What is Folk Horror?

Broadly speaking, folk horror is a genre of horror that taps into folk beliefs and practices. Beyond that basic element, it also has some more specific thematic characteristics. In We Don’t Go Back: A Watcher’s Guide to Folk Horror, Howard David Ingham identifies a “juxtaposition of the prosaic and the uncanny” in which “the everyday and the strange coexist closely” and “very often, it’s the ability of ordinary people to be weird that supplies the horror” (p. 8). While it frequently includes supernatural elements, that isn’t strictly necessary for folk horror; the belief (and what it may drive people to do) is crucial. 

Another element, emphasized by Adam Scovell in Folk Horror: Hours Dreadful and Things Strange, is a sense of place and isolation. While this isolation is frequently geographic, expressed in rural locales, it can also be social, and the crucial sense of place can be found in more varied settings. (Both the Folk Horror Revival project, linked below, and Scovell refer to the subgenre of folk horror in city settings as ‘Urban Wyrd.’) Characters may be outsiders to an isolated community, first coming into contact with it, or part of such a community, and experiencing the wider world in contrast. In other cases, a single character’s isolation may come from a sense of estrangement from a place that was significant to them, and they consequently find themselves haunted (literally or figuratively) by a cultural tradition that they have been unable to completely leave behind.

Movies

For more on the cinematic expressions of folk horror, Kanopy has the documentary Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched, directed by Kier-La Janisse, which explores the genre as it has developed in  Britain and the United States as well as internationally. If you don’t already have a Kanopy account, you can get one for free with your SHPL library card! Once you have an account, you can watch up to 8 videos per month in their collection for free.

In addition to the documentary itself, Kanopy has a list of movies mentioned in the documentary that are also available to stream through their service, if your interest is piqued. Kanopy doesn’t have all of the movies discussed available to stream, though, so if there are others that interest you (like Japanese folk horror classics Kwaidan and Kuroneko, or the dreamlike Czech odyssey of Valerie and Her Week of Wonders), come to the reference desk and we can help you request them on DVD through inter-library loan.

Books & Ebooks

While the term was originally applied to film, horror with roots in folklore and a sense of isolation isn’t limited to film as a medium. Starting May 12th, the display by the Elsie Coulter Reading Terrace will feature folk horror books (and a few movies). We also have additional ebook titles available on Libby:

Damnable Tales 

Edited by Richard Wells

This anthology of short stories is a good introduction to folk horror in the British and American traditions in the century leading up to the genre’s most famous expressions on film. It includes stories by classic authors of folklore-inflected strange tales, like M. R. James, as well as lesser-known writers, and each story chosen is accompanied by an illustration by Wells. 

The Owl Service by Alan Garner

Though the book was aimed at younger readers (effectively a YA book before that existed as a marketing category), Garner’s novel is nevertheless now considered a classic of 20th century British folk horror. Stepsiblings Alison and Roger move with their parents to rural Wales, where (together with a local boy, Gwyn) they find themselves subjected to mysterious occurrences and ultimately haunted by the folkloric figure of Blodeuwedd. 

Harvest Home by Thomas Tryon

An American example of the 1970s flourishing of folk horror, Harvest Home follows Ned Constantine and his family, who have recently moved from New York City to the small town of Cornwall Coombe in Connecticut. Ned is initially intrigued by the town’s traditions, but as the yearly festival of Harvest Home draws near, he grows increasingly concerned that the quaint facade may be hiding something more sinister.

Experimental Film by Gemma Files

This novel mixes Canadian film history and Eastern European folklore as film historian Lois Cairns investigates a series of enigmatic works by an early filmmaker who disappeared under mysterious circumstances. Her quest for knowledge takes its toll, though, in both mundane and potentially supernatural ways. (For a more film-focused and less overtly folkloric taste of Files’ writing, the short story “each thing i show you is a piece of my death” is available to read online for free, and features a character who appears briefly in Experimental Film.)

Wylding Hall by Elizabeth Hand (also available as an eaudiobook)

Told as an oral history of a fictional British folk band, Wylding Hall slowly reveals what happened to Windhollow Faire over a summer spent writing and recording at a remote country house — at least as they remember it. The surviving former members, in their retelling, do not always agree on the exact details of the strange things that happened. The audiobook is also particularly worth a listen, as it was recorded with a full cast, and effectively simulates the oral history form presented by the book.

Many of the titles on display by the Elsie Coulter Reading Terrace are also available as ebooks or audiobooks, if that’s your preferred format. Feel free to ask at the reference desk if you need help finding or downloading them on Libby. Alternatively, if you would prefer to get one of the titles above as a physical copy, stop by and let us know. We may be able to request them from another library through inter-library loan, too. 

Further Reading

For more on folk horror, the Folk Horror Revival project has an introductory post as well as an ongoing blog series about new and rediscovered folk horror media. Adam Scovell (mentioned above) is one of the preeminent scholars on folk horror, and his blog Celluloid Wicker Man has a number of posts on folk horror, including one that outlines his initial conceptualization of the Folk Horror Chain, which later formed the basis for his book Folk Horror: Hours Dreadful and Things Strange

Published by on May 15, 2023
Last Modified June 23, 2024