The Unholy Trinity of Films That Gave Birth to Folk Horror

As ‘Midsommar’ unleashes its nasty festivities on moviegoers, we remember these demented little films that paved the way.

By Kieran Fisher

The majority of horror subgenres boast basic characteristics that make them easy to summarize. For example, slasher films focus on killers who stalk and slash their victims. Haunting movies, meanwhile, center around people being tormented by poltergeists and other supernatural menaces. You get the idea. Horror might be fascinated with strange forces, but its various subgenres’ rules and conventions are simple for the most part.

Folk horror, on the other hand, is a difficult subgenre to canonize. As genre scholar and author Adam Scovell notes, the term fluctuates so often that its definition is not always easy to pin down outside of a few popular examples of movies, TV shows, etc. So, what exactly is folk horror?

The definition is often simplified as the symbiotic relationship between horror and folklore. Whether that’s stories mined from real-world folk tales or fictional ideas with a folkloric aesthetic, this definition is logical. Unfortunately, it’s only one strand of a subgenre that encompasses so much more than that.

Not every folk horror story explores folklore. Some of them are rooted in the occult and witchcraft. Others adopt a more realistic form of storytelling and chronicle terror that doesn’t feature deranged cults and witches. But there are certain themes which unify a myriad of works and make them folk horror.

Landscape and environment is an essential theme of the genre. These tales are set in the countryside or rural regions, and often present the juxtaposition between lush, pastoral scenery and cruel, horrific terror. These settings give the films a strong visual aesthetic, but they’re also a key component of another theme that defines the genre: isolation.

Folk horror is concerned with characters and communities who are located out of the way of urban environments. As such, they have developed their own skewered belief systems, which results in violent and twisted acts being carried out on the unfortunate victims who find themselves caught up in the madness. These communities have ranged from pagans to hoodie gangs, and they can be any group of people who live beyond the fringes of normal society.

The origins of folk horror can be traced back to the silent film era. The Golem and The Phantom Carriage take their cues from folklore and superstition, but it was 1922’s Haxan — with its disturbing images of witchcraft and ancient belief systems intruding on rural settings — that laid the foundations for traditional folk horror to grow from decades later.

Three particular films — the “Unholy Trinity” — are often hailed as the progenitors of folk horror: Michael Reeves’ Witchfinder General, Piers Haggard’s The Blood On Satan’s Claw, and Robin Hardy’s The Wicker Man. Let’s take a look at them.

Witchfinder General (1968)

Based on Ronald Bassett’s novel of the same name, which sensationalized the exploits of the 17th-century witch-hunter Matthew Hopkins, Witchfinder General is a cruel and shocking film about a lawyer (Vincent Price) who’s been appointed by the British Parliament to investigate sorcery, Satanism, and witchcraft in the English countryside. However, he uses his position to advance his own interests at the expense of innocent people.

Despite its historical inaccuracies and exaggerations, the terror that takes place in Witchfinder General is presented so sincerely that its depiction of the past seems authentic. It’s a movie about politically motivated evil and how human paranoia can be manipulated by those in power with their own selfish agendas at heart.

The story’s rural setting and engagement with isolated belief systems provides the folk horror component. That said, Witchfinder General differentiates itself from its genre peers by being more overtly political and less interested in adhering to a typical horror movie framework.

The Blood On Satan’s Claw (1971)

Blood On Satan's Claw

This movie is a prime example of the intersection between folk horror and occult horror. While both subgenres are entirely different, they have been frequent bedfellows throughout the years and they complement each other well.

The Blood On Satan’s Claw takes place in Medieval Britain and sees the children of a local village convert to devil worship. The movie retains certain hallmarks of Satanic and possession flicks, but the isolated setting and the community members with deranged beliefs makes the movie unmistakably folk horror.

The Wicker Man (1973)

Wicker Man

When it comes to movies about odd communities with their own wacky belief systems causing mayhem, Robin Hardy’s 1973 movie is by far the most popular of the bunch.

The story revolves around a Christian policeman (Edward Woodward) who visits a Scottish island in search of a missing girl. What he finds there, though, is a group of inhabitants with a penchant for singing, dancing, public nudity, and ritualistic sacrifice.

The Wicker Man is a movie about conflicting ideologies, which is a recurring theme in folk horror films. The practitioners of the latter need to commit atrocities in order to preserve their traditions and way of life, but like the denizens of other movies of this ilk, their isolation has led to collective madness.

Source: The Unholy Trinity of Films That Gave Birth to Folk Horror

Everything there is to know about the folk horror genre

Folk horror is one of the oldest and most popular horror subgenres, but defining it and capturing its aesthetic can be difficult.

By Jordan Maison

Folk horror is among the most popular — and oldest — subgenres of horror and has seen a resurgence in recent years. Between heavy thematic elements and more simplistic settings, it’s a prime genre for indie filmmakers to get into.

Defining and incorporating all the elements that make folk horror what it is, however, can be a tad difficult. If you’re delving into folk horror for an upcoming project, we’re here to help you sort it all out, ensuring you bring an authentic experience for audiences.

Where did folk horror originate?

A scene from "Häxan" (1922)
A scene from “Häxan” (1922). Image courtesy: Skandias Filmbyrå

Depending on who you ask, folk horror as a film genre originates in Britain during the early 70s. Meanwhile, other countries lay claim to folk horror films as early as 1922 — with the Swedish film “Häxan” (1922) — having all the hallmarks. In most of Asia, one could argue nearly all its horror films fall into the genre. There’s no specific set of rules/themes. Instead, it’s about garnering a specific atmosphere. It dabbles into many different genre elements while still being uniquely itself.

The origin of the “folk horror” term is easier to pin down. It originated in 1970, used by the British film magazine Kine Weekly. When talking about the film “The Blood on Satan’s Claw” (1971), originally titled “The Devil’s Touch,” reviewer Rod Cooper coined the term “folk horror” for the first time. Years later, in 2004, the director of “The Blood on Satan’s Claw,” Piers Haggard, would use the same phrase during a retrospective interview in Fangoria magazine:

“I grew up on a farm,” Haggard explains. “It’s natural for me to use the countryside as symbols or as imagery. As this was a story about people subject to superstitions about living in the woods, the dark poetry of that appealed to me. I was trying to make a folk-horror film, I suppose. Not a campy one.”

For many, the loose set of guidelines Haggard mentioned became the defining aspect of the subgenre. Folk horror, however, goes beyond that. At its simplest, folk horror can be any horror film that utilizes folklore elements to drive the story forward and bring the fear factor. No matter how you try to define it, what matters most when it comes to crafting a folk horror project, is capturing the intention of the subgenre.

Setting itself apart 

Folk horror differentiates itself from the larger horror genre in several ways. While the ultimate goal is to leave you feeling unsettled and anxious, folk horror doesn’t lean into traditional jump scare tactics or gory imagery. Those aspects can still be used but aren’t the primary factor driving the scares. Instead, it pulls from local folklore, which changes depending on your location. We’re talking about standard urban legends or creepypastas that originated as modern online stories. Folk horror dives into the myths/legends specifically tied to a history and culture.

By and large, folk horror derives its chills in audiences by tapping into our most basic instincts about fear. Those childhood fears born of fables used to teach and protect, which eventually morphed into stories intrinsic to specific cultures. Folk horror takes elements of these stories and presents them in a fresh way that touches upon our innate fears.


The story of Hansel and Gretel (and its many horror adaptations) is an excellent example of this at work. The story is a cautionary tale about strangers and trust, tapping into our fears of the unknown and being left alone. It’s perfectly suited for horror, despite its fairy tale origins.

What does folk horror include

We can debate the specifics of folk horror’s definition, but there are several tropes associated with the subgenre. If you’re looking to create your own folk horror video, these are some of the elements you’ll want to consider including:

Religion/The occult: If there’s one defining trope when it comes to folk horror, it’s this one. Every folk horror project includes an obvious connection to religion or the occult (witches, paganism, mystics, etc) as an integral role in its overall plot.

Stephen King’s “Children of the Corn” (1984) is a prime example of this. The film’s religious cult of children drives the ritualistic killing of adults while worshipping a deity known only as “He Who Walks Behind the Rows.” Similarly, TV shows such as “The Dark Secret of Harvest Home” (1978) or the more recent “The Third Day” (2020) also focus on outsiders and pitting them against fervent cultists.

Dealing with the unknown: Supernatural forces/elements often factor into folk horror stories — e.g. “The Witch” (2015) and “Apostle” (2018). Those supernatural elements, however, are not the primary source of fear in the story. Instead, the terror comes from how characters adapt to it or use it to further their own power.

Perhaps a community forms around the needs/benefits of a supernatural being. In order to maintain the status quo, the community finds themselves doing horrendous things. Such is the case with Gareth Evans’ “Apostle” (2018), where the creature at the heart of the story itself isn’t scary in and of itself. Rather, it’s the acts villagers commit in its name that bring the terror.

In other parts of the world, folk horror has far more direct connections to the supernatural. Most Asian folk horror put the focus on some manner of vengeful spirit — or demon — terrorizing unsuspecting mortals in period settings. “Kuroneko” (1968) and “Onibaba” (1964) are early examples of this, coming out in Japan in the 60s.


Being isolated: Isolation is a crucial factor in folk horror movies. Isolation can have a number of meanings depending on the context of the story. Typically, isolation in folk horror is more about people finding themselves as outsiders coming into an established community.

In Ari Aster’s “Midsommar” (2019)Dani and Christian find themselves alone amid a sinister cult. Robin Hardy’s classic film, “The Wicker Man” (1973), features a similar situation. The film is about a police officer investigating a disappearance, only later finding himself as the prime target for an ancient pagan sacrifice.

The Indonesian horror film “Satan’s Slave” (1976) takes a different approach to the idea of isolation. Instead of putting the characters in new locations, it presents them instead as people who cut themselves off from their own faiths and religious backgrounds. In doing so, they unwittingly bring terror to themselves in the form of ancient demons.

Rural settings: Setting ties into the isolation factor as many folk horror projects take place in some sort of rural or older setting. The key factor, however, isn’t just about where things take place but the feelings connected to those locations.

Whether it’s a secluded farm, a retreat nestled away deep in the woods, an island or even a rundown town, it doesn’t really matter. What matters is there’s a sense of connection to the setting being of “the old world.” Audiences should feel they’re dealing with something ancient and powerful. In this, even modern movies can fit the folk horror mold (e.g. “Candyman” (1992), “The Blair Witch Project” (1999), etc).

Unsettling endings: Folk horror won’t leave audiences feeling warm and fuzzy. There are rarely — if ever — any surviving characters to cheer on as they escape their predicament. These projects will leave viewers completely unsettled.

Sometimes this takes the form of the protagonists failing or dying, but folk horror likes to subvert expectations. Frequently, we see protagonists end up joining in the horrors they’ve endured. Rather than overcoming the circumstances, they become willing participants.

We saw this in “The Witch” (2015) as Anya Taylor-Joy’s Thomasin joins the dark coven. Similarly, in 2011’s “Kill List” (2011), a hitman comes up against a brutal cult, ultimately ending with the cult crowing him as their new leader.

A scene from "The Witch" (2015)
A scene from “The Witch” (2015). Image courtesy: A24

A lasting impact 

While enthusiasts may dispute its overall history and origins, folk horror is proving to be an evergreen subgenre in horror. The concept of outsiders coming against old-world forces rarely gets old. Folk horror’s deep roots in folklore and culture provide a wealth of ideas that have yet to be tapped on the big — or small — screen.

Source: Everything there is to know about the folk horror genre

Maypole on Fire: The Importance of Music in the Original ‘The Wicker Man’

The musical delights lure you in before you’re ensnared like the doomed Police Sergeant.

By Chris Sasaguay

The Wicker Man (1973) is an early entry of the folk horror subgenre. It gave Christopher Lee his favorite role, keeping the danger from his portrayal as Dracula but leaving behind bloody fangs for something more concealed. This subtlety isn’t only for his character. Director Robin Hardy and screenwriter Anthony Shaffer use subtlely throughout the whole movie, making its shock ending that more shocking. The true power in unnerving the audience is not so much that fiery visual. It’s the music heard throughout. Italian-American musician Paul Giovanni created the soundtrack with musical support by British band, Magnet. Instead of relying upon dialogue exposition, the featured songs let the audience in on the pagan customs central to the story. From sexually-charged tunes to more somber pieces, the folk music disarms the movie’s audience as much as the climatic sacrifice succeeds in terrorizing.

Police Sergeant Howie (Edward Woodward) arrives at the island of Summerisle and quickly experiences the strange lifestyle of its pagan residents. As a devout Christian, this man of law and order is continuously made to be the outsider. What is baffling to him, is absolutely normalized to the island’s young and old. He’s searching for a missing girl, but it’s all an elaborate ploy to entrap Howie. The islanders plan to sacrifice him to their sun god, with the hopes it will help the upcoming crops.

Early on, Woodward’s character is standing within the pews of a church, not having left for the seaplane yet. Together with fellow parishioners, he sings the hymn, “The Lord’s My Shepherd.” It’s full of passion, the words meant to offer comfort. The church’s organ echoes all around. But from everyone’s wooden stance, it’s all so rigid. In fact, it could be considered joyless, despite the pious sense of fulfillment on display. Howie is standing next to a woman who is his fiancée, a character who doesn’t show up after this. For her one appearance, they share no kiss or any kind of intimacy, adding on to the conservative aspects to Howie’s character. This isn’t the last time “The Lord’s My Shepherd” is heard. But when it returns, the circumstances are far different and lonelier.

Once Howie is in the sky, Giovanni’s folk music begins with “Corn Rigs,” the vocals also performed by the composer. “I loved her most sincerely, I kissed her o’er and e’er again, among the rigs of barley,” and so it goes. The lyrics are taken from the poetry of 18th-century Robert Burns, old words like the old religion being practiced on the approaching island. There’s a twang from an acoustic guitar, making it sound quite peaceful. There is no obvious hint of the menace to come. Instead, there are hints to the sexual liberation of the pagans. Listening to the lyrics, it tells of a pair of lovers who use barley rigs as cover, a means to hide from moralistic eyes such as the Police Sergeant. On first watch, it may not seem evident, but there is an unsettling intention behind the music. It plays over the establishing shots captured by cinematographer Harry Waxman. There is so much ocean the plane passes over, Summerisle is truly cut off from the rest of the world.


On land, Howie enters the Green Man Inn, getting stuck in the middle of a sexually-charged, rowdy chorus. Male islanders holler to “The Landlord’s Daughter,” directed towards Willow (Britt Ekland), the daughter of the Inn’s owner. But she watches in happiness. The Police Sergeant is the one unamused, listening to, “And when her name is mentioned, the parts of every gentleman do stand up at attention.” The loud voices instantly make Howie look uptight and out of place. Sex is on the mind of this community, but they don’t always lean towards being raunchy. As Howie heads to a guest room, the patrons downstairs ease their energy. Christopher Lee’s Lord Summerisle then makes an appearance, introducing Willow to a young man who she takes to her bedroom. The patrons glance upstairs as they sing to “Gently Johnny,” a ritual-like song acknowledging the bedroom antics. All the while, Lord Summerisle monologues over two snails mating outside, making the connection between nature and sex for this community. Howie tries to sleep but the sounds coming from Willow’s room keep him tossing and turning. Nothing explicit is shown but the patrons singing, “I put my hand all on her breast” and “I put my hand all on her thigh,” leave little to the imagination. For Howie, this premarital sexual freedom is startling. All around, humans and creatures alike are embracing what this God-fearing man denies himself.

The following day, the Police Sergeant watches a teacher and pupils dance around a maypole on the school yard. No wooden pews keep them in place, those have been left in the old church behind the festive maypole. The song is innocent at first, quick-paced and child-like. Then it continues. The kids merrily sing to sex, birth, and rebirth. Once someone dies, the islanders believe they are reincarnated as a tree, becoming one with the nature they worship. Upon a closer look, the school children are separated by gender. The boys are outside, worshiping the maypole. Inside the school house, the girls are listening to Miss Rose (Diane Cilento) talk about the phallic symbolism associated with it. On the mention of this, Howie storms into the classroom. He berates the teacher Miss Rose for tainting the young minds with what is essentially the topic of reproduction. The adults and now the children act in ways Howie can’t grapple with. And they do so with so much pleasure. Miss Rose holds another role, leading to a more mysterious entry on Giovanni’s soundtrack.

the wicker man 1973 image

The soft blows from a flute introduce “Fire Leap.” The school teacher watches over a group of nude women in a fertility ritual, surrounded by majestic standing stones. One by one they jump over a fire, chanting, “Take the flame inside you, burn and burn belong.” It’s very dream-like, made more so with the women’s voices low and whispery. Seeing the naked women in broad daylight makes Howie uncomfortable on another level. Then he gets targeted more directly. Continue reading

From Enys Men to The Witch: What’s behind cinema’s folk horror boom?

Eloise Hendy delves into the genre that turns the pastoral idyll into a place of terror, and asks what’s behind this obsession with the natural world, magic cults, standing stones and feminine powers

By Eloise Hendy

In Enys Men – the much-anticipated new film written and directed by Cornish filmmaker Mark Jenkin, whose last feature, Bait (2019), earned him a Bafta for Outstanding Debut – a woman in walking boots, jeans, and a translucent red anorak trudges across gorsy moorland towards a cliff face. She clambers down, perches on a rocky outcrop, and stares intently at a few white flowers as they sway in the wind, high above clamorous waves below.

Every day she studies these flowers. Then, every day she drops a rock into an abandoned tin mine’s inky depths, and stands listening for a distant thud. She returns to an isolated, ivy-covered cottage. A standing stone sticks out of the landscape like an ancient dagger-head. The woman pulls the cord of a power generator, makes a pot of tea, listens to the scratchy, indistinct noises of a radio communication device, and, in a logbook, records the date – April 1973 – and the words ‘”no change”. At bedtime, by candlelight, she reads an environmental manifesto titled Blueprint for Survival. Snatched glimpses of the cover reveal a quote in red: “Nightmarishly convincing… After reading it nothing quite seems the same any more.”

This phrase goes to the heart of this strange, spectral work of cinema. Even calling it a film feels wrong somehow; it feels more like a fever dream, or hallucination. For, almost as soon as the unnamed wildlife volunteer’s routine comes into focus for the viewer, it starts to fracture. Lichen blooms on her flowers and on a scar that stretches across her abdomen. Grubby-faced men holding pickaxes stare at her from the mineshaft; sailors lost at sea grin and drip outside her front door; a girl in white bell bottoms stands on the outhouse roof. Steadily, the whole far-flung landscape begins to teem with apparitions. They are both convincing and nightmarish; nothing quite seems the same any more. Is the volunteer losing her mind? Or merging with an ancient Cornish terrain – one riddled with myth and old scars, like her lichen-sprouting stomach?

In a statement accompanying Enys Men (which is pronounced Ennis Main, and means “stone island” in Cornish), Jenkin suggests his starting point for the film was a single question: “What if the landscape was not only alive, but sentient?” Long fascinated by Cornish standing stones and their accompanying legends – one of which imagines the rocks as the petrified remains of a group of young girls, punished for dancing – Jenkin found himself imagining what these stones and remote moorlands might get up to under cover of darkness. “Almost inevitably, considering the setting,” he writes, “the idea was inclined towards folk horror.”

Jenkin is far from the only contemporary filmmaker inclined in this direction. Indeed, for at least a decade we have been in the midst of a magnificent folk horror revival. But why has this strange subgenre of standing stones and spectral presences captured the imagination of filmmakers and audiences in the UK and beyond? What does the folk horror boom say about our contemporary fears?

The term itself only went mainstream in 2010, when Mark Gatiss used it in the BBC documentary series The History of Horror to describe three British films now known as the Unholy Trinity: Witchfinder General (1968), The Blood on Satan’s Claw (1971), and The Wicker Man (1973). It is certainly no coincidence then that Enys Men is set in 1973, as, making the film, it was precisely these cinematic roots Jenkin wanted to rummage in. “For me,” Jenkin writes, “folk horror has very English connotations. The stripping away of a pastoral layer of Merrie England to reveal an earlier Celtic and pagan past full of perceived brutality, deviance and threat.” Yet, since Gatiss first invoked the genre, cinemagoers on both sides of the Atlantic have been offered up Ben Wheatley’s Kill List (2011) and A Field in England (2013), Paul Wright’s For Those in Peril (2013), James Crow’s Curse of The Witching Tree (2015), Robert Egger’s The VVitch (subtitled “A New England Folktale”), Ari Aster’s Midsommar, Scott Cooper’s Antlers (2021) and, most recently, Alex Garland’s Men (2022). All present nightmarish visions of a deviant, occult and cult-addled countryside. And that is far from an exhaustive list. Continue reading