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 mysterious for a big chunk of the narrative.
The folk horror subgenre engages us with themes of belonging, community, and superstition. Sometimes the evil comes from a supernatural element, but usually it's humans who are the true evil.
Here are some of the greatest examples of folk horror films, which we'll use to further elaborate on the folk horror subgenre's main characteristics. No spoilers ahead!
5. The Wicker Man (1973)
Police Sergeant Neil Howie receives an anonymous letter: a young girl has disappeared. To solve the mystery, he travels to the remote island of Summerisle where a village is practicing pagan rituals.
While the villagers are open about sexual matters and live in harmony with nature, Howie is a Christian and becomes increasingly disturbed by the 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 as peaceful as one might think. 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 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)
In Men, Harper Marlowe 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 Geoffrey, the manor's owner. He's a peculiar type—slightly old-fashioned—and there might 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 and all she wants is to be alone. She goes off to the woods to find some peace, but something there is disturbed by her presence.
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)
Midsommar centers on Dani Ardor, the sole survivor of her family who was victim to her sister's murder-suicide via carbon monoxide. In the face of deep grief, what Dani needs is some distance from where it all took place. She needs to get away and heal.
So, with her distant boyfriend and some friends, she travels to Sweden where a midsummer festival will be celebrated—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 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)
It's the 1630s in New England and William and his family have been banished from a Puritan colony. 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.
There's something in the woods and Tomasin, the oldest daughter, has seen it—but no one believes her, not even her beloved father. Instead, her family begins to suspect Tomasin 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)
Maria and Ingvar 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. It's a miracle! They name her Ada and even dress her in adorable woolen outfits.
Life is pretty good until one day Ingvar's brother, Peter, 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 that successfully channels all the elements and messages of traditional folklore.