May Day's Underbelly: Ranking the Best Folk-Horror Movies

Cults, witches, dark magic, and human-hating fairy-tale creatures.


On May Day, many people don flower crowns and twirl around ribbon-draped poles, taking cues from the Celtic tradition of Beltane, the Roman Festival of Flora, and the Germanic festival of Walpurgis Night. The forced introduction of Christianity upon polytheistic, pagan societies, though, demonized a fair number of nature-bound traditions, successfully othering them and resulting in painful stereotypes. But a lot of those stories make for excellent horror fare.

The folk-horror genre enjoyed international popularity in the ‘60s and ‘70s. It’s frequently assumed that “hippie” culture of the time, which often focused on harmony between humanity and the natural world, was bastardized into a “gone wrong” kind of situation, preying on primal human fears and pagan stereotypes to popularize folk-horror. And, man, did it work.

What results from this genre is a look into what happens when the natural world beyond human understanding fights back or grabs hold a little too firmly. Below, you’ll find a list of the six best folk-horror films, ranging from cults to dark magic to human-hating fairy-tale creatures.

Here are six of the best folk-horror films you can watch to scare yourself indoors for May Day. Happy Spring!

6. Kill List (2011)

As far as fucked-up psychological thrillers and “movies that accidentally portray your worst nightmares” go, Kill List comes in pretty close to the top. Jay and Gal, two former British soldiers, take on hit men jobs only to realize they’ve been dragged into the dealings of a cult led by a member of the British Parliament. The twist ending is killer, and this movie’s got cults, human sacrifice, hints at blood magic, and some serious violence to boot.

5. Wake Wood (2011)

Aidan Gillen, best known for his role as Petyr Baelish in Game of Thrones, stars in Wake Wood, a metaphorical meeting of the minds between Stephen King’s Pet Semetary and the well-known “something’s up with this small town” trope. After losing their only child, Patrick and Louise Daley find themselves in a small town where the townspeople can resurrect the dead within certain boundaries. Predictably, everything goes wrong from there and the resurrected little girl is creepy as can be.

4. Children of the Corn (1984)

Yes, we’re going to include Children of the Corn on this list. How can you not when talking about folk-horror? Most of the other films on this list are British in origin (as that’s where so many of these tales originated), but Children of the Corn is classic American folk-horror. Based on Stephen King’s short story of the same name, the film focuses on a small town beleaguered by an entity only referred to as “He Who Walks Behind The Rows.” This entity prompts all the local children to ritually sacrifice the adults in order to achieve a successful corn harvest. And if you really like that, then you’ll be happy to know there were six follow-up films, and a reboot in 2009 with two sequels, one of which is on the way in 2017.

3. The Hallow (2015)

Fairies have only been benevolent bestowers of magic and wishes in their most recent cultural iterations. Fae, a mythical subset of impish, dastardly creatures, were a real problem for people back in the day — or so say fairy tales. The Hallow continues this tradition, pitting a young family in the woods against baby-snatching fairies and banshees in an aesthetically beautiful, terrifying story. The townspeople warn the newcomers about the threat, but city-dwellers rarely take advice from locals, right?

2. The Witch (2016)

Remember when The Witch was all anyone could talk about last year? There’s a reason for that. A Puritan family is banished from their society and make their way into the New England woods. They make a home for themselves hunting, praying, and living with a faceless witch in the woods. There’s witchcraft, devil worship, and a lot of paranoia and revenge. Eventually, there’s a baby sacrifice, occult female empowerment, and the goat Black Phillip becoming one of the hottest memes of 2016.

1. The Wicker Man (1973)

The cult-classic The Wicker Man is the genre-defining film every folk-horror fan should experience. Police officer Sergeant Howie travels to the mysterious and remote Summerisle to solve the disappearance of a little girl. The pagan-worshipping people that Howie encounters alarm him — they have sex out in the open, fully embrace the phallic symbolism of the Maypole, and have some truly out-there medical remedies involving toads. The end of the film portrays a classic struggle between Christianity and paganism, firmly placing it as a staple of folk horror.

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