American folk horror stretches back to the colonial era and beyond. Native American folklore blended with the tales brought by the colonists, which Washington Irving blended into two tales which destined him, and our early mythology immortality.
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The folk horror checklist
The Legend of Sleepy Hollow and Rip Van Winkle are deceptive. People seldom list those two stories as horror, likely because of the lighthearted tone, and the fact that horror in the modern age has become synonymous with violence and gore, rather than the supernatural. In fact, much of the time horror films of the sixties and seventies are now listed as thrillers, rather than horror. Even modern folk horror movies tend to be far more gore prone than the classics of the genre from the past.
So Washington Irving’s two contributions to the genre are usually overlooked. There’s no gore and far too much humor.
Then again, take a look at The Wicker Man, which often tops the list of British folk horror, which is not only full of humor and contains no gore, it’s a musical for god’s sake.
Let’s look at the story with an eye towards folk horror, and in particular, American folk horror. There’s an outsider, Ichabod Crane moving to an isolated rural village. As the action is set up we hear about ghosts – the white lady of Raven Rock, Hulda the witch, as well as a host of unnamed ghouls and goblins, as well as a smattering of native American folklore. The entire region however, is under the spell of a headless horseman, which the entire village knows about. Irving does a masterful job of describing the terrors of the night, the fear of the unknown forest. The climax of the story takes place the night of the harvest celebration.
By definition, the story is folk horror, and predates M.R. James and his ghostly tales of rural British life by nearly a century.
Traveling around the cradle of American folklore
Folklore traveled along the highways for most of history. From the bards of Ireland to Irving and Mark Twain, the traveler was the source of the news, as well as entertainment. It’s well known that Washington Irving had very little, if any experience traveling in the Catskills at the time he wrote Rip Van Winkle. His source for the folklore of the Catskills came from traveling up the Hudson by boat, in the company of among others, a trader who worked up and down the river. He had a wealth of native American lore which found its way into Irving’s writing.
Though New York had long been British in his time, he would still find echoes of its Dutch past, particularly in the more isolated villages and towns of the Hudson valley. Change comes slowly in those areas, where there is less of an outside influence, and families work the same land generation after generation. It’s this isolation, a clinging to the old ways which is an essential ingredient of folk horror, and American folk horror in particular.
To an outsider, who comes into an area where the people adapt to change slowly, the rules are different. Ichabod Crane brought a cosmopolitan air to Sleepy Hollow, which wasn’t particularly endearing to the locals. His altercations with Brom Bones could be seen as indicative of the struggle between the more cerebral urban life, versus the more earthy rural. Who comes ahead tends to be decided by if you’re more rural or city in your approach to life. Rural life was and in some cases still is, more susceptible to superstition and folklore. Fear is more likely to be contagious in a rural setting, and also more likely to evoke a quick and decisive response.
Though it’s seldom spoke of in the same breath of its British counterpart, American folk horror still lives on the surface
American folk horror didn’t end with Washington Irving. Instead, it’s grown more sinister over the generations. My introduction to it, in the 1970s was a tv movie, The Dark Secret of Harvest Home, based on a book by Thomas Tryon. This wasn’t a drive in B movie affair, but shown on national TV, over multiple nights, when most films filled a two hour time slot. This was the same era that brought us Children of the Corn, and even Satan’s School For Girls, all of which were set in isolated areas. The inspiration of Harvest Home might have been Fraser’s The Golden Bough, and the inspiration for Children of the Corn is warped Biblical, but both show a diversion from any traditional belief systems, reflecting something more local, intimately tied to the land.
This too hearkens back to Washington Irving and his two supernatural tales from the Sketchbook. In Irving’s stories, the folklore is quite often tied to specific places in the landscape. The white lady is found at Raven’s Rock. Hilda the witch lives near the spring. Council Rock is not only the place where native American’s met, but is imbued with it’s own folklore from that time as well
This could partly be a holdover from European customs, where stories are attached to locations, which help give the location a pedigree, a backstory if you will, which increases its importance over other locations nearby. Through these stories, a pile of rocks, a copse of trees can become a landmark. American folk horror takes advantage of these places in the same way as it does in Britain and elsewhere.
Folk horror belongs to all ages, but was kept alive by the older generation
Some years ago I was in Ireland, collecting folklore and stories about local musicians. I noticed a lot of the tunes had titles and stories which deal with Irish folklore, like that involving the little people. I asked Caohmhin Mac Aiodh, an expert on Donegal fiddle history if there were still people who believed in all of that. He was a few years older than myself, and said people of his grandparents generation and before quite often believed in them. I’m paraphrasing here, but by his parent’s generation is was less common, though it still held on with some of the rural folk. But by his generation it was rare, and usually accompanied by a wink if someone spoke of such things. This is something I saw myself growing up here in the states, which has more of a direct impact on American folk horror.
The more educated we became, the more urban versus rural, the more scientific minded our scholars became, the less we believed. The generations where he told me it was dying in Ireland, it was dying here as well. You can see that in horror films, where the source of the fear stops becoming something supernatural, and essentially became something violent. Till with films like Halloween and other slasher films, the only thing separating it from a crime/drama is the amount of gore. Even by the time of The Dark Secret of Harvest Home, the horror isn’t supernatural, but sociological.
It’s easier to be afraid or affected by a horror film or novel, if you were exposed to such things as a child, It’s easier to believe when we’re kids, and easier to find that dark fear instilled in us. Even if we stop believing as we get older, we can still conjure up that fear and remember.
The role of nature in folk horror of the Hudson Valley
By the time literature takes hold in Britain and Ireland, the landscape is well known, and fairly well tamed. While life might be hard, you at least had some idea what was over the next river, hill or mountain.
That wasn’t the case over here. At the time he wrote The Legend of Sleepy Hollow and Rip Van Winkle, most of the continent remained explored. When he wrote of a band of ancient dwarves in the Catskills in Rip Van Winkle, those mountains were still shrouded in mystery. For some time after, in most cases, people know more about the Catskills of legend which he wrote about, than the actual region, even though it quickly became our country’s first tourist region.
One of the strokes of brilliance in the recent film The Witch, an excellent example of American folk horror, was to make the forest almost a character unto itself. To those early settlers, the forest must have seemed endless, both in distance and foreboding. Getting lost there could easily mean your life. Not only was it possibly to find yourself hopelessly lost, but there were plenty of wild animals, and native Americans who could spell your doom. And you didn’t have to wander into the forest, merely be close by. There was plenty in the forest to come into civilized areas and drag you back with it.
In a real sense, much of what folk horror is, are those same fears the earliest settlers had, which in some cases proved to be justified. In others, there were supernatural elements to those fears, which though harder to quantify, certainly remained with us well into the twentieth century. The recent rise in popularity means that those fears are safe for now, as a new generation of writers, filmmakers, artists and musicians are discovering and exploring these themes. It’s been written that in modern folk horror, there’s more of an emphasis on conservation of the land. Even where the land fights back against man.
But even in that, the theme is old. For isolated rural societies, adhering to the old ways quite often did so, because they feared change could upset the natural order. And that’s a modern concept, as well as ancient.