After a couple of seasons of American Horror Story that were decidedly NOT horror (Coven, Freak Show and Hotel), as a fan of both the show and the genre in general, season six has been (so far) a welcome surprise.
Gone are the darkly comedic characters and satirical plot elements, instead, this season we have something that is truly scary. Some are even rating this season as the scariest one yet!
But to what dark overlord do we owe our thanks for this awesome change of pace so late in the series life? Is it the epic marketing campaign that went into amping up us fans before the first episode even aired? Or perhaps its the new "true crime" structure tightening down the plot in a way that avoids the typical AHS "jump the shark" story lines?
Well, however scary it might be, and however many new techniques they're using to bring it this season, the episodes we have thus far display a lot of things that betray something very interesting about the story.
A Deeper, Darker Tradition
Running through each episode is a much deeper tradition of the genre. The tradition of "Folk Horror."
Folk horror is a sub-genre of horror fiction (or of Occult fiction in WorldCat Genre terms) characterised by reference to (usually)European, pagan traditions. Stories typically involve standing stone circles, earthworks, elaborate rituals or nature deities. While the genre is not overtly concerned with Christian ideology, frequently used terms such as 'demon' and 'devil' appear to associate folk horror with Christian demonology. However, while many stories will initially imply that menacing forces are Satanic, the same forces are often found to pre-date established Christianity. (Folk Horror, n.d.) - bold emphasis is my own.
What we see in the first four episodes of My Roanoke Nightmare are intrinsically folk horror in design. From the Kathy Bates' Butcher character and her rag-tag gang of colonial ghosts, all the way to Lady Gaga's increasingly terrifying pagan god worshiping Witch of the Woods character, the story is rife with archetypes of the genre.
What Can Folk Horror Predict For Future Episodes?
For those of you who are interested in guessing the future outcomes of this season, understanding folk horror and the past Films, Books and TV shows of the genre, potentially allow us a lot of insight into what is to come in the remaining episodes.
The remainder of this article is going to attempt to do two things.
1. We are going to look at 5 fantastic examples of folk horror in film for those of you who are interested in getting more into the genre.
and 2. For each example, we are going to look at certain iconic scenes or themes and suggest how they have been or could be incorporated into AHS Roanoke.
Beginning with what is famously known as "The Unholy Trilogy".
1. The Wicker Man (1973)
No, I don't mean the horrible Nicholas Cage remake.
The Wicker Man is perhaps the most famous of all folk horrors, and one of the best. I rewatched it just the other day and even 43 years on, it has aged so well. The film tells the story of conservative Christian and Police Sargent Howie (Edward Woodward) who journeys to a remote island, intent on investigating the disappearance of a young girl. Upon arriving in the Island township however, Howie is mortified to discover the inhabitants are not God-fearing Christians like he first assumed, but worship the Pagan Gods of their ancestral past. As his search for the missing girl grows more and more desperate, Howie finds himself pulled into the dark religious rites of the locals and goes up against their leader Lord Summerisle (Christopher Lee).
The movie concludes with one of the most memorable moments of horror cinema where Howie is captured during a pagan festival and burnt alive inside a giant wicker man.
We've already seen a lot of influence from this film on Roanoke, in particular the animal masks and the little wicker dolls that are hung from the mansion in episode 1. I suspect however, The Wicker Man's influence on Roanoke is not done yet, and we quite probably will see a lot more human sacrifice than what was displayed in tonight's episode. And I'll be willing to bet, one of them will involve somebody being burned alive.
2. The Blood On Satans' Claw (1970)
It hasn't aged as well as The Wicker Man, but The Blood On Satan's Claw is still a classic and a master of horror cinema. This time, the story revolves around a 18th century English village in which a pretty messed up skull is discovered half buried in a field one day. The skull subsequently vanishes when the village authorities try to investigate it, but it isn't long before the relic's supernatural abilities begin to affect the locals
All over the place people begin growing claws, children start growing fur and everyone starts to act pretty fucked up in general, until finally good prevails over evil, and the curse is lifted when the satanic monster responsible is discovered and killed.
American Horror Story is no stranger to these kinds of crazy shenanigans, and they have in the past shown a lot of gore and sexual content. Some of the more iconic sequences in TBOSC involve this kind of stuff, which is much more tame than today's standards of course, but which still manage to create an incredibly unsettling feeling in the audience. Expect to see a lot of this in the coming episodes - pagan sex rituals, psycho kids, and satanic shape-shifting, I'm willing to bet will all play a part in the future of the story.
3. Witchfinder General (1968)
Our final film in the Unholy Trilogy, Witchfinder General forgoes the supernatural horror aspects of our other two entries and instead goes for a more psychological approach. The movie is a terrifying tale of real-life witch hunter Mathew Hopkins (Vincent Price) as he takes advantage of Witch paranoia in the 1600s' as a way to indulge his more sadistic appetite and at the same time be paid for it.
Taking some pretty considerable risks for the 1960s' Witchfinder General deals with themes of fanaticism, religious paranoia and rape, coming to some pretty nasty and desolate conclusions.
Roanoke takes its cue from Witchfinder so far mainly in the outfit choices of Kathy Bate's tribe of colonials, and although Roanoke is quite obviously is veering more on the supernatural side of things, the murderous rampage of Bates and her followers is definitely along the same lines as this film. Adding to this, Gaga's flashback sequence in tonight's episode where she was jailed to be burnt at the stake, obviously connects up pretty nicely to the themes of this film as well.
4. Kill List (2011)
Now, I must admit that when I first watched this movie, it bored me to tears (until about the last half an hour or so). Let me be clear, Kill List is not a bad film. In fact, it is an amazing film - you just need to know that you are watching folk horror. If you don't know this, you end up thinking you are watching the slowest hitman movie in existence.
Kill List is about a former soldier turned hitman named Jay who accepts a series of jobs or a "kill list" that progressively fractures his psyche and forces him deeper and deeper into the occultic dark. By the end of the film, you suddenly realize you're not watching an action movie anymore - this is horror in its bleakest form.
By the end of the movie, Jay is forced by a group of pagan devil worshipers (who have pretty much been orchestrating the whole thing) to unwittingly murder his own wife and child, before being crowned by the cultists as their leader.
The death of a child, is horrific, the death of a child that belongs to your protagonist is even worse. The final sequence of Kill List is so horrifying that I would not at all be surprised to see its ideas play out in some way in one of the final episodes of Roanoke.
Remember what Flora (Lee's daughter) said about the "ghosts" killing them all? She said she was being saved for last. Well, she may just be telling the truth, and what a gut-wrenching twist it would be, if Lee was the one to take her daughter's life...
5. The Witch (2015)
Lastly, we come to the most recent edition to our list, and my personal favorite - The Witch. Again, The Witch is a fantastic movie, and a great horror, but if you go into it expecting to encounter jump scares and gore, you will be sorely disappointed.
What The Witch lacks in blood and guts, it makes up for with a suffocating dark atmosphere. Although there's not really much in the way of monsters, the forest that acts as the stories backdrop is more insidious and malevolent than any living creature in the film.
The Witch tells the story of a Puritan family that is too Christian for its Christian village, and so, they are exiled to live out their days alone, in the wilderness. The family establishes a small, struggling farm at the edge of a great forest. But just as they are starting to get a hang of things, one of them - an infant child disappears suddenly under very peculiar circumstances.
It isn't long before the loss of this child causes everyone else to turn on one another, each claiming the other to be the witch that stole him.
The true horror in this film is the break down of a family, and how quickly people can turn and attack one another when they feel threatened or afraid. Tonight's episode of Roanoke started incorporating elements of this kind of horror into it with Shelby's discovery of Matt's infidelity with the Witch Gaga. This will only increase as time goes on, creating a truly claustrophobic feeling for the audience. And although I doubt AHS will ever go for the slow burn horror of The Witch, or indeed a few these other films, there's definitely an increasing sense of dread creeping over us as we watch on, a feeling that has its roots in films like The Witch.
What Are Your Theories?
So there you have it - a primer in folk horror film as well as a few speculations for the rest of this season. I couldn't more highly recommend these movies, and they're great to watch in this spooky month of October. If you liked what I wrote, please let me know. Have some connecting theories between this genre of scare and the series? Pop them in the comments below, I'd love to see what everyone else is thinking in regards to this.
Folk Horror. (n.d.). What is folk horror? Retrieved from http://www.folkhorror.com/