5 Great Horror Movies Based On Urban Legends

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Best Of Best of Movies Featured Horror Mystery and Lore

Horror movies are always more effective when reminiscent of, or straight up depicting, real world fears. What better way to terrify the masses than by visually portraying urban legends, some of the most widespread of superstitions and irrational paranoias? Many of these folk horror films are tackled by smaller directors looking to kickstart, though some bigger budget gems have been known to shine through. 

Triangle 2009

Triangle Folk Horror movie poster with girl holding axe on a boat with a bloody reflection

Triangle is a twisting, turning, chilling British horror/thriller from Christopher Smith, director of Severance (2006) and Black Death (2010). A potent hybrid of old school slasher à la Friday 13th (1980) and mind-bending science fiction in the vein of Predestination (2014) and Coherence (2013), this unsettling nautical romp is certain to please fans of both. When Jess, a single mother, embarks on a boating trip with her friends, a storm forces them to abandon their vessel for a seemingly deserted cruise liner. Once aboard, the group are faced with a deranged killer, along with waves of psychological mayhem and headache-inducing time loops. 

As the name may suggest, Triangle is centred around the infamous Bermuda Triangle, a region in the western part of the North Atlantic Ocean. The region is said to have played setting to, and been the culprit of, a great number of obscure sightings and disappearances leading back to 1492. It was then that Christopher Columbus and the crew of the Santa Maria sailed through the triangle to arrive at Guanahani, though not before reportedly seeing a strange and unknown light in the sea fog. Since then a great deal of boats and aeroplanes have disappeared in the sinister sea-region, from the USS Wasp in 1814 to Turkish Airlines flight TK183 in 2017, some carrying upwards of a hundred passengers at the time of disappearance. 

Triangle does great justice to the eerie and unexplainable legend of the Bermuda Triangle, it’s warping story leaving viewers guessing and re-guessing until its bleak and poignant closing scene. Weight is added through Smith’s use of bloody violence and tense horror, creating a soft hybrid of a film which remains as entertaining and thought provoking now as it ever was. 

Bermuda is not the only area that has a mysterious triangle. The Alaska Triangle has similar tales albeit over land.

The Blair Witch Project 1999

Blair Witch Project 1999 Movie poster with scared face and text

This pioneer of the found-footage subgenre shocked audiences in 1999 with a claustrophobic and wholly believable portrayal of young adults falling victim to the legend of the mysterious Blair Witch. After setting off into rural Maryland to document and hopefully capture some evidence of the insidious figure, including interviewing locals and camping in some questionable spots, Heather Donahue, Joshua Leonard and Michael C. Williams (playing themselves) soon become lost in the vast wilderness. Seemingly stalked and tormented by the very myth they sought to invoke, the three encounter dread and distress enough to make any viewer think twice about their next camping trip.

Of course, the legend of the Blair Witch is just that, a legend. That being said, it had more of an interesting start than most. Writer-directors Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez fabricated an entire urban legend regarding the town of Burkittsville, Maryland, plastering missing-person posters around the 1999 Sundance Film Festival and claiming their footage was real. Sundance legally had to confirm the film as a work of fiction, though this did not lessen the impact the marketing ploy had. The rise of a $60,000 indie flick to $248,000,000 blockbuster is staggering, as is the influence the film has had on the horror scene long after its release. 

The Blair Witch Project relied on a strong cast utilising a lot of improvisation to help its desired effect come to life. Not just for the claims of authenticity (though it did help those) but for the raw and genuine atmosphere running through the flick. The actors camped for ten days in the Maryland wilderness while cremembers posed as their antagonist, leaving stick figures and bloody packages at camp, shaking their tents in the early hours. Only Heather, of the three, was given any information about the witch to ensure the others gave authentic reactions and asked plenty of questions. 

While this type of filmmaking can come with complications, such as the actors’ parents being sent sympathy cards over their children’s fictional deaths to this day, it shows a complete commitment from cast and crew. To make something with this impact, small sacrifices must sometimes be made, though we’ll leave it up to the creators to decide whether it was worth it.

Willow Creek 2013

Willow Creek Folk Horror Movie poster with a big foot imprint and red background

When Kelly (Alexie Gilmore) and Jim (Bryce Johnson) travel into Humboldt County, California on a camping trip to find the famous wildman, Bigfoot, their faith and will to survive are tested in equal measure. 

If Willow Creek isn’t a tribute to The Blair Witch Project then it’s at least a loving nod. Effectively sparse and utilising tireless and detailed acting from what is effectively a cast of two, prolific writer/director/comedian Bobcat Goldthwait’s directorial foray into tense horror is a potent one. It shares Blair Witch’s theme and structure almost to a tee, other than replacing Myrick and Sánchez’ fictitious urban legend with one very much known in the real world.

Bigfoot, also referred to as Sasquatch in Canadian and American folklore, is an ape-like wildman of worldwide legend and innumerable alleged sightings. While all accounts of the Bigfoot are anecdotal, or highly disputable video footage or photographs, it manages to retain one of the highest cult followings of any urban legend, with followers deeply entrenched in the culture of searching out and worshipping the elusive ape-man. 

Bigfoot has been a figurehead in popular culture for years, appearing on television, in films and countless pieces of merchandise. A few horror films such as Exists (2014) and Evidence (2012) have included the towering hair-covered phenomenon as an antagonist, though none quite so efficaciously as this one.

Ringu 1998 / The Ring 2002

The Ring Horror Movie poster showing a glowing supernatural ring

This Japanese frightfest and its American counterpart are a perfect example of a western adaptation done right. Japan has always had a distinct and dynamic take on horror as a genre, favouring dark spaces, pale ghosts with jet black hair and some truly unsettling signature sounds. One may think that a western attempt would completely miss the mark (or, as they tend to, miss the point completely) on such an unmistakable style, though Ringu’s remake The Ring proved to be as good if not a more accessible way to deliver its story to a wider audience. 

When journalist Rachael (Naomi Watts) comes across a videotape that allegedly kills people seven days after watching, she must act quickly to decipher the meaning behind the object before it claims her own life. Featuring a solid performance from Naomi Watts along with a morbidly bleak atmosphere and some horrendously chilling imagery, The Ring managed to take an age-old Japanese urban legend and present it in a way certain to scare the worldwide masses. As if Ringu wasn’t unnerving enough.

The story itself is, as you may have guessed, based on an old Japanese legend dating as far back as the 12th century. Somewhere between 1333 and 1346 a fort now known as Himeji Castle was erected on Himeyama hill in western Japan. A samurai named Tessan Aoyama was said to have taken a particular fancy to a young servant of his named Okiku, so much of a fancy in fact that he vowed to take her away and marry her. When she refused his advances, the samurai hid one of the ten priceless golden plates Okiku was charged with looking after. He told her that if she did not agree to marry him he would openly blame her for the plate’s disappearance, an accusation that would undoubtedly lead to her being tortured and executed. In full knowledge of her predicament, Okiku was said to have committed suicide by throwing herself into a well in the castle grounds. Each night, so the tale goes, she would crawl back out of the well, appearing to Aoyama on a nightly basis until he went mad from her haunts. She was regularly heard counting the plates she had sworn to protect, throwing a destructive tantrum whenever she realised that number ten was still missing. 

Ringu proves that a terrifying story does not have to be wholly original; sometimes a rework of an ancient tale will do just nicely. 

Candyman 1992

Candyman Urban Legend Horror Movie Poster with a bee in an eye

Candyman is the quintessential urban legend brought to life. Based on a 1985 Clive Barker short story entitled The Forbidden, the film shares a few similarities. The infamous Candyman, with his aura of bees and hook for a hand, will appear to anyone who either uses his name in vain or flat out refuses to believe in him. Say his name five times in a mirror (yep, that’s where that came from) and he’ll appear behind you, ready to drive his deadly hook into your tender form. That’s if you’re brave or stupid enough to even bother.

A graduate student named Helen comes across the Candyman legend while researching her thesis paper. Her examination into the insidious entity brings his attention right back on her, and soon she finds herself fighting for her life against an age-old evil that apparently only she didn’t know not to mess with.

Candyman has taken his share of inspiration from several sources, most notable of which being the Hookman legend. In the story, a young couple are getting steamy in a parked car when an emergency radio bulletin says that a mental patient with a hook for a hand has escaped the nearby asylum. The girl becomes terrified when she hears something scraping along the car, convincing the boy to drive off. When he does, neither of them notice the metal hook hanging from the door handle. While the similarities here are purely aesthetic, the Hookman appearance is unmistakable in any form.

The other clear inspiration for this 1992 classic is one of the many manifestations of the ‘say their name five times in a mirror’ dare, Bloody Mary. One of the most widely known tales to date, Bloody Mary is said to have been a witch who was burned for practicing black magic, though more modern retellings say that she was a young woman who died in a car crash. Every kid’s first sleepover isn’t complete without a game of Bloody Mary, making her one of the first spirits many of us will have encountered.

Links

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_Bermuda_Triangle_incidents

https://www.imdb.com/title/tt1187064/

https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0185937/?ref_=nv_sr_srsg_0

https://www.thrillist.com/entertainment/nation/blair-witch-project-true-story-burkittsville-maryland

https://www.mirror.co.uk/film/blair-witch-real-truth-behind-8844017

https://www.vice.com/en/article/8xzy4p/blair-witch-project-oral-history-20th-anniversary

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Himeji_Castle

https://screenrant.com/candyman-movie-real-urban-legends-inspiration-tony-todd/

https://www.popsugar.co.uk/entertainment/where-does-candyman-legend-come-from-47313482

7 Sea Hauntings Worth Watching

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Best Of Best of Movies Featured Scary Movies and Series

“Red Sky at night, Sailors delight; Red Sky in the morning, Sailors take warning.” Ahh the sea, it offers freedom, mystery, tales of glorious expedition, and epic struggles. Sailors have always been a superstitious folk from reading the sky to minding birds for bad luck. The sea is possibly the best backdrop for a good haunting and ghost ships are no exception here. Ships are often seen as almost human entities from being named to how they are referred to as he or she. It’s no surprise that there are piles of lore around haunted ships, ocean locations and sea creatures. It’s definitely one of my favorite locations for horror and here are a list of some of the great sea fairing horror movies out there.

The Fog-1980

The Fog Horror Movie Poster

 You may think that everything is safe, however, when a dense fog rolls into town, you may think otherwise. On the coasts of Oregon, you will find that this fog comes with vengeful spirits looking to haunt. 100 years after a ship mysteriously disappeared and sank, the spirits are back. The people of this small town must take a look at their history to stop this serious problem. One of Jon Carpenters many horror masterpieces here.

The Fog is rated R. 

https://itunes.apple.com/us/movie/the-fog-1980/id707558494

Ghost Ship – 2002 

Ghost Ship Movie Poster

A 1962 passenger ship that has been lost for many years is soon discovered. This ship was floating in an isolated area of the Bering Sea. It was believed that all the passengers had died until further discovery has shown otherwise. The crew that discovered this long-lost ship is in for a huge surprise when the original crew of the boat is still on board…. in a supernatural sort of way.

https://www.vudu.com/content/movies/details/Ghost-Ship/9750

Death Ship- 1980 

Death Ship Horror Movie Poster

Going on vacation on a modern-day cruise could have you thinking twice. A ghostly-looking ship rams into the cruise ship. The passengers aboard the cruise ship who survive climb to this large vessel. The survivors soon discover that it is a Nazi torture vessel from World War II. They soon realize that they were better off dead than on this new ship.

https://tubitv.com/movies/454503/death_ship?utm_source=google-feed&tracking=google-feed

Triangle- 2009 

Triangle Horror Movie Poster

Nothing is better than a group of friends on a yacht… Until they are in an incident that leaves their yacht upturned. Luckily, they find a cruise ship that was drifting in the open sea. However, soon after climbing aboard this ship, they realize they were better off floating on their capsized yacht.

https://tubitv.com/movies/480291/triangle?utm_source=google-feed&tracking=google-feed

Deep Rising – 1998 

deep rising horror movie poster

Hijacking a luxury ocean liner is not an easy task, however, it is made even more difficult when you are faced with some pretty crazy creatures. Hijackers are looking to loot this luxury ship, however, they soon discover that they are not the only ones that have taken over the vessel. They are faced with man-eating creatures. 

https://www.vudu.com/content/movies/details/Deep-Rising/13317

Below -2002 

Below Horror Movie Poster

An encounter that occurs between two world war II vessels soon becomes the perfect camouflage for paranormal activities to begin. There are not that many submarine horror flicks out there so this one goes on the list simply for picking a new vessel.  

https://www.vudu.com/content/movies/details/Below/31486

Mary – 2019

Mary Horror Movie Poster

https://www.imdb.com/title/tt5834854/?ref_=nm_flmg_act_10

An empty sailboat is found adrift at sea and is brought into port. When the owners cannot be located it goes to auction. Unwittingly a fishing boat captain buys it to restore and start his dream business charting tourists on the new sailboat. He sets sail on it’s maiden voyage with his family only to find out it has a haunted past.

Best Body Horror Movies

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Best Of Best of Movies Featured Scary Movies and Series

Body horror movies are films that focus specifically on trauma, mutation, mental deterioration, and illnesses that occur in the human body. Some of these processes are natural, while others are inflicted. Movies that fall into this genre are typically gross, morbidly fascinating, and outright alarming, and the reason they are so effective is because they concern aspects of living we all can relate to: our physical and mental health. It’s quite horrifying when something invades, violates, and/or transforms our conceptions of who we are.

Though the term “body horror” is relatively new in the world of horror, there is thankfully no shortage of examples in film. The list below constitutes some of the best in the genre, along with a dozen other recommendations (and though David Cronenburg’s ouevre could be a list of its own, we did limit him to two films here to allow other movies to shine). 

Check out Puzzle Box Horror’s best movies about body horror!

Possessor (2020)

Possessor body Horror film poster

Tasya Vos is an assassin working for a high-tech secret organization. This organization uses brain implants to sync her mind up with another, giving her control over someone else’s body in order to commit the murder and leave them behind as a scapegoat. That’s already pretty freaky stuff, but then things take an even darker turn when her latest host regains control over their mind/body. There are several layers of disturbing body horror happening here – loss of control, blackouts, possession, transformation – and it’s all very dramatic and unsettling. Possessor is directed by Brandon Cronenburg (of Antiviral fame), and stars Andrea Riseborough and Christopher Abbott.

American Mary (2012)

American Mary Horror Movie poster with woman and chainsaw

Mary is upset because the high tuition costs at medical school are thwarting her dreams of becoming a surgeon. But things take a turn when she performs impromptu surgery at a strip club, and then they take another turn when people being paying her to alter their bodies and introduce her to the world of extreme body modification. Not only are there numerous graphic scenes of highly illegal body modifications, but there is also a revenge storyline involving Bloody Mary and the man who raped her. The film verges on torture porn levels, but it’s also highly intriguing in its subversiveness. American Mary is directed by the Soska Sisters and stars Katharine Isabelle, Antonio Cupo, and Tristan Risk.

Teeth (2007)

Teeth Body Horror Movie

We often feel as strangers to our own bodies during adolescence (thanks puberty), but Teeth takes this concept to a strange new level. Dawn suffers from a rare condition, referred to in the film as “vagina dentate” or “vagina teeth”, that makes physical intimacy with another impossible. But when a shocking and nonconsensual encounter awakens her violent side, she realizes she can use her condition to take revenge on other bad man. Heads up for those with male reproductive organs, this is a tough one to watch. It’s also a bleak and unsettling coming of age tale told through emotional performances and streaks of dark comedy. Teeth is directed by Mitchell Lichtensteina and stars Jess Weixler.

Slither (2006)

Slither horror movie poster with worms and lady in a bathtub

A small town in South Carolina is invaded by a malicious alien parasite that immediately infects someone and spawns numerous larvae offspring. These new parasites continue the trend, turning their unsuspecting hosts in all manner of mutated grotesqueries and forming a large hive mind. It’s up to a ragtag group of survivors, led by Police Chief Bill Pardy, to stop the spread before the whole town goes under. The film manages to be both extremely disgusting and extremely hilarious. This blend of alien invasion and body horror is certainly an example of horror comedy at its finest, and it’s filled to the brim with blood, goo, and gross-out scenes. Slither is directed by James Gunn (right?!) and stars Nathan Fillion and Elizabeth Banks.

Society (1990)

Society Horror Movie Poster with woman taking her face off

Bill is a teenager who lives with his wealthy family in Beverly Hills. Bill has always felt a little different from his sister and parents, who subscribe to the upper class elite mentality, and he begins to wonder if there is something darker going on behind the scenes. A series of strange events lead up to a shocking conclusion where all of Bill’s fears will be revealed. Like some of the other films on this list, Society is a movie with something to say. Sure, it’s not very subtle in its satirical take on wealthy urbanites, but it’s certainly memorable (especially that last orgy scene…). Society is directed by Brian Yuzna and stars Billy Warlock, Devin DeVasquez, and Evan Richards.

Tetsuo: The Iron Man (1989)

Iron Man body Horror Movie Poster

A man and his girlfriend are driving when they accidentally hit and kill another man. They begin having strange visions and noticing horrifying changes to their bodies. Turns out the man they killed was a metal fetishist who is taking his revenge by turning them into a monstrous mesh of man and machine. This film, with its abstract narrative and soundtrack of scraping metal, certainly falls into the avant-garde style of experimentation. This black-and-white cyperpunk nightmare is also one of the wildest movies you’ll ever experience. It begins with a man shoving a metal rod into a cut in his leg, and then it just escalates from there. Tetsuo: The Iron Man is directed by Shinya Tsukamoto and stars Tomorowo Taguchi and Kei Fujiwara.

The Fly (1986)

The Fly Horror Movie Poster

A brilliant scientist finds his world turned upside down when a failed experiment mixes his genes with that of a common fly. This freak encounter leads to a slow and painful transformation for the scientist. The grotesque scenes of mutation are as haunting as they are harrowing for the man and his loved ones. The film, a remake of an earlier movie from the 1950s, takes its source material and elevates it to higher levels of emotion, anxiety, and terror. The film has also become a classic in its own right, especially in the world of sci-fi horror, and is likely the director’s most well-known mainstream movie. The Fly is directed by David Cronenburg and stars Jeff Goldblum, Geena Davis, and John Getz.

The Thing (1982)

The Thing John Carpenter Horror Movie Poster with alien man

In a remote facility in Antartica, a research team is hunted by a bizarre alien life form that can transform its body to mimic other forms, in this case shapeshifting to assume the form of its victims. The plot of this film is simple and wastes no time in getting to the good stuff. The paranoia and body count runs high as the isolated research station is invaded and the team desperately tries to root out the evil and survive. The movie also has some of the best practical effects ever, making the many “wtf” moments that much more special. It’s bizarre, it’s gruesome, and it’s a whole lot of fun. The Thing is directed by John Carpenterand stars Kurt Russell as well as a great cast of supporting characters. 

Videodrome (1982)

Videodrome Body Horror movie poster with man floating

There’s a shocking new satellite feed airing on television called “Videodrome”, which depicts random people being sodomized, tortured, and murdered in various ways. The president of the TV station, Max Renn, becomes determined to find out who the creators are: a quest that will feature a wide variety of graphically deranged scenes and lead to his own psychological unhinging. It’s a body horror program within a body horror movie, full of the director’s emphasis on surrealism but loaded with even more gore. It also effectively blurs the line between reality and fantasy as it becomes something of a study on the genre itself. Videodrome is directed by David Cronenburg and stars James Woods, Debbie Harry, and Sonja Smits.

Honorable Mentions

Tusk (2014)

Antiviral (2012)

The Skin I Live In (2011)

Cabin Fever (2002)

Brain Damage (1988)

Hellraiser (1987)

From Beyond (1986)

Re-Animator (1985)

The Stuff (1985)

Possession (1981)

Eraserhead (1978)

Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978)

Best Sci-Fi Horror Movies

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Best Of Best of Movies Featured

Though the sci-fi horror genre has been around for century, it’s really in the last few decades that it has hit it’s stride. Nowhere has that jump in popularity more prevalent or evident than in the world of film. The 70’s and 80’s represent a golden era in sci-fi horror movies, with the rise of such giants in the industry as John Carpenter, David Cronenberg, and Ridley Scott. But even from the 90’s onward sci-fi horror shows no signs of slowing down, and some really incredible entries have come out in just the last couple of years.

There are so many excellent sci-fi horror movies out there that it was very hard to narrow this down to a manageable list. Even with an “Honorable Mentions” section at the end, we know we missed plenty of viable candidates. Let us know some of the better films we left off down in the comments below!

Color Out of Space (2019)

Color out of space 2019 poster with sci-fi horror background

Did you know colors could be scary? H.P. Lovecraft certainly thought they could be, and he wrote a deeply unsettling story to prove it. Color Out of Space is a cosmic horror film based on that titular story, and it’s about the Gardner family who find that a meteorite has crash-landed on their farm. Suddenly, their once peaceful life in the country is shattered as the family finds themselves fighting an alien being that can infect and mutate their bodies and minds. Come for the Nicolas Cage performance, stay for the grotesque practical effects. With a slow build in the first half and a wild spree of body horror in the second half, Color Out of Space is a rare example of a Lovecraft adaptation done right. 

Annihilation (2018)

Annihilation horror movie poster with scary sci-fi landscape

Criminally underrated and suffering from a shoddy release, Annihilation is a film that deserves your attention and awe. Based on the book by Jeff Vandermeer, it’s a story about a group of scientists who venture into a mysterious zone called “the Shimmer” to collect data and locate the early explorers who have vanished inside. The movie shares some similarities with the book, but writer/director Alex Garland also made some significant changes and it’s best to view them as alternate entries in a shared universe. It’s notoriously difficult to translate cosmic horror to the big screen, but Annihilation manages to do it and do it well. Full of mind boggling images and a deep unfurling dread, this is a movie that really translates a sense of hopelessness and unfathomable fear.

Timecrimes (2007)

Timecrimes horror movie poster with creepy killer

Though perhaps more of a sci-fi thriller than horror, there are enough shocking scenes and gut-twisting suspense to earn the Spanish language film Timecrimes a spot on this list. The film opens with a man named Hector spying on a beautiful woman. His moment of voyeurism is suddenly disrupted when he is attacked by a man whose head is wrapped in bandages. Fleeing the scene, Hector is able to find refuge in a remote lab where a scientist convinces him to hide in what turns out to be a time machine. To say more would be to spoil critical scenes, but just know this movie, though saddled with a low budget and amatuer actors, is a wonderfully confounding and deeply disquieting.example of sci-fi horror.

Event Horizon (1997)

Event Horizon sci-fi horror movie poster with space ship and planet

Sure it flopped on its initial release (as did several other films on this list). Sure it’s been panned by critics and holds a highly debated place in film fandom. But whether you hate or, in our case, love it, there’s no denying that Event Horizon is fully ingrained in pop culture and space horror sensibilities. If you’re not familiar with it, it’s about a spaceship that stumbles across a portal to hell. As this infernal dimension begins to assert it’s dark influence the crew is slowly driven into a violent madness. Full of existential dread and shots of pure horror, Event Horizon is a film not to be missed. Just hope you return from the experience in a better state than the crew.

The Fly (1986)

The Fly horror movie poster with a fly and black background

We’re big fans of both body horror and practical effects over here at Puzzle Box, and one of the movies that best combines those two elements is David Cronenburg’s The Fly. Really there are many great choices in the Cronenburg cannon, but picked this one for its engaging premise and delightfully gross effects. Jeff Goldbloom, who gives a particularly captivating performance, plays a scientist whose failed experiment in teleportation transforms him into a gigantic insect. It’s a disgusting and nightmarish riff on Kafka’s The Metamorphosis, but it’s also a surprisingly poignant look into the complexity of human relationships. 

Re-Animator (1985)

Re-Animator horror movie poster featuring a severed head and a creepy scientist

Herbert West, a slightly off-kilter scientist, has discovered a secret formula that can reanimate dead tissue and ultimately bring the deceased back to life. After a successful trial run on a fellow student’s cat, West takes his extraordinary elixir to the morgue and from there all havoc breaks loose. Though the movie is loosely based on an H.P. Lovecraft short story, there were some major changes made and a lack of overall otherworldly dread. Instead we get a gloriously violent and darkly comedic romp full of gore and humor, all centered around the delightfully cheesy performance of actor Stewart Gordan. And really, what more could you want?

The Thing (1982)

The Thing 1982 sci-fi horror movie poster featuring a man in an arctic suit with beams of light coming through his head

John Carpenter’s The Thing is a masterpiece of paranoia and gorey practical effects. Based on the novella Who Goes There? by John Campbell Jr, Carpenter’s version is actually the third adaptation of the story and by far the most famous. In an isolated arctic setting, a team of scientists uncover an ancient alien being. Despite their best intentions, the creature is revived and begins to take them out one by one. What makes this plot particularly terrifying is the alien’s ability to mimic other lifeforms.The frenzy of shapeshifting that ensues, from the normal humanoid forms to the outrageously bizarre spectacles, keeps the scientists (and the audience) guessing on who is friend or foe. For the staff at Puzzle Box Horror, this is easily one of our favorite sci-fi horror films.

Scanners (1981)

Scanners horror movie poster from 1981 featuring a man whose head is exploding

Ok we swear this isn’t cheating, but we’re double-dipping in the Carpenter oeuvre. His movie Scanners, essentially about a group of telepathics seeking world domination and the counter-group fighting to subvert them, is what we consider essential viewing when it comes to the sci-fi horror genre. Yes it has the infamous head-exploding scene, and yes it’s as entertaining and memorable as you’d assume from a Carpenter film. But it also features some fine character acting and touches on some intriguing sociopolitical themes. Overall it’s a satisfying blend of cerebral commentary and visceral chaos. 

Alien (1979)

Alien 1979 horror movie poster featuring an alien egg

It’s impossible to talk about sci-fi horror without the angular, toothy distorted image of a xenomorph coming to mind. The whole alien franchise is fantastic (yes, even that one), but we have to give credit to the one that started it all. Ridley Scott’s Alien is dark, tense, and claustrophobic; a slow-burn of mounting dread and unseen foes until about the halfway mark when it explodes (literally) with stomach-churning horror. Featuring the unforgettable designs by H.R. Giger and inspiring decades of filmmakers after it, Alien stands as a shining example of the “horror in space” genre.

Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978)

Invasion of the Body Snatchers 1978 movie poster featuring aliens and a person in a cocoon

It’s not often that a remake is better than the original, but the 70’s version of Invasion of the Body Snatchers is arguably superior to its predecessor. The enthralling performances of the leads, the creepy practical effects, the unnerving musical score, and the harrowing ending all work in perfect unison to make this a shockingly scary film. The cold war paranoia of the first movie has also been updated to showcase more relevant social metaphors, such as the loss of self and breakdown of community. Body possession movies have always been terrifying, and this one, about an alien plant that consumes its sleeping host and assumes their form, is a must-watch entry in the sci-fi horror genre.

Honorable Mentions

Possessor (2020)

The Invisible Man (2020)

Life (2017)

Ex Machina (2014)

Europa Report (2013)

Sunshine (2007)

Slither (2006)

28 Days Later (2002)

Donnie Darko (2001)

The Faculty (1998)

Demon Seed (1997)

Mimic (1997)

Cube (1997)

Tetsuo: The Iron Man (1989)

Aliens (1986)

From Beyond (1986)

Altered States (1980)

The Fury (1978)

Exploring the Roots of Folk Horror

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Defining the term “folk horror” and tracing its trajectory throughout history is somewhat of a Herculean task. For a term that sounds so simplistic, it is an incredibly complex and ever-expanding genre. Entire books have been written on the subject (such as Adam Scovell’s 2017 film criticism Folk Horror: Hours Dreadful and Things Strange), and there’s even a three hour long documentary about it titled Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched: A History of Folk Horror, which itself features over one hundred examples from film.

Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched cover

And while much of the emphasis surrounding the conversation is placed on British movies, there are plenty of overlapping examples in film, TV, and literature from around the world. Not to mention the actual elements that make up the genre are diverse, and range from folklore to the occult to witchcraft. 

Simply put, it’s complicated.

To that end, this article is not going to be an exhaustive look at the genre (that’s what the books and documentaries are for), but rather a brief overview of the term, its tropes, and popular examples. Think of it as a primer; a starting place in the shallows of the vast ocean that is folk horror. Ready to wade in?

Origins of the Term

The British music scene experienced something of a folk revival in the 1960s, and that, coupled with the rise in Neopaganism, led to a general infatuation with and exploration of older belief systems. Bands like Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin explored occult themes in their songs, and the writings of famous occultist Aleister Crowley gained popularity. It wasn’t long before the fascination with folk and occult themes found its way into the world of cinema. And that’s not to say that music was the only vehicle for introducing folk horror, as disillusionment with modernism and outrage at governing bodies engendered in many a desire to return to nature and the simpler, older ways of life. At the same time, our post-industrial life has made us unused to rural life and uncomfortable with isolation.

When cult classic The Blood on Satan’s Claws came out in 1971, the Kine Weekly referred to the film as “a study in folk horror”. The movie’s director Piers Haggard also used this term when describing his film. Later the term received renewed attention in 2010 when writer/actor Mark Gatiss interviewed Haggard during a section of the BBC documentary A History of Horror. These two moments, 1971 and 2010, appear to mark the emergence and then subsequent revitalization of the expression “folk horror”.

The Blood on Satan's Claws cover

Elements of Folk Horror

Though it can be difficult to pin down the exact definition of folk horror, there is a general agreement that it is more of a mood, an atmosphere, than anything else. You know it when you see it, though it may be hard to explain why. Even common tropes can vary widely depending on geographic region and time period, and movies with very dissimilar plots can still fall under the folk horror umbrella. But for the purpose of simplicity, we will highlight what writer and filmmaker Adam Scovell (owner of the Celluloid Wicker Man blog) describes as the “Folk Horror Chain”, or the four basic thematic/aesthetic tenets of folk horror: Rural Location, Isolated Groups, Skewed Moral and Belief Systems, and Supernatural or Violent Happenings.

Rural Location: This was a big one for movies in the 60s and 70s because it saw a move away from filming in studios and out into the natural world. This element typically involves a fascination with pastoral landscapes and locations outside of urban life. Often there is an outsider who stumbles upon or is forced into a rural community, and who usually becomes some sort of scapegoat or sacrifice to traditional/pagan beliefs. Some argue that this element also encompasses ideas of psychography and location being a “state of mind” in more urban communities, such as in Roman Polanski’s film Rosemary’s Baby (1968).

Isolated Groups: This element typically takes one one of two meanings – either an individual is isolated from their normal physical environment or they’re isolated from those who share their same moral beliefs. For example, the characters in David Bruckner’s The Ritual (2017) find themselves stranded in the forest but also in discord with people who worship much different gods than they. This element is a link between the previous one and the next because isolation usually happens in rural environments, and it’s made even more upsetting because the antagonistic forces don’t act or think the same as the protagonist.

Skewed Moral and Belief Systems: In Robin Hardy’s The Wicker Man (1973), Sergeant Howie finds himself in a community whose religious beliefs and practices are at odds with his own. Across other examples there is a common thread of “modern” or “Christian” beliefs finding themselves in direct conflict with occult or pagan beliefs. This collision of morality and religious belief leads into or is specifically connected to the final element of the chain.

folk horror ritual

Supernatural or Violent Happenings: Folk horror stories are often steeped in, or at least influenced by, folklore of the particular region they’re set in, and this final piece of the chain usually involves either supernatural beings or some form of ritualistic violence (or both) related to that folklore. Invocations of demonic entities, horrific sacrifices, occult practices, and pagan idolatry are all par for the course. 

British Folk Horror

The current popularity of folk horror, at least what our primary audience would be familiar with, owes a lot to British cinema, and in particular the Hammer Films production company. A group of films from the 60s and 70s, known affectionately as the “Unholy Trinity,” is what many point to as the birth of the genre. These movies are Witchfinder General (1968), the aforementioned Blood on Satan’s Claw (1971), and The Wicker Man (1973). These three films helped distinguish some common characteristics of folk horror, namely the picturesque landscapes, the isolated communities, and the emphasis on sacrifices and supernatural summonings. And yet, showing how intangible the genre is, these are also three very different movies in terms of plot.

BBC's Ghost Stories for Christmas cover

Strong examples of the genre can also be found in British television from the same time period. There was the BBC’s Ghost Stories for Christmas series, which adapted several of M.R. James’s short stories with folk horror elements, such as Whistle and I’ll Come to You (1968), A Warning to the Curious (1972), and The Ash Tree (1975). There was a drama series from the BBC, titled Plays for Today, with standout hits like Robin Redbreast (1970) and Penda’s Fen (1974). And there were still other enduring examples of the genre like Children of the Stones (1977), a miniseries made for children but still incredibly terrifying.

Though the British rise in folk horror began in the 1960s and 1970s, there was something of a resurgence in the genre in the 2010s. Some of these newer British films (and in the UK more widely) took the tropes and themes from decades previous and put their own modern spin on them, while others sought to return to folk horror’s roots, so to speak, with their emphasis on ritual, folklore, and mankind’s connection to nature. While there are many examples to pull from – folk horror appears to be trending right now – several standout movies include David Keating’s Wake Wood (2009), Paul Wright’s For Those in Peril (2013), Elliot Goldner’s The Borderlands (2013), and Corin Hardy’s The Hallow (2015). Another prolific filmmaker in the genre is Ben Wheatley, whose canon of folk horror movies includes Kill List (2011), Sightseers (2012), A Field in England (2013), and In the Earth (2021).

Kill List cover
Sightseers cover
A Field in England cover

Most of the common examples in British folk horror are from film, however there are many books from Britain that include plots and tropes from the genre. In fact, as it goes, some of the oldest examples of the genre are found in literature, from authors such as Arthur Machen, Algernon Blackwood, and M.R. James. Some shining examples in more modern literature include Adam Nevill’s The Ritual (2011) and The Reddening (2019), Andrew Michael Hurley’s The Loney (2014) and Devil’s Day (2017), Thomas Olde Heuvelt’s Hex (2016), and Stephanie Ellis’s The Five Turns of the Wheel (2020) – as well as numerous comics, such as Simon Davis’s Thistlebone (2020) from 2000AD. 

American Folk Horror

Though the term originated in the British imagination, the evolving genre of folk horror has set roots in American cinema and literature as well. In some cases this involves American filmmakers creating movies very much influenced by the British tradition, such as Avery Crounse’s Eyes of Fire (1983), Robert Eggers’s The Witch (2015), Gareth Evans’s Apostle (2018), and Ari Aster’s Midsommar (2019). These films have strong similarities to their British cousins in regards to their emphasis on British landscapes and lore. The Blair Witch Project (1999) is another movie that could be included in this group, though it doesn’t fit the mold quite as well.

There are also many crossover elements between the genres of southern gothic and folk horror, and these commonalities can be seen in films such as Charles Laughton’s Night of the Hunter (1955). There is also a sub-genre of film called “hicksploitation” or “hillbilly horror” which spawns from the southern gothic tradition and which, upon first glance, may not seem to have much to do with folk horror. Yet, when one applies Scovell’s folk horror chain theory, the similarities begin to arise. Films that would fit in this category include movies like John Boorman’s Deliverance (1972), Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974), and Wes Craven’s The Hills Have Eyes (1977).

Old rusty tools in a toolshed

In American literature, elements of folk horror can be seen as early as the works of Nathaniel Hawthorne and Washington Irving. Other popular novels and short stories in the genre include Thomas Tryon’s Harvest Home (1973), Stephen King’s “Children Of The Corn” (1977), Shirley Jackson’s “The Summer People” (1984), Raymond E. Feist’s Faerie Tale (1988), Elizabeth Hand’s Wylding Hall (2015), John Langan’s The Fisherman (2016), and Victor Lavalle’s The Changeling (2017).

A Genre Diverse and Divergent

As we continue to reevaluate and redefine what folk horror is, we begin to notice a few common truths: the genre has existed in some form or fashion long before the 60s and 70s, and some version of it can be found in almost every country around the world. Beowulf, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, early forms of mystical poetry, and even some of Shakespeare’s plays all have folk horror elements. The earliest example in film comes from the Danish-Swedish fictionalized documentary Häxan: Witchcraft Through The Ages (1922). Sweden has Ingmar Bergman’s Hour of the Wolf (1968). Australia has Peter Weir’s The Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975). Japan has Kaneto Shindo’s Onibaba (1964) and Kuroneko (1968). And on and on it goes.

Scene from Haxan movie

Also the more we explore the foundations and tenets of folk horror, the more we find examples which lie outside of the commonly accepted cannon, but which end up fitting the mold in diverse and interesting ways. Some titles here would include Sam Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs (1971), Bernard Rose’s Candyman (1992), Guillermo Del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth (2006), Edgar Wright’s Hot Fuzz (2007), Jordan Peele’s Get Out (2017), Ari Aster’s Hereditary (2018), and even the Paranormal Activity franchise. 

As it should be clear by now, attempting to box the folk horror genre into an easy-to-digest definition is simply not possible. We didn’t even get into the various histories of folklore and dark fairy tales around the world and their individual influences and appearances in the genre. We also didn’t get into the overlapping traits in genres such as science fiction and cosmic horror. What we did accomplish, hopefully, is to give you a taste of the world that you will carry with you into your own exploration of this wonderfully diverse genre known as folk horror.