l-r: Mia Farrow, Nick Castle, first edition of Pet Sematary, Anna Taylor-Joy, Daniel Kaluuya
“The ground went sour.”
–Stephen King, Pet Sematary (1983)
A shape – a babysitter’s boogeyman – rises from the shadows. Families flee the city for the country, discovering failed rituals on haunted land. A young woman decides to live deliciously, leaving civilization for the woods. A man escapes the sunken place, fleeing the woods for civilization.
These flashes of terror illustrate folk horror in the United States – the satanic majesties of Rosemary’s Baby (1967-68), the campfire aesthetic of Halloween (1978), Stephen King’s cursed yuppies, and modern works like The Witch (2016) and Get Out (2017). While scholarship on folk horror exists, it focuses on British works like The Wicker Man (1973) or Kill List (2011). Based on preliminary research, there has been no major study of American folk horror as an independent form. Using a wide-ranging, multifaceted approach, this project intends to fill that gap.
Adam Scovell defined folk horror in a 2014 paper as three links on a chain, later expanded to four: (1) landscape and (2) isolation, which lead to (3) a skewed morality that stands in direct contrast to the status quo, all of which cut off the characters psychically and geographically, culminating in (4) a happening/summoning as a result of this psycho-geographic isolation, often supernatural in nature and symbolic of a slow death (17-18).
l: Christopher Lee in The Wicker Man (UK), r: Kill List (UK)
Using the work of Scovell and other folk horror scholars, this project asks, “What happens when you place folk horror into American Studies?” An answer requires studying horror in American art during the 60s and 70s. In particular, I believe the “urban legend”/proto-slasher films of Tobe Hooper and John Carpenter fit into Scovell’s chain. Once a broad conception of U.S. folk horror is established, we move to study recurring themes within U.S. folk horror, including the relationship between landscape and racial legacy. Often parodied as the “sacred burial ground,” in folk horror, it manifests as a continent of sacred burial grounds and centuries of violence. This bloodshed caused the ground itself to spoil, leaving a lasting psychic wound reflected in the folk horror genre.
After identifying unique elements of United States folk horror, we search for antecedents and descendants in American fiction. Yale’s Film Studies Center’s collection of VHS tapes from the period provides access to forgotten folk horror. Grady Hendrix’s Paperbacks from Hell does similar work with literature in the U.S. A variety of sources (including NYU Fales) provide a wide range of pulp magazine covers evoking the folk horror chain.
That pulp art appears in this project’s final form – a combination museum exhibition, screening series, and monograph. The exhibition will connect American folklore to folk horror. The screening series shows major works and forgotten gems from film and television. The monograph, through history and analysis, engages with the questions set out at the start of this project: How is folk horror in the United States different from its British origins, and what do those differences say about American culture? Are we standing on sour ground?
By considering these questions, this project crafts a history of folk horror in the United States that is as rich and as reflective as Britain’s original manifestation.
Scovell, Adam. Folk Horror: Hours Dreadful and Things Strange. UK: Auteur Press, 2017. 17-18, center image.