17 Dec 2023

‘Don’t look behind you!’ A history of folk horror with Kier-La Janisse

From Culture 101, 1:05 pm on 17 December 2023

Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched

Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched Photo: Screenshot

Kier-La Janisse

Kier-La Janisse Photo: Screenshot

The phenomenon and history of folk horror has been explored in a new documentary, Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched (2021) screening at City Gallery Wellington. A sub-genre of horror, folk horror is described in the film as “prosaic meets uncanny”. A common theme is connection to the land, returning to the roots and cultures which have been sustained in spite of a dominant culture that’s progressed and moved on. 

Split into three parts, Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched (2021) explores British folk horror, before moving towards American and world folk horror including Asian, Australian and European. Beginning with the ‘unholy trinity’ of Michael Reeves’ Witchfinder General (1968), Piers Haggard’s Blood on Satan’s Claw (1971) and Robin Hardy’s The Wicker Man (1973) – and its proliferation on British television in the 1970s. It’s as much a history lesson, as it is an education in folk horror. 

The film features interviews with more than 50 experts and references more than 200 films. It analyses the themes and histories we choose to celebrate and how histories are manipulated in an attempt to find meaning and spiritual connection in our environments. 

Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched is directed by Canadian filmmaker, critic and writer,  Kier-La Janisse for Severin Films, who spoke to Culture 101’s Perlina Lau about her deep dive into folk horror. 

Janisse says in certain strands of horror, the survival of old beliefs is the threat, while in Eastern-European and Asian work, knowledge of the beliefs is what actually fortifies you against the threat. 

“It’s split along the lines of colonial countries. Those who conquered other civilisations and took over; those countries tend to have the type of folk horror where believing in the old beliefs is bad.”

Up until Janisse was 30 years old, she almost exclusively watched horror films, but has since broadened her interests. Her first memories include quality time with her parents watching horrors.

“They still scared me as much as they scared anyone else. I wasn’t immune to nightmares. I watched Poltergeist and I was afraid of all my toys. My mum had to take all my toys out of my room because I was scared they’d strangle me in my sleep.

“But I also have this warm and fuzzy feeling associated with horror films, and comforting because they’re so ingrained in my childhood.”

Janisse had a tumultuous upbringing, which is recounted in her book House of Psychotic Women, which examines female characters and hysteria in horror films through a very personal and honest autobiographical lens.  She says her step dad had a bad temper but all of their good memories together are around watching horror films together. 

“I get all the same thrills and vicarious adrenalin but it’s always been so intertwined with my family for me and I watch horror films and I just feel like - 'these are my people'.”

Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched is screening at City Gallery Wellington daily for free until 18 February.