While two men stand outside a desolate wooden home in a darkened prairie, Ben Lovett’s tense string laden score gives way to the sounds of the oppressive wind as a woman covered in blood appears in the doorway holding a swaddling. She handles the bundle off to one of the men who quickly exits the frame. She remains emotionless as his wail pierces the silence.
Thus begins the folk horror western The Wind, from director Emma Tammi and writer Teresa Sutherland. A Midnight Madness selection of the 2018 Toronto International Film Festival, Tammi and Sutherland’s film uses genre tropes to explore a phenomenon known as prairie madness. Anyone who has read Laura Ingalls Wilder’s 1943 autobiographical novel These Happy Golden Years is at least somewhat familiar with the term.
Prairie madness arose mostly in the wake of the Homestead Act of 1862, which promised settlers 160 acres of land—mostly on marginal land in the Great Plains—if they could live on it and make a decent farm within five years. Most of these farms were at least half a mile apart from each other. But many were a great deal more isolated. The work was brutal, the land unforgiving. Like one character utters in the film, “This place is wrong. We’re not supposed to be here.”
Although the film shares its name with the 1928 silent film starring Lilian Gish, based on the 1925 book of the same name by Dorothy Scarborough, the only attributes they share are the isolation and the unrelenting ferocity of the wind. Sutherland attributes her fascination with the prairie wind to her time living in Kansas. Working in a community garden the old women would tell stories of settlers driven mad by the loud winds. The screenwriter researched the phenomenon by reading the diaries of settlers.
Transforming her research into a psychological portrait of four such settlers, in The Wind we follow Lizzy Macklin (Caitlin Gerard) and her husband Isaac (Ashley Zukerman) as their relationship unravels after a younger couple Emma (Julia Goldani Telles) and Gideon Harper (Dylan McTee) begin occupying the cabin nearest to their homestead. Told in a non-linear fashion, we slowly discover what led up to Lizzy’s blood-soaked introduction in the stirring opening sequence.
Through her screenplay, Sutherland not only unpacks how isolation caused prairie madness, but also threads in many factors that caused women to be more susceptible. There’s mourning, as we see in flashbacks that Lizzy lost a child during birth in their first year on their homestead. Immigration, as Lizzy explains she was brought over from Germany as a child and often speaks German when stressed. And then there’s jealousy as the young Emma crushes on Isaac, who she views as much stronger than her own husband. All of this is heightened by the land, which Emma laments to Lizzy that it “plays tricks on your mind.”
Sutherland’s script also explores the fine line between religion and folklore. Early on we see Emma reading from a mysterious pamphlet. Later she taunts Lizzy by reciting the names of demons. Mara, The damner of souls. Succorbenoth, Bringer of jealous thoughts. Abbadon, The destroyer. Babael, Keeper of graves. Towards the end of the film, it’s revealed that this pamphlet was a religious tract given to both women by a reverend when they each first settled in the area.
Entitled Demons of the Prairie, the tract lists out 15 demons, most of which find their origins in the early Bible and other ancient religions. Director Tammi confirmed that while the demons are mostly real, the pamphlet with its striking cover featuring a black boney demon, with gangly limbs, oversized hands with claws, horns and pointed ears, eyes blazing yellow was a fabrication.
Although religious tracts pre-date the printing press, they became more common after its invention and were used frequently by Martin Luther. Political and religious tracts rose in popularity in the 1800s, with missionary-based groups like the Mormon church and Jehovah’s Witnesses still passing out literature in this manner today.
For much of the early white settlements in the American West, trading posts were an integral hub. They served as general stores, banks, post offices, and community centers. They were also where many writers at the time distributed pamphlets that ranged in subject from environmental observations to historical reporting. Local pamphlets collecting American folklore continued well into the 20th century. There’s even a resurgence today with projects like Ken Layne’s Desert Oracle that collects folklore and legends of the American desert or the Islandia Journal which seeks to do the same for the myths, folklore, cryptozoology, and more of Florida & the Caribbean.
The descriptors of demons listed in Demons of the Prairie eventually manifest in the behavior of both Emma and Lizzy, as they each succumb to variations of prairie madness. Mara damns their souls by twisting both of their minds. Succorbenoth plants jealous thoughts that disrupt their marital beds. Abbadon destroys the peaceful lives the foursome had been working towards. Babael keeps Lizzy’s mind forever on the grave of her stillborn son, the shadow of which colors the film from the very first frame.
With their film The Wind, Tammi and Sutherland join a long line of women telling tales of women in the American West. From Willa Cather, whose novels O Pioneers! and My Ántonia defined our collective idea of the Great Plains, to Laura Ingalls Wilder, whose Little House series idealized the American pioneer spirit. By fusing the everyday horror embedded in the stories these writers popularized with the aesthetics and psychology of films like Rosemary’s Baby, the filmmakers have crafted an unforgettable piece of folk horror that will linger on your mind, like a relentless prairie wind.