Folk horror: landscapes, folklore and the past catching up with us

In what is either a remarkable coincidence or perhaps a common tendency in men of their age, both my father and my wife’s father have independently developed the hobby of tracing either side of our family tree. Occasionally one of them will fill me in on recent discoveries, informing me that my great grandfather’s uncle’s wife had a half-brother, or other such details. I politely act impressed and immediately forget it all, preferring a less literal understanding of how I came to be here and now. I’m more interested in how we got away from the past, and how the past still might catch us. I’m interested in history’s ghosts.

This haunting by history is one element of the genre that’s become known as ‘folk horror’, subject of a new book by Adam Scovell, recently reviewed here. Folk horror has only a short history as an identified genre, the name catching on when used by Mark Gatiss in his series A History of Horror in 2010. Gatiss described the initial burst of folk horror films as sharing “a common obsession with the British landscape, its folklore and superstitions”, in classics such as Witchfinder General (1968), The Blood on Satan’s Claw (1971) and The Wicker Man (1973). Fans have since expanded this definition to accommodate other works, extending folk horror’s reach into other lands.

So what would Australian folk horror look like? One example which fits into the genre is Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975), a film where the Australian landscape itself haunts the girls of Appleyard College. The struggle against the overwhelming vastness of the outback has been a longstanding theme in Australian art, and has been exploited as a setting in more straightforward horror films such as Wolf Creek (2005). Any investigation of Australians’ relationship to the land leads to the great spectre in Australia’s past, European settlement and its impact on our Indigenous peoples. 1788 haunts Australia still, as we see in the continuing controversy over its commemoration, and I’d love to see an Australian folk horror that interrogates this. While lacking an obvious horror aspect, Nicholas Roeg’s brilliant Walkabout (1971) is perhaps the best example of a film which explores these clashes between city and country, modern and ancient, white and black Australia. These are rich grounds for art to investigate, and folk horror could be an ideal vehicle to do so.

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