Kill List: The Folk Horror Revival

Kill List: The Folk Horror Revival

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For a term that is commonly accompanied by
flowers, fiddles and handicraft, there’s something strangely unnerving about Folk…
and I’m sure a lot of people have felt the urge to do this at a party. But, being essentially defined as the opposite of anything that might be considered ‘modern’, I suppose it’s not that surprising that, like our response to ghosts or zombies, many are instinctively fearful of something that should surely be long dead. This uneasiness is actually what has always drawn me to the genre, and its darker side has certainly not
gone unnoticed in cinema. The world of ‘Folk Horror’ isn’t easily
defined but it involves the countryside, cults and the odd demonic goat. As far as I can
tell the term was first coined by director Piers Haggard in the 2003 Fangoria interview
about his film ‘The Blood on Satan’s Claw’, but wasn’t popularised until 2010 with Mark
Gatiss’ BBC documentary ‘A History of Horror’. “Amongst these are a loose collection of films, which we might call ‘Folk Horror’. They shared a common obsession with the British landscape, its folklore and superstitions”. The three films Gatiss talks about here, ‘The
Blood on Satan’s Claw’, ‘The Witchfinder General’ and, of course, ‘The Wicker Man’,
have now become the foundation of a sub-genre born about 40 years after their release. And
accompanying this new terminology was a resurgence of folk horror in cinema, with films like
‘Wake Wood’ and ‘The Witch’ – but the director perhaps working most in the tradition
of the films that defined the genre in the 70s is Ben Wheatley – from the rural landscapes
in Sightseers, to the isolation and psychedelia in A Field in England, to the mysterious symbols
in Kill List that recall ideas of ancient rituals and religions. In fact, the folk based
blog ‘A Year in the Country’ suggested that Kill List “felt like the true sequel
to The Wicker Man, not The Wicker Tree. More in keeping with the themes of that film but
through a modern-day filter of a corruption that feels total and also curiously banal.” But Wheatley himself doesn’t seem to
have intended such a strong connection: “obviously there’s elements of Wicker Man in Kill List but I think the main thing that we took from that film was this idea of being in a trap. People have drawn comparisons with the cults but I think it’s so vague, it doesn’t really tie in if you look at it. So, why such a frequent comparison
between the two? What is Folk Horror really about? Well, let’s start with this ‘obsession’ with the British landscape, an obsession Wheatley has even commented on himself, saying: It is in this way that the Folk Horror setting is defined by a kind of domestic wilderness, that, despite a persistent isolation, we are
never far from civilisation. The village on Summerisle, the emphasis on farming and
labour in ‘Blood on Satan’s Claw’ This is land marked by human habitation.
“the nooks and crannies of woodland, the edges of fields, the ploughing, the labour, the sense of the soil, was something that I tried to bring into the picture. It was important that for the rest of the film to have the camera often very low. So we dug an awful lot of holes to put the camera in, just to give you the feeling that we
were somehow in the earth and what it was might come out of the earth ”.
And this idea of something horrific coming out of the earth continues in the new wave of American media that fringes on the genre, with films such as ‘Children of the Corn’ and ‘The Witch’ often attributed to Folk Horror, as well as television such as the sixth season of American Horror Story or the first season of True Detective, contrasting wilder settings against the backdrop of modern civilisation. This conflictmight seem, at first, to embody a fearful incarnation of Jane Bennett’s idea of nature,
offered in her essay ‘Systems and Things: On Vital Materialism and Object-Oriented Philosophy’,
that “fleshy, vegetal, mineral materials are encountered not as passive stuff awaiting
animation by human or divine power, but as lively forces at work around and within us”.
But the fear that these settings are indicative of, is not of nature’s ‘lively forces’
taking over as this might suggest, but instead the battle of ancient and modern, enlightenment
and tradition or ritual – a fear that our contemporary rules and ways of living, no
longer apply. But then Kill List appears to not fit these
conventions at all. Despite the wooded setting of its climax the landscapes here
are dominated by suburban desolation rather than fields or forests – but its uncharacteristic
environments force us to look under the surface of Folk Horror’s wild imagery, towards the
core of its implications – because the domestic wilderness of Kill List lies, not in its setting,
but in its dialogue. Just as a person might find themselves lost
and at the mercy of a vast, unforgiving wilderness, an individual can just as easily find themselves
at the mercy of an equally vast system that wouldn’t hesitate to sacrifice them for
‘the greater good’. … “The Greater Good” This idea of a ‘bigger picture’ is what defines the narrative of Kill List, from redundancy to murder, and it suggests that this obsession
with the wild, rural landscape might ultimately speak to an underlying fear around security,
belonging, finding our place in the ‘bigger picture’ of the earth, or even our societies’
place in the ‘bigger picture’ of history. It’s a profound and persistent anxiety around
the Anthropocene that only intensifies as its influence increases – as if the more
we try to belong, or try to make our environment belong to us, the more acutely we feel our
alienation. The idea of alienation is reinforced by the repetition of this phrase, representing a
lack of connection with our surroundings, and Jay’s struggle to connect with his family
and re-join civilian society after his deployment in Kiev situates him in a long line of outsider
protagonists, from Sargent Howie’s arrival in Summerisle in The Wicker Man to Thomasin’s
ostracisation from her family in The Witch. But as Jay and Gal are increasingly drawn
into the organised rituals of a united body, it seems that perhaps belonging is to be feared
just as much as not belonging. As Michael Newton writes in a Guardian article on the
genre: And in a violent echo of that scene from Animal House,
it is Jay who is compelled to destroy this symbol of belonging as its presence becomes
more of a threat: “No more guitar mate, not in restaurants. There is a time
and a place. And your time and place is in a very isolated location where no one is likely
to be for about a fucking hundred years.” Just like the woodland and farmland, the very
sense of belonging rises as another ghost of a time at odds with modernity, but this
time it is not just the ghost we fear but its power. A collective force that would either
absorb or extinguish the individual. At its heart, the fear that inhabits Folk
Horror is not simply of an untamed wilderness, satanic possession or witchcraft, but, in
fact, a fear of ‘folk’, of people – because, despite its imagery of Satan or witches, the
evil that lurks in these feral spaces is almost always entirely human.
“I didn’t want to do something that was larky and I wasn’t really interested in Dracular, but I was interested
in the dark things that people feel, and the dark things that happen”. (voice of Ben Wheatley) “There’s no vampires or zombies – not that I don’t enjoy those movies but there’s a different kind of enjoyment from that stuff, which isn’t…
it’s horror, but it’s not horrible.” There is no real demon or devil to blame,
no movie monster or faceless serial killer when the masks are finally lifted, we
are confronted simply with the people we already know, just normal people.
This is, unusually, not a fear of the ‘other’ but of the deeply familiar, a fear of not
only humanity but of ourselves. Because this is the conclusion that Kill List draws from
the genre. In a move reminiscent of this iconic scene in Blood on Satan’s Claw, where this
horrendously violent act is witnessed by the audience through the perspective of the perpetrators,
aliening us with them, in the end, as Jay is crowned by the cult, maybe we don’t fear
being the outsider as much as we fear that we too belong here, and we always did. Hey everyone, thank you for watching.
It’s been a bit longer than usual since my last video, June was my last month at University so I had a lot to do and a lot to sort out. Also, this video went through being quite a lot of different things but I’m hoping to continue making these at lease once a month. But as always if you have any thoughts about any of the films talked about here or just anything in the video please do leave them down in the comments,
and I hope I will see you next time.

90 comments

  1. What are the chances that we'd both upload a video on the same day?
    I really liked this one. I love your Raw, psychological analysis in general, but this one was particularly great as you managed to neatly tie up your argument despite jumping onto varying points and relating them to your core topic- refreshing concerning that most videos in this style tend to only pick one thing to the bone. Excellent work, Grace!

  2. I think I suggested this on the sightseers video. Could you please credit me in the description as "head executive creative director"?

  3. Ever since I first saw Hot Fuzz, I can't NOT repeat "the greater good" anytime someone says it. I'm glad you got my back in this video. Anyway, great essay !!

  4. great video, though I don't agree with everything, but I don't wanna get into that. Keep up the horror videos please, my favourite genre.

  5. You are great, your videos are great… I wish I had your discipline to keep my blog! It's very good you set out to make a video every week, but I rather watch a thoughtfull video once a month. Don't worry about it and do your thing!!

  6. Possibly of interest 😉

    http://www.lulu.com/gb/en/shop/folk-horror-revival/folk-horror-revival-field-studies/paperback/product-22962907.html

  7. Thanks for this great video! Have you watched Indonesian Short Folk-Horror Film titled Safe Haven (directed by Timo Tjahjanto and Gareth Evans, a segment from V/H/S 2)? And also can The Wailing (Korea, 2016)?

  8. I wouldn't say the definition of folk is that it's a thing of the past, It's more a style of song writing/story telling that tells a story about the basic daily lives of people/communities, I wouldn't say any era in history owns that style.

  9. I lived in SCO as a child and the overwhelming landscape made me feel small and sometimes afraid. You felt there were the ancient looking…

  10. Wowow, this was an amazing piece. I love all the clips and quotes you found, but your analysis and flow were just tops. On to check out what else you've done! (P.S. found out about you thanks to this article
    https://filmschoolrejects.com/fantastic-video-essays-women-find/ )

  11. Another awesome video! Nice to see someone else interested in Ben Wheatley (looking forward to your A Field in England).
    There are plenty of mediocre video essays; yours do not fall into that category.

  12. In The Wicker Man, The juxtaposition between the police man belting Christian hymns against the village all singing happy, pagan songs whilst he's in the wicker man is incredible.
    It really highlights the hopelessness & futility of his situation.
    Also, the soundtrack is haunting.

  13. I can fully relate to the creepy, eerie feel of the countryside of England.
    I've grown up in Devon so I know too well the fear of walking through pitch black fields or down scary, tight lanes.
    Even in the middle of the day, a tight woodland still has a really haunting & isolated feel to it.
    Also, walking on the moorland is scary as anything, especially when the fog rolls in.
    Maybe it's why the Wicker Man & Kill List both scared me.

  14. I think you're onto something when you describe the fear people have of losing their sense of individualism which they've formed while living in our neoliberal capitalist society. In our world profit is king, not people, and we live through the ideation, or delusion, or abstraction, however you want to call it, of money in our personal bank accounts and our social security # and this legal sense of ourselves as individuals existing on an island.

    So when we encounter this idea, or this feeling rather, that we are more than ourselves, that we are not isolated beings, it can lead us to wonder: what if everything we've been taught is wrong? This produces the fear of experiencing pain we have already been exposed to, but not understood enough to manage, and instead have repressed ("for the greater good").

    And when modern life is juxtaposed with these images of the outside world in derelict contexts, it is easier to see the people living there as the monsters, rather than we ourselves. Because otherwise, what do we encounter? We suddenly have all these tools for understanding the world that don't apply anymore. The longer we stay with these images that shake us, that shoot beyond our schemas, the more we stand to fear losing our own identity, which feels like losing ourselves, which feels like death – which we also fear in what feels like a primal way. Though again, maybe what we really fear is experiencing death without really having lived. And maybe if we were given more ways and time to understand ourselves in ways that saw us as part of a bigger picture, and more compassionately, we'd live in a world where we understood "death" as transition, and not the darkness we so often associate it with today. There is so much fear to work through but as each one is faced behind that door what we may really find is simply our own confusion and alienation.

    In short, what do we fear? Ourselves. Who are the monsters? Our feelings.

  15. Thinking about this video and "True Detective" (tv serie), some Ghibli studio movies and E.A. Poe shortstorys. Thanks!

  16. Wow, I’ve watched a few of your videos now and I’m loving your interpretations and your overall style. Excellent work 🙂
    I’m curious what you thought of the recent Netflix offering to the folk horror genre, The Ritual. Although I didn’t think it was entirely successful, I thought it had some interesting ideas and I liked the unconventional creature design. I spent a couple years back in the mid-90s deep in the Swedish countryside and saw firsthand how some very ancient beliefs have survived into modern times. I can tell you that wandering alone through those dark woods it was easy to start believing them myself…

  17. Best videos about Ben Wheatley yet. Instantly subscribed after this one. I'd love to hear your take on High-Rise, which I think is deeply underrated.

  18. Blood on Satan's Claw is 1of my alltime favorite horror films. It was hard to find in the U.S. until recently

  19. ive liked your other videos but this one didnt really connect with me. i see the parallels you are drawing but perhaps a more focused video on the kill list would have been more to my liking. but thats just me.

  20. Great video! But you've not mentioned The Village (2004), I'm think that movie is very Folk Horror 🙂

  21. This fascinates me, mostly as I hadn't thought much about it consciously until now. It strikes me, as a first thought, that there exists in this type of horror a shift between the fear of the other and the fear of being the other. And this is where the uncanny is.

  22. Kill List was a real sucker punch. I just put it on one day and was so surprised that it was so good! Nice deconstruction.

  23. Britain was originally called Albion – which some believe means 'white land' (alb as in Albino) but there is also a translation that Alb means 'Elf' and elves/fairies are often considered to be the dead – as in Fairy Mounds and cairns. Romans certainly feared it as an Island of Ghosts… Albion could just mean 'Land of the Dead'…
    Have you read 'Lore of the Land' by Westwood and Simpson? It's quite fun. : )

  24. Wonderful video. Check out the video for Richard Dawson's song 'Ogre'. The song and video, very much evoke the folk horror theme.

  25. Kill List made my stomach sink more than maybe any movie ever. It's just such a dark and brutal ending with no light. The fact it is so matter of fact and the protagonist is so beyond anything and barely reacts just makes me feel queasy.

  26. i totally get your definition ("folk" as folklore & countryside), but for me, "folk" in art means "created communally or traditionally" (like folk music, songs which may not have any one single known author, nor any authoritative single version/recording). so, when I hear "folk horror", i think (maybe ironically) about the SCP Wiki, Slenderman, etc.

  27. Came back for more, Grace. I think 'Folk' might have deep roots in how agricultural revolution gave humanity a false idea of manufacturing its destinty because we thought we had eliminated the uncertainty of food supply. Instead, we had to rely on superstition and unscientific believes in order to ensure our survival. We traded killing others for food for killing our own kind in blood sacrifices to appease the gods and be rewarded with a nice harvest. 'Folk' reveals how civillization is really a lie: clothes, culture, art are nothing but a disguise, we are all still animals inside who kill to survive, we are just more efficient and ritualized about it … Thanx!!!

  28. It was the both – interesting and informative as well. I have to admit that before watching this I didn't have an idea that such genre as folk horror had existed, I just never classified it.
    I grew up in the northern Ural in a remote area, in the small city built by german prisioners of war. It's like a a spark of civilization in the limitless ocean of dark northern woods mixed with rocks and mountains. If any directed wanted to make an atmospheric folk-horror the area would be his choice ))
    SImultaneously English countryside seems to me amazing and captivating as well. I reckon it as a picturesque sightseeing rather than something scary or creepy.

  29. Great video love The Wicker Man & Kill List. Also another British occult film – Darklands starring Craig Fairbass

  30. mustard yellow sweaters are always terrifying.

    also, came here for analysis, came away with a list of new movies to watch. i didn't realize there were so many films in this genre. great!

  31. I watched Kill List the other night (before watching this) and was left a bit disappointed by the end. I think I was holding out for something /bigger/ from all the hints to something larger, but the "Hunchback" scene was so awful that I ended up emotionally checking out. I think maybe I was in the wrong frame of mind, because I loved everything about Sightseers.

    That Said! This video really redeemed it for me. The notion that belonging can be scary is a fascinating one.

  32. Ironic that vampire is now concidered urban horror. In serbian, vampires dont live in graves. Thay live in water mills.

  33. Clicked cuz I had no idea what was folk horror, stayed, enjoyed it, loved the themes of other videos, subscribed 😀

  34. One other difference I imagined is that while the other older examples you gave seem to attribute the cultism to common, peasant folk, in Kill List they are explicitly people in position of power, well dressed and probably rich, looking for roots in old traditions since their modern way of life demolishes it. Maybe that is why the protagonist don't know how to react – he is also lost, and not only he found belonging, but belonging to a specific position in society.

  35. i wonder. the fear of the English countryside reminds me pretty forcibly of the 1978 Watership Down. That film terrified me as a kid more than any horror has, or probably ever will. i think that kind of darkness, that horror and terror- it's really a part of english culture that is less discussed than it should be. (perhaps it's british culture? though i can't speak for everyone). this idea that dark and old and bad things have happened on our island. I've been scared by a lot of scary stories or horror films or whatever, but few of them get under my skin in that primal, visceral way. Of the top of my head, almost all the ones that have are british in origin- Watership Down; a few select Doctor Who episodes; Internet Story (by Adam Butcher)… oh, and the plague dogs for sheer shock factor, gore and emotional pain. "suitable for ages 8 and up" my arse.

  36. Cant help but think of Hereditary, like folk horror but at an urban setting. Ari Aster's new movie seems to follow the same river, with its colorful and macabre rituals

  37. got recommended this video on May 1st. I've been a fan of The Wicker Man for years! now I know what else to watch 🙂 also, for me personally Edward Woodward's character's death always was a welcome thing. maybe it's because I'm in touch with my darker side and the longing to belong in the way the villagers belonged is strong enough. or maybe me not being religious and seeing all religions as equal made me appreciate the old religion coming after the newer one. and like, I know that it's scary and morally wrong, but the ending still makes me happy

  38. Very Very well conceived cover of Folk Horror! I have "The Golden Bough" and many other such Folklore Book, 5 Editions of 'Treasury of American Folklore" and I just had a thought.
    Perhaps we are unconsciously are creating a "fear of primitive, rustic people" I live in America where Hill People, Country people with strange dialects are mocked in Videos and Television constantly.I do not alledge any crazy theory of conspiracy: I posit the it is '"unintended consequences" driven by Capitalism's desire for profit; explotaton is always profitable.
    I am 69 Years old and perhaps think too much. I am at 3:59 and curious to see if you touch on the theme I presented. i rather think you shall!

  39. I grew up on the Isle of Wight and the pockets of communities all over the rural landscape always remind me of The Wicker Man, or should I say vice versa. For me, The Wicker Man was scary because I know that sort of landscape, and those sorts of people and the independent communities that inhabit the place. The maypole is something I saw in my childhood when visiting village fetes and the whole thing feels so similar that it’s eerie. It’s like it could happen to anyone, right here and it could be the regulars down the pub that perpetrate it. I love The Wicker Man, it’s potentially my favourite horror film (alongside 28 Days Later) but man, it reminds me of home.

  40. Your theory is strong, the monster inside us is the scariest of all! And I know this video is about movies, not literature, but folk horror has existed since at least Arthur Machen,, and Algernon Blackwood in the late 1800’s. Also, T.E.D Klein and Thomas Tyron in the 1970’s.

  41. Amazing video! Now I know Ari Aster's new film Midsommar would qualify as folk horror, but would his previous film Hereditary be included?

  42. As soon as I hit "play" I was reminded of the book "A Year In The Country: Wandering Through Spectral Fields" and I was ready to recommend it until you actually mentioned the blog on which it's based not even 2 minutes in 🙂 Such a fascinating project!

  43. Even though it's not a British landscape, I think we can add Midsommar to this list now… Incredible and disturbing

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