The Music of Folk Horror – Part 1 (Sub-Genre Theories).

The Sounds of Sacrifice:

The Music of British Folk Horror Films.


In the late 1960s and the early 1970s, a small group of horror films made in Britain set themselves apart from the rest of the genre, becoming an aptly cult phenomena now acknowledged under the banner of folk horror.  As a newly recognised sub-genre, it can be difficult to assess though, as new research gradually develops arguments in categorising the material, it is now an excellent time to start analysing and critiquing the thematic, aesthetic and sociological content of these works.  Though this essay intends to look at a small variety of work, made largely within only a few years of each other and focussing on very specific aesthetic points (the musical), the idea of folk horror as a sub-genre is far more encompassing than this essay will credit.  For the framework of arguments it presents could easily be applied to other forms of media such as literature, poetry and theatre which, though of little help to this essay, are quite clearly a burgeoning area of research interest.

In order to address these areas in detail, this essay will focus primarily on the medium of cinema and its music.  Altman suggests that “The twin requirements of representation and communication always involve a strong tension between two opposed ideals: the need for accurate designations and the need for sharable terms.” (p.87, 1999).  This essay intends to follow through this idea but to do so through emphasis on musical as well as aesthetic and thematic trends.  There is much that can be read into the sub genre’s musical content though this essay’s focus is quintessentially mirrored in that sense; the music will be shown to enhance, inform, and very occasionally question the thematic material that folk horror addresses.

Folk Horror As A Sub-Genre.

“Slowly a conception formed, more taste than ideology, more style than discourse, more interpersonal than historical – the way for it having been opened by the assent of one’s peers and the sanction of the college environment – that the world had been gravely mismanaged by the parent generation.” (Cantwell, p.49, 1993).

Before beginning any sort of analysis of the music of folk horror, it is vital to understand what the sub-genre actually encompasses, what this essay is actually canonising as folk horror, and how its thematic material can be developed into a cohesive set of ideals or perhaps even syndromes.  These ideals not only allow the formation of such a canon but are essential in breaking down the films’ uses of music, especially in terms of narrative context.  Altman suggests four criteria for the building and defining of cinematic genre:

  • “genre as blueprint, as a formula that precedes, programmes and patterns industry production;
  • genre as structure, as the formal framework on which individual films are founded;
  • genre as label, as the name of a category central to the decisions and communications of distributors and exhibitors;
  • genre as contract, as the viewing position required by each genre film of its audience” (p.14, 1999).

While the first, third, and last points may briefly be touched upon both by the sub-genre and by this essay, our main focus will be with consideration of his second point. The most recent re-evaluation came in Mark Gatiss’ 2010 documentary, A History of Horror, in which he stated the following:

“From the late sixties, a new generation of British directors avoided the Gothic clichés by stepping even further away from the modern world.  Amongst these are a loose collection films that we might call folk horror; they shared a common obsession with the British landscape, its folklore and superstitions.” (BBC, 2010).

The era of the films in question is, critically to this essay’s arguments, the pique in interests surrounding the counter-culture movement.  By forming a small group of films to represent the sub-genre and channel these counter-culture interests, this essay applies the following genre theory of Altman’s:

“If genre-ness is thought to reside in a particular complex of topic and structure (or “semantics” and “syntax”, the terms used in my 1984 article printed as an appendix to this volume), the genre itself is typically thought of as a corpus of films.” (p.24, 1999).

At the high point of this era’s interest, these films garnered large audiences with studios seeing a brief but financially viable trend, not just in cinema, but in fashion, popular music and art.  Interests in traditional British culture ranging from folk music to older religions such as Wicca and esoteric practices meant that it wasn’t too far removed from reality to address these ideas in film.  These ideas were hinted at greatly in the sub-genre as Young suggests; “After all, as Robin Hardy’s enduring cult film The Wicker Man insisted the previous year, paganism could still be found alive and well in 70s Britain, if you knew where to look.” (p.22, 2010).  Pratt would also develop this idea musically stating “In fact, the time was exactly right for it.  Strange things were going on in British pop culture in the early 1970s… But the burgeoning folk-rock scene of the 1970s still seemed authentic: the perfect vehicle for the esoteric and the arcane.” (p.29, 2013).

Indeed, the interests had already been manifesting in the music of Pentangle, Steeleye Span, and Jethro Tull, the novels of Alan Garner and the resurgence in interest in the work of J. R. R. Tolkien, and television programs such as the BBC adaptations of M.R. James’ Ghost Stories, The Owl Service[i] (1968), and the BBC Play For Today instalment, Robin Redbreast (1970) to name but a small handful of examples.  As Pratt argues, these themes invaded a number of media because of the interests of the time, stating that “Folk custom, witchcraft and the occult were no longer absurdities; they might almost be an option.” (p.30, 2013).  By mining supposedly horrific events out of these trends that were popular and very real at the time, the genre in this era’s form became instantly distinctive, reflecting the time they were made as equally as the eras they were set in.

These films have now become the benchmark of the genre in its filmic guise; folk horror has the indefatigable image of a burning wicker man, Vincent Price dressed as a Cromwellian witch hunter and the general aesthetic of muddy vistas and the English countryside – now a place for horrific, supernatural happenings rather than simply idyllic period-set dramas and the Romanticism that obsessed over it in the previous century’s art and culture[ii].

Part 2.

Adam Scovell

[i] The Owl Service is an adaptation of an Alan Garner story.  This would be the first of several adaptations for Television all leaning towards Folk Horror themes from his Jackanory series Elidor (1968) to his famous folk horror Play for Today episode, Red Shift (1978).  All of these are adaptations of his novels.

[ii] The idea of the visual imagery of these films denoting the genre as a whole comes from several articles that overtly use them.  Very few articles about the sub-genre fail to mention these films and are often the genre’s most famous and well known.  The best example of this is in Sight and Sound from August 2010 that addresses “The Films of Old, Weird Britain” and actually dedicates a cover to the sub-genre with images of a wicker man and a witch-hunter being used as the main examples to denote the sub-genre and advertise the article in question.

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