Europe’s Heart of Darkness: How Folk-Horror Helps Us Deal with the Past
Contains Spoilers for The Ritual, Midsommar, and The Witch
When people think of the Crusades, they tend to think of knights from a Christian Europe travelling to the Holy Land to fight Muslims. While the goal of many early Crusades was to liberate Jerusalem, it is easy to lose sight of the fact that as the Crusades went on, they expanded and morphed in scope. Some people may be aware for example that the Fourth Crusade ended, bafflingly, with the sack of Constantinople by Christian soldiers. What many people may not realize is that while some were headed off to the Middle East, many knights went on Crusades closer to home, in an attempt to rid northern and northeastern Europe of Pagans. These brutal campaigns extended into the 14th century, when Lithuania officially Christianized, thus ending a period in European history where Pagan rulers held official power in any European nation.
This project also had obvious political motivations. By extending the reach of Christian Europe into the Baltic, these Crusades could bring these areas into a Catholic, rather than an Orthodox, sphere of influence, and Catholic knights could seize the land of any rulers who would not convert. The major royal households that once paid homage to ancestral Gods now worshipped at a new altar, or were destroyed. New wealth and influence from Catholic Europe began to pour in, and the old religion was forgotten.
Well, mostly forgotten.
Because, of course, stories about witches, monsters, and other bizarre phenomena continued in the folklore of the region, as it had all around Europe. Sometimes this expressed itself in a kind of double-belief, or folk belief, like the rural communities in the Alps who dress like monsters to steal away maids as part of a Christmas celebration. Or the fact that many Icelanders go to Church on Sundays and leave gifts for elves the rest of the week. Usually, however, this expresses itself as a kind of fear of the wilderness. Witches, crones, and Baba Yagas are vestiges of a lost Europe, one where magic and connection to nature reigned supreme, one where sacrifices to the Gods were necessary, and sometimes hard to stomach. These stories not only stemmed from cultural memories of the old religion, they also stemmed from the occasional confirmation that deep in the woods there was some community or another that simply never got the memo.
As European power expanded globally, it externalized these fears. One no longer feared the woods near their house, now the jungles of Africa or the open sea contained unknown terrors. Stories of cannibals and dark rites performed in seclusion were wildly exaggerated, but they were still lapped up by a European audience with an intense fervor. Just as stories of ritual sacrifice motivated knights to move into the Baltic, so did similar tales motivate missionaries and generals to spread European ideals to every corner of the Earth. In the last few years, decades after the collapse of the colonial regime, something interesting is happening, as horror filmmakers look for terror in the hidden corners of the European continent. For centuries, Europe was lifted up as the center of civilization, one which exported it’s culture and languages across the globe. But a new revival in folk-horror films supposes that darkness and savagery might live closer to home than expected.
The Ritual and the Old Gods
The Ritual, a 2017 film by David Bruckner, concerns a group of friends who go on a hiking trip in Sweden to mourn a friend killed during a robbery. After one of them sustains an injury, they decide to cut through the woods rather than finishing the trial, in order to get medical help. They then learn that a cult inhabits these woods, one which worships a Jotunn through human sacrifice in order to gain immortality.
“Jotunn” is a broad term in ancient Norse religion, but it can understood to be a powerful being capable of granting some kind of power (in this case, immortality) but which is not exactly a God. This is interesting, as it reflects that while this community avoided Sweden’s Christianization, it also sat outside the acceptable range of religious practices for pre-Christian Sweden. In stories about cults, the idea of worshipping a demon or monster in exchange for some kind of power is an old trope, but here it is disquieting because the worship and sacrifice not only happen within Sweden, a thoroughly modern nation) but happen in a forest that is encircled by a hiking trail. It isn’t just a remote part of the country, it’s a part that should specifically be mapped and maintained as part of a National Park system.
The film plays off of a fear that not only are there things in this world we don’t understand, but that they have always been here, just out of arm’s reach. Any secluded area, any forest, could contain the same horrors the characters encounter on their Swedish hiking trail.
I would also be remiss not to highlight a more specific connection: that Luke survives the robbery that kills his friend by hiding, essentially leaving his friend to be killed. This is thematically connected to the cult’s actions, as they kill in order to continue to live. Luke did not kill his friend himself, but the film asks where the line is between allowing a person to die and killing them, if the result either way is trading a life for a life.
If the transition from Paganism to Christianity is supposed to represent one wave of modernization in Europe, then this connection calls into question how much people really have progressed. Luke is willing to sacrifice his friend to save himself rather than confront the robbers and have a chance of standing together, or else pull his friend into safety with him. If he is not quite the same as the cult, neither is he much better than them.
Midsommar is even more intense in it’s interrogation of the myths we build around progress.
Midsommar and the myth of the Nice Swede
Midsommar is Ari Aster’s 2019 follow up to Hereditary. The most striking thing about it when you first see it (other than the incredible use of color) is that it lacks the hallmarks of an especially scary movie. There are no jump scares, no chases, in fact, there are very few scenes with great tension, unless you count the hushed arguing of Dani and Christian.
Midsommar is about a young woman named Dani, who lost her entire family in one tragic moment. Months later, her boyfriend Christian is revealing himself to not be up to the task of comforting a person through such a hard time. What Dani needs is family and Christian and his group of friends are not able to provide that. Christian is invited, along with his aforementioned friend group, to visit a Swedish friend’s home town for their midsummer festival. This friend repeatedly describes it as a commune, but it quickly reveals itself to be a Norse pagan religious community.
Dani and Christian’s relationship deteriorates as more and more unsettling things happen, including a ritual suicide and a dance contest. The entire time, the community is nothing but friendly and kind. Even as people begin to disappear, the community is warm and welcoming. In the third act, a number of shocking deaths are revealed to have taken place. These kind Swedes are in fact vicious murderers, and with that, they play their final hand: The festival ends with the sacrifice of nine people. Four of them are insiders, four are outsiders, and one is chosen by Dani.
There are some similarities to The Ritual: people travelling to rural Sweden, the killer cult etc. The differences are stark, however, since this community has much more contact with the outside world. Additionally, everything in this film is so much brighter and kinder, up to the moment of the killing, some of which is very brutal.
What this reveals is that the mask of friendliness and kindness that is worn by many European countries actually covers a lot of cruelty and suffering. This is a community that sustains itself partially on bloodshed, and the fact that they will greet you with a smile up to the moment of your murder does nothing to change that fact.
The Witch: A New World of Terror
The most distinct of the three films I wanted to discuss is The Witch, but it’s also the only one that makes direct references to settlers and to colonialism. The Witch is a 2015 film from Robert Eggers, about a Puritan family who must deal with a supernatural threat near their New England farm. While this film takes place in the Americas, rather than Europe, it concerns not only a European family but also a witch in the European style. They are not being haunted by an indigenous creature.
In the course of the film, a baby disappears and many other strange happenings cause the family to suspect that young Thomasin is a witch. Eventually, the family is killed by various means, either supernaturally or by one another as a result of their rage, and Thomasin ends up joining a coven in the woods.
What makes this film so interesting is that it shows the ways in which those leaving Europe (in this case, for religious reasons) found that their fears and problems followed them to a new land. These Puritans travelled across the ocean only to find that a Witch from the old world was already awaiting them. The also brought with them a worldview that allowed them to identify the Witch for what it was and lead them to accuse Thomasin.
This film is interesting in the context of “folk horror” because of the way it shows that the cruelty that lies at the heart of so much of European society is inescapable. In this situation, it is that cruelty that is exported to the Americas. But it is the cruelty of the family as well as the witches that makes itself known here. Thomasin finds herself having to choose, and she chooses to embrace the old ways in a new place.
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Colonial expansion requires a narrative of superiority and inferiority. It requires a construction of a belief system in which one’s enemies are dark, brutal, and savage, and in which oneself is always in the right. For the Crusaders, this expressed itself as a belief that they were bringing salvation to the Pagans. In reality, they brought death and violence to many of them, and brought a host of new economic connections for their rulers. As colonial ambition spread beyond the European continent, this same belief that colonialism was a boon to the colonized asserted itself, though we know that is a lie.
Folk-horror of the past few years has cast a light into the darker places in Europe, into the places that we have forgotten. And what it seeks to reveal is that the cruelty and darkness that Europeans saw everywhere else in fact lived at home, in the woods, or even in a small unassuming community.
This is a reckoning with Europe’s dark past, a necessary reckoning, but one we are lucky enough to see in such well-made films as these.