Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched: A History of Folk Horror (
directed by Kier-La Janisse)
With its unwieldy title, fittingly sounding like a private-press psych-folk album of grail like scarcity, Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched is a monumental documentary for which the online format of this year’s SXSW was perfect. It runs more than three hours and is not so much a feature film as a reference work. Made to be paused and considered, made to be split into chapters and referenced, impossible to watch without a pen and paper on hand to make notes for future viewing.
Director Kier-La Janisse, author of the excellent book, with similarly stretched titling, House of Psychotic Women: An Autobiographical Topography of Female Neurosis in Horror and Exploitation Films, structures the film like an essay tackling the subject in a format which gives scope to switch emphasis thematically, often via place, rather than be bound by any strict chronology. There are talking heads and there are movie-clips, lots of movie clips, but for those outside the academy of folk horror studies these will be fresh faces and new perspectives from a broad range of experts including authors, film makers and researchers whose frames of reference include hauntology, psychogeography, colonialism and folk history alongside the regulation horror and genre film studies.
The reductive notion that the The Wicker Man, Blood on Satan’s Claw and Witchfinder General are the beginning and the end of folk horror is quickly dispensed with. This “unholy trinity” are covered in a kind of Folk Horror 101 right at the start but the name and form of this particular mode of filmmaking is traced right back to far deeper roots. There are more than 200 films referenced here, a viewing list that flits through time from Haxan (1922) to Midsommar (2019) and ranges from Angel Heart to Zeder. And as certain as this comprehensive overview is to provide viewers with additions to their “watch lists” even familiar films are interrogated to the point where they merit a rewatch.
The documentary is especially strong when it moves its focus away from Britain into the colonial hinterlands and to the traditions of indigenous people around the world. There’s a recurring riff on the trope of something having been built on “an ancient burial ground”. And a section on Australian folk horror is particularly fascinating. The documentary spreads its cloak wide including illuminating diversions into backwoods horror, second wave feminism and the southern gothic.
At its heart, folk horror seems to be a means of investigating the clash of tradition and progress, of the dangers of both wholly embracing and wholly rejecting “The Old Ways”. Folk horror film can act as a warning, as the L P Hartley quote has it ‘The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.’
Late on the documentary addresses something that has been stalking the subject from the beginning and that’s the idea of creeping nationalism and neo-fascism that has frequently seeped into the inherently similar world of new weird-folk and the seemingly burgeoning right wing element that is staking a claim to what passes for the “new age” of now. This is something the filmmakers themselves have referred to as “the muddy politics of folk nostalgia.”
And so, a study like this seems particularly timely. Elements that constitute the nebulous genre ‘folk horror’ do seem to be increasingly prevalent in mainstream culture from the back-to-the-earth cardigan covered whimsy of Taylor Swift’s folklore to the triumphalism of emboldened nationalists embracing their own peculiarly fictionalized “traditions”. And is it too much of a stretch to suggest that the revival of tradition even at the ubiquitously benign craft-beer-and-sourdough-bread end of things somehow echoes the late 1960s early 70s back-to-nature neo-primitivism that was mirrored by a boom in the occult and triggered the initial wave of modern folk horror movies. Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched makes a strong case for folk horror to be seen as an ever present yet often hidden genre. Now could be the perfect time for it to move into the open.