Slithering nameless from some unholy dark, a golden age of horror film documentary has fallen upon us. Released in 2019, Horror Noire: A History of Black Horror was a stunning introduction to Black representations and Black creators in horror films. That same year, the 4-hour (!) In Search of Darkness provided a definitive guide to Carpenter, Cronenberg, Craven, and all things 80s and terrifying. It was followed in 2020 by an equally mammoth sequel, In Search of Darkness Part II.
Kier-La Janisse’s Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched: A History of Folk Horror, is set to release on Shudder on January 10, is a fine addition to this trend of terrifying docu-scholarship. At 192 minutes, the film has plenty of times to round up every wicker man and child of the corn lurking in the shadow of the blasphemous standing stone and ruined church. There are clips from 200 films, and interviews with scholars, fans, and filmmakers like Robert Eggers (The Witch), Lawrence Gordon Clark (A Ghost Story for Christmas), and Emma Tammi (The Wind). The documentary hews out a twisting path for newcomers, but even subgenre fans will likely discover new, unnervingly carved gems.
Part of the documentary’s secret (or not so secret) plot is to define what exactly folk horror is. The term has been most commonly used to describe UK films from the late 60s and early 70s. What the doc calls the unholy trinity of Witchfinder General, Blood on Satan’s Claw, and The Wicker Man focused on pagan rituals and witchcraft in rural, remote villages in the British Isles.
Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched spends a substantial portion of its runtime on this classic folk horror. But it also sees folk horror more broadly as any film that finds horror in folk tales, folk beliefs, or folk communities. The second and third hour moves away from the UK to the US and then to the globe, drawing in some obvious entries—like Midsommer. But the documentary also includes some horrors that you might not initially have seen lying in wait for you, like Deliverance, Candyman, and the Thai ghost story Nang Nak.
Some folk horror movies, like the 1964 Japanese classic Kwaidan or the 1953 Finnish vampire ungulate film The White Reindeer are fairly straightforward retellings of folk stories. They’re presented with a degree of nostalgia and an impulse towards preservation.
Much of the genre, though, is more anxious about the encounter between past and present, which is also an encounter between periphery and center, or colonized and colonizers. In The Wicker Man, a policeman tries to bring order to a rural village, only to have the pagan villagers impose chaos on him. In The Shining a hotel is built on a Native burial ground, and the spirits of the dispossessed rise up to pour blood down the halls. In the 1960 Mexican horror film La Llorona, a conquistador forces a woman to marry him, and she murders their children.
Anthropologists and invaders are punished for their condescension and violence, even as that violence is displaced onto and blamed on its victims. The genre sometimes literally demonizes marginalized people. Then at other times, it encourages you to root for them to get their own back. And often it does both at once. As Ojibwe arts critic Jesse Wente says, there’s some virtue in colonizers being scared of Indian burial grounds since as far as North America goes, “it’s all an Indian burial ground.”
As thorough and thoughtful as it is, Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched inevitably misses a fiendish trick or two. Its last section, which attempts to link the folk horror revival to contemporary political anxieties, is not very convincing. Every time period has miseries enough to call forth horrors, and while it might be possible to create a folk horror climate change movie, that’s not the main concern of movies like Hereditary or The Ritual. The documentary might have done better to examine changing industry dynamics. The existence of Shudder itself, and other horror-friendly streaming services, has certainly made it easier for many horror subgenres to find an audience.
The documentary also skips over some notable films. The omission of The Blair Witch Project—arguably the most influential folk horror film of the last quarter-century—is a head-scratcher. And what about Woman in the Dunes, a 1964 Japanese parable about a city man who falls into a rural sand trap? Or the rape/revenge films spawned by Deliverance, like Last House on the Left and I Spit On Your Grave? Or His House, the rare horror that draws its ghost from Sudanese folklore? Or the lyrical Vietnamese ghost story When the Tenth Month Comes? Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched is so darkly bewitching that you start to see folk horror everywhere. It’s a testament to its power that even after 3 hours, you’re likely to rise up demanding more.
Noah Berlatsky is a freelance writer based in Chicago. His book, Wonder Woman: Bondage and Feminism in the Marston/Peter Comics was published by Rutgers University Press. He thinks the Adam West Batman is the best Batman, darn it.