A24’s Folk Horror Boom and Bust
The mainstreaming and aesthetic commodification of folk horror portends a boom in decline.
“By the pricking of my thumbs,” a grave crone’s voice intones, “something wicked this way comes.” Despite its classic Shakespearean source material, Joel Coen’s The Tragedy of Macbeth (2021) is the most recent entry into A24’s roster of folk horror films. Replete with black magic, stark gothic imagery, and references to medieval tarot and Scottish folk traditions, this film demonstrates the allure of what has become A24’s arthouse style.
For the last few years, A24 has critically dominated the horror genre with films such as Robert Eggers’s The Witch (2015) and Ari Aster's Hereditary (2018). Both directors’ follow-up films (Eggers’s The Lighthouse and Aster’s Midsommar, both from 2019) concretized the studio’s reputation for horror films with a penchant for hyper-formalist attention to detail, broader social commentary, and references to folklore, witchcraft, psychedelia, and the supernatural. Over the course of the 2010s, tropes of folk horror became commonplace, from Oz Perkins’s moody dark fairy tale, Gretel & Hansel (2020), to the modern empowered witches of The Craft: Legacy (2020). As with the proliferation of horror found footage films in the wake of The Blair Witch Project (Paranormal Activity, Rec., etc.), this commodification of aesthetic and mainstreaming of the folk horror tropes portends a boom in decline.
From the studio horror films of the Great Depression to the alien invasion B-movies of the Cold War 1950s, horror film booms often coincide with moments of cultural upheaval or social unrest. While many blockbuster releases were pushed back indefinitely at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, low budget horror films like Becky (2020), Unhinged (2020), and The Wretched (2019) consistently topped the box office—the latter for five weeks in a row. Beyond reflecting the cultural anxieties of the moment, studies have shown that viewing horror media can help alleviate pent-up stress by activating the fight-or-flight response in the brain. It’s unsurprising that folk horror as a subgenre has captivated our cultural consciousness and our fears in the decade of the #MeToo movement, the Trump presidency, and the increasing climate crisis. In Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched: A History of Folk Horror (a documentary that screened as part of Anthology Film Archives’s "Folk Horror" series in November 2021), folk horror is described in part as a representation of “ancient wisdoms … that have long been repressed and forgotten [that] rise up again—often to the consternation of a complacent modern man.”
As I discussed in my 2021 academic article, “‘I Am that Very Witch’: Gender, Genre, Psychedelics, and Abjection in the 2010s ‘Witch’ Horror Cycle,” films like The Witch and Midsommar follow young women who chafe against the puritanical and heteropatriarchal mores of their societies and the men around them. Narratively, they are reflective of a masculine, “rational” anxiety about the feminine “irrational.” In the Western world, this anxiety can be traced back to Eve and the Christian repression of Pagan goddess-worship and reverence for the natural world. Pagan practice often venerates the (binary, assumed cisgender) feminine as simultaneously life-giving and necessarily erotic. In Christianity, these traits are demonized: Eve’s agency dooms her and her female progeny to painful childbirth and subjugation by their male counterparts. To quote Woodlands Dark, “folk horror ultimately asks: What if the old ways were right?” The films in this cycle largely answer that, for them, the answer is yes: at the close of films like The Witch, Midsommar, Suspiria (2018), or Color Out of Space (2019), young women smile with blissful abandon in the face of societal dissolution and carnage they helped perpetuate.
Subgenre-defining horror films of the mid-2010s laid out an aesthetic and thematic paradigm to which subsequent films have largely adhered. This paradigm has been defined by references to Paganism, the natural world, and monstrous femininity.
Suspiria, Hereditary, Midsommar, and The Witch use psychedelic imagery and the ingestion of mind-altering substances (magic mushrooms in Midsommar or ergot in The Witch, for example) as a means to visually and psychologically transport their characters out of the "normal" heteropatriarchal world. Often—though not always—accompanied by a literal departure from a communal space of mundanity (i.e., acceptance into a German dance academy in Suspiria), the visual language of the films supports the notion that their characters have left the bounds of the “modern” world and have entered a different, older place defined by Pagan (read: feminine, witchlike) traditions.
These films (and others like them) have come to define the broader aesthetic of horror even beyond A24. Psychedelic horror films like Mandy (2018), Color Out of Space, and Climax (2018), deploy many of the same techniques to represent how their characters’ lives are unmoored from conventional “masculine” rationale and morality.
Mandy follows its protagonist, Red (Nicolas Cage), on a revenge quest against an LSD-gobbling, neo-Pagan, Mansonoid cult that kidnaps his lover. Color Out of Space examines the dissolution of a nuclear family in the face of a mind-altering alien "color" whose effects include a fractile sense of time and visual and auditory hallucinations, among other, more gruesome changes to the mind and body (exploding llamas included). Like Mandy, Color also features witchcraft: Lavinia (Madeleine Arthur), the family's middle child, performs spells throughout the film, rendering her relationship to the forces of non-normativity unique and allowing her to transcend the normal world and embrace the power of a difference heretofore presented as unabatedly horrific. Young women’s relationship to witchcraft features in many folk horror films, exemplified by A24’s Dani (Florence Pugh) in Midsommar, Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy) in The Witch, or Susie (Dakota Johnson) in Suspiria.
So-called “elevated horror” (defined in large part by A24 and the folk/witch horror paradigm) has become so ubiquitous that more commercial horror films, Halloween Kills (2021), It: Chapter Two (2019), or even the PG-13 Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark (2019) for example, have incorporated its themes of sublimated communal trauma and cultural myth-making without fully delving into the implications of this choice. Scream (2021), the newest entry in the Scream franchise, begins with its Gen-Z final-girl-to-be explaining what “elevated horror” is to Ghostface: “you know, it’s scary but with complex emotional and thematic underpinnings, not just some schlocky cheeseball nonsense with wall-to-wall jumpscares.” When Ghostface dismisses The Babadook (2014) as “boring” and “fancy pants” and asks her a slasher trivia question, she tearfully entreats him to ask her about movies she does know: “ask me about It Follows! Ask me about Hereditary! Ask me about The Witch!” Tellingly, this theme, once acknowledged in the film’s cold open, is dropped throughout the rest of the slasher film.
As “elevated horror” and its aesthetic sensibilities become omnipresent, the anxieties at the heart of the folk horror cycle lose their meaning. The Green Knight (2021) and Macbeth feature many of the same stylistic flourishes characteristic of A24’s catalogue—psychedelic imagery and references, superimpositions, and jarring time cuts—and even many of the same actors. For example, both films feature actors from The Witch: Ralph Ineson, in Macbeth, and Kate Dickie in The Green Knight. Both films are by filmmakers with a pre-established, recognizable style. David Lowry’s credits include conventionally shot, softly-lit rural dramas, such as Ain't Them Bodies Saints (2013), a film bearing little to no stylistic similarity to the smooth lateral tracking shots, symmetrical framing, slow dissolves, and chapter-based structure in The Green Knight. Similarly, Joel Coen’s classic films like The Big Lebowski (1998) or A Serious Man (2009) share little visual DNA with the stark cinematography, 4:3 aspect ratio, and highly-stylized, symmetrical gothic frames of Macbeth. Both films have more in common with Robert Eggers’s The Lighthouse. As Eggers and Ari Aster shift away from the horror genre into action and comedy respectively (Eggers’s historical epic, The Northman, comes out in late April and Aster’s next project is reportedly a three-plus-hour comedy starring Joaquin Phoenix), the style they brought to A24 is passed on through the work of other filmmakers whose own styles are overshadowed by the trends of the moment.
“Double, double, toil and trouble; Fire burn, and cauldron bubble,” rasps the witch to Macbeth, dropping a baby’s severed finger into the water in which he stands.
As the political climate has shifted in the wake of President Biden’s election, so too has the representation of witches. A reversal away from the youthful abandon and rage of Thomasin and Dani at the height of #MeToo and back towards the old hags and crones who have long stalked young innocents, eaten children (a frighteningly familiar theme for today’s QAnon conspiracists), and spoiled crops can be seen in the critically and commercially successful horror films of the past year, from Macbeth to The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It (2021).
In films like The Unholy (2021) as well as The Conjuring, a paternal male authority figure is able to subdue the witch, rescue his female co-star, and restore order. The decline of elevated horror can be seen in this progressively more commonplace rejection of non-normativity in favor of a return to the conservative narrative conventions of B-horror films like Mario Bava’s Black Sunday (1960) or children’s films like The Wizard of Oz (1939): rather than smile, the witches burn—or melt. At the same time, a lack of thematic significance in favor of the raw aesthetics Ghostface describes as “fancy pants” is on display in films like Lamb (2021), The Green Knight, and Macbeth. Where the new Scream’s final girl describes The Babadook as “an amazing meditation on motherhood and grief,” Lamb’s attempt to explore the same dynamics concludes with startlingly little emotional or thematic payoff.
These recent films and their more commercial counterparts feign “complex emotional and thematic underpinnings,” yet, with horror cycles like the creature features of the Cold War fifties or the paranoid horror-thrillers of the post-Watergate seventies, the cycles ultimately peter out into an echo chamber of visual derivation and empty narrative allusion. Finding his success empty of meaning, Macbeth stands on the stairs, his life “full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”