Caught by the River

Folk Horror

Adam Scovell | 27th May 2017

Adam Scovell is a writer and filmmaker who is currently studying for a PhD in music and philosophy at the University of Liverpool. He has been contributing to this site since 2015.

His new book, Folk Horror has just been published. Here’s an exclusive extract:

Threescore and ten I can remember well: Within the volume of which time I have seen Hours dreadful and things strange; but this sore night Hath trifled former knowings. – Old Man in Macbeth (1611).

On the 2nd of October 2013, my head was being gently jolted against a window to the rhythm of a cut-price train. I was exhausted from a long spate of writing and filming but, tonight, I had decided to make the effort and leave my flat in Liverpool for an evening in Stockport. Though the steam on the window had distorted the vision of outside to a blur of electric lights upon a rich blackness, I had trusted the last minute rush to the ticket machine and quietly assured myself that this strange vision was gradually evolving into the industrial town, typical of those found in the north west of England. This place of my destination, more famous for viaducts painted by L.S. Lowry, was drawing me to its streets for a particularly special event; a certain screening of a certain cut of a certain film with the presence of a certain director.

The specific place and appointed hour was the Stockport Plaza Cinema; a beautifully restored art deco cinémathèque, all angles, blocks of light, and patinas gleaned straight from The Overlook Hotel. The cinema was an unusually busy place that evening, for the whole building had been taken over by a horror film festival, set to unleash a number of films on an audience ready to lap up the pulp. The walls were covered with black and red paraphernalia of all kinds, and the aisles swam with the excited buzz of black t-shirts. I took my seat in one of the period chairs, the shakiness being oddly reassuring rather than worrying. Perhaps, so I thought, someone had sat here forty years ago (and two months hence) ready and waiting in desperation to see Nicolas Roeg’s latest mimetic shard of cinema, the gloriously gothic Don’t Look Now (1973), but frustrated at having to first sit through some B-picture about a wooden man or something. Maybe, just like that evening, the organist would have been doing his utmost musical theatrics, bellowing marvellously on the Compton Organ. The green lights that shone vividly upon its casing made it seem more Dr Phibes than Lon Chaney Senior, however.

There was mention of other films in the program, yet it mattered very little; there was an appointment to keep with one film alone. Suddenly, a name was dropped out of the white noise of information apropos of Chucky films and the like. The name was Robin Hardy and, for a brief moment, he had appeared at the side of the stage. My seat was too far back for a better view at this point but I could see he had come in his typical costume. Rather like Doctor Who, Hardy was a man who seemed to wear the same sorts of clothes in his publicity photos as in real life. Some of my neighbouring viewers looked bemused. Who was this man? And, more importantly, why did the sight of him make certain audience members beam in awe as if in the presence of a more papal dignitary? This man in the corner, who looked like the second player from an Amicus film, felt oddly anachronistic compared to his audience; double-breasted blue sailor jacket, RP pronunciation, Cushing handkerchief in top pocket. I was one of these beaming subjects, enraptured in a strange sense of Zen as the lights went down and his film began.

Of course, the film was The Wicker Man (1973). That film of so many strange amalgamations, of so many elements as to require a book of its own to detail its complicated, rich history. This wasn’t simply the widely available cut, learned by rote in the intervening years through excessive repeat viewings, but a new, longer cut recently discovered in Harvard’s film archives. The extra footage hugely reframed the film temporally from the version I had seen, the drama of poor Sgt. Howie, played by Edward Woodward, being taken in by the counter-culture pagan window dressings of the community of Summerisle, now feeling very much like taking place over a set number days. The film was fleshed out, somehow impossibly better, a whole new set of cinematic grammar and rhythms to take on board. The exhilaration reached its peak at the final sound of Paul Giovanni’s score, its last horn being mournful yet celebratory. The head of the wicker man fell into burning flame, giving way to a vibrant sun at dusk, sinking behind the horizon of film history; an impossibly perfect final shot whose colours are drenched with the dying embers of the British counter-culture itself.

The ever recognisable logo of the Summerisle sun came up as did the house lights, as if it had lit up the auditorium with its rays of the past. Perhaps we would all leave as pagans in its warming glow. Like the jubilant villagers of Summerisle, the audience was in equal rapture, clapping as if Hardy himself had sacrificed Woodward in a frenzied ritual of fire for the benefit of horror cinema as whole. Like a distant cousin of Lord Summerisle, Hardy’s gentlemanly aura was free to behold as he was asked onto the stage for a brief, seemingly unplanned, question-and-answer session. A few heretics rustled in their seats, seemingly impatient for the next film to start. Hardy was rushed through a handful of anaemic questions, forever asked of a man sadly only famous for one seriously classic film. A drawn out archaeology of the film’s cutting history, where the version just screened had differed from the previously existing copy, what was still missing; all answered with the brief but polite hyperbole brought about through years of answering, polished to perfection like a pebble.

Before having time to delve deeper than trivialities, Hardy was rushed off stage with sacrosanct hurry. It seemed unfair, or perhaps I was as taken in by his film as the antagonists who inhabited it. I knew instantly that, rather than watch the rehashed horror about to the follow, I instead had to give chase, meet him, somehow at least attempt to convey the importance his work had played in my own oddly isolated viewing life. The second film was due to start, the lights dimming again. In the growing darkness, I could make out the bob of his walk, the sailor-jacketed shoulders sticking out from the black T-shirted crowd of horror fans, as he made his way with a small entourage up the slight incline of the cinema aisle, as if mimicking Howie’s final journey. My decision was impulsive, almost uncontrollable and somnambulist, as if a determined race memory had alighted, possibly born all of the way back to when Martian insect aliens crashed a ship under the tube station near Hobs Lane.

In my moment of possession, I had failed to realise that the ancient seat of the cinema had a dual purpose of trapping coats within its metallic teeth. I was unable to move, becoming more frantic as I could see Hardy getting further and further towards the exit. I escaped the seat’s teeth eventually but it required an appropriate hecatomb. My sacrifice was not of blood for the land but of my coat itself which violently tore down the back as I tugged it out from the metallic jaws. Free and unimpeded by the chair no longer, I staggered up the aisle after Hardy. I foolishly put my coat on to the bemused looks of several of the audience members: “You’ll simply never understand the true nature of sacrifice” was a phrase that appropriately came to mind. The foyer opened out before me and the entourage had momentarily left Hardy alone, simply waiting there as if dallying impatiently for some local villagers to send a dinghy to him. Several other people had had the same idea and, despite the trapping of my seat, I had somehow made my way to being two from the front of a make-shift queue to meet him. The festival organisers, clearly unprepared for the actions of the devoted, began to panic as it was clear that a sizeable mass of their audience was more interested in having a few moments shared with this unassuming man than catching the film now playing in the cinema.

Upon meeting him, my mind faltered. What is the correct thing to say to the man who directed The Wicker Man? It had to be short but it had also to convey the total adoration of his work. It needed to be akin to a powerful incantation, like M.R. James’ “Quis est iste qui venit” from “Oh, Whistle, And I’ll Come To You, My Lad” only benevolent and summoning up good will rather than a Dunwich demon to ruffle the bed sheets. No ideas were coming, my mind was too taken over by the changes in the new version of the film; it had felt like a new experience, the land reborn, the fields replenished. The lyrics of Gently Johnny, the song which now had much more precedence in the film, swirled around my mind. What to say? I strode up to Mr. Robin Hardy and simply thanked him politely for making his film. There was little else to be said as gratitude and admiration covered the common ground of the film’s reception. The true moment of thinking came finally when saying goodbye, to which I opted for the traditional “Happy day!” Hardy looked slightly perplexed and not simply for the fact that it was now some hours into the evening. Did he know what I was referring to, the strange connected movements of culture that his work was arguably at the forefront of? I managed to coerce the impatient person behind to get a photo of the meeting which stealthily hid my coat’s torn back, at that point now embarrassingly resembling the victim of a tussle from a Laurel and Hardy film. It was a moment captured and one that is still treasured, not simply because I had met someone whose work was hugely important to me, but because it was a moment that solidified my own interest, my own obsessions, and my total and sheer joy in something so far unnamed.

Wandering down the street and back to the train station, the rain hammered down on the tarmac, trying and failing to find the fields underneath. My shirt was getting wet and heavy, the water seeping through my coat’s tear as I meandered through the multiple diversions of glistening roadwork. My seat in the cinema seemed a far more comfortable prospect now that I was out in the glacial air of the Stockport night. My thoughts were aptly elsewhere as I stepped onto the train, lost in several realisations as it gave the melancholic sigh of moving off. The journey had felt more like a pilgrimage, for the bettering and confirmation of something that had been gradually manifesting in the flames; the interests in the ancient, the cursed, and the “wyrd”; the “olde ways”, the daemonic and the occult; the furrows of Robin Hardy, Nigel Kneale, Alan Garner, and M.R. James; the obliqueness of the Spirit of Dark of Lonely Water, “the electricity board warns children to keep away from sub-stations”; Bok hopping around Devil’s End graveyard; Vincent Price in civil war garb pining “The mark of Satan is upon them!”; villagers so moved by the worry of new urban planning as to walk out of their own graves; “You cannot escape the field Whitehead!” At that point, I knew for certain that all of these things were connected under something powerful and subtlety ubiquitous. It wasn’t simply a coincidence of era, a simple warning to the curious, or a longing for yesteryears gone by: it was Folk Horror.


Folk Horror is published by Auteur and on sale in the Caught by the River shop.

Adam Scovell on Caught by the River / Celluloid Wicker Man