The Horror Show: James Grainger on Folk Horror and confronting Canada’s colonial past

Despite what should be fecund conditions for Folk.Horror, the subgenre has never really established itself here, writes Grainger

Canadian writer and critic James Grainger is the author of the story collection The Long Slide and the novel Harmless. He writes a regular column on horror fiction for the books section of the Toronto Star. In today’s guest post, Grainger examines the subgenre of Folk Horror and posits why such a tradition has not appeared in Canada.

Notes on the Possibility of Canadian Folk Horror

Folk Horror, for those who have not explored the fecund subgenre, achieves its effects by mining our ambiguous relationship with the natural landscape and those peoples who have maintained a vital connection to the land. In a Folk Horror movie or text, the forces of modernity and rationalism are often confronted by an atavistic, seemingly barbaric reminder of our collective pre-modern past. That reminder could be an agrarian cult, a pagan festival, or even a nature deity, while the confrontation is marked by violence, terror, and awe as the ancient gods and their servants reassert, if only temporarily, their claim to the landscape.

The ur-text of Folk Horror aficionados is and ever shall be Robin Hardy’s 1973 film The Wicker Man. Hardy and screenwriter Anthony Schaffer embody the forces of modernity in a devout Christian police officer who is lured to Summerisle, a remote Scottish island where human sacrifice and other more erotic fertility rituals are openly practised. That film, and others like it, along with its twin subgenre of folk horror fiction, mine an array of seemingly twee local traditions to reveal the enduring and uncanny power of pre-Judeo-Christian mythos.

In the best Folk Horror, the landscape is presented as both threatening and enchanted by animistic forces and deities that defy Judeo-Christian and rationalist assumptions. The land, with its haunting atmospheres and sights, reminds us of our supressed animal natures and the dreary pleasures and fragile protections of the industrialized, digitized present.

But as Andy Paciorek writes in his essay, “From the Forests, Fields, Furrows and Further: An Introduction,” to attempt to fully define Folk Horror is to miss the point. “One may as well attempt to build a box the exact shape of mist,” he writes, “for like the mist, Folk Horror is atmospheric and sinuous.”

Which begs the question: what would that “box the exact shape of mist” look like for a Canadian author?

Given Canada’s vast and often inhospitable landscapes and its roots as a nation of (mostly) rural and small town communities, Folk Horror would seem to be a natural fit for the country’s artists. As Margaret Atwood argued so persuasively in Survival, alienation from the land is the dominant Canadian literary mode. In one written work after another, Atwood finds the young nation state’s settlers and their descendants profoundly estranged from Canada’s vast unpaved spaces. The resulting culture, she observes, combines a pinched garrison mentality with an atavistic loyalty to European homelands many white Canadians had never even visited.1

Though that book was published almost fifty years ago, many of Atwood’s observations still ring true. We may be less overtly frightened of the Canadian landscape (more than 90% of us now live in cities, suburbs, or large towns), but that experience of alienation, of otherness, is familiar to almost anyone who ventures an hour beyond their home city or town’s limits.

Robin Hardy’s 1975 film The Wicker Man is the ur-text of modern Folk Horror

Despite what should be fecund conditions for a Canadian Folk Horror proliferation, the subgenre has never really established itself here, as it has in several European countries (and, in a typically inward-looking form, in the U.S.). Of course there are exceptions,2 but they don’t disprove the thesis that Folk Horror has largely failed to take root in the rocky Canadian ground.

The reason, I think, should be pretty obvious to anyone with a passing knowledge of Canada’s history of cultural and literal genocide against Indigenous Peoples who occupied this land for at least the last 10,000 years.

To understand that point, re-imagine the plot of The Wicker Man set on Manitoulin Island on Lake Huron. A buttoned-down, prim RCMP officer is sent to investigate the disappearance of a child in a community whose cultural practices predate our rationalist, technocratic, Judeo-Christian present. What would that community look like? We know what it would look like because such communities actually exist on Manitoulin Island and across Canada. They are the Indigenous communities that have, against the odds, survived colonialism with their cultures intact. 

Such a meeting between that RCMP officer and a modern Indigenous community could make for a great detective novel, but would it work as Folk Horror? Not as we understand the term. In The Wicker Man and other European works of Folk Horror, the protagonists are facing their own cultural past: the happy, human-sacrificing folk of Summerisle are the officer’s ancient Celtic ancestors uncannily present in the modern world.3

This encounter with our prehistoric past is key to Folk Horror’s imaginative power. Again quoting Andy Paciorek, in Folk Horror, the protagonists “find themselves alone within a group whose moral beliefs and practices are utterly alien to their own.” That alien morality is linked to some combination of human sacrifice, ritualized violence, polymorphous sexuality, and other “barbaric” cultural practices. For a non-Indigenous artist to describe any cultural norm that predates colonial contact in those terms would be to repeat a long, repugnant history of portraying Indigenous Peoples as Noble or Ignoble Savages.4

To confront his or her own people’s shadowy past, a non-Indigenous protagonist in a Folk Horror tale would have recourse to only 200 or 300 years of Canadian history (slightly longer for Maritime, Newfoundland, and Québécois artists). Is that enough history to make for an effectively uncanny and bone-chilling confrontation with historical otherness? Americans films like Deliverance, The Hills Have Eyes, and Southern Comfort would argue yes. Works by African-American artists such as Antebellum, in which a contemporary Black woman is inexplicably transported to a pre-Civil War slave plantation, and Toni Morrison’s Beloved (though more of a reimagined Gothic tale) also point the way to a Folk Horror that imaginatively grapples with the continent’s colonial horrors.

Although I don’t want to be prescriptive here, I believe that a non-Indigenous Folk Horror tradition in Canada would have to involve a confrontation with the sins of the nation’s colonial past and the power structures that perpetuate them to the present day. We’ve got the landscape down. Now let’s move on to the history.

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1. It is not surprising that English Canada’s writers, both in the horror and broader literary communities, have excelled at Gothic fiction, a tradition pioneered and perfected by Anglo-Protestant authors.

2. One that comes to mind is M.T. Kelly’s A Dream Like Mine (made into the film Clearcut), in which an Indigenous activist abducts a logging executive and ritually tortures him in a remote forest. Though not a work of true Folk Horror, the emphasis on landscape, cultural dislocation, and violence, along with hints of the supernatural (the activist may or may not be a manifestation of Wisakedjak, a Dene and northern Assiniboine trickster figure), puts the two works on the edge of that elusive box of mist.

3. Director Ari Aster artfully dodges this conundrum in his neo-Folk Horror film Midsommar by sending his American college protagonists overseas to confront their pre-modern past. It’s worth noting that the non-white characters who attend the pagan festival are murdered in particularly brutal ways.

4. North American horror fiction and film, when it references the pre-colonial past at all, usually does so in the hoary form of the cursed “Indian burial ground,” the source of evil in Stephen King’s Pet Sematary. Even in The Witch, an otherwise exemplary Folk Horror film, director Robert Eggers sidesteps Indigenous history and culture by transposing European-Christian religious and folk beliefs, in the form of a Puritan family tormented by a witch’s coven, onto the American landscape.

The Horror Show: James Grainger on Folk Horror and confronting Canada’s colonial past
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