“Doctor, witchcraft is dead and discredited. Are you bent on reviving forgotten horrors!?” -The Judge in The Blood On Satan’s Claw (1971)
Like any other genre of film, television or literature, Folk Horror has its own collection of traits, tropes and tendencies. In more general writing that has looked into the working of its many horrific narratives, these meme-like traits have often focused on more general topographical and sociological themes such as the landscape and various strands of belief system. These themes are often used as arguments for assigning an example to the very description of Folk Horror but there are other traits besides that are just as interesting in their evolution between differing forms of media. Of all of these themes present through huge tracts of Folk Horror, there are few that work as such an effective, overall symbol of the genre’s recent revival than that of the burial and subsequent unearthing of cursed objects; an act so astonishingly common in Folk Horror as to be considered an equivalent of the femme fetale in film noir or the masked psychotic in the slasher film. Through the act of burying and retrieving(often malignant) objects from the ground, Folk Horror presents a causational act, whereby evil is implied to be something that always has the ability to return and never quite goes away: we repress our past acts into the very the soil itself.
Like most things in Folk Horror, this can be seen to begin in its Unholy Trinity of films, that of Witchfinder General (1968), The Blood On Satan’s Claw (1971) and The Wicker Man (1973). However, only one of these films truly uses the concept of unearthing and burial in its narrative. Though it could be argued that Police Sgt. Howie (Edward Woodward) is effectively reduced back into the ground in order for the crops to grow in The Wicker Man, it is Piers Haggard’s The Blood On Satan’s Claw that has the starkest sense of unearthing. The film follows the rising of the Devil in a 17th century English village, the chief plan being to spawn its own, much-needed flesh upon the skin of the village’s young. The entire narrative is kick-started by one of its main characters, Farmer Ralph Gower (Barry Andrews), uncovering a strange piece of fleshy skull when working the furrows of a field. It is this act of unearthing that effectively unleashes the evil; almost a return-of-the-repressed from an older, darker period. The very earth provides a temporal as well as physical barrier within Folk Horror, allowing objects from these darker periods to effectively travel in the sense of a time-capsule back to the present to cause mischief. The most alarming thing about this in relationship to The Blood On Satan’s Claw is how the Devil’s fragmented body initially came to reside in a quiet and muddy English field. It is a question left eerily unanswered by the time of the film’s violent conclusion.
These buried objects often cause mayhem because they contain some presence or spirit rather than simply by being just another object or artefact. The analyst, Mark Fisher, has used the concept of the “inorganic demon” to describe such objects; a term first coined by the writer, Reza Negarestani, in his Cyclonopedia (2008). When using the term “inorganic demon”, Fisher was explicitly referring to the work and subsequent television adaptations of M.R. James which use a variety of such objects; where narratives are almost entirely built around the discovery of such objects, the subsequent haunting caused by their various protectors, and finally the quick but useless attempt to put such objects back into the ground in the hope of being left alone by the demon or ghost. In Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come To You, M’Lad (1904), James puts great emphasis upon his character’s chief desire of holidaying in East Anglia for the potential visit to a Knights Templar’s graveyard; an emphasis that is somewhat lost in Jonathan Miller’s adaptation of the story for the BBC’s Omnibus series in 1968. In the latter case, Professor Parkins (Michael Hordern) finds the cursed whistle that jump-starts the narrative’s haunting almost by accident when visiting the Dunwich-like crumbling graveyard that releases the whistle from the ground through its sheer disintegration; very much like the main character’s own psyche.
James is the ultimate purveyor of these cursed objects but is also perhaps the most brutal when it comes to punishing the curiosity which instils the initial need to find them. In A Warning To The Curious (1925), this is palpable where, even once the object – that of a guarded Anglo-Saxon crown – is returned to its initial burial site, the malevolent spirit of its protector, the ghost of William Ager, still comes to enact a final revenge upon the curious Paxton. In Lawrence Gordon Clark’s adaptation of the story for the BBC in 1972, virtually the whole of the film is built around this relationship of unearthing and burial. The film charts the trajectory of finding the burial site, visiting the burial site, unearthing the object, taking the object and then repeating the process only to put the object back after several hauntings. The same sort of ritual can be found in The Treasure Of Abbot Thomas (1904), both in the original story and in Clark’s 1974 BBC adaptation; where an alchemist’s cursed gold is found, unearthed, taken away, taken back and then buried again in the old brickwork of a monastery’s damp catacombs.
These Jamesian plays with cursed objects would find a more urban and domesticated character in the work of Nigel Kneale. Most famous is the unearthing of the Martian space-ship from under “Hob’s Lane” tube station in Quatermass and the Pit (in both its film and TV iterations) which not only unleashes huge waves psychokinetic power but has also been subtly influencing the area’s folklore in previous centuries (even down to its street name, supposedly derived from devilish happenings). Unlike in James’ stories, the unearthing here is by pure accident, when a tube station’s renovation uncovers the alien object. The scale of this unearthing is far greater than other examples, especially in the eventual chaos that it unleashes upon central London, but the fact that its evil seeps through the ground to still influence the psychology of the area is an interesting comparison to The Blood On Satan’s Claw, whereby both narratives’ objects seem older than enlightenment knowledge itself but derived from extremely different sources; where the past is an alien a place as Mars.
Kneale would find more typical, small-scale buried objects in his horror series, Beasts (1976), specifically in the episode Baby, where an urn containing a strange foetus-like creature is found in the wall of a farm house, only for it to turn out to be a curse cast on the land to prevent successful births. The horror comes from its discovery being made by a pregnant woman, Jo (Jane Wymark), who is hinted at being affected physically and mentally by its discovery. Other similar objects whose discovery can shift temporal and emotional layers can be seen in the work of Alan Garner; in the “bunty” stone in Red Shift (1973) said to have fallen from the stars and then discovered and buried in three different eras by three different but interconnected men; in the arrow-head supposedly from the very tales of The Mabinogion itself in The Owl Service (1967); or even the weirdstone from The Weirdstone of Brisingamen (1959) which has effectively made the journey from Cadellin Silverbrow’s underground world of Fundindelve to become the heirloom of a farming family in Alderley Edge.
The burying and unearthing of such objects plays a key role in Folk Horror but, essentially, the very act that defines so many of its narratives mimics its current, thriving revival. So much of its film and television seems to quietly rise up, thanks in part to digital technology and social media, to be rediscovered and eventually to become popular again. Unlike a Jamesian demon or the devil’s skull, however, Folk Horror’s rising can be seen as a far more positive unearthing; where its demons and ghosts finally come to be appreciated after years spent buried in obscurity under the cultural soil of analogue times, now unearthed and with little chance of being put back.
Fisher, M., 2012. Old Haunts: the landscapes of MR James from Whistle And I’ll Come To You DVD Booklet. BFI Publishing, London.
Negarestani, R., 2008. Cyclonopedia: Complicity with Anonymous Materials. Re-Press, Victoria (Australia).