For his 2018 breakout hit, Hereditary, Ari Aster used iconography from suburban Satanic Panic movies like The Exorcist and Rosemary’s Baby. For his follow-up, Midsommar, he again mines a familiar horror subgenre: Folk Horror. This cycle likewise focuses on devotion to dark magic (or the Devil himself), but trades brownstone apartments for quaint, scenic villages. These little towns seem friendly, but they harbor a belief in something truly sinister. Beginning in earnest in the 1970s, the Folk Horror tradition offers some of the most unsettling films ever made, perfect for Aster’s sensibilities.
Like Film Noir before it, Folk Horror is a subgenre in retrospect. First termed as such in a 2004 Fangoria interview with director Piers Haggard to describe his 1971 film The Blood on Satan’s Claw, Folk Horror is more of a feeling than a series of definite tropes. The films often deal with paganism, and they generally have elements of rustic folklore and the occult, but they almost always feature groups of other people—of regular “folks”—perpetrating the onscreen horrors. Whether Beelzebub or another of Hell’s demons physically appears within the film, a Folk Horror movie focuses on the zealotry and fervor of those who believe.
Folk Horror’s main tenets came out of a short span of British films dealing with witchcraft, or the fear thereof. Michael Reeves’ horrifying 1968 movie Witchfinder General, set in the 1600s, finds Vincent Price’s vile Matthew Hopkins, a self-proclaimed servant of God and King, traipsing around England accusing and subsequently torturing and executing hundreds of people as he saw fit. This was followed by the aforementioned The Blood on Satan’s Claw, which flips the evil to a group of actual devil worshipers who slowly take over a village through human sacrifice. These two movies—period set—make no distinction between people ravenously accusing others of witchcraft an those actually perpetrating it. They’re all smiling zealots doing what they do out of devotion and pettiness.
Probably the most famous Folk Horror film is Robin Hardy’s 1973 masterpiece, The Wicker Man. Unlike the previous films, and the slew of copycats that followed, The Wicker Man is set contemporaneously. Prim and proper Scottish policeman Sgt. Howie (Edward Woodward) travels to the remote island of Summerisle to investigate the reported disappearance of a young girl. The town is outwardly very friendly and their thatched-roofed cottages seem particularly quaint and welcoming. But as the investigation seems more and more like a dead-end (people don’t even seem to know who he’s talking about), Howie’s disgust at the island’s upcoming Spring festival and its decidedly unchristian celebrations grows. Wanton copulation and animal sacrifice are met with Howie’s immediate condemnation and he wants to find the young girl almost so he has an excuse to take her away from this evil place.
The infamous final act of the film finds Howie’s horrible realization that there was no kidnapping to begin with. It was all a conspiracy to get a virgin to the island where Lord Summerisle (Christopher Lee) and his flock can sacrifice them to ensure a bountiful harvest for their waning apple crops. The titular Wicker Man is a massive case for livestock and Howie himself to be set ablaze. Even as Howie shouts in vain to his Christian God to save him, singing “The Lord is my Shepherd” as the fires rage around him, the citizens of Summerisle sing their own pagan hymns, thanking their own gods for the sacrifice they’ve given.
Folk Horror has popped up here and there in the intervening decades. Edgar Wright’s Hot Fuzz has a Wicker Man-esque cult at its center. Filmmaker Ben Wheatley evoked The Wicker Man and Witchfinder General in two of his movies. 2011’s Kill List finds a couple of hitmen picking off people for a wealthy client only to realize it’s all part of a horrifying folk ritual in which they are the sacrifice. He followed this with 2013’s A Field in England in which seventeenth century army deserters and ruffians fall under the control of an alchemist who feeds them hallucinogenic mushrooms and demands they help him find buried treasure in a massive field. Both films take hard left turns into nightmarish gleefulness of the occult.
2015’s The Witch from director Robert Eggers brought Folk Horror back to its roots and birthed A24 horror. Set in 1630s New England, a family of British puritans separate from their village and fall prey to a witch living in a nearby forest. But it’s a slow destruction. While the titular evil hag is present, it’s the internal lying and suspicion on the part of the family that leads to their downfall. The father’s pride took them from the safety of the village and refuses to admit they need to return; the mother’s envy of her eldest daughter’s youth and beauty creates a rift; the son’s lust for his older sister leads him to seek an outlet in the witch’s comely guise; the young twins spread deceit and bear false witness for the fun of it, and for revenge. The rot of the family leads to the rot of the land. All of this leads to an ending where a goat named Black Phillip (a stand-in for Baphomet, the Black Goat of Mendes and an acolyte of Satan) asks the daughter if she wants to “live deliciously.”
Much as Aster’s Hereditary owes a debt to Rosemary’s Baby and its ilk, there’s a definite vein of Folk Horror built in. Lurking in the shadows of a family’s sustained grief is a cult of worshipers of the demon Paimon, a Prince of Hell. Ritual sacrifice, the creation of Satanic totems, and naked black masses creep in throughout the film, until the final, gut-wrenching finale.
With Midsommar, Aster is dealing more directly with the tropes of Folk Horror. The fear of pre-Christian religious revelry and the ties of folklore, black magic, and occultism are strong in Midsommar‘s iconography. The notion of an outsider, seemingly welcomed into a close-knit community, but secretly the subject of an unseen evil ritual, is a fear most westerners (and specifically Americans) often feel. So cut off are we from the customs of other cultures, the Otherness of such ceremonies can seem diabolical. Placing the action in Scandinavia, using medieval touchstones like the maypole and flower crowns, Aster evokes a bygone era that at once seems idyllic and oppressive. Most people feel comfort in tradition, but it’s a comfort from ones own traditions; ancient traditions you know nothing about seem especially foreboding.
Blood sacrifices, satanic masses, and naked, flower-filled dancing are just part of what makes Folk Horror the unsettling genre it is. At its heart, in each of these examples, the true terror comes from the combined evil of a group of people who believe what they’re doing isn’t evil. Witchcraft is on the same level as the fear and persecution of witchcraft; disgust at unrecognized rituals is just as harmful as those rituals. It’s humanity that’s the real villain, the devil inside each of us.