From The Wicker Man to Men: why cinema is obsessed with the dark side of rural Britain
In Alex Garland’s brain-frazzling new film Men, Jessie Buckley stars as a grieving young woman retreating to an English village, only to be confronted by Rory Kinnear who plays all the male inhabitants – a rotating cast of small-town creeps and perverts.
The film is steeped in pagan symbolism. There are frequent references to fertility statues and the Green Man, a pre-Christian representation of nature in all its wild fecundity.
Men is the latest example of folk horror, a genre which uses a rural setting and cranks up the fear factor in its audience to 11. It is currently having something of a revival. Recent cinematic examples include Ari Aster’s Midsommar, a film released in 2019 about a group of friends trying to escape the clutches of a pagan cult, while on television there was The Third Day (which starred Jude Law and filled the Essex island of Osea with a queasy sense of English pastoral).
It is prominent in fiction (Max Porter’s 2019 novel Lanny, about a young boy who attracts a mysterious, mythical force ) and even surfaces in the latest music of Florence and the Machine. One of the biggest theatrical hits of the past 20 years, Jez Butterworth’s Jerusalem, conjured up our Arthurian past through a Wiltshire scoundrel with a deep, distinctly quasi-religious relationship to the soil.
So what is the attraction? Ironically, given the content, there is something very nostalgic about folk horror. For anyone over the age of 50, it represents a return to the 1970s when the genre was at its height, linked to an upsurge in interest in folklore and hippy mysticism (it is no coincidence the Glastonbury Festival, said to take place in the vicinity of a supernatural ley line, was first held in 1970).
British cinema gave us such unforgettably weird fare as Blood on Satan’s Claw (1970) and The Wicker Man (1973).
Strangely, children’s TV was also a playground for such creepiness and this is where our hazy memories really kick in. First shown in 1977 on ITV, Raven starred a young Phil Daniels as a former Borstal boy sent on a rehabilitation programme to assist an archaeology professor in his excavation of a system of caves beneath an ancient stone circle.
That same year, came Children of the Stones which has gone on to become a foundational folk horror text. It chronicles the adventures of Matthew Brake (Peter Demin), the son of an astrophysicist who moves with his father to a village in Wiltshire surrounded by megalithic stones (it was shot at Avebury, 45 miles east of Bristol). Fictional Milbury is, Matthew discovers, located within a time rift where the same actions are doomed to play out again and again.
“In Children of the Stones, much of the horror comes from questions of ownership of the land, and from the distinction between ‘them’ and ‘us’ ”, says Maria Pérez Cuervo, a Bristol-based folk-horror expert and founding editor of Hellebore, a small press magazine devoted to the genre.
With its commentary on class divisions and ancient tensions over land ownership, the drama, created by Jeremy Burnham and directed by Peter Graham Scott certainly does more than reawaken nightmares for those who grew up in Britain in the 1970s. In fact, Children of the Stones very much speaks to the here and now.
“Politically and socially, there are many similarities between the current movement and 1970s Britain,” says Pérez Cuervo. “The current revival is concerned with our relationship with landscape and nature and it’s informed by the problems that we have to navigate: housing and climate change and so forth.”
While nature is unavoidably tied up with the political and the social, it is also, unquestionably, nature as an elemental force which informs folk horror. Writer Mark Morris, who worked with The League of Gentlemen’s Reece Shearsmith and Mark Gatiss on a 2018 audio drama remake of the Blood on Satan’s Claw, about demon worship in 18th century rural England, says: “There’s a sort of mysterious hostile power in nature. Elemental forces – as opposed to something more specific, like zombies or vampires.”
Of course, ever since a giant, armoured figure arrived at the court of King Arthur in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, our culture has been obsessed with the primordial pull of the land. After all, Britain was, for centuries, a rural community, with its own unique customs and traditions. However, folk horror as an idea did not emerge until the 19th century. Pérez Cuervo says: “It has its roots in Victorian ideas of cultural evolutionism, and particularly in the work of James Frazer, whose The Golden Bough was the direct inspiration for folk-horror classics such as The Wicker Man.
“Cultural evolutionists regarded the past as irrational and barbaric, and rural areas as ‘uncivilised’ and ‘primitive’. Victorian and Edwardian folklorists embraced pagan survival theories, which saw folklore as a fossil from a different era, a dead organism from an ancient pagan past.”
Country life is, for many of us, the dream. A rural idyll is the antidote to urban living, the danger and the stress of the city. And nowhere seems more perfect than the archetypal English village with its cricket matches and thatched cottages – something brilliantly distorted by John Wyndham in his 1957 novel The Midwich Cuckoos, currently enjoying a new TV adaptation on Sky Max. This, of course, is science fiction as the women of a village become impregnated simultaneously by parasitic aliens. But its roots in folk horror, in the idea of something nasty in the woodshed that shakes our very sense of self, are clear.
So while we often idealise the countryside, it ultimately untaps something far darker in our imaginations. What folk horror ultimately shows is that we have become alienated from the land, and this alienation makes us fear it, too.
‘Men’ is in cinemas now