Woodlands Dark & Days Bewitched: A History of Folk Horror. 2021. Directed & Written by Kier-La Janisse.
Featuring Kevin Kölsch, Dennis Widmyer, Piers Haggard, Adam Scovell, Alexandra Heller-Nicholas, Alice Lowe, Amanda Reyes, Howard David Ingham, Kat Ellinger, Robert Eggers, Jesse Wente, Kali Simmons, Maisha Wester, & Chad Crawford Kinkle.
Not Rated / 194 minutes
★★★★★ (out of ★★★★★)
DISCLAIMER: The following essay contains SPOILERS!
Turn back, lest ye be spoilt.
Anybody who’s a fan of folk horror needs to keep their eye out for Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched: A History of Folk Horror—one of the best documentaries I’ve seen about genre. The film digs into the sub-genre of folk horror, not only from a historical perspective but a cultural one, across various cultures, too. The film includes interviews with people from such a wide array of backgrounds it covers many points of view necessary to look at folk horror beyond the expected titles, such as Witchfinder General (1968), The Blood on Satan’s Claw (1971), and The Wicker Man (1973); these films are magical, but, as we see throughout the documentary, folk horror covers so much more ground than white folks in the woods, witchcraft, and the British Empire.
Director-writer Kier-La Janisse has started with an ambitious debut feature—Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched: A History of Folk Horror clocks in at just over three hours long—and her documentary is so engaging that the time slips by as one person after the next takes us into various paths stemming from the core of folk horror. We see interviews with directors ranging from Piers Haggard to Robert Eggers and Alice Lowe, authors Howard David Ingham, Maisha Wester, and Alexandra Heller-Nicholas, as well as Chairperson of the Canada Council for the Arts, Jesse Wente, and Assistant Professor of Indigenous Nations Studies, Dr. Kali Simmons, among many more compelling interviews across a broad spectrum of voices.
The documentary explores how, at times, the sub-genre falls in line with ideas about witchcraft and pagan pasts buried beneath Christian landscapes. The film also gets into the white horror Indian burial ground trope, discussing colonial histories that have attempted to eradicate pre-existing Indigenous histories and how folk horror has managed to incorporate—and, in many cases, neglected to include—this into sub-genre. Folk horror can be, and is, many things; that’s what Janisse illustrates best of all. The film does enormous justice to a sub-genre of horror that’s experienced a huge resurgence over the past decade, by looking at its roots, the way it has evolved, and, through all that history, possibilities for where it’s headed.
A major theme throughout nearly all of folk horror is the juxtaposition of the “old ways” versus modern, contemporary ways of living; it’s ultimately a “clash of belief systems.” Janisse’s film builds off this as a foundation, particularly by looking at the “Unholy Trinity” of The Witchfinder General, The Blood on Satan’s Claw, and The Wicker Man. These three films epitomise that central theme of ancient ways v. modern life. A mention of “psychogeography” brings the discussion around to “layers of occupation and usage” within the landscape. The documentary’s look at The Blood on Satan’s Claw is of special significance here due to the way it opens with odd bones dug up from the ground. Many folk horror films deal with the unearthing of pasts and specific histories that have been deliberately buried. The documentary at one point focuses on M.R. James’s work, and the television adaptations by director Lawrence Gordon Clark. The ghosts in James’s stories are typically “earthly and physical,” tied to specific places and times, suggesting “a bloody history that‘s buried beneath the facade of civility“; it’s usually people in places of power trying to keep those histories covered up. Again, this is where The Blood on Satan’s Claw begins with the literal unearthing of a strange, inhuman skull.
An integral part of Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched is Howard David Ingham’s discussion of a 1975 TV episode, part of a program called Against the Crowd, called “Murrain” and the central concept being from a line of dialogue insisting that “we don‘t go back.” Ingham rightly posits that “we don‘t go back“—that’s to say, back to a time before technology and industrialisation, historically viewed as a time of superstition and madness—is “the fundamental tension of folk horror,” and they’re not wrong, either. The exciting part of this fundamental tension is then how filmmakers and writers choose to use that tension to explore important issues.
Janisse’s documentary does an extraordinary job of focusing on the sociopolitical expressions of folk horror. Returning to The Blood on Satan’s Claw, characters like Angel Blake—and many other witches in film throughout the 1960s and `70s—drew off collective male anxieties over “female sexuality” and the potential of women becoming more empowered, sexually, socially, and politically. Witchcraft films of this time generally have been seen as a response to rising neoliberalism, bringing on austerity and other sociopolitical developments which continued to erode modern life; the witches in these films are then attempting to reject contemporary urban existence in the city and return to older ways of existing, usually in the rural spaces of the country. One of Lawrence Gordon Clark’s TV films Stigma (1977)—part of the BBC’s A Ghost Story for Christmas series—involved people from the city coming into a rural village and disturbing standing stones since they have no relationship to/with the land, unleashing chaos; they repeat patterns of “colonisation and invasion,” effectively turning this into a postcolonial horror story. These discussions surrounding folk horror show how the sub-genre is elastic, capable of addressing a range of issues. That doesn’t mean there aren’t issues with folk horror, and Janisse doesn’t shy away from that, in my opinion.
At a couple points we hear discussions about how folklore essentially gets created by way of certain folk horror films. We see this happen in The Wicker Man‘s use of the titular structure: the concept of the burning wicker man and human sacrifice is not actually a verified historical fact, it mostly relies on taking Ancient Roman dictator Julius Caesar’s word for it—in his Commentarii de Bello Gallico—that the Celts engaged in human sacrifice; Robin Hardy’s film inadvertently helped bolster the myth. In a different sense, the xenophobia of 1987’s The Believers, based on Nicholas Conde’s equally xenophobic novel The Religion, didn’t just poison people towards the practice of Santeria and those who practiced it, the film inspired a real life serial killer, Adolfo Constanzo, and his cult.
There’s a great section of the film later where we see the confusion of hoodoo and voodoo, specifically voodoo being divorced from its religious beliefs in order to make good fiction fodder. We can actually here start to really see the ways in which colonialism and racism have both worked within film to rewrite history, not simply via folk horror but cinema in general, whether it’s this hoodoo/voodoo confusion (at its core an anti-Black sentiment) in horror or John Wayne Westerns creating damaging racist narratives about Indigenous people. We could, though I love Hardy’s film, even view The Wicker Man‘s depiction of human sacrifice, connected to the Celts via pseudohistory, as playing into early British nationalism’s view of the Irish, Scottish, and Welsh as ‘savage.’
What’s most interesting to me is how other cultures are represented, or often not represented, in folk horror. Janisse’s film incorporates crucial BIPOC perspectives to flesh out her examination of the sub-genre, particularly with interviews featuring Jesse Wente, Dr. Kali Simmons, and Maisha Wester, all three of whom bring up important discussions of race. Dr. Simmons notes that “Indigenous stories matter but Indigenous people don‘t matter in this framework” because we often see those Indigenous stories on the periphery, or front and centre, yet we usually don’t see any Indigenous characters in those stories, like how Poltergeist (1982) uses the Indian burial ground trope but it never goes any further than a trope, incapable of addressing issues of colonisation directly, and certainly it never introduces a visible Indigenous presence into the story. An interesting counterpoint to this is from Alexandra Heller-Nicholas when she talks about the films Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975), Wolf Creek (2005), and Lake Mungo (2008), all of which involve white narratives, devoid of visible Indigeneity, in spaces deeply connected to Indigenous cultures in Australia. Heller-Nicholas makes a point that these films evoke “a sense of place” in a big way by potentially acknowledging, albeit inadvertently, there are things about these places we white folk cannot comprehend. She suggests this may be the best way to engage with these places from “a settler perspective,” rather than trying to tell Indigenous stories as white filmmakers. What’s most fun is Wente engaging with, and shitting on, the Indian burial ground trope. He first says: “There‘s no such thing as an Indian burial ground… [it’s] a figment of Western imagination.” He explains the importance of understanding this from the reality there’s no distinction of tribes in the phrase ‘Indian burial ground,’ reducing many different, distinct peoples to the word “Indian.” Wente, ever playful, has fun with the trope, too. He says he enjoys it in a certain sense, because if white folk want to be scared of a supposed Indian burial ground they don’t need a horror film to do it because North America is “all an Indian burial ground” due to the ravages of colonialism. Wester helps the viewer look at echoes of more white North American hauntings by in works of Southern Gothic, stories often obsessed with “the haunting of slave history… and slave rebellion.” A lot of Southern Gothic exposes the “gentile nature” of Southern hospitality—no more than revisionist history, given it was only ever hospitality for whiteness—as a mask concealing horror just beneath the surface; all those smiling white faces built upon a mountain of Black pain.
I found the section of the film about Brazilian folk horror poignant and somewhat ironic, especially in a section of the film where multiple people bring up the idea of folk horror as dealing with the threat of old/previous histories and rituals to the dominant culture. Just recently, Jair Bolsonaro’s far-right government had been criticised by employees of Cinemateca Brasileira of purposefully neglecting the country’s national film institute, and months later the archive warehouse burned in a fire; many nationalists engage in such culture wars, and fascists always love to go after art and other cultural artefacts as the first order in destroying any other cultures/histories they see as a threat to their own. I also appreciated the inclusion of Noroi: The Curse (2005) in a discussion of Asian folk horror because it speaks to a disruption of the past, though here more focused on industrialisation and the erasure of cultures/histories as contemporary society builds “on top of something else“—another common theme throughout all folk horror, no matter from where it originates across the globe. This resonates with a much earlier film, Requiem for a Village (1975) by director David Gladwell, which deals with the liminal space in history between the pre-modern and the modern industrial world. A sequence from Gladwell’s film featuring dead villagers coming out of the earth, and their graves, gets described by “Fulciesque,” and the images in that sequence return to idea of histories—not to mention people—being buried, this time by the continuing industrialisation of contemporary society.
I feel the discussion of Noroi and industrialisation further provides a way for us to envision the continuing evolution of folk horror, as the film takes into account new technologies, represented in the use of found footage and digital recordings, somewhat reminiscent of another film discussed earlier, The Stone Tape (1972). Folk horror will always exist in fiction and it has constantly evolved to continue incorporating the shifting anxieties we have about the environment, as well as new technologies and the way they in turn affect the environment, all of which is in perpetual motion the more we venture into the 21st century. So it only makes sense that folk horror will continue to evolve, accommodating all our fears and worries as the physical and fabricated worlds continue to change.
We don’t get enough documentary work on sub-genres, though there are some wonderful horror documentaries out there. Folk horror is more than deserving of such an extensive film. It helps that Janisse makes the documentary visually exciting, using choice clips to include alongside certain interviews. Then there’s the involvement of Guy Maddin, lending his collage-style art/animations to Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched, which just gives the entire film its own unique atmosphere setting it apart from other documentaries of its kind; then again, there are really no documentaries of this kind. Three hours could easily be a chore. Janisse’s long documentary never feels like work because of how much ground it’s able to cover.
Most important is the way folk horror’s presented in the documentary as a “politically radical” form of horror. That’s fair to say about the majority of folk horror fiction, film or otherwise. At the heart of the sub-genre are tensions between the old and the new. Sometimes it’s women and non-heteronormative people fighting the patriarchy, sometimes it’s Christianity trying to keep pagan histories and rituals buried, and sometimes it’s visitors from the city messing around in rural places who experience the wrath of rural people and nature itself. No matter what form folk horror takes, all across the world, it more often than not addresses tensions that are simultaneously old and new, many times taking aim at the way certain fears return in times of social and political upheaval: when women’s rights are being attacked by right-wing maniacs and Christian fundamentalists, as if that ever truly stops, witches make a return; when the bourgeois run more amok than usual there are more stories like The Wicker Man; and as climate change deniers continue to allow the Earth to burn, we’ll see more and more films like Ben Wheatley’s In the Earth (2021) emerge. Folk horror is plenty fun for the general fan of interesting horror. It’s also a sub-genre loaded with cultural importance, or at least always holding potential to be made into a culturally important artefact, an idea on which Janisse remains focused in this documentary, and an idea that makes her film a necessary piece of critical film theory history that does strong work in legitimising horror as a whole.