Passions: How The Wicker Man kindled my love of ‘folk horror’

From films to books to television, I can’t get enough of this elusive genre

It was an appointment with The Wicker Man I simply could not miss. Last year, I drove down to Newton Stewart in Dumfries and Galloway with a good pal for a very special screening of the legendary 1973 horror film.

It was a thrill to sit in the town’s small cinema surrounded by other fans to celebrate 50 years of this remarkable movie, which was largely shot in the surrounding area. Exposure to The Wicker Man at a young age (unbeknown to my parents, I should add) kindled my love for the genre known as “folk horror”.

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This can be easier to identify than define. "It is the evil under the soil, the terror in the backwoods of a forgotten lane, and the ghosts that haunt stones and patches of dark, lonely water,” writes Adam Scovell, the author of Folk Horror: Hours Dreadful and Things Strange.

Three films form the “unholy trinity” of folk horror: The Wicker Man, Witchfinder General (1968) and The Blood on Satan's Claw (1971). The latter two will shortly see new Blu-ray releases from 88 Films, which I can’t wait for.

But the genre is so sprawling and elusive that it can take in all manner of movies, TV shows, books and music. Writers such as MR James, Algernon Blackwood and Arthur Machen are often name-checked. Andrew Michael Hurley’s novels are brilliant recent additions.

Television has contributed many of the classics. The BBC’s Ghost Stories for Christmas strand is essential viewing, as is the work of Nigel K neale . The extraordinary Penda’s Fen (1974) definitely falls into the genre, despite not really being horror at all.

Folk horror has enjoyed something of a revival in recent years. Ben Wheatley’s Kill List (2011), an unforgettable gut-punch of a film, is a personal favourite. More obscurely, I recently picked up a cheap DVD of the somewhat overlooked Edinburgh-set movie Outcast (2010), which arguably ticks a lot of the right boxes.

It’s not just a British thing, either. The comprehensive documentary Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched (2021), directed by Kier-La Janisse, puts the “folk horror phenomenon” into a global perspective. It’s a must-see.

I’m not sure what it is about this genre I love so much. Perhaps it’s that sense of the uncanny lurking just beneath the surface of the soil; the deep past haunting our everyday lives. Or maybe I just watched The Wicker Man at exactly the right age for it to shape my tastes forever.

​Alistair Grant is Political Editor of The Scotsman

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