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The Devil in the Wood: Folk Horror and the Ecology of Evil

Folk horror is a genre of horror film originating in England during the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, which examines the outbreak of Witchcraft and Paganism in the British Countryside. Folk horror films are heavily reliant on the ambience of the British countryside, with long, haunting shots of the landscape forming a key component of the sense of foreboding and fear that literally emanate from the woods, vines and trees. The three films examined in this essay, Blood on Satan’s Claw, Cry of The Banshee and The Wicker-Man were all filmed on location in Scotland and England. They attempt to faithfully recreate the rituals and rites of Pre-Christian Paganism on the British Isles as Anthropologists and Historical record conceive them. Nature and the Paganism are portrayed in these films as barbaric, primitive, amoral and sexually depraved. The ‘otherness’ of rural folk traditions and of nature itself is seen as an ominous force of chaos that endangers dominant societal values and society as a whole.

Darkness lurks in the woods and in the hearts of the heathen and is ready to viciously explode in terrifying acts of murder and sexual violence in the name of an ancient and primordial evil. The neo-pagan community embraced films such as The Wicker- Man but yet Folk horror films seem to enforce a patriarchal and rational view of paganism and nature as a dangerous threat to ‘civilization’.

The modern day is the setting for Pagan uprising 1973’s The Wicker Man. Sergeant Howie (Edward Woodward) arrives on Summerisle, a small, isolated island of the coast of Scotland famous for it’s fruit and vegetable exports. The impetus for his trip is to investigate the reported disappearance and possible murder of a young girl. Howie discovers that the inhabitants of the islands village have reverted to a gleeful worship of pagan deities under the tutelage of Lord Summerisle (Christopher Lee). Sergeant Howie is immediately affronted by the hedonistic sexual practices of the villagers and their superstitious rites, which challenge both his sexually repressed Christian morality and his legal-rational viewpoint as a policeman. The Wicker-Man terrifyingly concludes with the islanders sacrificing the ‘Virgin Fool’. Sergeant Howie is immolated at sunset on Beltane in a giant Wicker effigy along with a number of animals to ensure a bountiful harvest in the following year. The crops of the Island failed the previously year leading to the drastic decision that a fertility rite of human sacrifice was required to appease the spirits of nature and guarantee a plentiful abundance of fruit.

Both Pagans and Medieval Christians believed in the idea of divine accommodation. The behaviour of nature, its fecundity or ferocity was an agent of divine will. Through the action of prayer or enacting of divine rites the most extreme of which were animal and human sacrifice, nature could be influenced or mollified. In the 17th Century Enlightenment, philosophers such as Francis Bacon and John Locke espoused the ideal that human beings, by right have dominion over nature and it was to be used and cultivated as humans saw fit. This idea had its basis in the Biblical book of Genesis and Platonic notions of a hierarchy of existence with human beings at the sitting at the top of creation. With the advent of industrialisation and the modern city human beings were increasingly less dependent on nature’s proclivities for their survival. As scientific method and human technological advancement proved to explain the logic of natural order it denied validity of divine control over the forces of Nature and Nature was for all intensive purposes demystified.

Sergeant Howie, is a classic representation of the Post -Enlightenment Christian he sees the fertility rituals of the Summerisle residents as obscene, absurd and irrational. His main concern above all else is in the execution of the law as an officer of the state and exemplifies the ideals of modernism and liberalism. The organizational structure of Summerisle by contrast though seemingly chaotic and free is totalitarian in structure ruled by the noble Lord Summerisle. Christopher Lee’s character admits that paganism was introduced on the island by his grandfather as a way to control the population and provide a willing workforce for the islands new agricultural industry. The islands famous fruit is grown using modern agricultural methods and as a capitalistic enterprise. The fruit is sold to the mainland solely for the profit of the islands Lord and owner and not enjoyed by population. This notion of ownership runs counter to the ideas inherent in a pagan belief system that humanity is part of the greater rhythms of the earth rather than having dominion over it.

The creators of the Wicker Man saw burgeoning hippie counter-culture as dangerous and potentially leading to a kind of totalitarian cultism that resulted in atrocities such as the rise of Hitler and the Jonestown Massacre . The Villagers in the films attitude to nature allows them sexual freedom unlike the guilt ridden and repressed Sergeant Howie. They live in a tight nit community with strong bonds of kinship, which seems almost utopic in comparison with the competiveness espoused by the capitalistic neo-liberalism of modernity. However, The Wicker Man’s final scenes express the horror and the potentially dangerous outcome of humanity reverting to a Pre-Christian worship of nature. The giant Wicker colossus burnt in honour of the Sun God at the conclusion of The Wicker Man was based on Druidic fertility ritual practiced by Celtic pagans as described by Julius Caesar and repeated in the Golden Bough .

In their superstitious belief that human sacrifice will appease the Gods of the Harvest the residents of Summerisle joyfully follow their leader into the ritualistic slaughter of an innocent man. Their blind devotion to the cycles of nature ignores the reality of their leaders exploitation of nature for his sole financial gain.   Sergeant Howie’s speech at the end of the film expounds the lunacy of the villager’s actions when viewed through the lens of modern thought.

‘ There is no Sun God, There is no Goddess of the Fields. Your crops failed          because your strains failed. Fruit is not meant to be grown upon these islands.   It’s against Nature. Well don’t you see that killing me is not going to bring back your apples’

‘Blood On Satan’s Claw’ produced by Tigon pictures in 1971 depicts a village in 17th century England. After exhuming a rotten devil’s claw the townsfolk, predominately the youth of the village, become infected with the demonic spirit of the wood. Led by the seductive, precocious teenager Angel Blake (Linda Hayden) they murder, viciously rape and participate in orgies to bring forth ‘Behemoth’ an avatar of the devil. It is up to the Judge (Patrick Wynmark) to restore Christian Order to the town by slaying Angel and the now fully embodied devil with a giant cross-shaped sword.

The Blood on Satan’s Claw (1971)

The link between the surrounding countryside and the evil encroaching on the town is openly emphasised both in the script and in the composition of shots in Blood on Satan’s Claw. In the most viscous scene in the film the newly formed coven chant –

‘Holy Behemoth, Father of my Life, speak now, come now rise now, from  the forest, from the furrows, from the field and live, Hail Behemoth, Spirit of the Dark’

The teenagers then brutally rape and murder Cathy Vespers (Wendy Padbury) in the decrepit ruins of a church, long reclaimed by nature. Director Piers Haggard stated that he and Cinematographer Dick Bush deliberately made use of a dark foreground where the twisted branches, bark and woods frame the action because-

‘Of course the devil is here in the fabric of the woodland’

Pre-Christian religion in Europe identified Gods such as Dionysus, Pan and the Goddesses Artemis/Diana and Demeter as being Spirits of the Woodland and fertility that were worshiped in orgiastic rites that purportedly involved animal and sometimes human sacrifice to appease the Gods and ensure a good harvest for the coming year. These Deities were given attributes of animals such as Goats or Fawn and were inexplicably linked to the fecundity of the environment.

During the Middle Ages as Christianity sought to consolidate its power over the lower classes and stamp out the vestiges of the ‘Old Religion’ still venerated by the commoners of Europe. Worship of the Horned God, fertility rites and nature were conflated with the worship of Satan and the practice of black magic and witchcraft. (Winzeler, 2012) Thus, the woods themselves in a way could be seen to harbour a type of evil and dangerous carnality most often associated with women. Any type of worship of the Gods and Goddess’ of nature is seen as a heresy against the one true God and linked with Satanic Practice. The Malleus Maleficarum, a notorious witch-hunting treatise written in in the 1500’s by two inquisitors states that-

‘All witchcraft comes from carnal lust which is in women insatiable’

Devil worship and accusations of witchcraft were used as a way of demonising fertility rites of pagan worship and subjugating feminine sexuality. The evil in Blood on Satan’s Claw is explicitly sexual in nature. Angel Blake, when possessed by the devil, strips and tries to seduce the town priest. The teenagers participate in rapes and orgies reminiscent of the medieval Christian view of the Satanic Sabbath. The coven members wear wreaths in their hair and dance linking them to ancient fertility rite of The Bacchanal practiced by pre-Christian pagans.

Blood on Satan’s Claw espouses a normative Christian view of Paganism and nature worship as inherently violent, dangerous and sexually amoral. It depicts a battle of good and evil with the righteous male Christian hero restoring order to the heathen contagion sweeping the town. However, the final shot of Blood on Satan’s Claw raises questions about whether the Judge may be just as evil as the satanic youth he has just saved. The judge menacingly peers through the fire of cross-shaped sword in hand. The question as to whether the Christian, male religious authority were just as morally bankrupt as the Old Religion that sprung forth from the forest while glossed over in Blood On Satan’s Claw is more explicitly explored in American International Pictures contribution to the Folk- Horror cycle 1970’s ‘Cry of the Banshee’.

Lord Whitman and his family rule a small Elizabethan village where they terrorize, rape and murder suspects of witchcraft. Oona and her coven curse the family, vowing to kill each member of Lord Whitman’s family when they murder her followers. The Coven live in the woods and follow a peaceful variant of ‘ The Old Religion’ but retaliate in chaotic violence when pushed to far sending a Banshee to stamp out the Whitman’s indiscriminately, including his daughter and the kind and peaceful son Sean.

Both Angel and Oona represent feminine challenges to the established patriarchal, traditional order. The 2nd Wave of feminism was rising in 1970, when both films were made. Women in England and the rest of the western world were beginning to mobilize and protest for equal rights.1970 was a time of social upheaval in England with massive student protests. Events with such as the Manson Family murders and the Rolling Stones Altamont concert, where Hell’s Angels murdered audience members shattered the ideal of the peace-loving hippie. Society began to view the counter-culture and its neo-pagan practices with increasing suspicion. These events would have a direct influence Blood On Satan’s Claw according to it’s writer Robert Wynne-Simons.

Blood on Satan’s Claw, Cry of the Banshee and The Wicker Man can all be seen to reinforce the view that the free love, feminine power and nature worship are inherently dangerous chaotic and destabilising influence on the rational, Christian, and male dominated order and must be stamped out or it will threaten the fabric of the society we hold dear. The natural world is viewed through the folk horror film is perceived as a violent and potentially demonic site that at any point can rise up and demand horrific retribution on the modern world. This is evidenced through the acts of murder and totalitarian cultism in The Wicker Man, the vengeful and indiscriminate violence of Oona’s cult in Cry of The Banshee and in the spontaneous acts of violence and carnality that erupt from the wood In Blood on Satan’s Claw.

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About Lisa Rae Bartolomei

Lisa Rae Bartolomei is an artist, musician, composer, sound designer and writer from Melbourne, Australia working across disciplines such as painting, drawing, photography, video and a multifaceted sonic practice that includes musical, electroacoustic and multichannel sound compositions . She has grown up with a love of film and has a particular fondness for the dark and mysterious world of Film Noir and Horror Films. She is a current Board Member of The Cinemaniacs Film Collective.

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