Into the Woods: American Sci-Fi Folk Horror

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I missed last month due to the holidays, so I’m overcompensating and making this article much longer and more rambling than anyone probably wants. And this being the holiday season and all, it dwells a little on growing up, bonds of friendship, wandering around in the woods, and Nazis. Because anyone who has been around my family during the holidays knows, if there’s one topic guaranteed to come up, it’s killing Nazis. Also, Kentucky Wildcat basketball, but mostly, killing Nazis.

I’ve spent the latter half of 2016 exploring that liminal space where folk horror and science fiction meet, typified by (mostly British) programs like the oft-mentioned Quatermass 2, These Are the Damned, Children of the Stone, The Stone Tape, and Penda’s Fen. At its core there is something very British about folk horror, so tied is it to the landscape of rural and semi-rural England, the ancient Pagan rites and cultures that, because they did not write anything down, lend themselves so readily to mystery, interpretation, and myth-making. Eventually, however, as an American lad, I started thinking about American folk horror and, as is my way, the places where American folk horror and science fiction intersect. This was an avenue of idle speculation inspired by a few things, not the least of which would be 1) the fact that I grew up in the rural countryside of Kentucky, in a place that later became suburban and was, in the day, replete with local legends, ghost stories, and folklore; and 2) Stranger Things.

As I sat and pondered, predictably clutching a snifter of armagnac which I gently and absent-mindedly swirled as I stared out a rain-streaked window, I came up with what I think is a pretty good trilogy of American science fiction folk horror, which I think will also finally wrap my meandering and unplanned exploration of sci-fi folk horror. After all, a new Expanse novel came out, and I’m anxious to write about what Captain Holden and the gang are up to.

Halloween III: Season of the Witch

The story of how this film came to be is well-known among horror fans, but in case you don’t count yourself among them, here it is in a nutshell. When John Carpenter made Halloween, he also came up with the idea to make a series of  films, each one different but released under the same banner during halloween, like an anthology film except each segment was feature-length and released a year apart. The runaway success of Halloween, however, meant that audiences and studio money men were screaming for a sequel, but that sequel better be the further adventures of unstoppable slasher Michael Myers. Never one to say no to greenbacks, Carpenter relented and dashed off the lazy Halloween 2 (which I know many people like; I am not among you), a film that went a long way to undoing everything that was cool and mysterious and scary about the first film. With Myers thus served up again, Carpenter hoped he could go back to his original idea for the Halloween series. And thus, Halloween III (produced by Carpenter but directed by Kentucky native Tommy Lee Wallace) has nothing to do with Michael and nothing to do with the slasher genre. As a result, it was a major flop, both with critics and fans (though both groups have since reassessed the film).

Having myself rewatched the film not so long ago, I was struck by how much it seemed like a slice of mid-1970s British sci-fi folk horror. And then when I learned the original draft of the script had been written by Nigel Kneale (the Quatermass series, The Stone Tape), it all made sense. Halloween III might not fit in with the Halloween films, but it is absolutely at home alongside Kneale’s British sci-fi folk horror, the only difference being that instead of Professor Quatermass we get harried doctor Challis, played by the much beloved Tom Atkins (also in the fantastic sci-fi horror film Night of the Creeps), investigating the mysterious manufacturer of a series of inexplicably popular halloween masks. What he discovers is an insane mix of druid lore, ancient rites, corporate cultists, and mad technology that exists somewhere between Kneale and David Cronenberg (whose best films were themselves strange mixtures of science fiction and horror).

Halloween III‘s folk horror comes from the freaky druid stuff, but also from the film being set during Halloween in the American heartland, a place that (much like the British Midlands) exists somewhere between rural and suburban. The big reveal of the source of the sinister corporation’s power is on a set that looks something straight out of The Stone Tape (only with more money). As was the case in the popular British program Children of the Stone, Halloween III is about modern schemers harnessing ancient powers with possible extraterrestrial origins to power experimental technology. Well, more or less. Halloween III has a lot less Morris dancing. It trades in the things that have become sort of the mythology of the modern American folk landscape: roadside motels, kids on bikes, television sets, high school football games, general stores, rustbelt factories, tree-lined suburbs, anonymous and ominous office parks and industrial facilities. In the 1970s, these spaces became the dominant setting for for much of our science fiction and horror (the suburbs of A Nightmare on Elm Street, for example, or the trailer park of The Last Starfighter), culminating perhaps in Steven Spielberg’s trifecta of rural/suburban American battles with the fantastic: Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Poltergeist, and E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial. Halloween III is weird and more adult than any of those (although there are kids in it, it’s not about kids, which I guess makes it most like Close Encounters). But mostly, like the best folk horror, it’s about an outsider who stumbles onto a dangerous secret and a mysterious power.

Phantasm

Like Halloween III, Phantasm is at times a surreal blend of horror, folklore, and science fiction in which supernatural forces are revealed to possess potentially technological/extraterrestrial (or at least inter-dimensional) origins. The Tall Man (played to perfection by Angus Scrimm) and his looming mausoleum are the stuff of folk horror; an ominous and possibly ancient force hinted at in bits and pieces of countless fragmented tales and legends. However, the horrors the Tall Man commands are, we discover, largely the stuff of science fiction, especially the deadly flying spheres and the bizarre silver gateway inside a stark white room. While Phantasm succeeds as a horror film in these regards, what makes it one of my favorite films, and what I think really puts the “folk” in its folk horror, is the human story of brothers Mike and Jody and the isolated-feeling neighborhood in which they live and which, like so much in folk horror, exists on that nebulous border between the suburban and the rural that was especially common in the United States in the 1970s.

I grew up in a place called Centerfield, and later moved down the road to a place called Buckner (to call either of them “towns” is, I think, to overstate the “towniness” of a stretch of place boasting a gas station and a church). At the time my family moved to Centerfield, it was mostly rural farmland. Not unpopulated but not suburban. It was, however, on its way to becoming suburban (a process that was accelerated when an interstate exit made travel to and from nearby Louisville much more convenient than it had been via two-lane country roads). We were in a neighborhood with gravel roads, carved out of a combination of pasture land and woods that still surrounded the development on all sides. This being an era of hands-off parenting, we elementary school kids in the area who all became friends (four of us, three boys and a girl) were free to wander as we saw fit as long as we got home in time for dinner. That included mounting expeditions into the woods, which were not unsubstantial in their deep darkness, and occasional hunts for Bigfoot (he obviously lived back there) and a mad Nazi doctor who was hiding out in a ramshackle cabin (I grew up in a family still very closely connected to WWII, so Nazi boogeymen played a pretty big part in my childhood).

There was also the unusually large and ornate multi-story house (it was mostly a neighborhood of single-story ranch homes) at the end of a cul-de-sac. Over the course of our adventures, we developed a complicated theory about the house and its mysterious tenants, who one never really saw coming or going despite it being an otherwise relatively social neighborhood. Without a doubt they were witches, or devil worshippers, or something like that. On summer nights, when our curfews were extended, we would sneak around near that house, trying to catch a glimpse of whatever eldritch rites were being performed within. Oldham County, Kentucky, was an area oddly rich in devil lore (don’t even get me started on Covered Bridge Road or the pond on Rebel Ridge), so a bunch of eight-year-olds formulating complex theories about Pagan rituals (or not knowing the difference between Paganism and Satanism; I mean, we were little, and nuances of the occult had not yet been learned) wasn’t that out of the ordinary. We also all watched a lot of horror films.

That’s a big part of why I find Phantasm so personally interesting: the quiet moments when it’s just a couple of friends hanging out, playing guitar, doing nothing much on the front porch. The scenes of Mike sneaking around, riding his bike through the neighborhood, coming up with fantastical theories about the mysterious house on the hill — nowhere has that type of “weird kid” youth been so earnestly and expertly realized on film as it was in Phantasm. The only real difference between Jody and me is that his mysterious house actually was inhabited by otherworldly fiends, where as it turns out mine was inhabited by an old lady who couldn’t walk very well.

Stranger Things

In between elementary and middle school, my family lived for a while on my grandfather’s farm, where he raised tobacco and quarter horses — though not using the same methods. Where my previous neighborhood had been somewhat remote but still a neighborhood, complete with friends and even a girl or two on whom I could develop a crush, the farm was really out in the middle of nowhere. My grandfather owned a hundred or so acres, only a portion of which was given over to farm and grazing land. The rest was wild, untamed woods which were, in turn, surrounded by even more woods until finally everything just butted against the banks of the Ohio River. I had miles upon miles of wild to explore, again done with the “learn to take care of yourself” attitude of the day that assumed left to his own devices, a ten-year-old would figure out how to navigate back country, fend off snakes and wild dogs, and figure out which caves were safe to explore and which were best left alone. It might, from the vantage point of the over-protective 2010s, sound like a cavalier way to raise a child, but keep in mind: I had one of those L-shaped Army flashlights with the different colored lenses. So I was going to be OK.

The strangest thing (so to speak) about the farm, other than the fact that the nearest neighboring house was a rickety old affair at the dead-end of a one-lane dirt road and populated entirely by inbred cannibals (that’s another story), was that in the middle of that vast land of trees and cliffs and creeks and caves, a massive scar had been gouged out to make room for a row of metal power line towers that straddled the woods and fields like the tripods in John Christopher’s The White Mountains. I would often follow that scar in the wilderness, accompanied by the buzz of electricity zipping back and forth far overhead (or so I imagined), until I reached a spot far and remote even among such remoteness, near the river. There the open land was strung with sudden “No Trespassing” signs and a tall chain link fence, the kind that tilt out near the top to discourage would-be climbers. Beyond the fence, the rolling green grass avenue between the trees continued, and there was a hill beyond which would could see nothing but the top of a building. At the time, I was convinced beyond convincing otherwise that I had stumbled upon “something I shouldn’t have seen.” Why settle for something as mundane as “probably just a generating station” when I could have “secret government installation experimenting on God only knows. Remember all those stories about people disappearing when they were building Marble Hill?”

Seriously, there is some really weird stuff along the banks of the Ohio River, but it’s hard to get much creepier than an abandoned nuclear power plant.

You can’t see it from space, but I swear the murder barn is down there

After a couple years living on the farm (during which my entire family of four lived in one room), we were sufficiently recovered financially to move to a new house, once again surrounded by woods and farmland. After befriending a couple other kids in the area as well as having one lifelong friend from the old neighborhood move nearby (once again, we were three boys and a girl), we discovered that down a long country lane cutting its way through fields of corn and cows there was a massive stretch of undeveloped woods positively stuffed with local mysteries. There were two trails in. The first was a dirt road, chained off, which led to an old one-room log cabin with a couple graves beside it. The other was a semi-hidden footpath (I still have no idea how we discovered it), that led past a structure we affectionately dubbed “the murder barn” because it looked like the sort of crumbling structure Jason Voorhees would shelter in while he stared at you through the cracks between rotting planks of wood. The trail continued past a gully that must have once been a tributary of Harrod’s Creek (itself a tributary of the Ohio) but was now dry, overgrown, and for some inexplicable reason, filled with the decaying metal husks of four or five old cars that looked to be from the 1930s or ’40s (though I’m no expert on cars) and looked to have been back there for an awfully long time. There was a famously major flood of the Ohio in the 1930s, so I suppose they could have ended up back there as part of that, but that would have been one hell of a circuitous journey. We immediately began to formulate our own scenarios, most of which involved kidnap, Prohibition gangsters, human sacrifice, and because it was me involved, Nazi war criminals hiding in the woods.

Eventually the footpath gave way to a wide stretch of sand and rock which led to that same spooky cabin, away from which led another small path that wound its way through cliffs and valleys before leading to Harrod’s Creek. This was our secret empire. Day after day, year after year, we would wander through those woods, never catching sight of another soul and, depending on the heat, formulating personal mythology about local ghosts, monsters, and what might be on the other side of a fence that inexplicably ran through the woods if you left the trail and wandered far enough along the creek in a certain direction.

Which is all a really long way of explaining why, when I watched Stranger Things, even as someone who does not consider himself particularly susceptible to the marketing of nostalgia for nostalgia’s sake (no amount of “everything from your childhood decade was great!” articles will convince me I ever gave a shit about Masters of the Universe or Snorks), I found myself stunned into an almost teary-eyed silence by how familiar it all was. Granted, the girl who always went along with us on our adventures didn’t have amazing psychic powers, but everything else…OK, also, we never did find any of the local monsters, and I’m willing to admit that maybe the woods in Oldham County, Kentucky, weren’t as full of hiding Nazi scientists as I initially assumed. But, you know…those Army flashlights.

At first, I resisted Stranger Things. So much was made of it being “a love letter to the 1980s” and “an homage to Stephen King, Steven Spielberg, and John Carpenter,” that I was ready to write it off as another exercise in puerile nostalgia marketing. Yes yes, we have seen the same things. Very good. So what? I don’t respond well to movies that are basically VH1’s I Love the ’80s, with a bunch of people gushing about every stupid thing that existed. But then I finished Luke Cage, and I was in the mood for something sort of science fiction horror-y, so I figured I’d give Stranger Things an episode or two before writing it off as another awful Kung Fury or whatever bad fake ’80s imitation cult film people kept suggesting I see because “I know you love that sort of stuff.” No one understands me, man! Anyway, three days later, I’d finished Stranger Things and was ready to put it right up near the top of my “best things watched in 2016” list.

A disservice has been done to the show by concentrating on the nostalgia aspect of it which, while obviously present, isn’t the show’s reason for being. It’s much more than just a “hey, remember when?” It offers a lot more beyond simple imitation and homage. Although Spielberg, King, and Carpenter are the show’s most obvious influences, for me the thing it most reminded me of was Phantasm. Like Phantasm, the bond between characters is at the core of why the show succeeds, and it takes time out from face-eating monsters and dimensional gateways to develop those bonds. It also takes place in a location that is remote but suburban; transitional, neither here nor there. And it doesn’t dwell for long in the realm of “grown-ups will never believe us!” When we ourselves were hunting forest Nazis and daring each other to climb to the top of one of those power towers (a feat that was abandoned while still pretty close to the ground; some things became too obviously stupid even for me to attempt), we never worried about convincing parents or local authorities. They never even occurred to us. This was our adventure, and we didn’t see anything they could contribute. Stranger Things is split between a set of kids and a set of adults (and a couple teenagers), but “we have to convince the grown-ups we’re not lying!” never really plays into things. When it does, it’s dealt with very quickly in the fashion of, “Are you kids serious? Oh, well shit, there’s a monster. Yeah, guess you’re right.”

At eight episodes, Stranger Things has the time to develop its plot and characters but not enough time to require filler the way Netflix’ 12-to-13-episode Marvel shows sometimes do. That means nothing gets drawn out, but everything has enough time to build up to, say, the character Eleven’s big hero moment (OK, she has a few) when she kicks the asses of a couple bullies (or an entire school full of shoot-to-kill soldiers, or a giant inter-dimensional monster, or people who don’t want her to have Eggos, or..). Taking time to develop the story and the characters within it makes Stranger Things much more effective than a lot of other “throwback to the 1980s” things that function mostly as over-exaggerated slideshows or stuff people vaguely remember or are too young to remember but have heard about (thus the often cartoonish overblown nature of so much of it).

Other than Phantasm, what Stranger Things most reminded me of was Scanners, David Cronenberg’s story of a weird government program to create powerful psychics, played out against an utterly banal backdrop of business parks, office towers, shopping malls, and dull looking conference rooms (no coincidence there; in Stranger Things, Matthew Modine is practically playing David Cronenberg playing a creepy scientist). Which, amazingly brings me full circle back the concept of American sci-fi folk horror and why I think science fiction and folk horror are often so well merged. There is something very folk horror about weird science. It’s full of esoteric rites (procedures) performed by a tiny cabal of sorcerers (scientists) often residing in remote locations around which all sorts of rumors swirl. It often deals with humans tapping into ancient primal forces, be they the Old Gods or nuclear power or the human brain. And there are often unforeseen, usually tragic consequences for meddling with powers we don’t fully comprehend. It’s no wonder Nigel Kneale so often wandered between the worlds of folk horror and science fiction, or why the green hills of rural England so often contained ancient stone circles as well as secret military research installations. Folk horror has always dealt with the space between spaces. Where the Pagan becomes Christian. Where the ancient becomes modern. Where the rural becomes the developed. Where magic becomes science and alchemy becomes chemistry.

A couple years ago, I revisited my grandfather’s farm (he sold it sometime in the mid 1990s when he got too old to maintain it) as well as the old woods down the country lane. My grandfather’s remote farm, all that land, is now populated. Not heavily, but the vast empty spaces are gone and the crumbled one-lane road that dead ends at the cannibals’ house not opens up to two lanes and has become a complete highway. The cannibals are gone. The power lines are still back there. The woods we used to explore near Harrod’s Creek are similarly developed. Still big and rural seeming if you don’t know what the land was like a couple decades ago. The cabin is gone, replaced by a house that I guess is occasionally occupied and probably haunted by the vengeful spirits of whoever it was that rested for so long in those graves with no one to disturb them but the occasional adventurous middle schoolers. The hidden path is still back there, though, as well as all those rusted out old cars. It’s still well-suited for young adventurers. Mythology is adaptable, after all. Somewhere back there, there’s still some group of intrepid, poorly supervised kids writing their own.

JUST FOR GOD’S SAKE STAY OUT OF THE MURDER BARN!!!

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I consider it a good day if you find yourself in a torn Army green t-shirt, using a badly notched machete to split open a coconut and hand half of it to the scantily-clad woman sitting on the beach next to you as you stare out at the waves and listen intently for the sound of war drums drifting from the dense foliage of the jungle behind you.

5 Comments

  1. True. I was going to say the same thing. Also, the two people sitting on the porch playing guitar are Jody and Reggie, not Jody & Mike. But I utterly adore Phantasm (I ran to my iTunes account and got the recent remastered version the second I heard about it) and reading an article from a fellow compatriot, especially such as good, thoughtful, well-written one, was a nice Christmas gift.

  2. You make an interesting point about the landscapes being part of the character–like, five minutes’ bike ride puts you either beyond the bounds of human civilization, in the middle of a lifeless industrial hellscape, right next to a citadel of eldritch power and unspeakable rituals, or at your best friend’s house.

    I don’t think there’s any point in the series where we feel urban–like, even the bit with the grocery store makes it seem like that’s the only building for several miles around. And it’s definitely a Northeastern feeling; the West would be more of a desert (and the things wouldn’t be so close that kids on bikes could get to them easily) and in the South the weirdness would come from the people, not the places.

    I watched this with a group of people who’d all grown up in that area (Pennsylvania, New York, Massachusetts) and we all really dug it. But I do wonder whether it would speak as strongly to someone who, e.g., grew up in Nevada.

  3. I wonder what is your take on Candle Cove, which is a famous creepypasta turned into a miniseries where a small town and a big forest around it play a big role.

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