In the new SBS series Pagan Peak (originally titled Der Pass), the discovery of a dead body on a remote stretch of the German–Austrian border brings together two cops - German Ellie Stocker (Julia Jentsch) and Austrian Gedeon Winter (Nicholas Ofczarek) – who must team up to solve the crime.
However, the method of dispatch and condition of the body indicate a connection to the folk customs and pre-Christian pagan rituals still practised by the locals in the thinly populated mountain fastness where the corpse was found, which means we’re drifting out of the strict confines of the crime procedural and into the murky realm of pastoral terror known as folk horror.
The background and boogeymen of folk horror may be ancient, but the term itself is fairly new, having been coined during a 2004 interview by British director Piers Haggard to put a ring around his 1971 historical horror, The Blood on Satan’s Claw, which sees a 17th-century village deal with the pressing problem of their children forming up into a nascent Satanic cult.
Haggard described the film as “… a story about people subject to superstitions about living in the woods, the dark poetry of that appealed to me. I was trying to make a folk-horror film, I suppose.” Mark Gatiss reused the phrase in his documentary series A History of Horror to group Satan’s Claw together with 1968’s Witchfinder General and 1973’s The Wicker Man and lo, a subgenre was born.
It’s a fairly nebulously defined one, though. Folk horror generally – but not always – deals with rural, often British settings where the scares come not from an intrusive outsider, but the revelation that the location itself, stripped of its benign daytime face, holds horrors, often tied to pagan religions, witchcraft, ancient curses and what have you. The general rule of thumb is “How much does this remind me of The Wicker Man?” – the more similarities with Robin Hardy’s masterpiece, which sees Edward Woodward’s virginal Christian cop come undone at the hands of Christopher Lee and the Celtic witch-cult he rules on his remote Scottish island, the more on-genre you are.
Folk horror has undergone a bit of a resurgence of late, mostly thanks to British genre filmmakers who grew up influenced by the earlier films.
Ben Wheatley is practically a one-man folk horror revival, having directed Kill List (2011), which takes a pair of hitmen down a disturbing rabbit hole of cults and madness; Sightseers (2012), in which a pair of serial killers murder tourists while holidaying among some of Britain’s more ominous standing stones and monoliths; and A Field in England (2013), a psychedelic and psychological horror that deals with rival alchemists during the English Civil War.
Christopher Smith’s 2010 movie Black Death goes even further back to plague-ridden 1348, and pits Sean Bean’s knight and Eddie Redmayne’s novice priest against Carice van Houten as the priestess of a backwoods cult with, er, visceral results. All else aside, it includes perhaps Bean’s most unusual death scene (c’mon, that’s not a spoiler).
And then there’s Colm McCarthy’s Outcast, also from 2010, set on a rundown Edinburgh council estate, in which the impoverished last remnants of ancient bloodlines must still contend with supernatural curses and monsters amid the graffiti and squalor.
Urban-set folk horror films aren’t entirely unknown, but they are unusual – the fens and bogs of the remote countryside lend themselves more to the genre than the crowded streets of London. Still, there are a few: 1972’s Death Line, where the remnant of a cannibal tribe stalks the London Underground; 2016’s The Ghoul, in which a detective goes undercover as a psychiatric patient but finds himself ensnared in a secret occult subculture; and even 1981’s An American Werewolf in London, which heavily invokes folk horror tropes in its moor-set opening act before retiring to the big smoke for more carnivorous lunar activities. These urban folk horrors overlap with another recently minted subgenre dubbed “the urban wyrd”, which deserves an essay all to itself.
While strongly identified with the UK, folk horror has been known to go a-voyaging. Consider 2015’s The Witch, which sees a Puritan family terrorised by a forest-dwelling hag in Colonial America; or Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth (2006), a dreamlike fable set at the tail end of the Spanish Civil War that nonetheless presents a lot of strong pagan imagery, drawn from both Spanish and Greek sources, albeit in an alchemy with del Toro’s own sensibilities. Both films also deal explicitly with the oppression of the feminine by male figures, with their female victims finding escape through the proscribed supernatural practices of each story: The Witch’s Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy) embraces satanism, while Pan’s Labyrinth’s Ofelia (Ivana Baquero) embraces death, possibly entering a fantastic realm by doing so.
As a genre, folk horror is ambivalent about the hidden world it presents – are these horrors abominations to be stamped out, or a reaction against oppression and imprisonment? For every staunch and heroic opponent of black magic, like Christopher Lee’s Duc de Richleau in 1968’s The Devil Rides Out, there’s a raving madman like Vincent Price’s Matthew Hopkins in Witchfinder General.
One of the more recent examples of the form, Gareth Evans’ 2018 film Apostle, tries to have it both ways, giving us a perverted pseudo-Christian religious cult who have corralled a genuine supernatural power they ought not to have messed with. Another, 2017’s The Ritual, directed by David Bruckner, is firmly on the side that the woods is no place for modern man to trespass – and gives us a cult and a monster drawn from Norse pagan traditions, which is a nice change from the old matriarchal witch cult the Brits normally default to.
What is agreed upon, though, is that the old ways aren’t gone. They’re merely hiding in remote hamlets and forgotten groves where a dwindling but devout number of acolytes light the candles, sharpen the sickles and wait for the unwary. So stick to the road, beware the moon, keep your crucifix and your pentacle handy, and blessed be.
All eight episodes of Pagan Peak are available now at SBS On Demand: