Questioning Nostalgia In Folk Horror.

As the Folk Horror canon expands into more forms of media and territory, the Folk Horror Chain becomes less useful as a tool for looking at thematic material.  This is partly due to it being derived as an idea from one medium and one that is explicitly narrative based.  Yet, some of its ideas can be loosely translated into the area of reception studies of Folk Horror and can, at least in general terms, account in part for the huge variety of materials that now seem to arise in discussions of the sub-genre.  Of all the aspects that feed into the non-narrative forms of Folk Horror, there are few that are more powerful and deserving of a link in the chain than nostalgia.

Now nostalgia as a word does already have some ties with the Folk Horror Chain.  In some ways, the characters that are resulted from the linking chain of ideas are actually gripped by a powerful, twisted form of nostalgia; the old ways rising up again with true questioning of the sociological problems of the “good ol’ days” left by the wayside.  With this idea in place, a separate sub-ring can be added to the third link in the chain: that is the chain of skewed belief systems.  Whilst the general form that this takes in narrative art is more theological in tone, moving it into reception areas of reality of the viewers of Folk Horror (perhaps assigning such areas to the left side of the chain), nostalgia seems an apt descriptor.

As Andy Paciorek points out in an excellent article on Folk Horror,  the social media group that share Folk Horror related items have a “keen sense of nostalgia.”  This isn’t suggesting as much in the narrative sense but, in the realms of reception studies, it begins to explain the inclusion of a number of media examples including various 1970s Public Information Films, the records released by the Ghost Box label (started in 2004), the popular blog (and now book) Scarfolk, and even some of the less obvious television programs from the 1970s (Worzel Gummidge, Catweazel, Oliver Postgate animations, etc.).  Very little of these have true narrative ties to the domino effect of the Folk Horror Chain but all seem to have a natural fit within the umbrella catchment of the sub-genre.

The natural skewing of nostalgia’s power is no doubt responsible for this but also has a far darker implication which shall emerge with the expanding of the argument.  Firstly, however, the basis of this nostalgia must be discerned for it explains the power and almost sub-cult popularity of this type of media.  In the early noughties, there appeared to be a new sense of growing, general nostalgia for the 1970s in particular.  The decade was awash with programs such as “I “heart” 1970s” and various talking head productions and documentaries about a huge variety of television programs in particular (as well as film, music and even fashion).

Perhaps with the 1990’s obsession with the 1960s being solidified, there was a leaning towards the following decade as a natural progression.  A general nostalgia seemed to sweep up the culture industry, most likely because the children who group up in era were now occupying high-up roles in different media outlets; this was the time where a live broadcast of a new version of The Quatermass Experiment could occur and where Doctor Who (after fifteen long years since it was axed) could be brought back to face the monster that opened his battles in the 1970s (Autons to be exact): both occurring in 2005.  All of a sudden, bands like Broadcast seemed to tap into what effectively acted as a race memory of a whole range of popular culture for an entire generation which was gradually becoming more and more accessible thanks to newly founded DVD ranges and the like.

Following on from this came Life On Mars (2006-7); a series about a modern-day detective who wakes up in the 1970s having been hit by a car.  This series in particular marks the height of such nostalgia but is also the watermark where the reality of the 1970s was starting to fight to be heard.  Whilst dealing with some darker issues that the 1970s represented (IRA attacks, sexism, racism, football riots etc.), there is a great sense that it is still whitewashed with an overall admiration for the decade; after all, the main character does commit suicide at the end of the series to go back to the era and the episodes are filled with a huge range of 1970s paraphernalia.

We can no longer white-wash the negative aspects of the 1970s because they have come full circle, right back around to haunt and, in some ways, sweep away the nostalgia.  It’s been such a stark, powerful and disturbing set of revelations in recent years that even the iconic BBC Television Centre could not survive in its wake.  But, and this is where the effect of nostalgia in Folk Horror is most interesting, it hasn’t simply cut off the reception nostalgia; it has morphed it to create something, aptly, more effectively horrific and aesthetically diverse.

Think back to the examples stated earlier and this becomes extremely clear.  Scarfolk in particular functions in this way by very deliberately highlighting the horrendous paranoia and treatment of people in the 1970s to great effect.  Run by designer, Richard Littler, the site and book demonstrate the combination of nostalgia with a knowing hindsight that its dark undertones were more than simply fictional.  The fact that his designs, some of which spell out ludicrous suggestions, are sometimes mistaken for the real thing really highlights their power as well as the era’s problems.

Littler’s designs play heavily on the Public Information Films from the same era.  These films are, in a number ways, the first examples of horror that many young people would have been exposed to (not that the genuine horrific nature of them was probably intended to be so visceral).  As the viewer looks back upon films such as Apaches and The Spirit Of Dark and Lonely Water, it is now clearer than ever that the era was paranoid about the safely of young people and, yet, with today’s information, it seems depressingly ironic that such a paranoia did not extend to helping children actually in danger (think of Mary Whitehouse’s tireless, pointless brigade).  1970s Britain was horrific in that typical Folk Horror way because of its cold, often unaware hypocrisy.


Ghost Box also take aesthetic advantage of such works, especially in their album artwork but there is also a lighter sense that the murky area created by such a broad nostalgia for the era can now be cleared and enjoyment can be had of the material.  Though beginning in the early noughties, their oeuvre seems to be forward thinking in its acceptance of the darker reality of its source inspirations.  In particular, Sleep Games by Pye Corner Audio uses a combination of Brutalist 70s urban paranoia with the musical, Radiophonic textures that allow a knowing, dark nostalgia to emerge in place of the unquestioning form generally found in the early noughties.  This is only one of any number of excellent examples though it is telling that the records get generally darker as they emerge into the current decade (The latest album by The Advisory Circle, From Out Here, is far darker than anything they’ve ever released).

In the context of Folk Horror, these media artefacts work within the sub-genre because of their knowing glance back to the old ways.  These are not the old ways of 17th century England and Matthew Hopkins but of the true horror that lay beneath the surface of a recent, popularised decade’s culture industry.  Whilst there is much to aesthetically applaud for the era’s huge and vast amount of groundbreaking artwork, it is fitting within the sub-genre that it is now looked upon as an era of great unspoken social calamity whose aesthetics represent more than rose-tinted visions but a time of a different form of skewed belief system; one which sits uncomfortably close within living memory.

Adam Scovell

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