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What Can Folk Horror Tell Us About Our Landscape? – Adam Scovell

Folk Horror is a term that has become synonymous with a wide variety of culture in recent years. From film and television to literature and music, the broadness of the description belies its potential to talk about a number of current issues. Though its description initially implies a symbiotic relationship between the narratives of folklore and horror – two elements which arguably share so much common ground that it almost feels a tautological paradox to attach one to the other – its real binding feature is its relationship to place and landscape. From films such as Robin Hardy’s The Wicker Man (1973), Piers Haggard’s The Blood On Satan’s Claw (1971) and Michael Reeves’ Witchfinder General (1968), television series such as The Owl Service (1969), Raven (1977) and Children Of The Stones (1977), to the literature of M.R. James, Susan Cooper and Alan Garner, the work of Folk Horror has covered a huge range of eras and ideas; often telling more about our national identity and our relationship to many differing landscapes than traditional forms of creative responses to place.

The narratives of Folk Horror often portray a sense of isolation enforced upon communities and individuals through the vastness of a landscape. In British iterations especially, the morality of communities is skewed and morphed through such isolation, leading to violence, supernatural happenings or sometimes even both. If these isolated landscapes pressure the individual – often a figure of the establishment or academia – they usually find themselves cast as an enlightenment representative whose knowledge and social standing disintegrates when facing older, perhaps more esoteric and occult, forms of society again mostly derived from place. Yet within these portrayals of the “wyrd”, the eerie and the uncanny, a sense of place and landscape still resides at their core. If these themes are sounding distinctly adult – after all, horror is typically a genre more (but not solely) aimed at adults – it is worth arguing that what really lies at the heart of all of such eerie work is a sense of genii loci or “Spirit of Place”. This is something that essentially has no age boundary. A sense of place can be used as both a positive and a negative force in terms of the narratives of the work, yet the overall effect upon an audience’s perception of landscape can be argued as being wholly positive. To my mind, this has three overall effects:

  1. Building a new respect for landscapes and the environment.
  2. Remythologising a perception of landscape as a place of enchantment and somewhere to explore through the prism of fantasy; creating a general reengagement with place.
  3. Emphasising landscapes outside of typically appreciated topographies, allowing a presentation of more familiar geographies and a more classless vision of the British landscape.

Even when present in a more non-narrative form such as music, place and landscape still holds some sway over the genre. More so than genres and forms more readily associated with emphasis upon landscape, Folk Horror has a refreshing stance towards it in a unique number of ways. Through this emphasis, exploring the genre presents a counter-narrative to the dominant artistic responses to the British landscape, opening up many differing forms and types of land to people whose perception and vision of landscape has often been denied by more class-driven forces. Folk Horror may be intended to terrify, to unnerve and to even question a very uncomfortable area of nationalistic character, but its relationship to place is, as I argue in the following sections, a positive force in an era when the British landscape is once again at the centre of several environmental, economic and political conflicts.

Remythologised Landscapes

Folk Horror of all types requires some sense of a remythologised landscape. By this I mean that the characters must in some way believe that what they do to the land, for the land or what comes from the land is beyond and above them in some way. Many characters and societies within Folk Horror believe in such power of landscape though usually in a negative, horrific sense. The most famous example of this occurs in The Wicker Man where a man is burnt to death in order to propagate the island’s previously failed apple crops. Many examples of Folk Horror feature such violent magic conducted for the land generally, for example the Play for Today episode, Robin Redbreast (1970), or Nigel Kneale’s drama, Baby, from his Granada series, Beasts (1976). Menace can even emanate from the landscape itself, whether it be ghost, spirits, demons as in the writing of M.R. James and Algernon Blackwood, or through people who have been so far removed from modern social circumstance that they have reverted to a more violent persona as in Sam Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs (1971) and John Boorman’s Deliverance (1972); both of which present violent groups of men who seem to be almost created by the landscape in order to defend it from city interlopers (albeit the latter being set in America). Yet this sense of a new, sentient landscape can have far more positive effects, of which a number of artists have tapped into.

This is most prevalent in the fiction of Alan Garner; a writer who has spent over sixty years channelling the good and the evil found in the mythical landscape around Alderely Edge in Cheshire. In his very first novel, the fantasy adventure The Weirdstone Of Brisingamen (1960), Alderley Edge is given a literal sense of the mythical, being the resting place of a Merlin-esque wizard who enlists two children to help in his fight against the many evil forces haunting the Cheshire landscape. The novel comes with a map of Alderley and even has a subtitle of “A Tale Of Alderely” which highlights further how important place is to its highly detailed portrayal of the Cheshire plains. Even more poignant is that this novel was designed for a young audience, its detail of place being almost unique for such an audience at that time. Garner would highlight such a mythical nature of the landscape further in virtually all of his subsequent novels though they would gradually become more adult in tone as the years went on. In The Owl Service (1967), later adapted for television by Granada in 1969, the landscape becomes a place where old legends awaken through the emotional power and fluctuation of young people; the Welsh tales of The Mabinogion possessing a trio of teenagers whilst on holiday in the Welsh valleys. With these presentations of landscape aimed at a young adult audience, surely it could be argued that such landscapes, all of which are real, regain a potentially magical draw for Garner’s audiences?

In fact older Folk Horror aimed at a young audience often emphasised a sense of magical landscapes, even when doing their very best to scare their audiences. In the 1970s, this was incredibly prominent in spite of Public Information Films such as Apaches (1977) and Lonely Water (1974) doing their best to stop children from interacting with landscapes due to various paranoid dangers (the former highlighting the dangers of a farm, the latter highlighting the dangers of playing near patches of water in edgelands, supposedly haunted by a malevolent spirit). In contrast to these short films, many television series showed the rural landscape (and occasionally the liminal lands between the urban and rural) to be places where strange but alluring things occurred. In Children Of The Stones (1977), the Neolithic town of Avebury (named Milbury in the series) showed the menhir-dominated town to be connected to a black hole from space, such power being harnessed unnervingly by the village leader in order to wipe all negative thoughts from his neighbours. Augmenting societal behaviour is a common theme in many Folk Horror examples whether achieved through cosmic or simply psychological means.

The same HTV children’s strand produced many other series containing similar magical landscapes, almost always involving a set of young protagonists interacting with place in order to defend it from adults unaware of its true importance. In Sky (1975), an alien creature from a different time after the Earth has been consumed by “chaos” becomes trapped and is protected by a group of young people, the planet attempting to fix the anomaly of his presence by creating its own creature to destroy him. The whole series is an incredible eco-parable about protecting the rural land before it is lost for good, with the alien being offering warnings of a coming ecological calamity. Similarly, in the series, Raven (1977), Phil Daniels plays a borstal boy whose rehabilitation placement at a dig in an archeologically unique set of cave systems prevents them from being destroyed by the building of a nuclear power station through unconsciously calling upon a magical Arthurian power that resides there. The remythologised landscape is clearly a powerful tool in Folk Horror: one that turns groups of young misfits into environmental activists, ready to defend the land from whomever may want to ruin it.

Removing Landscape Bias

When considering the British landscape, and in particular the English landscape, several visions come to mind. These are visions of the pastoral created through the various romantic movements in painting and literature, especially in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. They often re-characterised working the landscape and various husbandry, rendering it a pure but essentially idyllic retreat; hardship was mostly removed or at least used as a dramatic ploy in contrast to the social dramas of the land-owning gentry. Such portrayals have been questioned and satirised heavily in the last century, especially in work such as Stella Gibbons’ Cold Comfort Farm (1932), but Folk Horror essentially does two things in regards to countering such an essentially conservative vision of the rural England:

  1. It shows a stark counter reality to the fictional utopias apparently found in rural climes of the Britain.
  2. It highlights the interesting and underappreciated aspects of other types of landscape that do not necessarily conform aesthetically, ecologically and socially to these previous portrayals.

The latter point is more essential to address as the former is a natural outcome when questioning the very context of such “wyrd” narratives. Folk Horror has several strong examples of exploring more difficult types of British landscape which vary in emphasis between different forms. Consider, for example, the David Rudkin-penned Play for Today episode, Penda’s Fen (1974). Directed by Alan Clarke, the film details the tumultuous social collapse of an initially conservative young man, Stephen (Spencer Banks), soon to leave school. He is eventually forced to confront several assumptions about himself including his own politics and sexuality. This occurs explicitly through the landscape but not simply through providing a mere topographical backdrop for the drama to be unfurled over. In fact, Penda’s Fen arguably questions both aspects of landscape relevant to this section through a contrast between the beautiful Malvern Hills and the more unnerving (and dangerous) edgeland landscapes surrounding a secret military establishment. It effectively sets the two potential landscape binaries against one another, bringing all their baggage together until their shared features find a compromise within the psychology of the main character.
Both types of landscape play upon the lead character’s psyche in interesting ways. Stephen is obsessed with the music of Edward Elgar and even has a vision of him in which his supposed ghost breaks down the nationalistic perception of the land around him; arguing against the uncomfortable positioning of his music as a jingoistic plaything of nationalism. This is further enhanced by the quietly building presence of knowledge surrounding King Penda; the last pagan king who was locally based and whose spirit finally visits Stephen to fully release his “sacred demon of ungovernableness” from the clutches of a closed mind. There is a duality within the landscapes presented here; the opening shot of the play summarises it perfectly. As the play’s title comes into focus, the initial landscape presented, the rolling Malvern Hills, is suddenly overlaid with a wire mesh fence and a hand, later shown to be that of someone injured by the dangerous scientific activities currently occurring in the secretive testing centre that is never seen in the film.

Like many examples of Folk Horror, Penda’s Fen emphasises the important role that less typical landscapes and their qualities play upon the social development of young people. These types of landscape can be seen in many examples, from Martin Rosen’s adaptation of Richard Adams’ Watership Down (1978) to the BBC adaptation of Peter Dickinson’s Changes trilogy, The Changes (1975). Both have landscapes filled with mesh fences, barbed wire, rubbish strewn edgelands and pylons. In other words, the landscapes more typically found all around us are given centre stage. Folk Horror shows the fallacy of taking them for granted – an issue Richard Mabey would address in the same era in The Unofficial Countryside (1973) – and fills them with drama and enigmas. In the case of Penda’s Fen, questioning such perceptions of landscape completely removes the falsities within the main character’s social and political identity, pushing him towards a more progressive outlook upon his own life. I firmly believe this idea to have genuine purchase in real life, where both wildlife, pleasure and social development can be found and derived from exploring the forgotten landscapes all around us.

Photo by c.Everett Collection/Rex Features. Watership Down, 1978

Reengagement With Place

With these two ideas in place, one other obvious element of Folk Horror reception becomes clear; that both ideas contribute to a potential new engagement with place and landscape. Whilst this has been shown to occur naturally within the diegetic narratives of several examples, I argue from personal experience that engagement with such work builds a great desire to revisit and explore many landscapes afresh. This can be simply in the sense of revisiting locations used in such film and television programs – a very recent and popular form of pilgrimage that arguably blurs the diegesis of such films by engaging with their sense of the esoteric – or by revisiting the settings of many fantastical stories, comparing the fictional narratives to the folklore, and building a bridge between writing about place and experiencing that place first hand. I refer to two experiences of my own to finalise the case for Folk Horror’s placement in thinking about British landscapes.

With a recent visit to Avebury in Wiltshire, it became clear that its famous stones, barrows and fields were passing within two fields of my vision: the general and the “wyrd”. The general was what brought many visitors here, touching upon the historical currency of place through its obvious antiquarian qualities. This is, of course, a very natural draw that many (or even all) heritage sites in Britain draw upon. But I was also seeing the place from a culturally “wyrd” perspective. These stones may have dated back to even before Celtic society had developed here but their placement in the fantastical culture of the last hundred years had an equal (perhaps even wider) pull upon my senses. As I walked around the stones, a huge catalogue of “wyrd” Folk Horror imagery came to mind: Paul Nash’s 35mm photographs of the stones, the use of the circle in Children Of The Stones and the BBC Ghost Story For Christmas, Stigma (1977), Derek Jarman’s unusual short super-8 film Journey To Avebury and his subsequent ritual-like paintings of the stones. The place was aflame with a “wyrd” draw and I thought of how even more potent this allure would be if I had seen Children of the Stones when younger, or even if my visit to the landscape had been at a younger age.

The connection between fictional media and the landscape can be a powerful one, whereby many worlds collide and render going outdoors both an unnerving and exciting experience. Weeks of being dragged around by my twitcher father during childhood could be incredibly exciting if the landscape in which the rare bird had decided to relax within even vaguely resembled something akin to a landscape from a fantastical series – for example, from Doctor Who (1963 -1989) or Blake’s 7 (1978 -1981) – even if that landscape was meant to evoke something as absurdist as an alien planet. The fact that many such programs were (infamously) filmed in such questionable locations linked the fantastical with the normal. Folk Horror explicitly taps into this because it is so often about those landscapes; it barely functions without such place-sketching and it is rare to find an example that doesn’t spend an unusually long time and effort engaging the viewer in its setting. But this need not solely apply to childhood nostalgia, a point which really finalises the place of Folk Horror in a wider appreciation of landscape.

Last year, I visited Alderely Edge as an adult for the first time. Previous trips when younger had consisted largely of visits to Jodrell Bank to see its famous Lovell Radio-telescope, another oblique object in the landscape that touches upon the cosmic. My visit was specifically in search of Garner’s world, that of “the Edge”, of Svarts and wizards, and of a very specific genii loci. Arriving, I found The Wizard Inn, a pub at the centre of Garner’s first novel; the real world and the fictional world giddily colliding. It brought on an unusual but pleasant mental state in that the landscape was completely revitalised in a way that seemed highly improbable. The descriptions of Garner’s novels ran through my mind as I made my way to the Wizards’ Well where there’s even a carving and inscription telling of the famous Arthurian “Wizard of Alderley” cut into the stone by Robert Garner: Alan’s great-great-grandfather. I later sat on the Edge and stared out over the plains, one foot firmly within the stony reality of the landscape around.

The other foot, however, was somewhere else; it was in the world of Colin and Susan – the child protagonists of the novel – and their magical adventure. These two worlds are largely separate, both in reality and in Garner’s story. Yet one aspect connects them, making the relationship seem symbiotic. It is their shared landscape. Folk Horror brings all of these elements together, suturing them in an improbable but irresistible way so that each informs the other. With this visit, it became clear that Folk Horror has a huge role to play outside of its dark, horrific guise and reputation. As an element to reignite a passion for place in people of all ages, its current renaissance and surge in interest is not only well timed but an essential tool in the defence of many landscapes now increasingly under threat from those who cannot yet see that there is still magic in the land.

 

Adam Scovell is a writer and filmmaker currently based in London.  He is studying for a PhD in film music and transcendental aesthetics at Goldsmiths, funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council.  He has produced film and art criticism for over twenty digital and print publications including The Times, BFI, Caught By The River, Sight & Sound and The Guardian.  He runs the Blog North Awards nominated website, Celluloid Wicker Man, and has had film work screened at FACT, The Everyman Playhouse, Hackney Picturehouse, The British Museum, Oxford University’s Romantic Society and Manchester Art Gallery.  In 2015, he worked with Robert Macfarlane on an adaptation of his Sunday Times best-seller, Holloway. He has worked on films with Stanley Donwood, Iain Sinclair, Richard Skelton and Laura Cannell.  His first book, Folk Horror: Hours Dreadful and Things Strange, was published by Auteur in 2017.

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