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The Folk Horror Revival


At the Baffler website, Edward Millar and John Semley examine the cultural and political conditions driving the recent revival of “folk horror” films. The ur-film of this subgenre is 1973’s The Wicker Man, which follow a hapless policeman as he visits a remote Scottish island to investigate the disappearance of a young girl. There he finds an isolated population practicing strange pagan rituals. Heavily influenced by The Wicker Man, the 2019 film Midsommar involves an encounter between a group of traveling millennials and an isolated Swedish village with a seemingly pre-modern belief system. As Millar and Semley write, “at its core, folk horror is speculative fiction about the failures of the Age of Enlightenment.” They argue that the folk belief systems displayed in these films aren’t the opposite of the Enlightenment, but rather its violent and repressed double. Here’s an excerpt:

In contrast to horror films that teach us to fear Satanists simply because they are Satanists ( Rosemary’s Baby, The Mephisto Waltz, House of the Devil ), The Wicker Man and its progeny force us to reckon with the deeper implications of the hooting-and-hollering heretic cabal. Folk horror may be best distinguished not by its mere depiction of Satanists, pagans, witches, buxom nudes wreathed in summer garlands, but by the manner in which they pose threats to our fundamental beliefs. Unlike most horror, in which an interloping monster is either destroyed (in order to purge a threat to an established order) or otherwise incorporated into that order, folk horror operates by implicating the viewer in the dissolution and destruction of that order.

It is a sentiment that resonates with audiences today, as op-eds warn us about the perils of populism, the menace of crowds, the threat of fake news, and the need to return to the consensuses of yesteryear. Such thinking only ever makes this imagined Golden Age of social agreement feel less like a genuine historical belle époque and more like a mythic past—“nostalgia for an age that never existed,” as Jello Biafra would put it.

Image: Still from Midsommar (2019). Via Pacific Standard.