What Tumbles Out: Thoughts On Folk Horror, By Howard David Ingham

Here, now, a post by an old friend and cohort in the RPG-writing industry: Howard David Ingham, who is one of those gents who is one of the smartest people in the room, no matter the room. He’s written a thing about folk horror, and you should check it out:

* * *

A couple of Octobers ago, I’d just managed to get a book off the ground. You know what it’s like, when you have a big project, just finished, and you’re briefly at a loss as to what to do next, the comedown from a modest success threatening to stop you dead in your tracks. And I thought, you know what, it’s been a while since had a I Halloween movie marathon.

Years ago, I’d just spend October binging horror movies, and occasionally writing about them, and having kids stopped that, but I was in a place where I could sit and watch a movie, and then bang out a couple thousand words on it. And I’d just become aware that a whole lot of people were doing work on folk horror, and that interested me because a lot of the things that people seemed to think were folk horror were movies I owned and loved already. I’m talking The Wicker Man. The BBC Ghost Stories for Christmas. The Stone Tape. The Witch. That episode of Doctor Who with the Morris Dancers.

Stories about people blundering into haunted, lonely places and waking abandoned spirits. Pagan village conspiracies. That weird juxtaposition of the prosaic and the uncanny that so particularly defined British TV and film in the 70s and 80s.

It is fair to say, with benefit of hindsight, that this got a little out of control.

From the Fields, Furrows, Forest and Dad’s Forbidden Bookshelf

I’m the child of an occultist and a spiritualist medium. I wasn’t supposed to know about that really as a kid. But dad’s Forbidden Shelf was so temptingly high, and my climbing skills at that pre teen peak that we all have, and so I knew more about Soviet telepathy and rune magic and biothythms and Lemuria than, it is fair to say, most kids my age, even in the 80s, when people were at their most scared of it.

That fear of witchcraft and Satanism and magic didn’t come from nowhere. We had a good twenty years where the Age of Aquarius was in full swing, and that was all tied up with divisive politics, and austerity, and a sense that Britain at least was a tiny bit rubbish. That history was in fact unresolved, and had business with us still. And so we haunted ourselves, with everyday hauntings, hauntings close to home.

And that’s folk horror in a nutshell.

We think of it as a British sort of genre, and we start with the so-called Unholy Trinity of Witchfinder General (1968), Blood on Satan’s Claw (1970) and The Wicker Man (1973), and then factor in a bunch of classic British TV plays and films. But you get different expressions of folk horror from all over the world. Folk horror classic Valerie and Her Week of Wonders (1970) is Czech, and Viy (1967) is Russian. Australia gives us Wake in Fright (1971), Walkabout (1971) and Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975). From Japan we have Onibaba (1964) and Ring (1998). And there are plenty of unique examples from the US, of course. If I were to name an American Unholy Trinity, I might name Carnival of Souls (1962), Let’s Scare Jessica to Death (1971) and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974). You can’t leave out The Blair Witch Project (1999).

And in recent years, as our general culture has in a lot of ways regressed to the 70s (consider: racists on the TV, an American president beset by scandals, austerity and poverty, division over the EU, a new post tagged #witchesofinstagram literally every thirty seconds) we’ve seen a resurgence of new folk horror, especially in the UK and US, films like Kill List (2011) and The Witch (2015) and indie horrors such as Pyewacket (2017). And all of these movies are different, but all have that sense of ordinariness, of closeness. They happen to real people, not people who inhabit High Gothick castles, people in villages.

In the 1975 play Murrain a country vet discovers that the local farm labourers are persecuting an old woman who they believe is a witch. He confronts them, and they have this pivotal conversation where they laugh at him and his fancy science, and accuse him of making up stupid scientific rules, and he says no, the rules change all the time, and sometimes you have to make new rules, but we don’t go back.

And “We Don’t Go Back” is pretty much the central tension of folk horror: we don’t go back to the woods and the old ways, because it’s madness, except it’s also the only way to survive. We don’t go back, except when we do, and we lose both ways. And that’s why it’s the title of my book.

And fate finds us. Inevitability finds us with the inevitability of poverty, the inevitability of class. Sergeant Howie discovers that the people of Summerisle wanted him all along for their pagan rite; Sadako crawls out of her well and through the TV to claim her victims; the Blair Witch leads the lost documentarists into the cellar; everyone Sally Hardesty and her pals meet on their way to the old homestead is related to Leatherface; Thomasin has no choice but to sell her soul for a pretty dress and a knob of butter.

Let’s Scare Howard to Death

So now I’ve got a book out, and I’ve been doing interviews and delivering talks about folk horror, and introducing screenings, and this is nuts because what I am not is an expert. I just started writing about films and TV because it seemed like it was a good idea at the time and it took off, and now boom, here I am.

Years ago, it was Chuck who described my basic methodology as “Who gives a fuck, it’s time to kick down my brain doors and see what tumbles out,” and it’s true, I suppose that’s how I’ve always done it, just written what I feel like and seen if anyone cares (and carried on whether they do or not). So. I’m not going to pretend that this is how you write about film all the time. But this is how I write about film.

I Have an Imagination Like Everyone Else

Once upon a time, if you wanted to find out who directed a movie, or how good it was, or what the critics said, you bought a book. But all of this stuff is now a matter of thirty seconds time spent on the IMDB. So, if you’re going to write about film or TV in a book, it has to be on different grounds. There’s definitely a place for going into the details of shooting, casting, visual direction, photography, and such, and there are some properly fascinating books out there that deal with it, but simple reference doesn’t really have a point these days. So writing about film needs to be about something more than just telling you stuff. It has to be a response.

Be Personal (also Secret, Strange, Dark, Impure and Dissonant)

The best film book I’ve ever come across is Kier-La Janisse’s House of Psychotic Women. Seriously. Buy it. Buy it before you buy mine (but still buy mine, OK). I adore this book. It’s about horror and exploitation movies featuring neurotic women, and Kier-La attacks the subject by delving into her own painful life history. And she interweaves the autobiography with critiques of loads of movies – movies that she makes you want to see, dearly – and her honest, raw and sometimes funny recollections of her own life make for a book that is fully as raw as the movies she’s writing about. It’s great writing and it’s great film writing.

And a lot of the time, that’s what I’m aiming for.

We’re in a climate now where talking about media is a discussion. If any schmuck with a blog and a few thousand readers can be a cultural critic, it’s only fair that we approach this with a bit of humility. We’re adding to the conversation, and we’re inviting other people to react to that. No one needs to pretend to be authoritative – in fact, I’d more or less say that you should never try to be authoritative. React. Respond. Converse.

Spoilers are for wimps

Sometimes if you’re going to be in-depth about what a film is about, you have to give away the ending. If you really want to tackle what’s up with Get Out, for example, that twist needs breaking. Don’t be afraid of this. People who care will come back later when they’ve seen it and a surprising number of people don’t actually care at all and will go watch the films anyway. Write what you write. By all means warn your readers (warnings are important – they are the opposite of censorship, in fact), but don’t be afraid of giving things away if you have to.

Hatewatching Never Helped Anyone

I don’t think there’s such a thing as “so bad it’s good”. I either like a film or I don’t, and with some very few exceptions (the stinky reputations of The Wicker Tree (2011) and The Village (2004) preceded them and I couldn’t help that, and also, they were quite stinky) I’ve worked on the “brilliant until proven rubbish” principle. I just assume I’m going to like a film, and find something to say about it. It probably helps that I have a slightly different standard with regards what sort of thing I am going to like here: I mean, OK, I reckon that you won’t have any trouble making the case that Rogue One (2016) is objectively a better film on every conceivable level than Psychomania (1973). But one of those is a really good Star Wars movie, and one of them is an unhinged tale of a psychic whose toad-worshipping butler might in fact be Satan and whose son leads a gang of undead bikers, terrorising suburban Surrey, and to be honest I know which of those I’d rather be watching.

But even bad films, even films made by assholes, even – take a breath before saying it – problematic films can have something to share with us. They are artefacts of our culture, and as products of our culture, they have things to tell us. They have a value.

The world is rubbish right now and writing about film and TV seems trivial, pointless. And people do occasionally ask me, “Why do you write about this crap? Why don’t you write about something important?” But cinema and TV tell us stories about the world we are in. They are voices. And it’s valuable, and I even think it’s moral to keep tackling this stuff, and I think genre cinema is absolutely the best ground to stand on here, because genre film hides things, it sneaks stuff by you, it holds up that mirror. It really matters to do this. Because we understand ourselves through it. Culture keeps us alive.

It’s Always a Work in Progress

Further down the line, I’m committed to On a Thousand Walls, a book about urban weirdness; Cult Cinema, which is about bad religion in films; The Question in Bodies, a collection on what I like to call identity horror and Your Move, Darwin, a survey of the Planet of the Apes movies. I’ve got a hell of a lot of momentum right now, and the fact that the We Don’t Go Back book seems to be doing OK is just an added bonus. If you’d asked me three years ago where I’d find my biggest success yet as a writer, I wouldn’t have said “film criticism”. But then, that’s part of the fun of this game. When you kick open the brain doors, there’s no way of knowing what’s going to tumble out.

Howard David Ingham: Website

We Don’t Go Back: Amazon