The inhabitants of Summerisle are gathered on the hilltop. They sing and dance with delight, blessed with the certainty that they are earning the favour of their Gods. Before them, the edifice of The Wicker Man is consumed by fire, a human sacrifice trapped within. The victim, and our protagonist, is Sergeant Howie. He prays to his Christian God, but his words are muffled with the crackle of flames, the chorus of voices below.
The final scene of the Wicker Man is one which has inspired terror in audiences since its release in 1973. It is the raison d’etre of the film, and one which grants the film a place in the horror canon. But it is also in stark contrast to most of the genre’s familiar tropes. There is no sense of heightened drama: there is no darkness, no strings or orchestral music, and no close-ups on the horror-stricken hero. The scene is shot with a cold distance, almost in the style of a documentary. There also seems to be no need for shadows and ambiguities; the scene takes place in the sun, with everything laid bare. Indeed, there is nothing to hide or reveal; the monster, or enemy, has no material form. The enemy, if there is one, is simply the beliefs and traditions of the locals of Summerisle.
Edmund Burke famously stated that a sense of the sublime is caused by fear of death and insignificance, caused by witnessing things of a great scale and magnitude. It is the feeling of being in the presence of something so vast that it cannot be described. If the Romantics explored this concept in poetry and art, The Wicker Man plays as a pulp-reimagining of the concept. By placing the protagonist and viewer in front of the might of tradition and belief, all we can feel is powerlessness and awe. The film tells us that the veneer of society and moral codes can easily be dropped, and that we are closer to death than we would like to believe.
The Wicker Man is the ne-plus-ultra of the Folk Horror films, a category currently enjoying a healthy revival with the release of films such as Hereditary, Apostle and Hold the Dark. Following in the footsteps of Robin Hardy’s masterpiece, others in the subgenre have attempted to emulate that very same sense of sublime. In opposition to most horror, it is not what you cannot see which terrifies; rather, it is that what you see cannot be explained, overcome, or even fully understood.
Before locating the source of the sublime, however, one must first define the boundaries of the category of Folk Horror. Just like the subliminal horror it evokes, it is undefinable, recognised more by mood than by specific storytelling beats. Adam Scovell attempted to create a definitive take by coining the Folk Horror Chain in last year’s Folk Horror: Hours Dreadful and Things Strange. He claimed that the subgenre was defined by a string of British films and TV, primarily born in the 60’s and 70s, which included the following elements: a focus on landscape, a sense of isolation, a community of skewed beliefs or morals, and how these elements culminate in a violent happening or summoning. These aspects apply to a vague structure which follows the template of the Wicker Man: a protagonist goes into a backward rural community, and is confronted by a force of evil which defies his or her belief system.
It can therefore be said that Folk Horror, and the sense of sublime which it attempts to evoke, comes from the clash between modernity and arcania. It is therefore not a stretch to see how the subgenre emerged when a similar clash was being played out both culturally and politically. Significantly, Folk Horror emerged during the movements of the 1960s counterculture and the birth of New Age, where there was both a renewed interest in old belief systems and a shrugging off of stuffy social mores.
The Folk Horror sublime can be linked to both an embrace and a rebuttal of hippie ideals. Here, we can divide films of the subgenre into two categories. There are those which reinforce the beliefs of the New Age, using the sublime to communicate how powerful and mystical our Mother Earth is– and there are the films which represent a fear of the counterculture itself, a fear that new generations are shedding Christian codes and inviting devilish or amoral influences into their lives.
A sense of sublime is most easily located in films of the first category, where the preoccupations of the New Age are confirmed. Here, nature becomes an ancient or mystical force to contend with: a power that cannot be overcome. This category of Folk Horror attempts to show the hubris of urban, middle-class protagonists encountering insurmountable forces in the countryside.
For the British brand of Folk Horror, this meant placing horror in landscapes and rooting them in ancient topographies. For texts such as The Devil Rides Out, Whistle and I’ll Come to You, My Lad, and even some episodes of Doctor Who, this meant explicitly stating that a force of evil was part of nature. This helps convey the sense of sublime: the energy is so powerful that it is part of our very surroundings. It is the genre equivalent of Byron describing the emotion of gazing at a mountain and being faced with the insignificance and the powerless of man, to be “A link reluctant in a fleshly chain”.
This idea is actually most easily exemplified in an American text: the Blair Witch Project. Just as with The Wicker Man, the film uses little classic horror imagery: there is no opponent seen in the film, and the woods look real and familiar, devoid of the artificial mists and moonlight conjured up in studio- shot 40s/50s horror. The scares from the film come from suggesting that the wood has a power which dwarves the abilities of the main characters– a supernatural charge which defeats the characters one by one, driving them to madness and death by manipulating time and space. They are trapped, disorientated…and overwhelmed.
It is symptomatic of the power of Folk Horror and its use of the sublime: without any of the usual tricks of Horror Cinema, just the location of a film can be horrifying and overwhelming. In such films, the audiences are taught that nature, and landscape, is more powerful than they had previously thought. It’s a lesson that both resonates with the ecological concerns of the countercultural generation, and also showcases a British post-colonial angst where the Earth is no longer man’s to possess. Whether it is in the opening scene of The Blood on Satan’s Claw, where someone discovers a supernatural skull in the soil, or in Onibaba, where there is a curse located in a hole in the ground, the subliminal forces of the subgenre are distinct: fear and awe are derived from nature and landscape.
In Jeremy Saulnier’s contribution to the genre of Folk Horror–last year’s Hold the Dark– two significant things are said to Jeffrey Wright’s character when he enters the village of Keelut. He is told that there’s “something wrong with the sky here”, linking to the primal force of nature. But he is also told that “the wildness here is inside us…inside everything.” If the sublime can be located in landscapes, and their preternatural force, then the subgenre also makes clear that it can equally be found in human beings. In the case of The Wicker Man and its precursor, 1966’s The Witches, it does not matter whether supernatural forces such as witchcraft or pagan gods exist; rather, the danger comes from whether or not people believe in them.
Here, it is apposite to return to the Wicker Man and its infamous denouement. The feeling of the sublime is not evoked from the depiction of landscape; rather, the overwhelming and disturbing ending’s efficacy derives from our realisation of how extreme the islander’s beliefs are, how unshakeable their worldview is. We may be a step away from the Romantics, in that the sense of sublime is no longer connected to nature. But by focussing on the effects of manic and unquestioning religious fervour, the sense of overwhelming odds is just as potent.
This vein of the sublime can be linked to a strain of conservatism, exploiting a fear that people (and especially youths) can stray away from civilised etiquettes and be tempted into devilish cults. It’s easy to read it as a condemnation of the Hippie movement– and yet there’s no denying its ability to get under the viewer’s skin. The effect of the sublime is tangible when our protagonist is faced with the religious mania of an isolated community–an idea used to gruesome effect in last year’s Netflix release Apostle. Intriguingly, there’s also the sense that the local characters have suffered from the sublime themselves; they have been sent mad, having gazed at the forces of nature and realising how little value human life has in comparison.
One need go no further than Vincent Price’s Witchfinder General to see the ultimate figure of skewed morality in Folk Horror. His determination to find and burn as many women as possible in the British Civil War is just as unwavering as the religious fervour of the inhabitants of Summerisle, or even the landscapes of Blair Witch. Faced with his efforts to do right, there is nothing the film’s heroes can do. Again, the film needs no virtuosic mise-en-scene, dramatic music or even technical prowess from the director. All its thrill derives from a depiction of a subliminal sense of power, an undeniable force of evil.
Much of the so-called Folk Horror Revival has reused the tropes of the 70s British heyday. Pieces such as The Witch and Ben Wheatley’s filmography have captured that same sense of the sublime, situating horror and dread in forces of nature and religious belief. However, the success of The Nun this year is perhaps the first sign that the tropes of Folk Horror are entering the mainstream and changing the subgenre as a result. Although the film ticks all the boxes of the Folk Horror Chain, the script puts such efforts into both overexplaining its antagonist and cramming in artificial jump scares that there is no sense of awe or the unfathomable. The sense of sublime is completely absent. Even Apostle, which is clearly an homage to the Folk Horror heyday, contains moments of virtuoso camera and stunt work, breaking the audience’s suspension of disbelief and negating the idea that evil has seeped into our very own dull reality. Netflix’s other recent contribution to the genre, Calibre, has buckets of grimness and suspense, but similarly never quite tips in the territory of the sublime.
If this spells the end of classic Folk Horror, than it would be an odd time to go. In the current climate, politicians are often preaching isolationism and dismissing the ideals of eco-conservation. Folk Horror, in its peculiar, disturbing manner, uses the sublime to warn against the perils of both. In other ways, however, the dilution of the subgenre is understandable. In Folk Horror, the viewer is not left jittery or nervous, but overwhelmed, horror and awe intertwining. We are left as powerless and insignificant as Sergeant Howie, trying to cling to a sense of morality and self-worth when our world goes up in flames.
Perhaps for many, given the disorientating nature of the current political landscape, this is too close to the bone.