We are all quite tired of reading about the damned virus everywhere, but let me take you on the strangely pleasurable journey that so many have found themselves into — including myself — because of the Covid-19 pandemic.
It was sometime in July 2020 when a good friend of mine decided to share a new Instagram account that she had created, dedicated especially to the trinkets and curios of the folk horror tradition — in her own words. She had been putting together a collage of disturbing and fascinating posts for about a month at the time, and already had a fair amount of people on board (about 900) when I joined in. Reading her wonderfully worded and researched notifications became to me a door to the forgotten and mysterious, and a beacon of inspiration and awe when I needed it most.
Months later, she has made a name for herself in this weird and intriguing little world, with thousands of followers (over 10K at the time of writing this) as Folk Horror Magpie, and she is also starting to write for independent, small press publications, such as Lincolnshire Strange Delights (LSD). She is on Instagram, Twitter and even Etsy, where she sells her own lovingly handmade taxidermy mice and other folk crafts — I know this is not everybody’s cup of tea, but she’s a very conscientious, ethical and well-read odd bird, and with a great sense of humour too!
Folk horror is usually defined in relation to cinema and television as a sub-genre with specific elements, such as the presence of an isolated rural community whose (often violent) nature-worshipping members seem very far away from modern societal norms. This rural community originally takes place in the British countryside, but the genre has evolved much nowadays and there are great cinematic examples of folk horror globally. The provincial background and forests as a setting play a major part in this, being physically the opposite element to the safe cities, and therefore signifying wilderness, the occult and an unsettling sense of danger. “Woods seem to conspire against humanity” (John Miller, Weird Woods, Tales from the haunted forests of Britain, 2020, British Library).
Traditions and lore are intrinsic part of every culture and country’s identity. But it is very much a strong idiosyncrasy of the British isles, way before the obsession with the occult by the Victorians. Paganism in various forms has been alive here for thousands of years, through nature and ancestors’ worship. The numbers of Druids and other Pagans have been slowly on the rise since the end of the era of the Enlightenment.
Wicca, or modern witchcraft, is one of the most popular neopagan faiths and has been ever growing since its official establishment by Gerald Gardner in the 1950’s, after he put together his acquired knowledge in active independent covens, based on ancient beliefs and rituals.
Then came the fun and tumultuous times and psychedelia of the 60’s and 70’s, bringing with them social change and new perspectives such as eco-activism, the civil rights’ movement and the second wave of feminism. It was a great time for experimenting in any possible way, and this also got reflected in the counter-culture of music and the arts, which very much included strong influence from alternative philosophies and a revived interest on the wyrd (weird) and the occult (I recommend this article by author Erik Davis for further reading and references on the matter).
A few decades into the neoliberal journey of a Western society such as the British, being active part in international market bodies, treaties and conventions, a poorly kept welfare state and a misplaced nostalgia for time’s past, came the old ghost of hysterical nationalism which culminated in the catastrophic and unexpected result of the Brexit referendum in 2016. The author Adam Scovell wrote a fantastic piece back in 2017 when all remainers and rest of disbelievers were still refusing to accept such terror and hoping that it would not become the reality that it is today.
Warning: spoilers ahead about The Wicker Man.
In his text — Brexit-Is-Iccumen-In: The Wicker Man And Britain Today -, he gives an insight about The Wicker Man movie and masterfully compares it to Brexit Britain. The islanders in the film, are citizens who fail to address their internal society problems, and are ruled and manipulated by the island’s landowning gentry (Lord Summerisle, played by a magnificent Christopher Lee), who is aware of the power he exerts in this esoterism-driven community, and encourages the belief of a displeased pagan god as the reason for their poor harvest. Similarly, and ignoring the deep flaws of the home political and economic system (and ruled too by a tweed-wearing elite), LeaveEU supporters took a complex collection of troubling issues and over-simplified them by demonising the EU, and decided that in order to restore control they had to metaphorically burn the bridges to it. The islanders too burnt their ritual victim inside the wicker man, among happy and victorious chants of “Summer-Is-Iccumen-In” (summer has arrived), the same way brexiters were seduced by one-line punchy slogans and lies (“£350 million to the NHS”, “Take back control”, etc).
Folklore has long been misused for nationalistic and tribal purposes, but it seems that since the Brexit referendum and very much since the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic, there has been a slow reclaim of those proud roots for other (powerful and exciting) reasons, called by a few in these circles, a “re-enchantment”. Folklorist David Southwell said it best on his piece for the first issue (Samhain, 2019) of the publication Hellebore, “Re-enchantment is resistance”:
“Folklore is universal… and yet it is also ridiculously specific to locality… Those who find it increasingly weaponised to push spurious agendas of cultural or ethnic superiority; see it stitched uncomfortably into banners of hatred and radical authoritarian nationalism. Our treasured territories of land and lore are now both haunted by spectres more terrible than even the best pub ghost story can conjure. How do we fight this? How do we fight monsters? As in the best stories, with magic. Re-enchantment is resistance.”
So how does this all tie up with the Covid-19 pandemic?
With so many of us forced to reconsider our lifestyles and made to stay at home for the greater good, and as an aid for the already over-stretched health services, there has also been a reaction to the “productivity guilt”, an unescapable consequence of the savage capitalism we find ourselves immersed into. Hence, a mental health crisis has risen hand in hand with the coronavirus. Ways to cope are varied and include (other than therapy) mindfulness, meditation, gratefulness, self-care and a reconnection with nature and our surroundings. It is the longing for a slower and more respectful style of living, paused and attentive.
This lifestyle is also influenced by the recent surge in green activism, veganism and other forms of environmental awareness. It is rooted in the personal experience that the land and nature wield in our quality of life and even in our souls. Folklorists, artists and horror enthusiasts call this phenomenon psychogeography, flâneur or landscape punk.
I believe it is not wrong to assume (due to the above covered reasons), that we are experiencing a very interesting resurgence in folk horror, particularly in Britain. This can be physically measured by the boom in the publication of independent magazines: Hellebore, Cunning Folk, The Ghastling, Weird Walk, Rituals & Declarations, among many fantastic others.
There is also a recent high number of Instagram accounts and artists dedicated to these matters (I mention here Paul Watson, Nathaniel Hébert, and Melody Clark, but I recommend further diving into this ‘door to Narnia’ rabbit hole), podcasts, and Twitter trends (have a look at the overwhelming #folklorethursday and #weirdwednesday tags). Even the British Library itself seems to have hopped into this wonderland with the recent publication of several titles into their horror and gothic section.
I am forever grateful to these accounts, writers, artists, activists and dreamers, as they have given myself and many others, I am sure, not only a much needed distraction in these strange and grim times, but also a new focus. A new but old life approach, that is full of outlandish and sometimes terrifying beauty; a more meaningful reconnection with ourselves and our nature and folklore, and hope for the future. One that walks beside progress, not against it, and that does not leave behind the advancement in social rights and a mindful and proud awareness of our roots.