[SXSW Review] 'Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched' Explores the History and Evolution of Folk Horror around the World
There’s something ethereal about folk horror...
...It’s one of the only threads of horror film whose seeds are planted so firmly in reality and whose tendrils reach beyond genre, curling just as much around drama and children’s media as horror. Not quite classifiable as a subgenre, folk horror is more the deployment of a set of tools and symbols to unsettle and challenge the dominant, established beliefs. It is also, for me, one of the only forms of storytelling able to immediately create a sense of dreamlike unreality. Folk horror is, at least in part, a feeling just as much as a lens through which we can analyze the world. Writer-director Kier-La Janisse, through a series of interviews with filmmakers, authors, folklorists and the like from the world over, traces and analyzes the path of folk horror from its origins in British culture to its modern revival in the US and other countries. What unfolds is an immersive, provocative, and remarkably well-informed behemoth of an undertaking.
At three hours and thirteen minutes, Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched is an analytical documentary not for the faint of heart. Having just made its World Premiere as one of SXSW’s Midnighters, this exploration of folk horror’s roots and offshoots goes beyond examining the cultural folk entries we’re all familiar with (i.e., Wicker Man, The Witch, etc.) into territory we may not easily consider when thinking about the classification, such as Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery and We Have Always Lived in the Castle, to name but two in the US alone. More than that, Days Bewitched explores what motivates folk horror as a mode of storytelling. Why did we start with it, and why does it continue? What do we reckon with when we reckon with folk horror? How has it shifted over time and place? All this and more is tackled the deeper into the documentary we go, and every moment is fascinating.
Films generally classified as folk horror seem to fall frequently into a kind of polarizing viewer territory. Either you love it, or it bores you, it seems. There’s something underneath the surface it is necessary to connect with, and if you don’t feel it then the story doesn’t work as well as it needs to to wrap you in. Simply, either you fall under its spell or you don’t. The magic works or it doesn’t. The beautiful thing about it is that it will continue on whether it connects with you or not, and you may come back to it at a later time, as I did, and find it a more rewarding experience. Folk horror, as with most horror genres, is irrepressible. Its roots are deep and long, its magic far-reaching. It is an unstoppable force. This is, in part, what Days Bewitched is most interested in showcasing. As a mode of storytelling, this brand of horror is born from a very real human anxiety about things we do not understand. Things like feminine power, yes, one of folk horror’s most constant strains of exploration, but also class, race, and gender writ large.
It seems to be planted largely in Christian anxieties specifically, when it is about fear, because folk horror is about connection to the land and to exploring the space between things above all else. Between reality and dream, between gods and people, between stories. Since Christianity spread largely as a result of suppressive colonization of other cultures—cultures white settlers had never encountered before and thus classified as otherworldly—the folk stories became a way to continue a practice that people in power thought they had squashed. The themes of folk horror tales differ from country to country. Days Bewitched begins with an examination of British folk horror because, it states, witchcraft is the religion Britain gave the world. For Britain, this brand of story is about confrontation with the established power. Often that confrontation would come—with mixed results—from women and younger generations. Thus, we get stories that explore power and agency like Piers Haggard’s Blood on Satan’s Claw and that tackle misogyny and exploitation, like Michael Reeves’ Witchfinder General.
While these themes exist in Western articulations of folk horror—there are few things more terrifying than a minority group with drive and intention demanding space in a culture that seeks to dismiss and oppress them—they are built upon in interesting ways. Days Bewitched explores US folk horror as a confrontation with cults who manifest largely as so-called “weird Christians”. That is, those who have twisted traditional Christian beliefs into something else entirely to suit their needs (see things like Children of the Corn). Beyond that, the Western world also seeks to explore folk tales its perceived dominant demographic may not necessarily understand (see, Helen studying the titular myth of Cabrini Green’s Candyman). The idea of “Indian burial ground” is also somewhat persistent in US folk horror, and though it is a rather odd, reductive framing, it articulates the idea of an incomprehensible aspect of the land that is central to folk horror. We can shift and twist things into any sort of narrative we want in an effort to make ourselves more comfortable with our histories, but there will always be something about it that feels…somewhat disconnected and impossible to fully grasp. This is the area that folk horror seeks to exploit and explore the most.
Asian folk horror is perhaps the saddest articulation covered in Days Bewitched. It seems to be less about freedom and powerful confrontation and more about loss, particularly loss of children either during or after childbirth. The women in this strain of folk horror seem doomed to inhabit a cycle of loss and seeking vengeance for wrongdoing they never fully achieve. Meanwhile films like 2019’s La Llorona seek to frame mass violence through the lens of a cultural folk tale. Each of the films and texts examined in Days Bewitched offer a unique understanding of how folk horror functions on a cultural level, resulting in a rich tapestry of storytelling that has evolved for centuries and shows no sign of stopping.
There are a few lines in Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched that will stick with me in all my future horror explorations. “Everything is mysterious to someone”; “Progress is just as horrible as the old ways”; and, best of all, “At the end of the day, you bring your horror in with you.” I love each of these for the way they fluctuate the field of understanding between an individual and a collective experience. They seem to encapsulate everything folk horror is meant to represent. Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched is a must-see for any fan with a passion for folk horror, witchcraft, and the way cultures seek to understand themselves and each other.
By Katelyn Nelson
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