An appointment with The Wicker Man: What makes a folk horror?

Piers Haggard, the director of cult classic The Blood on Satan’s Claw, claimed in an interview with Fangoria Magazine that, while making the film, he was attempting to make what he called a “Folk Horror”[1]. Haggard went on to explain that he felt this term described the type of movie he hoped to produce, one that was “intrinsically linked to the Earth, like a folktale”, and felt that this sort of story was something that had never really been tackled by filmmakers. It was Haggard’s hope that he would produce something wholly different to the usual British output of the time, namely Hammer Horror and the Amicus Productions anthology films. Haggard wanted to introduce an older style of storytelling, and highlight the terrors that lurked within our own history[2].

With this idea was born Folk Horror, an entire sub-genre built around ancient folklores and history. The term became prominent in 2010, after it was used by Mark Gattis in his BBC documentary A History of Horror, and has claimed many films in its short history, several of the retroactively. Films retroactively recognised as Folk Horror since 2010 include such varied and disparate titles as Kaneto Shindo’s 1964 art-house drama Onibaba, which tells the tale of a mother and daughter plagued by a haunted mask, Cyril Frankel’s 1966 Hammer Horror, The Witches, which serves as an exploration of feminism in mid-60s Britain, Edward Sanchez and Daniel Myrick’s 1999 found-footage horror The Blair Witch Project, in which a trio of documentary filmmakers encounter an unseen but malicious presence in the woods[3], and even, although its inclusion is the subject of some debate, Tobe Hooper’s 1974 video nasty, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, often recognised as one of the first and most influential slasher films[4].

But, despite conjuring up clear images of rural landscapes and murderous cults, the sub-genre itself is loose in terms of tropes and themes, and remains somewhat unexplored and unclear. Unlike horror’s other sub-genres (slashers, ghost stories, zombies and so on), folk-horror has no final girls, masked killers, recognisable villains and recurring story beats. Even the so-called ‘Unholy Trinity’, a trilogy of unconnected films released in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s[5], despite being recognised as the foundation upon which the entire sub-genre was built[6], share very little in common. So, what is a folk-horror film? Is folk-horror even a genre?

Before we begin, we first need to define what a genre is. Film scholar Rick Altman defines genre in terms of media language and codes[7]. In his paper A Semantic/Syntactic Approach to Film Genre, Altman proposed a two-pronged approach to genre definition, claiming that in order to fully understand what a genre is you need to consider both the recurring common traits communicated to an audience (characters, locations, shooting style, etc.), and the relationships between these traits and the structure of genre narratives (for example, in a romantic comedy we expect the leads to start out disliking each other, but through a series of events they will bond and ultimately begin a relationship). A genre, then, Altman claimed, can be identified through shared recurring elements present in different films; thematic, aesthetic, tonal and structural.

Utilising Altman’s semantic/syntactic approach we can begin to build a clear idea of what the recurring elements of Folk Horror may be, and whether or not the films within this mysterious sub-genre can really be defined by them. We will do this by discussing and exploring the various similarities between three distinctly different films, all labelled Folk Horror; Robin Hardy’s 1973 cult classic The Wicker Man, Ben Wheatley’s 2012 surreal thriller A Field in England, and Robert Egger’s 2015 historical drama The Witch. Each film represents a different aspect of Folk Horror. The Wicker Man is arguably the most iconic and recognisable of all the films within the sub-genre, and a case could be made that it has had the single biggest impact upon it, while Wheatley’s film is a far more modern movie, employing more modern techniques (it was shot digitally and utilises certain CGI elements[8]), with Eggers’ The Witch representing an American addition, with a heavy focus on realism and period specific accuracy[9].

The differences in each film are enough to ensure that any recurring elements are not homage or reference, but rather genuine aspects of the films themselves. There are several clear recurring themes present in each of the films, most notably those of isolation and religion, and in the way in which these themes are often intrinsically linked through the plot and the story of the films. Both themes play important parts of all three films, and both themes are widely acknowledged as being key to what people recognise as Folk Horror[10].

In The Wicker Man, the theme isolation is explored through several different elements. Firstly, we have the geographical aspect. Sergeant Howie travels to the isolated island community of Summerisle, separated from the mainland by the sea. Not only is Summerisle itself isolated from the world, Howie also finds himself isolated within it. An outsider trapped in a strange, unknown location, and isolated in terms of both his position as a representative of the mainland and by his religious beliefs. The film even conjures up imagery that draws heavily on isolation, with the now infamous final sequence being a fine example, where Howie is sacrificed by the Pagan natives, who place him inside the titular Wicker Man and burn him alive. The film ends with the figure of The Wicker Man ablaze, silhouetted against the sun and isolated atop a hill with the vast ocean stretching out beyond it.

Howie’s isolation extends further, and it is interwoven with the films exploration of religion as a theme as well. Howie is a devout Christian, and his practices and beliefs are in direct contradiction with the Pagan religion practiced by the islanders. While this further serves to isolate Howie as a character (several sequences see him either berating members of the island community for their, as he perceives it, “heathen” beliefs[11], or practicing religion in his own way) it also allows the film to explore both Christianity and Paganism and, in more broad terms, religion as a whole. Howie’s puritanical approach to religion verses the islanders free-spirited approach makes up a big part of the film’s runtime. The film, at least the director’s cut of it (there are several different cuts of the film available[12]), even begins with a sequence in which we see Howie at Church, which is then mirrored later in the film when he discovers an abandoned and derelict Church in the heart of Summerisle.

A thematic exploration of religion is something that recurs in Ben Wheatley’s A Field in England. The protagonist, an alchemist’s assistant named Whitehead, is taken captive by a rival alchemist named O’Neill, who tortures him into forsaking his religious vows and instead to “Open up and let the Devil in”[13]. While the religious aspect plays less into the story here than it does in The Wicker Man, its presence is integral to the characters and their situation none-the-less. The film becomes increasingly more and more psychedelic as it goes on, leading to the central characters, a group of men who have escaped a battle during the English Civil War and are on a quest to find an alehouse rumoured to be nearby, beginning to question their own faith and the possibility that they may, in fact, be dead and in Hell. The historical setting of the English Civil War also heightens the religious aspect of the film, what with the conflict built in part around religious differences, and the fact that it is not made clear which side of the conflict they are on means the theme or religion is explored in broader terms than the specific nature of The Wicker Man’s Christianity verses Paganism approach.

In Wheatley’s film everything is left ambiguous. The characters escape a battle, though we are never told what battle, and head out into the countryside in search of an alehouse. They find themselves trapped in the strange and mysterious field of the title, although we are never told where it is specifically other than “in England”, and find themselves unable to escape (whether this is a genuine mystical field or a result of their consumption of magic mushrooms is a question the film, and Wheatley, refuses to answer[14]). This ambiguity not only leads to the broader exploration of religion; it also serves to heighten the sense of isolation throughout the film. The characters are isolated in several different ways. Not only are they isolated from the outside world, each of them feels isolation within themselves. Whitehead, the films main protagonist, struggles to fit in because of his higher intelligence, or at least his perceived higher intelligence, as well as his religious vows, which he is then forced to forsake. As deserters, each of the core cast also find themselves unable to return to their respective homes, since the act of desertion has isolated them from the other soldiers, a concept that is visualised when each of them break through a thick bush that runs along the edge of the field, separating the bloody and noisy battle from the unsettling calm of the field.

Both isolation and religion are key components of The Witch, perhaps more so than either of the other examples given here. The story begins with the main family, having been banished from their settlement, having to fend for themselves in the unknown landscapes of New England. The farm they build sits on the edge of a large forest and is isolated from any other communities. Several shots of the farmhouse illustrate this point, with the structure itself small and solitary in the vast field and against the massive forest beyond it. Furthermore, Thomason, the film’s main protagonist, finds herself increasingly isolated from her family when they begin to suspect she is responsible for the sinister goings on plaguing them throughout the movie. Her isolation from them becomes central to the story, which acts as a coming-of-age tale, and leads ultimately to her rejection of them (and their deaths) and her joining the Satanic sisterhood that lives within the woods.

With that in mind, it is clear as well that religion is a key factor within the plot of The Witch. Thematically religion is explored through both the family, and their devoutness to religion (indeed they are so devout that they are willing to be banished from their settlement due to their own religious beliefs), and through the Satanism of the witch in the woods, in the impact that it has on the family. The depiction of religion in The Witch is painstakingly accurate, and Eggers drew upon real life writings from the period during the scripting process[15], while the Satanic Church endorsed the film in its portrayal of Satanism[16]. The film makes many references to God and the practices of worshipping God through dialogue, while there are several scenes in which the family pray. The film ends with Thomason renouncing her Christianity and embracing Satanism, while the struggle between the two religions is continuously developed throughout.

This “verses” aspect almost seems to be a key part of the Folk Horror sub-genre, with each film portraying its own version of this idea. Christianity in all three is seem as somewhat pompous and almost overbearing, while the other side of the coin (in The Wicker Man is it Paganism, in A Field in England it is alchemy, and in The Witch it is Satanism) is presented as freeing, enlightening and empowering. Furthermore, each of the alternatives tend to lean toward a closer relationship with natural elements rather than with Godlike figures.

Religion as a thematic device is employed within each film through the story itself, and all three films see their lead characters have their faith or religion tested in one way or another. In The Wicker Man, that Landlord’s daughter attempts to seduce Sergeant Howie, dancing naked against the wall and singing seductively to him. Howie struggles to maintain composure when faced with the opportunity, despite his religious beliefs in the importance of no sex before marriage.

Temptation comes into play again in The Witch. Each of the family are struggling with their own temptations and their own crisis’ of faith. From the father, who steals his wife’s treasured cup to sell for food, to the son, who lusts after his sister and fears for his soul, a key component of the story in The Witch is temptation. Of course, the film ends with Thomason succumbing to the temptations, as the Devil himself puts it; “Wouldst thou like the taste of butter?”.

In A Field in England, Whitehead is forced to renounce his faith, but the idea of temptation does once again reoccur. Having deserted his master, and the war, and left him for dead, Whitehead finds himself unsure of his own faith, fearing his actions have made him into a sinner. He then battles with how he is supposed to deal with the unfolding situation regarding rival alchemist, and the films primary antagonist, O’Neill.

Folk Horror features protagonists who are at odds with their beliefs, and who struggle to come to terms with certain temptations and outside factors that serve to test their core morals and understanding of the world. Often this is done via an opposing viewpoint (Lord Summerisle in The Wicker Man, O’Neill in A Field in England and the Witch in The Witch) who, as outline above, also often has a link with the natural elements that surround and oppose the protagonists.

The emphasis on the natural elements within each film is not exclusively a thematic element, either. The visuals often highlight this aspect, as does the settings. Each of the films take place in a predominantly or entirely rural area. The Wicker Man’s Summerisle is complete devoid of any urban architecture, instead populated by a small village with stone houses and an inn. It is quintessentially old fashioned in this regard, and is filled with rolling fields and luscious trees. A key plot point involves the apple orchards, while there is a scene that features an ancient stone circle, much like Stonehenge. A Field in England takes place, unsurprisingly, in a field in England, the only manmade structure that appears in the film is a small tent. The Witch, meanwhile, takes place in the vast open spaces of New England circa 1630, and there is a definite emphasis on the woods that surround the family’s farmhouse.

Each film features shots in which we see the protagonists dwarfed by their surroundings, highlighting the importance of the natural world around them, and its power over them. Each film also showcases the world’s power through its control of the character’s needs. In The Wicker Man the plot is set in motion when Summerisle is unable to produce crops, while A Field in England involves the accidental ingestion of magic mushrooms and key point in the story, and in The Witch the ground beneath the family’s farm is considered “cursed” when they are unable to grow corn.

The concept of the old world, ancient beliefs and places, are key to Folk Horror, with many films within the sub-genre drawing upon folklore, writings and other sources to build their worlds. This inspiration from history and mythology is apparent in all three of the films discussed here. The Wicker Man’s cultish goings on are built from age old religions, and the practice of human sacrifice and the burning of a large wicker effigy, are drawn from genuine historical accounts of such activity[17]. The film obviously takes some creative license with it (it is the subject of debate whether or not ancient religious practitioners really did sacrifice people by placing them inside the burning effigies), but the influence of such ideas and stories is clear.

A Field in England takes inspiration from writings about so-called “Fairy Circles”, as well as folkloric tales built around alchemy and magic from the time the film is set[18]. According to Ben Wheatley, the film’s director, the further into the history and mythology he dug the more he learned and more he inserted into the script. In an interview with Film 4, which aired before the film’s premiere, Wheatley states that the story grew out of all his research into the period and his discovering of the struggle between “magic being removed from religion” and how “magic was becoming science”[19].

Research was an integral part of Robert Egger’s process when writing The Witch, as well. The Witch, as Eggers has explained, was written by taking genuine historical accounts and weaving the ideas into the script. Much of the dialogue and action that takes place in the film is lifted verbatim from these accounts, with people sharing their supposed encounters with witchcraft and those who practice it[20]. The Witch takes this influence of folklore and mythology one step further, presenting itself almost as though it were a folktale in its own right. Indeed, the film is subtitled “A New England Folktale”, and plays out almost like a cautionary story puritans of the time might tell their children in an effort to make them understand why they must follow the word of God.

The influence of folklore and older cultures makes its way into the music of folk horror as well. The Wicker Man is, in part at least, something of a musical. There are several moments throughout where characters burst into song. The music used is diegetic in that it is often presented as though it were really happening; a group of patrons in the pub sing a rendition of The Landlord’s Daughter, while school children, jumping naked over a fire, sing a nursery rhyme as Sergeant Howie watches on in horror at the rejection of “the one true God”, as he puts it. Meanwhile, in Wheatley’s film, there is an instance of a character singing the folk song “Baloo, My Boy” while the others listen on. In The Witch there is a moment in which the two youngest members of the family, seven-year olds Jonas and Mercy, sing a song about their goat, Black Phillip, who is later revealed to be the Devil in disguise.

Furthermore, the non-diegetic music used in each films bears a similarity to each other, utilising traditional sounds that evoke a folk aesthetic. The non-diegetic music in The Wicker Man utilises folk songs themselves, while in both A Field in England and The Witch the composers have written music that deliberately references the period settings.

There are certain structural similarities between the three films that are also worth noting. Despite their differences, each film shares are surprising amount in terms of plot structure and story beats beyond those that many stories share with each other anyway. Each of the films begin with our protagonist(s) venturing out into an uncertain and unknown place where they are recognised as an outsider. In The Wicker, Sergeant Howie leaves the mainland and travels, by plane, to Summerisle. Once there he is met with hostility and uncertainty from the locals, who recognise him as an outsider to their way of life. Once there Howie begins to suspect that there is something not quite right with the island community.

This is reflected in A Field in England, which begins to Whitehead struggling through a hedge before falling out into the titular field. While Howie has been summoned to the island to investigate the disappearance of a little girl, Whitehead is escaping from a battle, but the general structure of both plots is the same. Whitehead, much like Howie, is met with hostility once he’s in the field by the other deserters who inhabit it, and, just like the Sergeant in The Wicker Man, he too begins to suspect that there is something more sinister and unnatural going on beneath the surface.

The Witch also shares this structure. The film opens with the family being banished and sent on their way out into the big wide world. Once there they find the landscape is hostile to them, and that a sinister presence in the woods where they choose to build their farm is antagonising them. Just as Whitehead and Howie do, the family in The Witch also begin to suspect that something darker may be at play within the woods.

Interestingly, all three of the films employ an element of ambiguity to the more supernatural elements. In The Wicker Man we are never made aware whether or not the Pagan God Howie is ultimately sacrificed to is real. There is nothing in the film to suggest that it is beyond the islanders’ devout belief in them. Despite the oddly surreal and unsettling tone of the film, there are no outwardly supernatural elements at play and by the time the credits roll the audience is left no clearer as to whether or not the sacrifice will work.

Similarly, in A Field in England the characters inject magic mushrooms early on the film, which forces the audience to question the more surreal, supernatural elements of the film that appear in the third act. Despite the very psychedelic climax, and the unusual, supernatural elements of the plot (at one point the characters pull O’Neill out of the middle of a field, where he has seemingly been trapped by the Fairy Circle) the magic mushrooms through an ambiguity into the frame. The audience are unable to trust what the film is showing them.

This ambiguous nature plays into The Witch as well. While there is never any question that there is a Witch in the woods, there is certainly an element of ambiguity toward whether or not the Witch has any supernatural powers. It is possible, the film seems to suggest, that the family are simply turning on themselves and embellishing the Witches power as a result of their own fear and paranoia. Much like A Field in England, the audience are unable to trust what the film is showing them.

Ambiguity is a key aspect of Folk Horror, but it also feeds into something more noticeable. In Folk Horror the horror tends to stem more from people and their reactions to things than it does from a supernatural element. In The Wicker Man the islanders are the villains, we are never even sure their deity exists, while in A Field in England the main conflict comes from the battle between Whitehead and O’Neill, two men, and the Fairy Circle is really nothing more than setting. In The Witch the primary focus is on the family and their conflicts with each other, while The Witch is merely the catalyst for instigating the conflict. Folk Horror, is would seem, thinks people are the real evil.

Folk Horror seems to revel in that darkness. In terms of structure the other obvious similarity is in the ending of each film. Here the heroes don’t win, and not every question is answered. In The Wicker Man, Howie is dragged up a hill and placed inside the titular structure where he is burned to death while he screams for God to save him. While the film refuses to tell the audience whether or not the islanders have been successful in appeasing their own deity, the dark and cynical ending is something that Folk Horror, it seems, must have if it is to be recognised as such.

The finale of A Field in England collapses into a psychedelic spectacle of fast cuts, strange, mirrored imagery and bizarre close-ups, but once the psychedelia has ended and the film returned to “normality”, Whitehead attempts to leave the field by heading back through the hedge we saw him emerge from in the opening. Only, when he does make his way through to the site of the battle he had fled from, Whitehead finds himself face to face with his double and two of the dead men he has left behind. Whitehead is unable to escape from the field, doomed to an eternity of strange, uncomfortable horror.

Cynicism and darkness are also present in the ending of The Witch. All of the family are dead, bar Thomason and her mother, who has been driven made by the grief she suffers at the loss of those she loved. Convinced Thomason is herself the Witch in the woods, the mother attacks her and the two women fight. With no other choice, Thomason kills her mother in self-defence. She then confronts the goat, Black Philip, who is revealed to be the Devil himself. Black Philip offers Thomason the choice to join him, asking “Wouldst thou like to like deliciously?”. Thomason accepts, signing her name in his book, and then heads off into the darkness of the forest, where she is met by other witches, all of them dancing naked around a fire. In Folk Horror not only do the good guys not win, the bad guys don’t lose.

These core aspects have remained almost unchanged throughout the history of Folk Horror, as evident by the three films discussed. Despite there being over 40 years’ difference in the release of The Wicker Man, A Field in England and The Witch, each of the films demonstrate consistent and recurring elements throughout.

As a sub-genre, then, when considering Altman’s approach to film genre, we can clear see that there are recognisable tropes, aesthetics, characters, plot points and ideas present in the films that fall within it. It would seem Folk Horror is a sub-genre after all, one that is concerned with religious faith, the old verses the new, humanity’s relationship with nature and, perhaps most prominently, humanity’s relationship with itself. Films that fall within the sub-genre will no doubt remain a source of discussion, but then this is true of any genre (there are those who argue John Carpenter’s Halloween, a film widely accepted as being the first of the slasher movies, does not fit within that particular sub-genre[21]).

As Mark Gattis puts it in his History of Horror documentary, “I wasn’t interested in Dracula, but I was interested in the dark things that people feel and the dark things that happen… the nooks and crannies of woodland, the edges of fields… the sense of the soil. It was all something that I tried to bring into the picture”[22]. Undoubtedly he succeeded, but in doing so, and in recognising just what he wanted, Haggard also described one of horrors most curious, unique and interesting of sub-genres.

[1] Scovell, A. (2017) Folk horror: hours dreadful and things strange. Leighton Buzzard: Auteur Publishing

[2] ‘Audio commentary with director Piers Haggard, Linda Hayden and Robert Wynne-Simmons’ (2013) Blood on Satan’s Claw. Directed by Piers Haggard. [Blu-ray] Odeon Entertainment.

[3] Muncer, M. (2018) ‘Folk pt 1 with Alice Lowe’, Evolution of horror, 21 June 2018 [Podcast] Available at: [Accessed: 1 June 2019]

[4] Muncer, M. (2018) ‘Folk pt 8: The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974)’, Evolution of horror, 10 August 2018 [Podcast] Available at: [Accessed: 1 June 2019]

[5] Bleachershane. (2014) A history of horror with Mark Gatiss (part 2 of 3) home county horrors. [Online] Available at: [Accessed: 27 May 2019]

[6] ‘Burnt Offering: the cult of The Wicker Man’ (2001) The Wicker Man. Directed by Robin Hardy. [Blu-ray] Studio Canal.

[7] Jackie. (2013) ‘Rick Altman’s “a semantic/syntactic approach to film genre”’ [Online] Available at: [Accessed: 23 May 2019]

[8] ‘Audio commentary with Ben Wheatley, Andy Starke & Martin Pavey’ (2013) A Field in England. Directed by Ben Wheatley [Blu-ray] Channel 4 DVD.

[9] Bitel, A. (2016) Voices of the undead: Robert Eggers on The Witch. [Online] Available at: [Accessed: 25 May 2019]

[10] Scovell, A. (2017) Folk horror: hours dreadful and things strange. Leighton Buzzard: Auteur Publishing

[11] The Wicker Man. (2013) Directed by Robin Hardy [Blu-ray] Studio Canal.

[12] The Wicker Man. (2013) Directed by Robin Hardy [Blu-ray] Studio Canal.

[13] A Field in England. (2013) Directed by Ben Wheatley [Blu-ray] Channel 4 DVD.

[14] ‘Audio commentary with Ben Wheatley, Andy Starke & Martin Pavey’ (2013) A Field in England. Directed by Ben Wheatley [Blu-ray] Channel 4 DVD.

[15] O’Falt, C. (2016) How Robert Eggers used real historical accounts to create his horror sensation ‘The Witch’. [Online] Available at: [Accessed: 25 May 2019]

[16] Lang, B. (2016) How ‘The Witch’ scored the Satanic Temple’s endorsement. [Online] Available at: [Accessed: 25 May 2019]

[17] Mingren, W. (2016) The fearsome Wicker Man: an eerie way Druids committed human sacrifice. [Online] Available at: [Accessed: 25 May 2019]

[18] Fischer, R. (2014) /Film interview: ‘A Field in England’ director Ben Wheatley. [Online] Available at: [Accessed: 27 May 2019]

[19] Film4. (2013) Ben Wheatley on A Field in England. [Online] Available at: [Accessed: 27 May 2019]

[20] O’Falt, C. (2016) How Robert Eggers used real historical accounts to create his horror sensation ‘The Witch’. [Online] Available at: [Accessed: 25 May 2019]

[21] Muncer, M. (2017) Slashers pt 5: Halloween (1978) ft. Chris Hewitt. [Online] Available at: [Accessed: 1 May 2019]

[22] Bleachershane. (2014) A history of horror with Mark Gatiss (part 2 of 3) home county horrors. [Online] Available at: [Accessed: 27 May 2019]

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© Alex Secker 2018