The Music of Folk Horror – Part 2 (Folk Horror Chain and Witchfinder General).

Part 1.

Thematic Material of the Folk Horror Chain.

“Grendel was the name of this grim demon, haunting the marches, marauding round the heath and the desolate fens; he had dwelt for a time in misery among the banished monsters, Cain’s clan, whom the creator had outlawed and condemned as outcasts.” (Heaney, p.6, 1999).

Though the historic and cultural factors around why folk horror was popular is interesting, it is of little consequence to the real questions that this essay will raise.  Instead, the reasons behind including such films under the banner of folk horror is far more important, especially as a tie-in to the musicological assessment of their aural landscapes.   The extract from Seamus Heaney’s translation of the epic poem, Beowulf, opens this section quite simply because it sums up a number of folk horror’s ideals. Criteria such as these are not by any means the only way of delineating the genre but it is a vital base in the solidification of the case-study choices and the cinematic canon of the era as a whole.

The films in question all rely on a series of cause-to-effect scenarios which form the basis for the narrative, aesthetic and even philosophical principles of the films.  Like many stories, folk horror films start off with a setting.  This setting is the beginning of what this essay will refer to as the Folk Horror Chain.  The location is the start of a chain of ideas that form the final happenings and narrative conclusions of the folk horror film.  The setting will often be a rural landscape, far removed from cities and modern civilisation (of the time or of the era where the film is set).  The rural setting will mean great aesthetic emphasis on the landscape, almost in a psychogeographical sense which, in turn, leads to the characters and communities who occupy it[i].

These communities who live within the rural landscapes are often isolated.  Pratt sums up one of our case studies, The Wicker Man, with emphasis on this relationship, stating “For it must be the most splendid example of British “folk horror”, in which a remote regional community, and ancient customs and archaic superstitions, dismissed or marginalised by clever-clogs city folk, wreak havoc upon forces of modernity, order and authority.” (p.29, 2013).  This isolation is an interesting factor, especially in relation to the film’s use of music as it sets a sociological precedent for the visual and aesthetic factors of the films.  Because of the isolation that this rural environment causes, these communities will often have developed skewed belief systems, whether following routes of occultism, paganism or more esoteric belief systems.  In turn, these belief systems form and lead to the horrific events whether they be human-based sacrifice or the summoning up of supernatural powers, demons and creatures.


For this essay, the films chosen follow this chain quite literally in their domino nature.  With this set of ideological criteria, we can now address the thematic issues inherent in our case studies in order to dissect and define the sub-genre’s idiosyncratic use of music.  Music’s role in this chain will be shown to vary but, from choosing this select group of films (and with the sub-genre being extremely small in the context of others), it will also be shown that the variance is split between the films that followed and, importantly, how this variance in musical style is affected by the film’s thematic material and cultural ideologies.

Witchfinder General (1968) and the Aesthetic Leanings Towards Folk Horror.

Before delving deeper into the musicality of our two main case studies, a brief examination of a film made a few years before is at the very least necessary, if only to acknowledge that the aesthetic styling, both visually and aurally, started somewhere.  Michael Reeves’ 1968 film, Witchfinder General, started off the following boom in folk horror production that produced both of our case study examples.  The film’s success marked out a new style for its production studio to try and one of our case studies is even a direct result of this film’s critical success.

However, it is not its commercial success that this essay is interested in, for Witchfinder General laid the groundwork for the future thematic and aesthetic principles of folk horror.  The film follows Vincent Price playing Matthew Hopkins as he roams the realms of East Anglia looking for innocent women to burn as supposed witches.  Already from this brief synopsis, it is clear that the film fulfils all of the criteria of the Folk Horror Chain; its isolated, rural locales leading to skewed belief systems and horrific happenings.  Newman disagrees somewhat with the reasons behind its rural setting believing that “Michael Reeves shot Witchfinder General in Suffolk and Norfolk not to bring horror out to the country but because he wanted to make a kind of British western in horror-film disguise.” (p.50, 2013).  This reading is, however, ill-fitting when put into context of the whole sub-genre.

This means that the film visually and thematically is the first of this wave of British folk horror and it sets the tone and quality bar with ease.  The reason for shying away from analysing Witchfinder General in more detail is its largely uninteresting (at least for this essay’s focus) score by Paul Ferris.  Ferris’ score is mostly a product of its era, or more accurately, a product of a studio trying to keep up with its competitors, i.e. Hammer Horror.  Interestingly, Huckvale attributes the later success of our main case study to a Hammer film of this era: “Bennett’s last score for Hammer was for The Witches, a tale of rural witchcraft which, to a large extent, prepared the ground for The Wicker Man (dir. Robin Hardy, 1973).” (p.84, 2008).  He is, however, vague as to how exactly it does this.  Putting Ferris’ music alongside any number of Hammer’s films from the same year leaves them nigh on indistinguishable barring one key melody.

This melody is what differentiates it from the horror films around it and hints at the aesthetic potentials in this area of horror.  During scenes in which emphasis is given to two protagonists who are in love, a melody comes forth that feels extremely different to the rest of the score.  Its first appearance instantly marks it out as different, explicitly so because of its instrumentation (though it is later orchestrated).  The melody seems to be showing hints of the traditional folk song, Greensleeves, slightly altering the melody as to fit in with the rest of the film’s music.

On its first appearance, the melody is played on a lute (nondiegetically) as the two lovers have sex.  The melody seems to be an almost fragmented motif of the piece’s most famous section and, when the lute fades and leaves the strings, the score can’t help but evoke a more simplified but equally rural world of Ralph Vaughan Williams.  By referencing a folk melody in such a way (through tonality and through instrumentation) Reeves’ film hints that horror can be home-grown.

The presence of this melody is as important a factor in the creating of Reeves’ folk horror as the rural setting, the traditional methods of torture, and the strange, twisted form of Christianity used in the film to justify the horrific actions of its main antagonist.  This melody’s appearance isn’t simply a period decoration but a subtle reference to the Folk Horror Chain[ii]; these musical practices have formed out of a culture in similar scenarios to the development of the horrific in folk horror.  If the horrific can be presented in this way then perhaps so can the musical content as well.

Part 3.

Adam Scovell

[i] When using the term psychogeoghaphy, this essay refers to its meaning of using the landscape and the countryside to address psychological, narrative problems and issues.  As it is the first ring of the Folk Horror Chain, it could even said that the film’s psychogeographical emphasis is actually the primary cause of the drama and happenings of the narrative.

[ii] The melody still can be a period decoration as its instrumentation and tonality both fit well with the period of the film.  Ferris largely throws this away when the main orchestra are used, using far more modern scoring techniques but this brief moment is not at all out of place with the 1645 setting.

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