By Lisa Feklistova
Consider the witch. Why did she frighten Europeans, once upon a time?
One need only browse through 1870s and 1880s issues of The Folk-Lore Record, the journal of Britain’s Folklore Society, to learn that ‘the witch-faith of Europe […] spread by the witch persecutions of the sixteenth century’ remained surprisingly prevalent ‘even in our own time’, with folk superstitions persisting ‘not only in the remote Slavonic villages but in our Cornish mining hamlets’ (Lach-Szyrma 54). An article on ‘West Sussex Superstitions Lingering in 1868’ reports that ‘[nu]mbers of people’ continued to ‘believe […] in the power of witches and wizards to work them ill […] by selling themselves to the Evil One’ (Latham 23), while folklorists in Menton in 1879 heard orally transmitted tales about ‘a party of witches’ committing ‘devilties […] one had caused a man to die, […] another had in mischief overthrown a fine olive tree’ (Andrews 41), thus depriving a community of nourishment.
As early modern superstitions lingering in the nineteenth century would have it, the witch is your neighbour; a local woman whom you never liked. Having no magic of her own, she has made a pact with the devil. He shares his power with her and, in exchange, she lets him visit her in bed, night after night. This means your village is no longer a safe place. The devil is next door, in your community, right now.
The fear of the witch, then, is the fear that an outsider-figure – the devil – can exploit a community’s morally weakest member to infiltrate the group. The assumption underlying frightening folk tales traditionally is that listeners will identify with beleaguered villager characters who must re-establish communal integrity by identifying who among them is self-serving enough to stray from the fold, find the devil, and sell everybody out.
Where contemporary folk horror narratives are concerned, the exact reverse is true. Folk horror stories set in Europe today expect audiences to identify with an outsider-protagonist who travels to a rural community cut off from contemporary infrastructure, where he or she is terrorized by villagers prepared to sacrifice individualism for the communal good. Just think of films like Ari Aster’s 2019 smash hit Midsommar (set in contemporary Sweden), or Robin Hardy’s 1973 horror classic The Wickerman (set in 1970s Scotland).
Most strikingly of all, in 2010, cinemas in cities across Britain held sing-along screenings of The Wickerman, so that people could come together and sing the film’s cheery folk songs out loud, joining in with the murderous villagers on screen. A key scene in The Wickerman itself depicts the hero in the throes of temptation while a village girl attempts to seduce him to her way of life. Midsommar makes the seductive power of truly insular communities even more explicit, featuring a scene during which a villager tells a cripplingly lonely young woman that he finds it ‘terrifying how people live’ outside his village. ‘I was raised by a community’, he insists. ‘I have always felt held… Which everyone deserves. And you deserve… But do you feel held…?’ he pointedly asks.
Although I am passionately interested in horror stories, they are not the subject of my PhD. I decided to discuss folk horror in this blog post, however, because my doctoral project investigates a shift in mentality between the nineteenth and twentieth centuries which the evolution of the folk horror genre exemplifies:
In contemporary Europe, close-knit communities isolated from a wider infrastructure are considered abnormal enough to be frightening, while, for much of the nineteenth century, insular communities were the norm, while misfits and outsider-figures drew attention. Today, moreover, even narratives which condemn the horrors of parochialism are chock-full of longing and nostalgia for such a way of life, suggesting that anxieties about loneliness abound now that almost no truly isolated communities remain in Europe.
My PhD examines how we got here by focusing on short stories about rootlessness and interpersonal disconnection written between the 1880s and the 1920s, at a time when the rapid expansion of railway networks and the introduction of the motor-car, the omni-bus and the electric tram connected previously insular areas to one another. Examining in how far environments embedded within broader transportation networks foster alienation from any community which might make an individual ‘feel held’, I argue that short stories have an advantage over longer prose forms when it comes to portraying the hollowness of long distance relationships and fleeting encounters with strangers.
I begin by contrasting two short story collections by Thomas Hardy, who was born in 1840 and who saw insular rural communities in his native Dorset all but die out. In Wessex Tales, which was first published in 1888 and revised in 1912, Hardy endeavours to preserve a sense of what life in isolated rural communities was like by thematizing the verbal transmission of local knowledge down the generations. Nostalgic ‘tales’ such as ‘The Melancholy Hussar of the German Legion’ and ‘A Tradition of 1804’ suggest that, in order to pass on the truth of what they knew to their descendants, traditional tale-tellers had to omit all details which they could not accurately remember, which is why tales are brief, action-driven narratives. Hardy uses the short story form in a completely different way in his 1894 collection Life’s Little Ironies, relying on brevity to inhibit reader empathy for the characters in order to highlight the indifference with which people tend to treat strangers. Importantly, Life’s Little Ironies suggests that nineteenth century transportation technologies fragmented both rural villages and self-contained neighbourhoods within cities, so that people found themselves surrounded by indifferent strangers to an unprecedented degree in urban and rural areas alike.
The introduction of an efficient, Europe-wide infrastructure, however, had the advantage of making emigration easier for individuals who wished to escape obligations imposed by their local community. The second chapter of my dissertation contrasts the short stories of two different kinds of emigrants: James Joyce, an expatriate, and Jean Rhys, a rootless cosmopolitan. Whereas Joyce could clearly identify the native land he migrated from, Rhys declared ‘I have no country really now’ (Letters 172) because she could not claim to be a native of anywhere. In positioning contextual knowledge of Dublin’s history and culture as key to understanding his 1914 collection Dubliners, Joyce addresses his native community and makes few overtures to other kinds of readers. Dubliners thus implicitly presents embeddedness within one’s local community as all-important, even as Joyce thematically exposes how a profound sense of rootedness can oppress the individual. Rhys, by contrast, centres the essentially plot-less short stories of her 1927 collection The Left Bank around emigrees who lead empty lives because they have nothing sustain or orient them, having no community which might impose expectations or obligations.
Suffering from emotional atrophy due to their isolation, Rhys’s characters endeavour to use the adrenalin rush of going fast in a moving vehicle as a substitute for feelings generated by interpersonal closeness. This is likewise a prominent theme across the short stories of D. H. Lawrence and Aldous Huxley, who recurrently present touristic excursions, car trips, tram journeys and merry-go-round rides as offering cheap sensual thrills to individual who lack meaningful relationships.
Throughout my PhD, I argue that short stories are particularly well-suited both to mimicking orally transmitted tales, and to articulating concerns about fleeting encounters and superficial relationships due to their brevity. Writers around the turn of the twentieth century, therefore, embraced the form in order to reflect how the spectre of loneliness supplanted old bogey-men in Europe, as insular communities died out.
Andrews, J. B. ‘Stories from Mentone.’ The Folk-Lore Record, vol. 3, no. 1, 1880, pp. 40–52, http://www.jstor.org/stable/1252369.
Hardy, Thomas. Life’s Little Ironies: a Set of Tales; with Some Colloquial Sketches Entitled A Few Crusted Characters. Macmillan, 1910.
—. Wessex Tales. Macmillan, 1917.
Huxley, Aldous. Collected Short Stories. Elephant Paperbacks – Ivan R. Dee, Publisher, 1992.
Joyce, James. Dubliners. Penguin, 2012.
Lach-Szyrma, W. S. ‘Slavonic Folk-Lore.’ The Folk-Lore Record, vol. 4, 1881, pp. 52–70, http://www.jstor.org/stable/1252413.
Latham, Charlotte. ‘Some West Sussex Superstitions Lingering in 1868.’ The Folk-Lore Record, vol. 1, 1878, pp. 1–67, http://www.jstor.org/stable/1252339.
Lawrence, D. H. The Collected Short Stories. Heinemann, 1974.
Leigh, Danny. ‘Why Sing-along-a-Wicker-Man hits all the wrong notes.’ The Guardian, 11 Jun 2010.
Midsommar. Directed by Ari Aster, performances by Florence Pugh, Jack Reynor, Vilhelm Blomgren, A24, 2019.
Rhys, Jean. The Collected Short Stories. Penguin Modern Classics, 2017.
—. Letters 1931 – 1966, edited by Francis Wyndham and Diana Melly, Andre Deutsch, 1984.
The Wickerman. Directed by Robin Hardy, performances by Edward Woodward, Christopher
Lee, Diane Cilento, Britt Ekland, British Lion Film Corporation, 1973.