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Four folk horror films you need to watch before you disappear into the woods

Folk horror is a genre that is difficult to define, and there are plenty of people more than willing to argue long into the night about what is and isn’t “true folk horror”. A survival of the Old Ways – of Pagan or pre-Christian beliefs, practices, and perhaps even of deities – is one key ingredient of a folk horror tale. Another is the significant role of the natural landscape within the story.

To quote Adam Scovell, author of Folk Horror: Hours Dreadful and Things Strange (Auteur, 2017): “[Folk horror] is the evil under the soil, the terror in the backwoods of a forgotten lane, and the ghosts that haunt stones and patches of dark, lonely water”.1 The idea is that the wild and the ancient lie just beyond the borders of the sterile, safe, modern world.

The entitled, interfering Antiquaries of M. R. James’ Edwardian Ghost Stories are the archetypal folk horror protagonists in many ways. Curiosity, arrogance, and acquisitiveness drive these characters to places whose power and danger they either greatly underestimate or else outright dismiss. Some protagonists are lured or ensnared, of course; spellbound one way or another and drawn in deeper and deeper until the point of no return vanishes into the distance.

Over the last fifteen years or so, interest in folk horror seems to have skyrocketed, leading to a glut of modern folk horror and folk-horror-flavoured media. Even so, some might not realise that the term itself stems specifically from cinema, and in fact, from one film in particular.

Blood On Satan’s Claw (1971)

Late 17th century rural England. While ploughing one morning, farm worker Ralph Gower uncovers a strange skull complete with furred flesh and a single, staring, intact eye. Believing the remains to be those of “a fiend”, Gower rushes to the home of a local judge to seek his advice. By the time the sceptical judge and farmhand return, however, the remains have mysteriously vanished. This unearthing of something ancient and forgotten, out in the fields which border the untilled wilderness, looses a corrupting influence which sweeps through the young people of the region. One by one the local teens become the worshippers, and subjects, of a demonic being known to them as Behemoth.

In a 2004 interview with Fangoria magazine, Blood on Satan’s Claw director Piers Haggard said:

I grew up on a farm and 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.2

Haggard didn’t coin the term folk horror himself, but it was first used in print in an early review of Blood on Satan’s Claw (under its pre-release title of The Devil’s Touch) written by Rod Cooper in film magazine Kine Weekly in 1970.

Originally conceived as a trio of interconnected stories set in a Victorian English village (something more like the Amicus portmanteau films such as Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors), writer Robert Anthony Wynne-Simmons and director Haggard worked together to tie the three into a single narrative. They were also asked to shift the period back to the 17th century, to capitalise on the previous success of Tigon’s 1968 film Witchfinder General.

Wynne-Simmons has stated that the Manson and Mary Bell murders of the late 60s were very much on his mind when writing the film’s teen cult, and there’s a certain stark, bleak “death of the 60s” feel about the film. In Wynne-Simmons’ own words: “The central theme of the whole film was the stamping out of the old religions. Not by Christianity, but by an atheistic belief that all sorts of things must be blocked out of the mind. So the Judge represents a dogged enlightenment, if you like, who is saying ‘Don’t let these things lurk in dark corners. Bring it out into the open and then get rid of it’.”3

Atmospheric soundtracks are seemingly essential in folk horror cinema, and Blood on Satan’s Claw is certainly no exception.

In the 1960s, Australian-British composer Marc Wilkinson was an early independent user of the BBC’s Radiophonic Workshop (mostly utilised “in-house” for the BBC’s own productions). He won international acclaim for his score for Peter Shaffer’s play The Royal Hunt of the Sun (1964). Shaffer’s twin brother Anthony would go on to make The Wicker Man, incidentally.

Wilkinson explained his involvement in Blood on Satan’s Claw in the sleevenotes on Trunk Records’ 2007 release of the soundtrack:

“I first met Piers Haggard at the National Theatre. At the time I was Director of Music there and Piers was an assistant director. It was the first feature film we collaborated on but later we worked often together. […] The orchestra was pretty classical in line-up, except for the two unusual instruments which were 1) the Ondes Martenot which provides the big swoops and many other unusual tone colours of various fiendish types. It was without doubt the first really successful electronic instrument; it was developed before the last world war. 2) the cimbalom, an East European instrument, a bit like a piano, but played with various types of mallet, provides very pungent sounds. It is sometimes associated with the devil, thereabouts. The descending chromatic scale which features throughout the music omits the perfect fifth (the only true consonant in the chromatic scale) and therefore highlight the diminished fifth, which ever since the middle ages in Europe has been known as the Devil’s Interval! The principal melody (which sounds like an English folk song, but is not) was added later by me because the producer considered that the music was too austere. In hindsight, I agree with him. It was great fun writing the score.4

While it is not a perfect film by any means, Blood on Satan’s Claw has a wonderfully of-its-time doomy, occult atmosphere and aesthetic. The look and feel of the film, much more than the story it tells, have become its legacy, making it a true touchstone of folk horror cinema.

Even though we have Blood on Satan’s Claw to thank for the term, it is not the movie which springs immediately to most people’s minds when they hear (or read) the words ‘folk horror’. That honour undoubtedly belongs to another film.

The Wicker Man (1973)

Straightlaced Christian police officer Sergeant Neil Howie of the Scottish West Highland Constabulary arrives – via seaplane -on the remote Hebridean island of Summerisle. Sergent Howie has received an anonymous letter appealing to him directly to investigate the disappearance of a 12-year-old girl named Rowan Morrison who “has been missing from her home for many months”. Basing himself at the Green Man inn, the Sergent becomes increasingly unsettled by the pagan beliefs and customs practised by the islanders. Is the child Howie has come in search of alive or dead, or does she even exist?

The Wicker Man is a name that everyone knows. Often cited in Best Horror lists and articles, it was famously dubbed “The Citizen Kane of Horror Movies” by American film magazine Cinefantastique in 1977. Originally conceived as a vehicle for Christopher Lee to distance himself from his Hammer Horror roots when he and writer Anthony Shaffer met in 1971, The Wicker Man became something far, far greater.

Set in the here and now of 1970s Scotland, with a righteous Christian outsider drawn into a secluded, secretive setting where old Pagan ways are still honoured, The Wicker Man has become a kind of blueprint for what many people think of as contemporary folk horror. Yet, first-time viewers may be surprised to discover that [minor spoiler here] there are no overt supernatural elements in the film – everything is about atmosphere, tension, and revelation. Indeed, it could be argued that The Wicker Man is more a taut psychological thriller rather than a horror, in the strictest sense, there being next to no blood or violence either.

“Tony and I were great horror-film buffs,” director Robin Hardy told UK newspaper The Independent in 2007, “and used to see lots of the original Hammers. We wondered why it was that they always centred on pentacles, garlic, stakes in hearts and all those other things to do with black magic. We thought it would be fun to go back to the religion on which all this hokey witchcraft stuff was based – the old religion – and recreate a contemporary society that was pre-Christian.”

In the same interview, Harden spoke briefly about the film’s soundtrack: “Peter [Shaffer – writer Anthony’s twin brother] had a boyfriend, Paul Giovanni, who was a good musician. He said, ‘Why don’t you give Paul a crack at this?’ I talked to Paul and I was impressed by his enthusiasm and knowledge. He took the challenge and rose to the occasion”.5 Both “good musician” and “rose to the occasion” seem to be somewhat understating things in terms of the importance and legacy of Paul Giovanni’s work on The Wicker Man soundtrack, to be fair. Some would argue that The Wicker Man is practically a musical, given that many of its songs are performed by characters within the film. Giovanni’s compositions drew heavily upon traditional Scottish and English folk standards, as well as more contemporary folk of the era. The influence of those tracks performed by Magnet – a group formed specifically for the recording of the soundtrack – is still widely acknowledged by many musicians to this day.

Often mentioned as a “cult classic”, The Wicker Man is, above all else, a fantastically well-made film. In contrast to the less-than-pacey Blood on Satan’s Claw, there is not an ounce of fat on The Wicker Man: every shot, every line, every note is an integral part of its meticulously crafted narrative. It is, genuinely, a masterpiece.

Whatever it was that Blood on Satan’s Claw began, and which The Wicker Man perfected, it has continued to fascinate writers and directors throughout the decades. Now, in the 21st century, folk horror continues to bloom and fruit abundantly, even in the darkest of places.

The Witch (2015)

1630. New England. Banished from the Puritan colony which they journeyed to America to live in, a family of English-born settlers are forced instead to live on a small farmstead at the edge of a deep, dark forest. Husband William and wife Katherine are mother and father to daughter Thomasin, son Caleb, twins Mercy and Jonas, and very soon newborn son Samuel. When Samuel disappears mysteriously from Thomasin’s care, things begin to spiral out of control.

The Witch (or The VVitch, if we’re adhering to writer and director Robert Eggers’ preferred archaic rendering) is a film which strips everything back down to basics. We are transported to a time and place where witches are not a metaphor. Where everything that Christian settlers feared about the wild woods is true. That is our starting point. Do not stray into the forest, because there are witches there. And there are. Do not allow the Devil to tempt you with earthly pleasures, for he may appear to you in many forms. And he will, and he does. The Witch treats all these things as truly, and as seriously as a 17th-century Puritan would have believed them. Perhaps even more so. Then, into that world where the unreconstructed, unredeemed witches of Häxan and the Maleus Malificarum are an absolute reality, Eggers places a very real, very relatable family in crisis.

The Witch was filmed in natural light, or else in candlelight, lamplight or firelight; no electronic or artificial light of any kind was used. From the costumes, the design, materials and methods of construction of the buildings, to the objects used in the film; Eggers and his team were obsessive about making everything as authentic as it could possibly be.

“The plan was to make a world that’s utterly believable so that you can invest in the world and invest in the characters,” Eggers told Format in 2016. “You can be transported into their worldview as well. That’s what helps you believe in witches the way that these people would have. You can believe in supernatural stuff”.6

Canadian musician and composer Mark Korven provided the soundtrack for The Witch, and this too was an exercise in stripping things back. No electronic instrumentation was used at all. Speaking to Bloody Disgusting in 2016, Korven said:

“Robert didn’t want any traditional harmony or melody in the score, but he wanted it to still fit within the family’s world. So it came down to the instrument selection. The backbone of the score was actually a Swedish instrument called the nyckelharpa. It’s a medieval keyed violin and when Rob first heard it he said, “That’s it, that’s the sound of the score”. It was unique, but felt like it was of that time […] I think he said once that in order for it to be horror, it had to be horrifying. Musically speaking that resulted in a score that was far more dissonant than anything I’d ever done. It just never lets up”.7

The Witch is a kind of “pure” folk horror. Its subtitle, A New-England Folktale, clues us in as to how we’re supposed to view and understand the story: this is like us reading Abraham Fleming’s 1577 account of a demonic Black Dog attacking parishioners at St Mary’s Church, Bungay, and taking it as absolute gospel truth. Setting aside all scepticism, and all interpretation, and becoming absolute believers in that which lurks in the shadows, just beyond the reach of our candle’s light. Oh and, of course, there’s also the goat.

In the Earth (2021)

Amid a Covid-like pandemic, scientist Martin Lowery arrives at his new job in a government-controlled area of Bristol woodland. The place, he’s informed, has folkloric associations with Parnag Fegg – a spirit of the woodland – though the legend’s age, origins, and specifics remain mysterious. Alma, a guide who knows the region well, is assigned to escort Lowry on the two-day on-foot journey through the wilderness to reach a remote research outpost. Lowery’s former colleague and ex-lover, Olivia Wendle, is conducting studies at the remote camp, and he has hopes of rekindling their relationship. Wendle’s work involves investigating the possibility of using mycorrhiza – the symbiotic association between funguses and plants – as a means of increasing crop efficiency. No one has heard from her for months, however. When Alma and Martin are attacked in the forest, their equipment and supplies stolen or broken, the pair must decide whether to go on, or to turn back. Who can help them? Who can they trust? And does anyone really know the truth about what is out there, in the woods?

In the Earth is neither writer/director Ben Wheatley’s first foray into folk horror, nor his most critically acclaimed. It is, however, by far my favourite of his. An honourable mention does need to be made for the fantastic, fascinating and truly psychedelic A Field in England (2013), but is it really folk horror? I’m not sure that it is.

Lowery is the perfect nervous, awkward, lonely outsider, unwittingly drawn into a web of weirdness. From the very start of the film, it is clear that he thinks everything he’s doing is probably a bad idea, but he has no idea of the scale of his mistake.

In the Earth has more irreverence and humour than most “serious” folk horror movies, but it isn’t a comedy or a parody of the (sub)genre. It is a confusing film, which seems to shift genre at times – becoming a Slasher, a Sci-Fi story – but this is absolutely deliberate.

“It came out of drowning in all the Trump stuff, watching American politics and British politics, and thinking about the erosion of fact, and this weaponising of narrative,” Wheatley told the BFI in 2021. “That started to make me think about the folk stuff I’d done. Does it contribute to the problem of what people believe and don’t believe, or is it just taken as entertainment? That was the thinking behind this movie: that various people were using the narrative to try and push a reality, but in the end they’re trying to make a story around a thing that’s beyond their comprehension. The reality is that the thing in the woods makes its own decision; and it decides on someone who isn’t a narrative maker – someone who is practical and is more likely to understand what it wants”.8

Clint Mansell – former Pop Will Eat Itself vocalist turned critically acclaimed composer – utilised PlantWave – a device/app which translates plant biorhythms into MIDI – as part of his process for scoring In the Earth.9 Like The Wicker Man before it, some of the this film’s soundtrack is actually played/performed on-screen, although in a completely different way. Just as In the Earth draws upon the influences of classic folk horror television like The Stone Tape, Quatermass, and even Doctor Who10, so too does Mansell’s soundtrack. Retro Radiophonic Workshop and Scarred for Life-esque sounds and motifs give way to harsh noise and, of course, the occasional bit of eerie folk.

In complete contrast to The Witch, In the Earth is a film which gives the viewer no solid ground to stand upon. It is not witches, or the Devil we have to fear, but perhaps those are names we have given to things we try to pidgeon-hole and pin down in order to make them comprehensible. There are no clear answers, only more questions.

All we know is that out there in the wilderness there’s something far, far older than us. Something that is part of the fabric of the landscape itself. Something that our ancestors would have thought of and tried to explain as magic. Something that’s best left alone. Now, that’s what I call folk horror.


  1. Where to begin with folk horror, Adam Scovell, 2018
  2. The Blood on Satan’s Claw: One Scary Skin-flick , MJ Simpson, 2004
  3. The Blood on Satan’s Claw, Jeff Stafford, 2014
  4. Turntable: Blood on Satan’s Claw, Jonny Trunk, 2007
  5. The Wicker Man: Caught in the crossfire, Stephen Applebaum, 2006,
  6. Designer-Turned-Director Robert Eggers Discusses His Horror Film ‘The Witch’, Jessica Bloom, 2016
  7. We Interviewed Composer Mark Korven About His Terrifying Score for ‘The Witch’, Johnathan Barkan, 2016
  8. Ben Wheatley on In the Earth, Anton Bitel, 2021
  9. In the Earth, the Film Scorer, 2021
  10. Ben Wheatley Interview, Phil Nobile Jr., 2021
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