In a seventeenth-century British village, a farmer unearths a demon’s skull while plowing a field. Under its spell, the village’s children grow thick hair on their bodies and gather in the ruins of an old church to conduct orgiastic rituals—including rape and murder—led by an adolescent girl. Informed of the chaos, a local judge consults his books and determines that a demon is using the Satanic youth—and the powerless adults under their command—to harvest skin for his skeleton. Armed with a crucifix, the judge penetrates the coven and banishes the demon, returning the village to patriarchal order.
This story seems like some crazy medieval fairy tale. But it isn’t. It’s the plot line of Piers Haggard’s The Blood on Satan’s Claw (1971)—a masterpiece of folk horror. According to Mark Gatiss, folk horror films share an obsession with “the British landscape, its folklore, and its superstitions.” Popular for about a decade in mid-twentieth century, these films also reflect the failure of countercultural romanticism. Hippies longed for a return to the “simpler times” of subsistence farming and communal living in an imaginary pre-modern past filled with standing stones, matriarchal white witches, and free love.
As a corrective, folk horror films such as Witchfinder General (1968) and The Cry of the Banshee (1970) depict a more realistic agrarian past dominated by violent misogyny and the horrors of patriarchal hegemony. These films muddy the pastoral scenes dreamed up by hippies and Jethro Tull and use them to highlight feminist concerns—including the need to kill the past for women’s liberation.
Directed by Michael Reeves and based on a novel by Ronald Bassett, Witchfinder General features Vincent Price as Matthew Hopkins—a self-appointed witch hunter in seventeenth-century East Anglia. Amid the chaos of the English Civil War, Hopkins and his assistant, Stearne, arrive in the once-peaceful hamlet of Brandeston to interrogate villagers—mostly women—who are suspected of witchcraft. As they are “questioned,” the women are stripped, raped, branded with hot irons, and stabbed with bodkins before they are drowned or burned alive. While a woman named Sara is being tortured, a soldier breaks into the dungeon and engages Hopkins in battle. As the two men struggle for control over Sara’s bound body, she screams and screams—the film’s final note.
In Witchfinder General, the past is a horrifying and violent place—a world in which men use women’s bodies as canvases to paint bloody self-portraits of hatred and desire.
Two years later, Vincent Price reprised his role as an evil witch-hunting patriarch in Gordon Hessler’s The Cry of the Banshee. Set in a rural Elizabethan village, Cry of the Banshee pits a sadistic magistrate named Lord Edward Whitman (Price) and his rapacious sons against a local witch named Oona.
In the first half of the film, Oona and her youthful coven are peaceful hippies living in a forest commune, running about naked and wearing flowers in their hair. After Whitman and his sons torture and slay several of Oona’s “children,” the coven moves underground and offers sacrifices to Satan in return for revenge. During one of these rituals, Whitman’s son Harry and a local priest—both agents of patriarchal authority—slay Oona in an attempt to return order to the village. While they succeed in killing her body and cleansing the village of Satanic-hippie-witches, her curse lives on. Unable to defeat Whitman in her female form, Oona sends her male sidhe—an elemental from Celtic mythology—to finish off her enemy.
In Oona and her children, Cry of the Banshee offers a fleeting glimpse of the idyllic past imagined by the counterculture—a vision quickly destroyed by a patriarchal terror that claims dominion over female bodies, codes pagan beliefs as Satanic, and demands the destruction of matriarchal power.
An American folk horror film, The Witchmaker (1969), shakes up the paradigm. Unlike its British counterparts, Witchmaker does not bring the viewer back into the past—it brings the horrors of the patriarchal past into the present.
The film is set in the mid-century swamps of Louisiana, the home of Luther the Berserk—a medieval warlock and the patriarch of a global parish of witches—whose pastime is hunting and raping women. In an all-too familiar plot, Dr. Hayes brings his students and a psychic named Tasha to a cabin in the swamps to study paranormal phenomena. Three men want to claim Tasha—Luther and Victor want to own her sexually, while Dr. Hayes wants to penetrate her mind for research. The objectified Tasha ultimately survives her male pursuers—medieval and modern—and becomes the matriarch of the Satanic coven.
Far from countercultural daydreams, folk horror depicts the pre-modern past as a patriarchal hell to which we should never return. The Witchmaker warns us that these misogynistic horrors are still with us, hiding in modernity’s darker regions, waiting—like the demon’s skull in The Blood on Satan’s Claw, one eye peering up from the soil. On the precipice of Trump’s coronation, American women once again face the unleashing of a male hatred that wants to drag us by our hair back into the darkness of the past. Like the witchy women of folk horror, we will have to fight relentlessly to kill that past—and craft our own wicked futures.