Flower curtains open as the sun rises at noon, and people with animal masks prey upon trespassers as spring makes way to summer. There is blood dripping like strawberry jam on your fingers and the group chants to honor your work. That, my friends, is folk horror—bloody and ritualistic terror thriving by day.
Folk horror is a cinematic novelty that questions what we think of people, their intentions, and the immense landscapes unfamiliar to us. A group prosperous in nature, their Latin and foreign chants, animal skulls, and bloody sacrifices evoke suspense and terror as much—if not more than—a night-set slasher film. It is reachable and real like ghosts and serial killers, but distinct from the facets of Dracula and Frankenstein.
The rebirth of the genre is erupting from the dirt and making its way among the living. Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched earned the Audience Award in the Midnighters section at this year’s SXSW. In the documentary, film historian Kier-La Janisse examines the small isolated communities that practice folk customs and the occult within cinema. It is those characteristics that defined folk horror since it planted roots with Witchfinder General (1968), Blood on Satan’s Claw (1971), and The Wicker Man (1973).
Blood on Satan’s Claw reigns as one of the Unholy Trinity films of the folk-horror genre, and for good reason. It engraved the genre’s key components in stone for all who wanted to wander its forbidden and supernatural powers that continue to terrorize audiences 50 years after its release. Unlike the fictional creatures and growling monsters, the movie reveals the evil existent in humanity. Now that is terrifying.
During the late 1960s through the 1970s, baby boomers said good riddance to conformity. Sex, drugs, and rock n’ roll dominated new horizons of thinking and living. In cinema, Dracula was dragging his own stake, witches were a fad, and monsters were friendly neighbors on TV sitcoms. Horror cinema was thirsty for something frightening to show in theaters, and by 1969 movies caught up with the baby boomer counterculture. The lives of teenagers and young adults were reflected in movies, a new generation with peace and love at its core. After all, teenage audiences made up 15.8 million of the weekly movie theater admissions in 1971.
Directors in the late 1960s avoided gothic cliches and aspects of the modern world, and therefore summoned the folklore, sinister legends, and demonic superstitions from centuries long forgotten. The stories of pagan rituals and evil among townspeople were under a new analysis. Once oral storytelling, folklore transformed into visual entertainment that shocked and terrified a new generation.
Blood on Satan’s Claw director Piers Haggard told Mark Gatiss in the 2010 BBC documentary A History of Horror that he was not aware of the new cinematic terrain he was breaking into in 1971—a genre of English landscapes and witchcraft that reflected the era’s interest in satanism and cults. He showed the vicious things that occurred in beautiful places and how nature was a weapon used to enhance horror. Supernatural and violent endings were the last drops of blood on the dagger that took a stab at the horror genre. “I wasn’t really interested in Dracula,” Haggard recalled. “But I was interested in the dark things that people feel and the dark things that happen, and that’s what I wanted to explore.”
The 1960s witnessed the rise of Satanism as Anton LaVey founded the first Church of Satan, and Alexander Sanders founded the tradition of Alexandrian Wicca in Europe. The occult was a freedom from religion and an openness of the unknown, power, sex, and witchcraft. “I was trying to make a folk horror in a way because we are all a bit interested in witchcraft, we were all a bit interested in free love,” said Haggard. "The rules of the cinema were changing and nudity became possible; over prevalent because the lid had slightly been taken off.”
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Set in 17th century England, the 1971 film begins with the discovery of a monstrous skull in the dirt. Actress Linda Hayden plays Angel Blake, who discovers the claw of a creature while she’s playing in the fields with her two classmates. Satan harvests his skin from the teenagers as Blake reigns as the cult leader dressed in white with flower branches crowning her head.
The tarnished church is the focal point of the earthy and rural scenery. The adults worry about the dark forces in their town and its effect on their innocent children. Young girls like Margaret are accused of being witches for having sexual cravings, and Blake tempts Reverend Fallowfield with her naked body before accusing him of rape. The patches of furry skin and claws are cut off the victims like puzzle pieces put together to form the image of Satan. The abandoned church is where the teenage victims are tortured, raped, and killed in return for the furry skin. The cult’s actions signify the breakdown of values, and the growing madness in the secluded countryside as a result of the demonic possessions.
The obsession with British landscapes, superstitions, and the occult were the initial steps to the rebirth of folk horror as we have seen with recent movies, such as The Witch (2015) and Midsommar (2019). Blood on Satan’s Claw sparked the resurgence of old customs and beliefs, the supernatural, and violent events that could take place in the daylight. Fifty years later, it has earned the respect of horror fans, and it has scared viewers with its non-fiction plot that exists in the world.
In the late ‘60s, British horror was declining, but with each fall comes a new rising. That new rising was the folk horror genre that literally unearthed a new meaning for horror cinema even half a century later. Dracula and werewolves were no longer scaring teenage movie goers, because they were fictitious characters that lacked the true terrors found within humanity. Once Blood on Satan’s Claw hit theaters, it defined a genre that would enhance the dark side of the living.