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Posted by Gina Freitag
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Folklore vs. Folk Horror

By David Demchuk

As you might expect, there is often some confusion about what constitutes folk horror and how it differs from horror based on or derived from folklore. Some of this is subjective, and there is considerable overlap between the subgenres, but I’d propose that the primary difference centres around narrative: Folklore-based horror adapts or reimagines folklore narratives as a significant aspect of the work in question; folk horror utilizes evocative motifs and characteristics–rituals, symbols, objects, entities–as well as settings and atmosphere, to suggest the workings of Pagan, pre-Christian or otherwise ancient beliefs or belief systems (often in conflict with contemporary culture) without the encumbrance of specific folklore narratives. An adaptation or reinvention/subversion of Jack the Giant Killer would be folklore-based horror. A film or novel or short story about a giant, with no traditional narrative referenced, is more likely to be folk horror.

This is not a qualitative assessment. One form of horror is not better or truer than the other. The recent resurgence in folk horror has brought us some of the strongest and most vivid horror stories in recent memory–in print, on film and in other media. I think of films like Hereditary and Midsommar, The Ritual, Kill List, The Witch, Hagazussa and The Wailing. (In fiction, we have authors like Andrew Michael Hurley, Tananarive Due, Silvia Moreno-Garcia, Stephen Graham Jones, Victor LaValle, Gemma Files, Elizabeth Hand, John Langan, Carmen Maria Machado, among many others.) 

There are some folk horror fans who have a fairly narrow definition of the subgenre, stating that it applies specifically to British films concerned with pitting the old religion and its beliefs and practices (including witchcraft) against modern society or the Church of England–as we would find in the seminal folk horror films of the 1970s: The Witchfinder General, The Conquering Worm, Blood on Satan’s Claw, The Wicker Man as well as unsettling TV classics like Penda’s Fen, The Stone Tape and Murrain. I think this new wave of folk horror extends well beyond Britain and has a presence in almost every major cultural centre around the world–any place where a clash in beliefs, cultures and histories reveals a discomfort with change and the unknown, a discomfort bordering on terror.

Curious to know more? Visit the Folk Horror Revival site, and be sure to check out Andy Paciorek’s essay From the Forests, Fields and Furrows

Three good podcasts to check out are Old Gods of Appalachia, Bone and Sickle and the 17-part exploration of folk horror on The Evolution of Horror


Join me for my Black Museum lecture Mirror, Mirror: Folklore, Legend and Fairytale in Horror on September 30th and then head over to twitter after as I take over The Black Museum’s feed (@blackmuseumTO) to provide colour commentary on the Finnish slasher film Lake Bodom (2016) (available to stream on Shudder Canada or Shudder US). We’re aiming to press play at 8:30pm ET–don’t discover any Goetic sigils behind your mirrors before then!

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