Brett Gregory interviews Dr. Louis Bayman, Associate Professor Film Studies at the University of Southampton
BG: Even before the suicidal insanity of Brexit, the UK has always been regarded by the wider world as a very posh, very violent and very strange country: out of place and out of time, lost in its own history, locked inside one of its own dungeons.
Indeed, to acquire some sort of insight into the oddity of our people, our customs and our belief systems, one only needs to watch four films: ‘The Witchfinder General’ from 1968, the unsung classic ‘Cry of the Banshee’ from 1970, ‘Blood on Satan's Claw’ from 1971 and, of course, ‘The Wicker Man’ from 1973.
[Audio clip from ‘The Wicker Man’]
LB: Hi there, Brett. It's really nice to be here and thanks very much for inviting me to speak to your listeners at Arts Express. My name is Louis Bayman and I'm an Associate Professor in the Department of Film Studies at the University of Southampton here in the UK.
BG: Many thanks for lending us your time, Louis. So, folk horror.
LG: British cinema and, in fact, television in the late 1960s and 1970s contributed many of what's now recognised as being the classics of folk horror. The folk horror scholar, Dawn Keetley, in fact points out that most horror can in some way find its traces back in tales around the campfire, in folklore, in myths and legends that were particularly popular back in the earlier kinds of periods which folk horror often represents.
BG: And what about its cultural history?
LB: There had been an interest in folklore and the folkloric past at least since Victorian times. James Fraser and ‘The Golden Bough’ - actually not a really particularly scholarly reliable compendium of supposed pagan practices, but nevertheless one that was enormously influential on popular modern understandings of what might have existed before modernity in Britain. We're interested in looking back at the societies that we feel that we've supplanted as well, of course, as looking forward to the society that we may wish to become in the future.
BG: Fascinating. Unlike most other film genres folk horror is very much seated in British history, its internal conflicts and its desire for self-destruction.
LB: Folk horror stages times of social crisis. So ‘Witchfinder General’ is set in the 1640s during the English Revolution, ‘Blood on Satan's Claw’ is set in the very early 18th century, again in England, and there's frequent reference made to the Jacobite rebellions which were ongoing at the time. And then there's also a film called ‘Cry on the Banshee’ from 1970 which was set in Elizabethan England.
[Audio clip from ‘The Cry of the Banshee’]
LB: These are films that are squarely about Britain itself and British history, and can't simply be solved by a group of peasants with pitchforks chasing after Frankenstein's monster. There's an important class element here as well because the gothic tends to be set in the castles of barons and counts; there's a whole other history about how the gothic is a product of a modern England which is going through the Industrial Revolution / capitalist liberalism but looking anxiously back on the aristocratic past that it hasn't entirely left behind. However, what you get with folk horror is much more of a concentration on the peasantry which, of course, made up the vast bulk of the population.
BG: What's distinctive about folk horror though? What separates it and, in my opinion, elevates it beyond other horror sub-genres?
LB: Whereas in the traditional gothic you might have vampires, werewolves, other kinds of ghouls that threaten the community from outside, in folk horror what's distinctive is that it is the community itself that is the source of violence, of anguish and fear. In folk horror it's civilisation itself which is the problem: its belief systems, systems of ritual, systems of punishment and justice which are actually particularly threatening. So it's not a fear of savagery but actually of customs, of lifestyles, of arable agricultural land – rather than the wilderness that we might associate with the sublime of the gothic – and it's a fear of a particular form of education and social development; fears of how what is totemic for one society could be taboo for another.
BG: I remember sitting in the living room in the 1980s and watching ‘Psychomania’ on the television, hypnotised by its premise that with a little bit of witchcraft and self-belief suicide and death were just the beginning. However, these topics of teenage interest in our current happy-clappy corporate culture are now seemingly verboten.
LG: What I think is most radical is that folk horror removes any sense of there being a stable set of values at all, or any normative social order; both traditional society, pagan or cult worship and modernity are all shown to be equally mad. In ‘The Wicker Man’ Howie’s Christianity is just one form of ritual fanaticism which removed from the social structures that give it meaning and give it force seems perhaps to be just as ridiculous as the veneration of the old gods of the pagan community that he finds himself among.
So I think that folk horror, actually what's most disturbing about it, is the way that it points to how some societies and belief systems actively engage in ritual sacrifice. Other forms of social organisation might engage in corporisation, in the enclosures of the land, in persecution of heresy. And our adherence to one or another of those belief systems is not based on their fundamental rightness, but is based simply on accidents of history: the things that we find right and proper are considered by people from other cultures as horrific and vice versa.
[Audio clip from ‘Blood on Satan’s Claw’]
BG: And, symbolically, we see such sacrifices played out over and over again when, for example, a prime minister is voted out of office. The right-wing mass media leading us to believe that this is some sort of ceremonial blood transfusion, but it isn't: as a country, as a collection of countries, we're actually dying, rotting on a throne like a Francis Bacon painting.
LB: There's a sense that maybe a certain vitality or a certain form of British pre-eminence is now slipping away and in that all sorts of other alternative forms of social organisation could come to the fore. And as well as this I think decolonisation is extremely important. No longer is weirdness and foreignness located in far-flung places across the rest of the world but actually within the British Isles itself, perhaps we're actually forced to look at ourselves now that we're no longer an imperial power.
This is the same kind of time that E. P. Thompson was talking about the rise of the English working class, a book which, in particular, is about the decline of handicraft, artisanal trades and ways of life, the very things that folk horror is particularly interested. Tom Nairn was writing about the breakup of Britain, and one of the articles, one of the chapters in the book that we've just co-edited, by Beth Carroll is about the uncomfortable position that Celtic cultures play within a broader understanding of Britain, and it draws attention to how many folk horrors are set, for example, in Wales, in Cornwall and in Scotland. So while Tom Nairn was writing at the end of the 1970s about a future breakup of Britain, in some ways we can see folk horror already in the decade prior to that kind of anticipating this notion.
John Berger, the Marxist art critic, had caused a scandal with his television show from 1972, ‘Ways of Seeing’, where he de-mythologises landscape painting by showing the ways that it actually asserts the dominance of a landholding class as being beautiful and as being part of nature, rather than the actual violent social process of enclosures and corporisation that it really was.
So there's a very similar demythologising impulse there in the films of folk horror which, as I say, on the one hand can be related to the counterculture of the late 1960s or a sense that society in general is perhaps falling apart or disintegrating, there's a great deal of disorder, and maybe folk horror is a fear of that sort of disorder; but underlying it even further a more relativised place and understanding Britain's own place within history, a recognition of the violence that formed British history and perhaps also a certain insecurity about what exactly Britain's future might be.
BG: It's such an all-encompassing and deeply involving film genre. For those who wish to investigate further, as well as your book, what would you recommend?
LB: Any of your listeners who are fans of the genre might have seen the recent documentary, ‘Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched’, which is a three-hour long documentary that sprawls across a hundred years of film history from one part of the globe to another, and seems to pretty much cover everything that it possibly can do with any kind of sense of strangeness that might be attached to prior or rural beliefs and ways of life.
BG: And in conclusion, Louis, how would you personally sum up British folk horror?
LB: So I would say ultimately it speaks to a certain confusion about who we are as a society and where we're going. I don't think that there's the same kind of faith in progress that there was in the Victorian era or in the middle of the 20th century, and so folk horror speaks to a certain fear and an anxiety about social change, but without progress where are we going as a nation, as a people, as a class? What is there left for us to believe in?
BG: I couldn't have put it better myself, Louis. It's been an absolute pleasure.
This has been the UK Desk for Prairie Miller’s Arts Express with Dr Louis Bayman, co-editor with Professor Kevin Donnelly of ‘Folk Horror on Film’ which is currently available to buy through the Manchester University press website here. Cheers.