A Secret Character In Folk Horror Stories

There is an interesting question about some popular folk horror movies. Are they supernatural stories or not? The threat in these stories comes from men, not from some monster, ghost, or supernatural entity. Nevertheless, the basic premise of traditional folk horror films and novels is often a secret cult worshipping a (pagan) deity in a remote town.

That deity, demigod, demon, he who walks behind the rows, is an important character in the story. As we know, he is usually not a friendly guy. He demands sacrifices. Human sacrifices. He messes up people’s minds. In some stories, he seems to be like the Old Testament god. Brutal. Merciless. Demanding. He manipulates the people.

But do the people in the remote town or the wilderness believe, or do they only pretend to believe? Is it just their leader who uses the cult to manifest his power? Does the writer believe in these invisible powers? Does the filmmaker believe in the pagan gods or the telluric forces? It’s hard to say. You can write such a story without believing in anything. The cult can work as a convention. Maybe the original religious purpose is lost. A cult is a belief system to impose power and rules upon people. 

It’s the land

In many cases, there is an assumption that supernatural powers are a reality even if there are no supernatural beings occurring in the story. What is the god or the supernatural power? It is the land itself, this dark spiritual power of the land. The magic forces and the gods manifest themselves in the landscape. It’s in the woods, or is the forest itself? There is one obvious connection between the worshippers and the deity. In THE WICKER MAN, the cult is a fertility cult. That is the case for many of these stories. It’s obvious in Shirley Jackson’s classic, The Lottery: “Lottery in June, corn be heavy soon”. Even the ritual in the story is forgotten and there is no worshipping of some deity, the magical thinking is apparent. 

Here is the big difference between folk horror and backwood drama and horror. In folk horror, it seems there is, at last, some sort of higher entity, a kind of energy, a god which is in all things or a presence. The opposite is backwood dramas like STRAW DOGS. There is no god in Straw Dogs. No magic of the land.

The Ancient Gods

The gods in Folk Horror are great old ones. There is often a connection with the past, with remnants of an era long gone. Ancient symbols are an expression of presence. There is something here which has been here before men arrived and will perhaps be here when men have left.

But there is another interesting thing here: The gods are local gods. Their cult is mostly a local cult. The entity is tied to the land. The deity is often connected to a certain thing in the land. In The Children Of The Corn, it is a Corn god. The worshippers are often a secretive community. They are obviously not traveling a lot.

Mostly it is a stranger, not aware of the cult in the first place, which is confronted with the local cult and sometimes with the powers of place. In IN THE EARTH, the entity in the forest seems to create hallucinogenic visions. That’s a common thing. The stranger is of course often the victim. He can become the sacrifice as in The Wicker Man.

Communication

Another interesting question is if there is any communication with the gods or the energies of a place. It depends. If it is a story that is closer to cosmic horror, then these forces appear sometimes oblivious towards men. They are not evil nor benign in a human sense as the mysterious higher forces in the classic weird tale “The Willows” from Algernon Blackwood. There is no communication. These powers don’t care about humans. 

In other cases, this is what the characters hope. They hope for insights into the deeper order of things and perform rituals to get an answer from the gods. The wish to communicate and ” to see” is a driving force. It’s no wonder that the ritual is often a drug party, for example, Beltane. People want to look into the otherworld.

Gifts From The Gods

Wisdom is one gift from the god’s ritualist hope. But it is not only wisdom and a rich harvest. There are even stories where the dead should come back, like the Irish horror movie WAKE WOOD. Here, the forest is again a secret character.

The secret cult is empowered by the gods living in the Earth, on the mountain or in the forest. The community in these places is a special one. Even though we don’t see the secret character in these stories, he is always there. He is steering their lives in many ways.

It is worth thinking about this ominous presence in the land, in the forest, in the earth. In stories and in the real world.

Peyton Robinson raises some interesting points in the article The Harrowing and Hypocritical Humanity of Folk Horror in Filmschool Rejects. One of them: What lies in the terrain we’ve built our whole lives on, and who holds the power?

THE DAMNED FORESTS

by Peter Engelmann, August 27, 2022

Folk horror is often about a cursed landscape. Somehow the place where the story takes place is bewitched. We don’t see the ghost, the witch, the demon. The Folk horror genre is much about landscape shaping our minds. It’s about the elder gods which are still here, somewhere. Playing tricks with our mind. Demand a human sacrifice. In a remote town a secret cult is still worshipping the old deities. The most notorious places are the woods, these damned forests. Movies such as In The Earth or Midsommar pick up these traditions. However, some contemporary folk horror seems more like a revival of genre movies as The Stone Tape and books from the last century, instead of taking primarily inspiration from the real world.

It would be very interesting to know when we started to rely more on previous writings and creative products rather than taking the inspiration from the “original” ( a place we visited, an experience we had). Or is it a mix of inspiration from the real world and former movies and novels?

True Stories

Horror movies or forest horror movies sometimes claim to be based on a true story. Or they are mockumentaries as Blairwitch. However, as N.E. Genre pointed out in Beyond Blair Witch, the story of the Blair Witch benefits from a rich cultural heritage. An example is the stickmen, a well-established motive long before Blairwitch. Most of the stories we experience in books or films are more rooted in previous works or collective consciousness rather than any actual existing rituals or events. That doesn’t mean that magic belief, folk traditions, and even the idea of a landscape as a magical spiritual character isn’t pretty much alive. Thanksgiving is a good example. Many pagan Earth-God rites had been absorbed by Christianity. Christian practices are sometimes the same thing under a different label. But this is not the primary marketplace where most fiction takes inspiration from and starts off.

Movies like Wicker Man or The Stone Tape are from the 60ties and 70ties. It was a time of changes in society. There is often some subtext about undercurrents in society. But even then, at that time there was a strong tradition of literature. The ideas were not new. So, where are the real roots of folk horror and today’s stories in the woods?

Landscape And Imagination

The landscape was always a factor: The folk tales connected shapes in the landscape to mythical stories. For example, the devil created a block of boulders in a mountain forest. Or he created a canyon which spurred a new local legend. A mountain top with frequent wild weather is the witches’ dance place. We still find the remnants of ancient rituals in the fields and the forests. There are monuments. Neolithic stones, druid stones, and hill graves are reminders of a mysterious past. The remarkable works of modern fiction came much later.

Another background is tradition, folklore, practices in rural regions, symbols, and the rumors and remnants about pagans and their sacrifices. And to be clear: If it seems that modern folk horror in movies such as Wicker Man is connected to earlier works in literature, this is about the premise, the basic models for stories, and not the world of the film. The writers and moviemakers did a lot of research. They used “original” motives such as the Green Man or that “wicker man” sacrifice, which is rooted back in Julius Caesar’s descriptions of the Gallic War.

But again, our modern movies and folk horror stories usually don’t refer to this ancient connection between men and landscape or the “local legend“. The most influential stories were written at a time, when the connection between men and nature was already lost. These works, often novellas, were written in the late 19th/early 20th century. It is the period H.P. Lovecraft describes as the modern era of horror in his essay Supernatural horror in literatureAlgernon BlackwoodArthur Machen, and M.R. James are among the most prominent writers of the weird fiction genre. Algernon Blackwood established modern forest horror with supernatural stories such as The Wendigo and The Willows. John Buchan, a Scottish writer, wrote Witch Wood (1927) about the existence of a witch sabbath in the Caledonian forest. The Place called Dagon from the same time period deals with a secret cult. Fiction writers in turn were in some cases inspired by anthropological research, for example, The Witch Cult In Western Europe by Margaret Murray. These stories attribute a lot to the modern idea of the damned forests and the world of folk horror stories. I can fairly admit that my Forest Dark Movie project is also inspired by the weird tales.

Lovecraft writes that ” Serious weird stories are either made realistically intense by close consistency and perfect fidelity to Nature except in the one supernatural direction which the author allows himself or else cast altogether in the realm of phantasy, with atmosphere cunningly adapted to the visualization of a delicately exotic world of unreality beyond space and time, in which almost anything may happen if it but happen in true accord with certain types of imagination and illusion normal to the sensitive human brain”. This may not so much about the later so-called sub-genre “folk horror” but he describes the modern conception of a genre which emancipated itself from romanticism and the patterns of gothic literature.

Of course, Lovecraft adds a lot to the genesis of the modern weird tales with his writings. Strange rituals in the woods and cosmic fear are a constant theme in H.P. Lovecraft’s writings. And we find many traces of this early 20th tradition in modern literature, as in “The Ritual” by Adam Nevill, which became a successful movie. “The Ritual” is one of the most convincing examples of a book and a movie, which explore both genre traditions but is also rich in a unique first-hand experience of the wilderness.

It is interesting that the modern weird tale, which is in some ways a foundation of folk horror and forest horror stories, emerges in the times of modern industrialization. Usually we wouldn’t associate the fin de siecle with a “back to the roots” or “a back to nature” (even though movements existed). But isn’t it, that there was a disenfranchisement from nature in modern times? Maybe this is the reason for the rise of haunted landscapes and damned forests in fiction in the first place. That kind of precursor of the folk horror weird tale and movie was less popular after the war. Science fiction was popular, and this was less about Lovecraft’s cosmic fear of alien visitors or invaders.

However, the landscape is a crucial element in Stephen King’s writings. Perhaps, “The Children Of The Corn” could be seen as folk horror. And most prominently, there is “The Lottery” by Shirley Jackson. These stories also center around a central premise in folk horror: The remote town with a secret (pagan) cult and human sacrifice. There is a continuous tradition here, even if it wasn’t labeled as a subgenre.

Researchers have spent a lot of time exploring the roots of folk horror and the dynamic in the genre’s development. An excellent source for further information is the Eldritch Archives on YT. There is a hint, for example, about the role of the Salem Witch Trials in the genesis and development of American folk horror. 

There are times when curiosity arises about the mysteries of the landscapes and the forests. Janet and Colin Bord are writers and researchers and published books such as “Ancient Mysteries Of Britain” in the Eighties and Nineties. Everywhere that old heritage became popular again. Meanwhile, there are endless books about monuments, secret old places, old rites, ritual sites, and mysterious places. There is a new interest in the land.

Future Damned Forests

What are the best strategies for folk horror and forest horror? We should be aware of an obvious question. Do we still take the ideas of haunted landscapes, cursed places, and the influence of the landscape seriously? Do we believe that landscape, the dark forest, or the holy mountains are more than a shape, a mass of stone, or an arrangement of trees? What about psycho-geography? Does that mean that places have psychological influence, or is there more to it? Are the elder gods still here?

We don’t need to believe in dragons, but the mere stability of the genre suggests there is more to its central motives than we think. The most convincing stories and movies will sell “the idea of an unreal world constantly pressing upon ours” (H.P. Lovecraft) in a fresh manner, and will tap deep into realities which haven’t been told yet. 

It is also clear that if the folk horror genre and forest horror want to succeed continuously in the future, they will become less revival and more fresh and original. “The Ritual” or “The Reddening” are some excellent examples.

They represent a curiosity about the eerie landscapes and mysterious monuments surrounding in our everyday world.

Otherworld As Apocalypse: Another Dimension Or A Prospect For The Future?

Usually, we think of the Otherworld in a spatial way. As another layer of heightened reality or another higher dimension. However, there is also a temporal dimension here. Prominent examples are mythical stories about a magical past. Most of the fantasy literature uses mythical past as a concept. It is the premise of most fairy tales. The mythic past is often reminiscent of medieval times. Or it is the Golden Age. It is a reality full of wonders, dragons, wizards and magic. In some stories this mythic dimension is destroyed for different reasons. It is then replaced by a bleak and soulless reality. That is a very familiar idea.

However, there is another prominent idea. This is an idea about an darker otherworld which is replacing ordinary idea in the future. It’s simple the apocalypse. At a closer look the apocalypse is a much more complex thing as we usually think. If we refer to apocalypse most people associate some sort of catastrophe or doomsday. And most of the time apocalypse refers to Revelation to John, also called Book of Revelation or Apocalypse of John. This is an important book in the Bible.

The Book Of Revelation is indeed a doomsday vision. Total destruction, plague, the rising of monstrous creatures. It is in some ways like a feverish dream with fear and terror. The four horsemen of the apocalypse appear, which present conquest, war, famine, and death. The apocalypse in The Book Of Revelation unfolds as drama. Seven seals are broken and the destruction and annihilation of the world as we know it happens.

A new kind of reality follows the destruction of the common world, which is the hope of believers. This new world would be some sort of Otherworld. And that part of the vision is important for believers and it played a crucial role for the early Christians in the first century. It was a useful “tool”. However, it triggered also fundamentalism and radical movements.

The Apocalypse Is A Genre

The idea of the Apocalypse is much older as the Revelation of John and was indeed a popular genre. It appears also in the Old Testament. As a genre there are certain stable conventions. There is a narrator, a prophet who has a visionary experience. The core of the visionary experience is a sort of revelation, a sort of new knowledge what reality is about.

This is the real core of the term. The Greek verb “Apo Kalypto” meaning ‘uncover; disclose, reveal’. It is the UNVEILING. If the assume that the Otherworld is the “real world” and we live in the world of shadows (see Platons Caves) it makes sense that Apocalypse can be the future coming of the otherworld.

There is also a psychological interpretation of Apocalypse going back to C.G. Jung which was suggested by Edward. F. Edinger in “The Archetype Of Apocalypse“. He sees the idea of the apocalypse not just as a genre but as an archetype, something like a living psychic agency which floats at the bottom of the unconscious.

As a vision the apocalypse was very vivid at critical times as the first century B.C.. Scientists in a documentary series by network ARTE pointed out that it was then a problem when the Apocalypse not happened as announced. Early Christians expected to experience the Apocalypse in their lifetime. Some of them even embraced the burning of Rome as sign of the Apocalypse.

Some scientists think that the “failed delivery” of the Apocalypse was helpful for the rise of gnostic ideas. Here the Otherworld is not the coming of a new world in the future, it is more another dimension. It is the real world which is hidden. The gnostics tried to get closer to this hidden Otherworld with the help of rites and practices.

Both conceptions are alive through all the centuries. These ideas are not bound to a certain religion. They represent very fundamental and mythological ideas. Most people are familiar with it in some way. However, both the Otherworld as temporal and the Otherworld as a spatial dimension are simplifications. These are useful models and also useful in a political sense. Christianity and other religions developed these models further because they suited their missionary efforts.

What should we believe in?

If we look deeper into visionary experiences or even our most advanced models of higher dimension in modern physics it is more like the Otherworld and ordinary world are not separated. The Otherworld is right here and it is happening right now. Let’s remember the original meaning of Apocalypse: Unveiling. We don’t see it because there is a veil. For example in near death experiences, but also in Ufo encounters there might be cases where the witness says he was transported to another place but the coordinates doesn’t suggest any meaningful “travel route”. The witness could have been anywhere. The problem – or if we want “the veil” – is that our brain is not really fit to think beyond spatial and temporal dimensions. Thus, we will live on with these conceptions.

In stories, movies and in series we always use “portals” as gateways between our dimension and the otherworldly realm. There are both portals between spatial dimensions but some portals seem have a more temporal quality. Time travellers use portals too. In folk stories often somebody enters a cave and returns a hundred years later. David Lynch’s Twin Peaks – The Return series shows a perhaps more accurate or more sophisticated worldview. It suggests that our world and the dimension of the otherworld are interwoven in many and mysterious ways.

Will the apocalypse actually happen?

What about all these myths and belief-systems suggesting that there will be a doomsday event followed by a new world, sometimes sort of a heaven, sometimes more a hellish uncanny Otherworld? Of course, there is no final answer to this. It is remarkable how vivid, active and powerful the “archetype of apocalypse” is. It is one of the most compelling ideas. Apocalyptic visions seems to be as old as mankind. They occur often in visionary experiences. They have ups and downs. Around the end of the first millennium apocalyptic thinking was very strong. As for the end of the second millenium there was a peak of doomsday predictions. Same in 2012. The End times is always around the corner. Remarkable a climate change at the end of the middle ages and the beginning of modern times was also a period where the doomsday expectation where high. The doomsday fever was accompanied by intimidating sinister apparitions as the celestial phenomena above Nuremberg. The plague and the 30 years war literally erased populated areas. It was indeed apocalypse.

However, there was no new beginning, no relief, no heaven on Earth after that. Nevertheless, the world-view changed, it was the beginning of the age of modern science. Thus, there was indeed some sort of unveiling. Perhaps, there is literal truth in the coming of the Apocalypse. We might consider to think in different time spans as we are used to. The coming of the otherworld could be also seen as a constant process. As we look into deep space with sophisticated telescopes we learn about catastrophes of unimaginable dimensions. Whole galaxies collide, radio and gamma bursts might destroy many worlds, monstrous black holes are lurking in deep space. Of course, there will be a doomsday. But not a day. It could be sort of a transformation lasting for eons. It is good not to simplify. Maybe it has already begun and we can only see vaguely through that big veil what’s really going on or what is coming.

So, what about all these apocalyptic visions with a sheer incredible imagination? This is where most of this stuff comes from. From the psyche. We have apocalyptic dreams, we have visions, premonitions, revelations and sudden overwhelming experiences. It is even true that apocalyptic imaginary is a dominant theme throughout all times. Therefore, there is some sense behind the idea of an archetype of apocalypse. Perhaps we may never know but it seems like an unknown source is projecting these images from somewhere in space in time directly into our consciousness. The frequency and the intensity seems to change, but it is a bit like what Jacques Vallée said that there seems to be somewhere a projectionist creating these images. Who, what or where that source is we don’t know.

Peter Engelmann, July 13, 2022

MULTIVERSE

The multiverse concept gained huge popularity over the last years. The idea that along our dimension countless other universes exist is an old one. It appeared in theoretical science for some time but even the Ancient Greek philosophers had already similar ideas. But it isn’t science in the first place, it is popular storytelling in films and series which accelerated multiverse concepts as new world views.

The Rise Of The Multiverse

The idea of parallel universes in films or series centres around the idea that there are several or countless universes which showcase different “possible” realities. Sometimes this universes are very similar, sometimes the show very different options or alternative realities different from our ordinary reality. Famous Malaysian actress Michelle Yeoh (Hidden Dragon, Crouching Tiger, James Bond) seems to have a special relationship with multiverse concepts in film and TV: She was an outstanding character in Star Trek – Discovery where she appears as Emperor Philippa Georgiou in the mirror universe of the Terrans. In the first place in the normal universe she was a Starfleet commander and mentor of Michael Burnham, the main character. Now, Michelle Yeoh is the lead actor in the successful movie “Everything Everywhere All At Once” where she has to face more than two different universes. The appeal of the movie is related to the old “what if?” idea: The heroine, a Chinese migrant, explores the other lives in other universes she could have lived but did not in her normal universe where she comes from.

What if our everyday reality is only a realisation of one of many options, and what if we could flip through different “timelines” of our lives as we flip through different TV-channels in the evening?

The concept of the multiverse attracts writers as audiences because it allows you to play around with different possibilities of one and the same thing. In Star Trek Georgiou is a positive figure in the “normal universe” but appears as a completely different character in the Terran parallel universe. The character changes over time and one typical aspect is the implication that the character in the parallel universe represents hidden aspects of the character in the normal universes.

Both in the movie and in the Star Trek series there are travellers between the different universes. In many of theses movies portals or hidden trapdoors allow the actors to slip through between different worlds. And it is also always an interesting question if and how the different universes interact. Another very common idea in storytelling is that something which happens in one universe can have an effect in another universe.

I think one reason why we embrace the multiverse concept is there is that ever present secret wish that we could change the course of our lives if we could go backwards in time. Avoid the things we regret later. Avoid the mistakes. Experience that one alternative possibility, that path we didn’t chose but is still in our heads. But we would like to have that backdoor too, which allows us to continue our normal lives.

Is the idea of the multiverse only a concept for shows to have more options in storytelling?

At the moment the question if the multiverse really exists is theoretical. Even there are news announcements from time to time about some “discovery” there is no definite proof all scientists would agree with. That’s something physicist Clifford V. Johnson said in a recent interview on the Science and Entertainment YT Channel.

Nevertheless there are numerous multiverse concepts in science. This seems like a logical development since we see an expanse of our idea of the universe. We discovered that our planet is not the only one and not the center of the universe, later we discovered there are countless of galaxies and we find more and more exoplanets every day. Why not having parallel universes? The other idea is the quantum multiverse. Quantum physics suggests these possibilities.

Evidence in a normal sense might be a difficult thing to come by. However, the concept of a multiverse is real because we can relate to it. Most people would agree that they only exist in our universe but for example dreams suggest sometimes different realities with different options. What would have happened if…? It is normal that we create that type of multiverse in our imagination. These are alternative universes which are very similar to our own. And then there are these countless mysterious stories all around the world. From people who vanished and suddenly where back. Maybe there are glitches in our reality where the boundaries between different universes are momentarily blurred.

There are many more ideas out there. What about a multiverse where time runs backwards Perhaps our laws of nature do not apply there? Or our logic might not work? Thus, the multiverse concepts are not so far away from the idea of the otherworld. Otherworld concept in different cultures are full of fantastic dimensions which work in a complete different way as our common everyday world.

As with the otherworld we should ask, where are these other universes? Are there far away or are they right here? Do they overlap with our ordinary reality? Or is it impossible to cross from one universe to another?

Again, contemporary science might not give us the answers we are seeking for. There are certainly yet many theories out there which might be proven some day. What we have is the imagination and the hints of a deeper reality. It is the idea of a deeper reality as represented in the outstanding series Twin Peaks – The Return. A multiverse would be a very helpful model to interpret the different interwoven timelines in David Lynch’s and Mark Frost’s masterpiece. However, there is an important thing here which makes a difference if we compare it to Marvel movies presenting a multiverse. It is not like different levels in a game. It keeps its mystery. A thing I am working on with the Forest Dark Movie project too. Keeping the true nature of the multiverse a mystery. Because this is what it will be for us. We might get to a more complex worldview in time. But we shouldn’t go for a reductionist model of the world. If we see it as a fantastic and mysterious world we might be as close to the truth as we can ever hope for.

Peter Engelmann, May 24, 2022