Folk Horror and Archaeology

Monochrome Horror Movie Poster

I have finally found time to read the first episode of Hellebore, the Samhain 2019 issue. I am blown away! I need to secure Issue 2 before Issue 3 comes out this year.

If you don’t know what Hellebore is, it’s a lovely little magazine, or maybe just a Zine from the UK power team of editor Maria J. Perez Cuervo and art director Nathaniel Winter-HebertTogether they merge Folk Horror with the academic and historical fields that feed it.

Which, if you’re wondering, does include Archaeology.

Archaeology and Folk Horror

We’ve touched on this overlap before, especially when we talk about Lovecraft and the Cthulhu Mythos. But for once, we don’t have Lovecraft to thank for this. He was simply building on the work of those before him.

Some names might be familiar, M.R. James and Arthur Machen. Others might be a little less familiar, like Eleanor Scott, Catherine Crowe, or B.M. Croker.

Regardless, These early writers left their marks on modern horror.

Like many ‘types’ of horror, Folk Horror has a recipe to it, certain elements that categorize it. Often it’s set in the rural areas, and an urban visitor experiences the horror. Often said visitor becomes the victim of some old time-my religious rite, a human sacrifice.

Other times, we see said Urban visitor traded for a Scholar or researcher of old religions who decides to reenact one ritual in particular. And of course, there is always the witnessing of the summoning of an ancient, angry god, who wants blood in payment.

The critical element here is the old religion, the pagan ways, the ritual to the forgotten gods.

Keeping in mind the ‘origin’ of Folk Horror is the Victorian and Edwardian eras. The horror in many of these stories is a reversion of civilization. 

Darwin’s Theory was new and popular and applied to just about anything, including the idea of the development of civilization. Archaeology, still a developing field, work to piece together the artifacts and cultures they were – “discovering” – and tried to create an evolutionary timeline, which of course, ended with their own modern civilization as the ‘superior’ civilization. Much like modern humans were seen as the superior race, 19 cen European and Western Civilization was touted as the top of the evolutionary chain.

I’m being very critical of my own developing field here. It’s important to understand that, however, noble the origins and reasons behind archaeology were in the late 18th and 19th centuries, they wouldn’t hold up to modern-day standards. At their time, however, the belief was that these ideas were true, and archaeology was the way to prove it.

Along with the progression of Darwin’s idea of evolution seeping into every nook and cranny of 19th-century life, there was also the steady progression from rural-living to urbanization and industrialization. This time represented a significant shift in a lot of aspects of everyday life for the average person. There was a slipping away from Christianizing, or at least the overall power of the church. Freethinking, skepticism, science, and materialism took hold philosophically throughout the upper and lower ranks of society. This also fostered a fascination with past religions, at least how the 19th-century mind envisioned them. 

Margaret Murray gets a lot of flak for her investigations into what she termed the Witch-cult, as if no man before her has ever made any of the mistakes she made. Do I need a sarcasm flag here? James Fraser left his mark with his famous book : a study in comparative religion, Fraser was heavily influenced by Darwin’s idea of evolution and the application of it to the development of civilizations, believing that there was a straight timeline from the most primitive to the most sophisticated, which of course would be his own.

Murray and her research began to weave together the idea of the horned god and mother goddess. These elements would be familiar to most modern pagans today, especially those practicing modern witchcraft.

Both Murray and Fraser’s writings would influence not only other anthropologists of their time but also fiction and especially horror writers. With the establishment of the idea of pagan and folk religions surviving out in the furthest reaches of the rural areas, and the fear of civilization regressing along its evolutionary lines, horror writers had a Rich field in which to play.

I don’t think it’s any coincidence that the love of the ghost story blossomed during the 19th century and carried over into the 20th. This is the same time that we see archaeology and anthropology start coming into their own as research fields. With each discovery of the unknown and forgotten past brought into the imaginations of the public, new stories are woven and shared in the Pulp Fiction of the time.

Not to say the concept of a burial mound or ruins being haunted only came about in the 19th century. These ideas probably date back to the first set of ruins being encountered by the first civilized man. No matter where you are in the timeline of human history, there is almost certainly a past. So there is always something for the current people to puzzle over about their history and come up with explanations for. Modern haunted locations are no different, we forget what the places for, or we have a vague understanding of what it means, and so we weave stories around it to help us better understand the dark structures around us.

19th-century fears however did add a particular flavor to their horror. The idea shady pagan religions being kept alive in small out-of-the-way towns along the countryside, hungry forgotten gods needing to be appeased, and in general the regression of civilization to a more primitive form, represented by these pagan religions, and rural people.

This is not to say that 19th and 20th-century fiction only centered around these ideas of progress and evolution. There’s quite a bit of different kinds of writing being developed during these times, and horror and sci-fi written during these eras, especially by women, were used to do more than just communicate modern fears. We’re focusing on folk horror here, because we love horror.

One of the interesting characteristics of folk horror to me is that the essential elements of it haven’t really changed over the years. Folk horror relies on social groups separated from the modern world who are practicing old, often pagan religious rights. These are usually people who have purposefully set themselves aside from modern civilization. Not in the way that the Amish or Mennonites do, but more like the original wicker man movie from the 1970s. A small island town completely cut off from the mainland, who have actively decided to go back to the pagan ways of worship in order to ensure the prosperity of their people.

We can see this in modern horror as the religious cult living on a communal compound, or the hidden underground workings of a cabal within a modern city who uses ancient rights to ensure its own power. Either way it could be argued that the element of regression is still present. It relies on the idea that either current Christian religious practices or the complete lack of belief in religion often represented by skepticism and scientism are the superior civilization. Anything opposing that is often seen as backward, or barbaric. These particular elements usually represented by the practice of pagan like ceremonies and, more often than not, blood sacrifice, human or otherwise.

Which, of course, brings us to modern archaeology and evidence of human sacrifice in the past. 

Is there any?

If you rely solely on the accounts of individual writers and old historians, even ancient historians like taxis, you will find many written reports of human sacrifice being performed by civilizations, unlike the authors. This is a critical element to keep in mind. Particularly with the Romans and the Greeks, the idea of human or blood sacrifice was considered particularly barbaric or backward. Accusations of either practice were leveled at culture groups that were not part of the Roman or Greek own. It was historical slander. This particular practice did not change as time moved on. Accusations by early settlers and explorers of the New World were rampant against the indigenous people there that imaginative ways of sacrificing humans were practiced. And of course, in Europe, even as early as the 70s and 80s, explanations for old stone circles and megaliths almost always came back to some form of blood sacrifice practiced by ancient peoples.

And yet when we look at the archaeological evidence for these things, it’s nearly impossible to prove.

Just common sense being applied to the idea of human sacrifice makes the logistics of it a bit unsustainable. If you already have a small population of people, eliminating one every year is not going to help your situation. Suppose you consider the cost analysis. If you don’t think our ancestors were capable of this, then you underestimate the human mind. You would need a large population to sustain even a once yearly sacrifice, especially if you were targeting a particular member, like only virginal women. Eventually, you’re going to shoot yourself in the foot, and your population will collapse.

That said, can I, as an archaeologist, definitively say there was never any human sacrifice performed by ancient peoples?


Though I do take any human sacrifice description with a full teaspoon of salt, there were probably some if we just go by written and oral traditions. The more modern these descriptions get, and the more they are filtered through a Western observational lens, the less credence I would give any of them. To the point of, any current-day claims of human sacrifice by ancient peoples better have some damn good evidence to back it up (I see you, Heather Lynn ). Gruesome descriptions of supposed past acts of human sacrifice should always be suspect, and those touting them as factual acts should be heavily questioned.

But they do make great movies!

And so we come back around to Folk Horror and the use of archaeology to bolster the thrilling idea of rural pagan people practicing ancient rituals of human sacrifice to hungry gods.

It’s a tantalizing idea to believe that somewhere out in the farmlands of America; there is a small cult of pagan worshipers masquerading as wholesome everyday people. Who at night gather around bonfires chanting worship towards unremembered gods and stabbing knives through the chests of unsuspecting vagrants who unluckily wandered into their town.

As both a writer and a consumer of this type of fiction, it’s important to understand why these horror elements work, especially for today’s society. It’s especially important to understand where these particular elements evolved from, and why they stick. It is a fear of the unknown, and a reaction to modernization, the loss of the connection between humans and nature. But it is also a form of othering of people we don’t understand; it’s a fear of going backward in modern progress, the fear of getting in touch with the unknown elements of the past, a fear of being caught up in a web we are unfamiliar with and have no modern coping mechanism for.

It’s very thrilling to be caught up in a story like this, and it may not be quite satisfying to understand why we find that so exciting.

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Hi! I’m an archaeologist who likes games, video games, gaming, horror, the supernatural, and debunking pseudoarchaeology. Check out my vids for more on the above topics, and toss us a coin if you like what I do.

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Published by ArchyFantasies

An active Archaeologist myself, I've gotten a bit tired of the use of bad science and archaeology to defend and "prove" made up claims. In this vein my videos should help others who are are not familiar with how Archaeology actually works understand the truth and see through the misleading lies of others

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