice.

On 16 October this year, the venerable British Museum devoted a day to this strange subject: a special Halloween event organised by the group calling itself Folk Horror Revival – and the first of its kind.

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It was a dark and stormy morning, and three hundred outwardly normal members of the public gathered in the Museum’s basement – well, its lecture theatre, at least – to hear Iain Sinclair, Adam Scovell and Shirley Collins (among many others) speak on this strange intersection of farmland, folklore and fear. Folk Horror Revival began life as a Facebook page, but as its membership swelled into tens of thousands the group have produced non-profit making books of essays, poetry, photography and stories. But time and again, we’ve been warned to be careful of what we choose to revive and celebrate: so what exactly is Folk Horror?

The event might have been staged to answer that question, so many strange avenues and ineffable trails did it explore. Darren Charles and Andy Paciorek, DJ and artist respectively and begetter of Folk Horror Revival, led the inquisition. Your Folk Horror Halloween bop would definitely have to include the unholy trinity of ‘Witchfinder General’ (1968), ‘Blood on Satan’s Claw’ (1971) and ‘The Wicker Man’ (1973), and maybe a look back to the 1920s with Benjamin Christensen’s ‘Haxan’. Charles and Paciorek were keen to argue that, despite the genre’s characteristic obsession with landscape and place, it transcends the (eerie, mist-laden) field of British horror film: Kaneto Shindo, Mario Bava and Peter Weir would also form part of your evening’s entertainment.

After a short break for tea and horn dance (indoors if wet), you would need to queue up Nigel Kneale’s ‘Quatermass and the Pit’ (1958), ‘Robin Redbreast’ (1970) and at the very least, ‘Doctor Who’s tribute to Denis Wheatley, The Dæmons (1971). At this point, you might be tempted to observe a minute’s unearthly silence to signify the Eighties-Nineties gap that Charles and Paciorek suggested exists in the Folk Horror canon. Return to proceedings with ‘Wake Wood’ (2011) and ‘A Field in England’ (2013), and conclude with a Folk Horror disco of sounds from Hauntology experts English Heretic, The Focus Group and Comus (as curator of the Unearthing Forgotten Horrors series, Charles is a definitive authority here).

Music was a definite theme to the day, with music academic Eamon Byers exploring the influence of Folk Horror on contemporary folk music. He was breaking down some Hauntological examples and exploring the role of heritage (and perhaps, revival) in both folk music and its genre cousins. Meanwhile, I was in the room next door experiencing Leasungspell, a performed pastiche of Old English epic poem, suffused with lute, throatsinging, soundscape and ukulele. Was it an example of Folk Horror? It certainly embodied that quality of the uncanny that accompanies every engagement with ancient culture, that strangeness of voices that are familiar and yet utterly other. Oh, there was a deadly encounter with a sea-hag somewhere off the coast of Hartlepool.

Shirley Collins’ beautiful Death and the Lady video.

Back into the room next door, to hear arch-psychogeographer Iain Sinclair talking the discussion back to the strange, flickering world of cinema. Sinclair recalled his encounter with Michael Reeves, director of Folk Horror staple ‘Witchfinder General’, and described a man with his mind seemingly fixed in the present: rather than evoking the spirits of the past, he said, Reeves was interested in a British take on the Western. He was an acolyte of Hollywood, not the world of underground film that Sinclair concerned himself with, and still does. With the director Andrew Kötting, Sinclair helped devise ‘By Our Selves’ (2015), a journey through the wooded Essex landscape in the footsteps of poet and folklorist John Clare. Hard to pin a genre definition on this remarkable movie, but Sinclair brought a definite Folk Horror vibe by wearing a child’s goat mask in all his appearances.

Adam Scovell’s short film The Coastal Path, screened during his talk to audible gasps.

Is the camera itself, rendering human beings into figures, a little bit spooky? Critic and filmmaker Adam Scovell (author of the forthcoming ‘Folk Horror’) suggested as much in his afternoon paper, with examples drawn from his own work as well as the BBC’s ‘Ghost Story for Christmas’ series. When Lawrence Gordon Clark directed 1976’s ‘The Signalman’, for example, what else was he doing but re-establishing the connection between ghostly energies and technology. Scovell opened an area of enquiry taken up by James Riley of the Alchemical Landscape Project: where do the ghosts in the lonely landscape derive their power from? Is there something disconcerting in the lonely landscape, or is it our response, our reading, that imbues it with dread?

The packed day also featured work by Gary Parsons, The Consumptives, and a new music video featuring Shirley Collins, who then (to my delight) appeared on stage to discuss her experiences of folk song, ghost sheep, Mari Llwyd horseheads and Aleister Crowley. Gary Lachman (of Dedalus Books, and Blondie of course) also made an appearance to talk about Colin Wilson, Outsider and occultist. On the whole, though, literary Folk Horror was underrepresented. I may have a vested interest in this area (ahem, ask me about my PhD thesis), but with ‘The Wicker Man’, ‘The Owl Service’ and the BBC’s ‘Ghost Stories’ all having their origins in the dark regions of the public library, it seemed an area ripe for exploration.

After your folky Halloween marathon of film and TV, and through the witching hours of the night, you could have readings of Alan Garner, Susan Cooper and John Gordon; MR James and Algernon Blackwood; Angela Carter and John Cowper Powys; Fay Weldon and Helen Oyeyemi. What about the influence of Alfred Watkins and his Old Straight Track, or the stone circle malarkey of John Michell and friends? Kevin Crossley-Holland, at least, and his retellings of ‘Tom Tit Tot’ and ‘Yallery Brown’, to name two spooky tales from our spooky inheritance of folklore.

After a concluding Q&A with the Folk Horror Revivalists, Shirley Collins, Sharron Kraus and ‘League‘ gentleman Reece Shearsmith, were we any closer to defining Folk Horror or its strange appeal? No, I think that conversation will go on for a while yet, through the night and into the queer daylight, slanting through the trees, illuminating queer looking silhouettes on the brow of the hill. But this event certainly demonstrated the appeal of folkloric frights and eerie landscapes, and some wonderfully unsettling answers to the questions Folk Horror poses.


Folk Horror Revival began here on Facebook, but its website is a rich resource on the topic.

Don’t forget to comment below with your own Folk Horror film schedule.

3 Comments

  1. Thanks for the review. Glad you enjoyed yourself 🙂
    I’m actually pleased it did not end up defining folk horror as I like that odd feeling of it being somehow familiar but still sinuous and otherworldly.
    The harvest is still ripe for picking … there will be more to come …

    Best Wishes
    Andy
    Folk Horror Revival

  2. I’d like to echo Andy’s sentiment. We’d like you and everyone else who is interested to help us to continue our attempts to define the genre. I doubt we’ll ever fully do it, but we’ll have a blast along the way.

    Kind regards
    Darren

  3. Hi Andy and Darren, thanks for commenting and organising such a fab event. I totally agree: there isn’t an end to defining folk horror, or any kind of horror perhaps. Where does fear begin? Why do we like to be unnerved? May the eerie singing in the cornfields after dusk go on for a long time yet…

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