The Evil Dead: is Sam Raimi's controversial 1981 gore-fest secretly a Folk Horror?

October 24, 2019

 

I know I've written a fair amount on folk horror before, and I don't mean to go on, but it remains one of the most tantalising and fascinating of the horror sub-genres, at least for me. Not just because it's so damn difficult to categorise, either, but because the films within it, from the 'Unholy Trinity' to more recent entries from the likes of Robert Eggers and Ben Wheatley, are so rich; filled with weighty themes, complex ideas and... well, scary stuff.

 

When I was writing my Extended Essay for my HND, I chose folk horror as the subject (and you can read a version of that essay here, if you care to). The essay focused on just what makes up the recurring themes and motifs of folk horror, and whether or not the sub-genre can really be categorised by these recognisable elements in the same way, say, slasher movies can, with their final girls and masked killers.

 

The outcome of the essay was essentially (and I'm paraphrasing here, if you want the in-depth discussion then go read the essay itself) that while there are most definitely key recurring elements present within folk horror films - or, at least, the films I chose to illustrate my point - the sub-genre remains a fluid, constantly evolving, and fascinatingly loose one.

 

I did, however, identify a few clear 'tropes' - for lack of a better word - that I think define, to some degree at least, what makes up a folk horror film. In no particular order these are:

 

Isolation. Characters and locations that are isolating or isolated in some way make up a big portion of folk horror movies. Howie in The Wicker Man, trapped on Summersisle away from so-called "civilised society" for example, isolated not just in a geographical sense, but in an emotional sense, and literally through his beliefs as well. His status as an outsider on the island puts him in an isolated position almost immediately.

 

Leading off from that is the use of landscape and nature, both of which are almost instantly recognisable folk horror "tropes". The sprawling British landscapes of Piers Haggard's The Blood on Satan's Claw, or the spooky, unknown woods that sit near the family's cottage in Robert Eggars' The Witch. But it's not merely within setting and aesthetics that landscape and nature play a part. It is also almost always intricately linked with the narrative in some way. Whether it be to isolate characters - as stated above - or whether it physically plays into it (the family can't grow crops in The Witch, for examples, while the group in Ben Wheatley's A Field in England are trapped by a 'fairy circle'; a ring of mushrooms believed to be a magical trap).

 

And finally, some sort of evil manifestation, whether brought up by people or the summoning of some sort of evil. Often this evil will be born out of a warped belief, Matthew Hopkins, the sadistic witchfinder in Witchfinder General, for example, uses his Christianity as a means to torture young women for pleasure, or an ignorant curiosity not unlike those found in M R James ghost stories, such as the find of the mask in Kaneto Shindo's Onibaba. This manifestation of evil can be both fundamentally non-supernatural and entirely supernatural.

 

So, with those characteristics specifically in mind, something occured to me last week that I can't seem to get out of my head... is Sam Raimi's controversial 1981 horro The Evil Dead technically a folk horror film?

 

Look, I realise that sounds ridiculous, because of course it's not, right. It doesn't really have the feel of a folk horror, and it's not really all that interested in anything we would automatically consider to be folk horror, either. For one, the folklore present in The Evil Dead isn't region or country specific, which is an integral part of folk horror as far as many people are concerned... the evil is stated as being Sumerian.

 

But, the fact remains that it is folklore. And the entire film has a sort of folkloric, urban legend quality - the premise; a group of kids go to a cabin in the woods and are attacked by an ancient evil - sounds as much like the kind of story one might tell to people sat around a campfire as it does the concept for a low-budget, shocking splatter-fest of grindhouse cinema.

 

Much like The Blood on Satan's Claw has an almost folkloric quality, rather than drawing upon folklore itself it is more like a dramatisation of the folklore. If Satan's Claw is the story villagers might whisper to one other about the mysterious events of a village two towns over or whatever, then The Evil Dead is like the strange and frightening story townsfolk like to share about the creepy cabin in the woods just outside of town.

 

And then we come to the actual "tropes" themselves, as led out earlier.

 

Firstly, we have isolation; and I'm pretty sure you've already figured this one fits. The cabin in The Evil Dead is entirely isolated, and the film even opens with the journey to get there, which includes travelling over are somewhat treacherous wooden bridge. Later, once the evil is awoken, Bruce Campbell's Ash and his sister Linda head back to the bridge, only to find it bent and broken, cutting them off and, yes, isolating them entirely from the rest of the world. Without the help of mobile phones and modern technology, the teens find themselves isolated in almost every sense of the word, and the movie's final act even isolates Ash himself, having removed all the other cast members, we simply watch him fend off the Deadites alone, locked in the cabin. You could almost compare it to something like Peckinpah's Straw Dogs... almost.

 

The bridge and the cabin in the woods both also highlight the use of the landscape and of the environment. Aside from the initial drive to the cabin, there's almost no sense of contemporary society within the location, and this does specifically play into the story, as well. Furthermore, while in The Witch the environment is a threat because the crops won't grown, in The Evil Dead the environment is a threat because the trees will literally fucking rape you.

 

Upon my slow realisation at how much The Evil Dead seems to fall within the realms of Folk Horror, this horrific sequence is one of the ones that stuck out the most. There is almost perhaps nothing quite so "folk horror" as the idea of the trees literally coming alive to harm people. The scene is even shot with a kind of uncomfortable, earthy quality, which comes both from the fact that it was low-budget and shot on location, and from the fact that Raimi seems to deliberately be playing with the idea that the location is itself an enemy...

 

Which brings us nicely to the final "trope"; a manifestation of evil, born from a warped belief or an ignorant curiosity.

 

It's almost laughable how Jamesian The Evil Dead is in this regard. The kids simply play a tape, nothing more or nothing less, because they want to know what's on it, although it does seem possible that the tape itself has little to do with the Deadites being summoned, and that they were in fact already waiting for them (the sequel confirms this with old Henrietta in the basement). But while the slow, carefully constructed discomfort that M R James draws out from something like O, Whistle and I'll Come to You, My Lad! may not be comparable to the absolutely insane, non-stop madness of Raimi's debut, both do feature ignorantly curious people stumbling upon some kind of "cursed" object.

 

Whether or not any of this actually confirms that The Evil Dead should sit alongside other folk horror films or not is up for speculation, and admittedly its violent, gory sequences set it apart from the slower, more psychological type of horror people seem to recognise as folk, it's interesting at least to consider just how much of it could, through the right lens, fit in with what is established.

 

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© Alex Secker 2018