The term folk horror has been popping up more these days. But what does it mean, exactly? And why is it turning heads?
Folk horror is a subgenre of horror where the plot is often developed in a rural setting and the fear comes from aspects of folklore or an unknown entity suddenly disrupting peace. Often, the menace remains hidden and mysterious for a significant chunk of the narrative.
The folk horror subgenre engages us with themes of belonging, community, and superstition. Sometimes the evil is rooted in a supernatural element, but usually it's humans who are the true evil.
Here are the best folk horror movies that show why this horror subgenre can be so scary, frightening, and memorable.
11. Sleepy Hollow (1999)
Directed by Tim Burton
Starring Johnny Depp, Christina Ricci, Miranda Richardson
Fantasy, Horror, Mystery (1h 45m)
Sleepy Hollow is loosely based on Washington Irving's short story, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, centering on the character of Ichabod Crane (played by Johnny Depp), a New York police constable who travels to Sleepy Hollow to investigate a series of concerning decapitations.
Once there, he soon figures out that everyone in the village is thinking the same thing: the perpetrator of these murders is no one other than the Headless Horseman, a mythological figure who takes other people's heads because someone stole his own.
Ichabod is initially skeptical, but he gradually starts believing in this tale and changes his investigative approach based on this dark info.
10. Eve's Bayou (1997)
Directed by Kasi Lemmons
Starring Samuel L. Jackson, Jurnee Smollett, Meagan Good
Drama (1h 48m)
It's summer and Eve Batiste (played by Jurnee Smollett) is a 10-year-old girl who lives in a Creole-American community in Louisiana. Her father is a doctor and her family is well-respected and wealthy.
One night, Eve sees something that she shouldn't have seen—and from that moment on, everything changes for her. Thankfully, Aunt Mozelle (played by Debbi Morgan) is there to keep her company and comfort her in times of distress.
Aunt Mozelle works as a Hoodoo Practitioner and is called "The Black Widow" by the neighborhood. Eve learns that she has the gift of sight and it brings her even closer to her Aunt, who's in conflict with a fortune teller named Elzora (played by Diahann Carroll).
Eve's Bayou is a folk horror movie filled with folklore and mythology from Louisiana, giving us a new spin on the genre.
9. Hagazussa (2017)
Directed by Lukas Feigelfeld
Starring Aleksandra Cwen, Celina Peter, Claudia Martini
Drama, Horror (1h 42m)
"Hagazussa" translates to "witch" in Old High German, which is fitting for this story that takes place back in the 15th century up in a mountainside village in the middle of the Alps. This movie is divided into four acts titled "Shadows," "Horn," "Blood," and "Fire."
Hagazussa engages with various themes of witchcraft, magic, folklore, superstition, and human relationships. Using folk horror as a means to explore these ideas, the film switches between points of view to portray different perspectives on fear and superstition.
8. The Village (2004)
Directed by M. Night Shyamalan
Starring Bryce Dallas Howard, Joaquin Phoenix, Adrien Brody
Drama, Mystery, Thriller (1h 48m)
M. Night Shyamalan's The Village is often referred to as a "period thriller," but that doesn't exclude it from being a folk horror. It's actually an important entry in the genre that does its folk horror elements well.
Set in the village of Covington during the 19th century, villagers live in fear of "Those We Don't Speak Of," meaning nameless creatures that seem to haunt the surrounding woods and leave messages in red.
Eventually, someone needs to leave the village and look for medicinal supplies—but leaving is forbidden, meaning whoever ends up leaving needs to do so in secret.
Who are these creatures and why has nobody ever seen them? This pervasive fear of the unknown is claustrophobic, mysterious, and deeply unsettling. That's folk horror in a nutshell.
7. The Blair Witch Project (1999)
Directed by Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez
Starring Heather Donahue, Michael C. Williams, Joshua Leonard
Horror, Mystery (1h 21m)
When I was a child, everyone spoke about The Blair Witch Project like it was real. And who could blame them? The film's marketing was a stroke of genius, tricking people into thinking that this was a documentary gone awry and that the actors had actually went missing.
Well, we now know that none of that was actually true—but it just goes to show the power of folk horror, which undergirds the film itself.
The Blair Witch Project is about a group of film students who want to produce a documentary about the legendary Blair Witch of Maryland. They interview villagers, find a lead, and set off to find a hermit who lives in the woods to learn more.
After an unsettling night in the forest, they find out that getting back to their car is going to be much more difficult than they thought as they're forced to spend more time stuck in the woods.
6. The Ritual (2017)
Directed by David Bruckner
Starring Rafe Spall, Arsher Ali, Robert James-Collier
Horror, Mystery, Thriller (1h 34m)
The Ritual features a group of friends who want to go on vacation together. One of them, Rob (played by Paul Reid), suggests a hiking trip in Sweden but no one likes that option. Shortly after, the group of friends witness a store robbery during which Rob is killed.
As a tribute to him, the surviving friends decide to honor his last idea by heading over to Sweden for a hiking trip. While hiking along the Kungsleden, one of them gets injured—so they cut through the forest to save some time on their return.
But odd things start happening in the forest... and they soon learn why they should've stayed on the trail instead of venturing into the woods. When faced with the secrets of this forest, these friends must now decide what to do if they want to survive.
5. The Wicker Man (1973)
Directed by Robin Hardy
Starring Edward Woodward, Christopher Lee, Diane Cilento
Horror, Mystery, Thriller (1h 28m)
When Police Sergeant Neil Howie (played by Edward Woodward) receives an anonymous letter about a young girl's disappearance, he travels to the remote island of Summerisle, where the villagers are still practicing pagan rituals and living by pagan beliefs.
While the villagers are open about sexual matters and live in harmony with nature, Howie is a Christian who becomes increasingly disturbed by the unusual beliefs of this mysterious society. He's repulsed yet at the same time enchanted.
Howie soon finds out that the pagan teachings of Summerisle aren't all that peaceful. In the meantime, a big celebration is about to take place. What will it be? A Solstice? An Equinox? Or something much darker?
The Wicker Man is an absolute classic of folk horror that combines great acting and scenery with an increasing sense of suspense and mystery. The rural society is outwardly welcoming but inwardly ill-intentioned, and Howie cannot escape it.
4. Men (2022)
Directed by Alex Garland
Starring Jessie Buckley, Rory Kinnear, Paapa Essiedu
Drama, Fantasy, Horror (1h 40m)
In Men, Harper Marlowe (played by Jessie Buckley) has lost her husband to suicide. Left to deal with grief and a deep sense of guilt, she retires to the village of Cotson and rents a holiday home.
In Cotson, Harper meets the manor's owner Geoffrey (played by Rory Kinnear). He's a peculiar type and there seems to be something fishy about him. Well, him and just about every other man in town.
That's OK, though, because Harper doesn't care for company. All she wants is to be alone, so she goes off to the woods to find some peace. But something there is disturbed by her presence—and when she tells people about it, no one takes her seriously.
Men is a brilliant film that links themes of grief with trauma, mythology, and folklore. The trope of the outsider arriving in a rural community isn't only present here, but it's central to the plot. And beneath it all, there's a psychoanalytical turn. What a film!
3. Midsommar (2019)
Directed by Ari Aster
Starring Florence Pugh, Jack Reynor, Vilhelm Blomgren
Drama, Horror, Mystery (2h 28m)
Midsommar centers on Dani Ardor (played by Florence Pugh), the sole survivor after her family was victim to her sister's murder-suicide via carbon monoxide.
In the face of deep grief, Dani needs distance from where it all took place. So, with her boyfriend, she travels to Sweden where a midsummer festival is about to take place—one that only happens once every 90 years.
Once they arrive, though, nothing is as they thought it would be. Some of them start disappearing, and we soon realize that they were all brought there for a dark reason.
Midsommar is a great example of contemporary folk horror. Again, we have outsiders coming in close contact with a rural and remote community. The fear comes not only from the feeling of being trapped but from the uncomfortable clash of cultures.
Deeply disturbing while aesthetically beautiful, Midsommar became a staple of the genre and one of A24's best films.
2. The Witch (2015)
Directed by Robert Eggers
Starring Anya Taylor-Joy, Ralph Ineson, Kate Dickie
Drama, Fantasy, Horror (1h 32m)
In New England during the 1630s, William (played by Ralph Ineson) and his family have been banished from their Puritan colony. So, they must learn how to survive on their own—and at first life doesn't seem too hard.
One day, however, their youngest son Samuel disappears. From that moment onwards, nothing is ever the same for them.
The eldest daughter Thomasin (played by Anya Taylor-Joy) spots something out in the woods, but no one—not even her father—believes her. Instead, her family begins to suspect her of being a witch.
The Witch reshapes the trope of the outsiders and places them in the middle of nowhere. They aren't forced to deal with a rural community, but rather forced to become their own rural community.
This cinematic masterpiece is deeply embedded with Irish and English folklore, using psychology and superstition to reflect on themes of otherness, family dynamics, and, of course, witchcraft.
1. Lamb (2021)
Directed by Valdimar Jóhannsson
Starring Noomi Rapace, Hilmir Snær Guðnason, Björn Hlynur Haraldsson
Drama, Fantasy, Horror (1h 46m)
Maria (played by Noomi Rapace) and Ingvar (played by Hilmir Snær Guðnason) are a married couple who run a farm together, living secluded from others in rural Iceland. It's Christmas and all is calm—until one day something enters their sheep barn.
After a while, one of their sheep gives birth to a strange creature: a half-human, half-animal hybrid. But they aren't concerned about it. In fact, they adopt the creature as their own child, name her Ada, and even dress her in adorable woolen outfits.
Life is pretty good until one day Ingvar's brother Pétur (played by Björn Hlynur Haraldsson) comes for a surprise visit and finds out about little Ada. As the secret unfolds, the family dynamics change and dark memories come to light.
Lamb (originally titled Dýrið) is a unique film that focuses on the family unit as an isolated community, removed from society and technology, removed from institutional rules and laws.
There's much more to Lamb than initially meets the eye, making it an absolute masterpiece of folk horror cinema.