'Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched' Director Kier-La Janisse Explains the Origins of Her Epic Folk Horror Doc [SXSW 2021 Interview]

Fascination with the occult has long been a fixation in the minds of many across the globe. Whether it be a perverse manifestation of the panic which sets in among all classes when the balance begins to shift toward greater individual freedom, an overdue opportunity to express guilt and sin under the guise of accusations against innocent victims, or just wanting to check out your astrology horoscope for the week, the idea of witches and witchcraft and the power of the moon always manages to make a comeback in the psyche of the general public.

Written, directed and produced by celebrated film writer, programmer and publisher Kier-La Janisse, Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched: A History of Folk Horror is a new documentary which seeks to explore the folk horror phenomenon from its beginnings through its proliferation on British television in the 1970s, touching on culturally specific manifestations in American, Asian, Australian and European horror, and highlighting the genre’s revival over the last decade.

I was lucky enough to chat with Janisse about her directorial debut, which is premiering at the 2021 virtual edition of the SXSW Film Festival. In the interview, we discuss the filmmaker’s love of folk horror, inaccurate nostalgia, psychogeography, finding comfort in alternative belief systems, domestic hauntings, and the ways in which the politics of insular communities can lead to radicalized thinking. 

What initially incited your love for folk horror? What was it about the era of ‘70s British folk horror that interested you, and what made you want to dig in and expand your research beyond that?

Well it’s interesting because the genesis of this movie, I mean it was backwards in a way. It wasn’t as though I was like, I’m so obsessed with folk horror, I need to make a movie about folk horror. It was more that it was something I’d been interested in. I guess there were movies I would identify early on in my life as being folk horror films, that we would call folk horror films now, even though they weren’t called that then, but things like Children of the Corn and The Wicker Man, and then it was probably around 2010 or 2011 when I started hearing the term folk horror being used a lot more, and started seeing films that were being called folk horror films. It was probably around then that I realized oh, I like these kinds of films. I had always been a big Wicker Man fan, 20 years ago I went to the Highlands of Scotland and went to the town where they filmed the harbor scene and found the harbor master’s boat, which was still there, and sat in it and stuff like that, so I was definitely super into some of the films. 

But how this documentary came about was, I was working for Severin Films and we were going to be releasing The Blood on Satan’s Claw on Blu-ray. All the extras for it were being imported over from the recent British Blu-ray of it, so I just said to David Gregory, well why don’t we make at least one extra ourselves, you know? He’s like, well what? Everybody’s been interviewed already, and I was like, no, just a thing about horror or something in general, and he was like okay, well, go make it then. And that was really how it started, it was really just that I was like, well why don’t we have this on the disc?

And then it just became this massive thing where instead of interviewing a couple of experts and making a half an hour long thing, which is what the assignment was, I came back with a two-hour rough cut. David Gregory, I mean this is the kind of boss he is, instead of being like, oh man, how are we gonna cut that down to half an hour, instead he was just like, oh, I see a lot of potential in this! Let’s just keep going, interview more people! He asked has anybody ever made a documentary about folk horror? And I said not a feature one, I’m sure there’s TV ones on British television, but there’s no feature length doc about it that I know of. And he was like, well then, just keep going and make a list of everyone you want to talk to, and then we’ll see if we can get them to talk, and make it.

But at that time it was still very much focused on British horror because that was the stuff that all of the articles and the books and the music and the whole subculture around folk horror seemed to be very focused on British folk horror. I think going into the project, my assumption was that it was a British phenomena and that the few American folk horror films I could think of were very much connected to the colonization of America, they were all connected to New England and this specific region, and specific traditions that had been imported from England. So it was still very Anglo centric, originally, when we set out to make it and then it just grew. 

It was interesting because it was almost like I had landed in America in the colonies, and then I started thinking about all of the ways that I could move across the country, and thinking about all of these migratory patterns, and it’s like oh, you ended up with prairie horror if you went this way, and if you went to California you got cults, and if you went to the South, like to Louisiana, you got different manifestations of Appalachia. It was interesting because I felt almost as though going through America, and having all those questions like, well who is moving here, where are they moving from, what are they bringing with them, how does that then interact with the people who are already here. Then, you have the introduction of both North America and Brazil, you had the slave trade, bringing people against their will into these environments, so then you have all of these different cultures in contact with each other and that brings up a lot of the same kind of fears that we see in British folk horror, which is this fear about what’s perceived as an older culture, or maybe a more mystical culture, just certain belief systems that clash with each other.

In your own words, what is psychogeography, and how does it apply to folk horror?

Well psychogeography is not a thing that comes from folk horror or is limited to folk horror, it wasn’t like created as part of folk horror or anything. It’s like its own thing. As far as I know, it came from the writings of Iain Sinclair and Peter Ackroyd who wrote these books. Lud Heat was a book by Iain Sinclair and Hawksmoor was a book by Peter Ackroyd, and Hawksmoor was a very influential book on the From Hell comic, too. It’s kind of its own thing separate to folk horror, but it has a lot to do with traversing pathways where other things have happened before, and other things have existed before, and the way that there’s a hidden history beneath your feet all the time. 

In a lot of a psychogeography, a lot of the discussion around it is actually urban, not rural, like you would get in folk horror, but it’s a lot about walking through alleyways and cities and just thinking about the buildings that have been built on top of other buildings and the stones, like where they came from, and what history they brought with them, and this idea of people who are sensitive to certain things being able to pick up on the psyches of the past that have been imprinted on these things. So, in an urban environment, that would be things like the stones and the rock that make the buildings and streets and alleyways and things.

But in folk horror, that idea gets brought in when you’re dealing with fields where battles have taken place and people have died, or places where Pagan mounds or Pagan temples have been obliterated to make way for Christian churches to be built on those places. So it’s not really that different of a concept. The way that it’s used in folk horror is really not that different from a concept like haunting. Just a haunted house or something. It’s just that it’s not as domestic. A haunting takes place in a domestic environment like in a single building or something, and it seems like with a lot of the psychogeography referenced in folk horror, it’s much more of a regional area, like a town or a region or even a whole country. The trauma of that whole country, from the things that happened there before. So it’s kind of similar to a haunting, it’s just that it’s on a larger scale. And so it’s like the way that these, in psychogeography, it’s things like trees and rocks and these natural things that somehow absorb the trauma of things that have happened there before, and the way that a sensitive person can pick up on that, and how that then leads to a sense of the uncanny, when you’re walking around in a place like that. 

It’s an idea that gets brought up a lot in British folk horror, but then as we were doing the international section, it was an idea that we revisited because we realized that there were actually a lot of international films that were dealing with genocide, like a story that takes place in a modern time on a site where a genocide had happened before, so we had the whole section in the international section where we’d go from The Dreaming, the Australian film into The Demon, the Polish film, and into La Llorona, all three of those films are kind of dealing with the same thing. Psychogeography is something that comes up a lot in British writing about folk horror, but then there were just other ways that it would show up around the world, too.

The idea of having a bloody history buried beneath the facade of civility or even just a shameful past felt especially timely given the recent royal interview with Meghan Markle and Prince Harry, and the admissions that they made. I was like wow, that really adds gravitas to that argument that you’re making.

Yeah it’s something that I think about a lot. It’s interesting too, because with British folk horror, it’s like the people who are into British folk horror will talk about Britain’s Pagan past, and they’ll talk about the people who lived on the land before, and the battles, but they talk about it in the sense of like, this is a really interesting history that we have, whereas in a lot of other countries around the world, like North America and Australia, they’re like, actually we don’t want to talk about that. It’s not the same. It’s not like, wow, we have such an interesting history that also includes slavery, it’s like, people can’t even think about it. They can’t deal with it. They can’t process it. So I feel like, British folk horror does exist as its own island where people have somehow dealt with a lot of that trauma in a very different way from like, we’re still processing it in other places around the world. 

I’m also interested in the idea of ontology, the branch of philosophy that deals with the concept of reality and existence, and how that plays a role in the construction of folk horror stories. I was wondering if you would talk a little bit about that.

So ontology is, and again, I’m not an expert on psychogeography or ontology, this is just something that’s in the movie because it does come up a lot in the writings, so one of the speakers in the movie would be better to address this than I would. My understanding of ontology is, first of all, I think the term was originally a joke. The term was originally like a pun on the word ontology, and it got kind of adopted in the late 2000s. There was all this music coming out, and again, I’m talking about largely in Britain, where they would make this electronic music that was calling back to British public service announcements, public information films, TV sci-fi shows, like a lot of these sounds that were made by the BBC radio phonic workshop, where you had this very electro sound that formed the soundtrack of so many films and TV shows and commercials and everything in the U.K. largely for financial reasons, because it was like the house sound department, but it ended up forming this mental association that a lot of people had.

For instance, one of the interesting things about British folk horror is how often so many films have electronic music and not folk music, and part of that comes from the fact that a lot of these bands that became very nostalgic about these movies, and started making electronic music…this is so hard to explain! But it’s like, the way that they were nostalgic about something that was this manufactured, imaginary thing, you know? 

Like this idea of folk horror films with this electronic music, this is not a natural soundtrack for those movies. So certain certain types of imagery, whether it’s the opening credits of The Owl Service, or it’s just like, imagery from a lot of these TV plays, like Pendisfasman and stuff like that, would end up being used for album covers of these electronic bands and it was almost like they were being nostalgic about something that just didn’t exist, that never existed. There’s a record label called Ghost Box that is a perfect example, their whole roster is considered an ontology roster, and if you look at all the albums, so many of them are named after British folk horror films and their imagery is from folk horror films, and there’s all this electronic music. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen Scarfolk, but it’s this website that’s all made of fake British ads. Scarfolk is this imaginary place that exists permanently in the ‘70s, in England, and it’s using all these real things from British culture to make advertisements and stuff like that, but it’s all just very dark and distressing and fictional.  There was just this real wave of nostalgia for all this stuff from the late ‘70s, but it wasn’t accurate nostalgia. It was nostalgia based on weird associations that people had.

It really makes sense when you consider the concept of Indian burial grounds. When I was watching the documentary and it mentioned that Indian burial grounds aren’t actually a real thing, and that they’re just this idea that white Americans believe in because they’ve seen it in fiction and in movies, that was pretty shocking. 

Well, it’s not as though those people don’t bury their people or anything, but in many Indigenous cultures, there’s no actual centralized place where you bury people. There are some. There’s definitely some Indigenous cultures that will have like a mound, and it’s a place where they put people, but in many cases, a person would just be buried on their own. Like in a tree somewhere, or somewhere interesting, and not necessarily in the same way that we have cemeteries and things like that, where everybody’s just buried in the same place with a fence around it. And this is one of the things with the repatriation of remains, too, is the fact that the government will say, well it’s not on your territory or whatever, so how do we know that this belongs to you, and it’s like yeah, but people are constantly moving, and part of why they’re constantly moving is because you’re constantly killing us and chasing us across the country so that you can take our territory. But the idea of there just being these kind of cemeteries that are Indigenous is not something that would be uniform to Indigenous cultures, there’s thousands of Indigenous cultures all over North America so it’s like literally thousands of completely different cultures that they have, you know, different languages, different customs, everything. 

So what Jesse Wente is talking about in the movie is just like, this generalization that people have that largely came out of early American literature, where they would have these Indian burial grounds, and it would be this idea of Indigenous ghosts. The way that in American literature, the Indigenous characters would take on different roles over time, how it would change. So originally, it was these violent savages and then it changed to where they were these wise, kindly ghosts, and all of it was like the Americans processing their own shit. All of it was fictional as far as Indigenous people are actually concerned. The Indian burial ground idea first showed up in a poem in the 18th century, but it’s all part of this fictional idea, but the way that it is used in films is something that’s really interesting, because it’s like a manifestation of colonial guilt. It’s just like this place that is a reminder that oh, you can’t go here because something bad happened here. 

The other interesting thing is even though it came from the 18th century, when it really became popular was during the 1970s, during the height of Indigenous activism. It was during this decade when Indigenous people were occupying Alcatraz, and there was the birth of the American Indian movement, and there was so much visibility on television for Indigenous activism. That was when the Indian burial ground trope became really popular in fiction because it was like, oh they’re fighting for their remains, they’re fighting for their land, and so all of a sudden all of these horror movies show up where it’s like, oh, you better not go messing around with their remains because they don’t like it! And it was a direct response to this activism that was happening. But yeah, so much of that is like an American version of what we’d seen happening in the U.K. with their Pagan civilizations that were there before, and all of the psychogeographical issues that were related to those things, like the Indigenous population in North America, it’s kind of a flipped idea, a distinct regional version of those same kinds of anxieties.

I do feel like guilt and shame, and masking the shame, and trying to process it is a large part of why folk horror is still so prevalent. There’s many different and interesting theories offered up in the documentary, but I’m curious, why do you personally think folk horror has stood the test of time? Why do you think it remains so popular in the psyche of the general public? 

I think there’s a few different reasons because folk horror taps into a few different things. One of them is contact with older cultures, anxieties around older cultures, but then also some of it has to do with just insular communities in general and the politics of that. I mean this is something we see even with people in the Westboro Baptist Church, where you deal with certain communities that have a value system that to you, seems so crazy, you’re just like how does somebody form these ideas? How does somebody maintain a congregation that all believe these ideas? And so I think the politics of the insular community is also a big part of why it continues to appeal to people. Regardless of all of the cult or supernatural aspects of folk horror, I think just the value systems that can form in isolation are still things that are really interesting to people because we still have it. I mean when the films were first popular in the ‘70s, there were so many cults, and not all of them were bad, a lot of them were fine, but the bad ones were pretty bad. 

So there’s a lot of fear about this kind of isolation, but then I think a lot of it we can see, it’s not just alternative religions, a lot of it is extreme Christian radicalism, and that is something that we see constantly in the papers. In the last four years of Trump it’s something that was so visible, this divide where you have a lot of people who, especially people from more rural environments, who, half of the country is looking at them and saying, where are you getting your ideas from? Why do you think that? And this total disconnect. So I think that a big part of folk horror, especially in America, is so popular right now is because we are seeing these kinds of things play out on a regular basis.

Also, it’s been kind of remarkable in the last five years how much day-to-day occultism has come back. Just the idea of people who were not into witchcraft or occultism or any of these things are getting into herbalism, and nature practices, and things that are very tied to these beliefs, and getting much more into doing rituals with the moon. There’s so much more of it now among people. This is mirroring stuff that was happening in the ‘70s. I mean you have your people who are just spiritual people, who are just always interested in that stuff, and then at a certain point, it starts crossing over into the mainstream and being normalized to a point where everybody’s kind of dabbling in this stuff. Part of why this happens is because people feel they’re missing something. They feel like they need some extra help outside of the normal support systems that they have, and they’re turning to alternative forms of support.

I do think that a lot of times when you get a lot of people turning towards these things in mainstream culture, especially if you have people who normally are like, I don’t care about things like that, and then all of a sudden, they’re very into it, you know, in some ways, it’s like it just shows that people really need some kind of connection right now. They’re feeling a bit lost and they’re feeling a little bit like they need that extra boost from somewhere, and they don’t know where it’s going to come from, because they’ve already exhausted all of the means that they know about, and so now, they’re willing to look into things they don’t know as much about. 

I think those things are a big part of why it continues to resonate, and then, it’s like you say, the dealing with the stuff from the past, and the guilt and shame around that, that isn’t going away. It’s something that gets amplified more and more. Which is good, I mean it’s good that people are getting a platform to talk about it. It’s a good thing, the more it’s like no, this isn’t going away, this is something that everybody should care about, it has to be addressed. It’s weird because I live in Canada and I’m Canadian, and people will often say that there’s a problem with racism in Canada against Indigenous people, but I’ve lived in Canada, I’ve lived in the United States and I’ve lived in Australia, and I feel like the average Canadian is so much more in tune, or just knowledgeable, or just cares about Indigenous issues than in the States.

People really have a long way to go to really understanding that this isn’t a joke. This isn’t a token-y thing. This is a serious issue, and there’s reasons why people are angry and upset about these things. There’s a reason why people are so angry about slavery. There’s a reason why people are so angry about Indigenous genocide here and in Australia, and I think that folk horror brings up a lot of those issues. It brings up a lot of those things, both that thing about the isolated community and the value systems forming, and then also, all of the issues of guilt and shame related to colonialism. I mean those are all things that we are dealing with in a very real way right now. So I think that’s why these kinds of horror films are really interesting for people.

Also, horror exaggerates things, right? Horror takes things and amplifies them, so horror is able to talk about things in this much more direct way, in a sense, than more earnest dramas or things that are trying to be sensitive. Horror films are not trying to be sensitive. They’ll just say it. They’ll just show it. They’ll just have the horrible thing there in your face. So, I think folk horror films are a really good way to talk about a lot of that stuff, and that’s why people are so intrigued by them.

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