Folk horror and Doctor Who: a history

Witches, demons and ancient pagan rituals: Alex explores the use of folk horror in the Doctor's adventures...

Thought to be a relatively recent term, coined by director Piers Haggard and popularised by Doctor Who‘s own Mark Gatiss, ‘folk horror’ is essentially horror based on old countryside folklore. It is a sub-genre of occult fiction, which encompasses paganism, witchcraft, superstition, legends and the traditions of the countryside. Often texts will refer to ‘Green man’ rituals, stone circles, Devil worship, disfigurement and the ‘memories’ of the earth.

In the cinema, folk horror is at the fore in films like the 1967 Hammer classic The Devil Rides Out, Terence Fisher’s vision of the 1934 novel by Denis Wheatley, Piers Haggard’s own 1974 film Blood On Satan’s Claw (which incidentally features a terrific cast including a pre-Who Anthony Ainley and a post-Who Wendy Padbury), and Michael Reeves’s 1968 feature Witchfinder General, which tells the story of the notorious and somewhat opportunistic Civil War Witchfinder, Matthew Hopkins, as portrayed by a bewigged Vincent Price.

Perhaps the most prominent example of the genre on film is Robin Hardy’s 1973 film The Wicker Man. Edward Woodward plays a devout Christian policeman looking for a missing girl on remote island in the Hebrides. The islanders have embraced the pagan Celtic gods of their ancestry and (spoiler ahead) customarily claim a human sacrifice whenever the harvest fails. The screenplay by Anthony Shaffer was based on the 1967 novel Ritual by David Pinner.

More recently the genre has been retooled by Ben Wheatley (who directed Peter Capaldi’s debut Who stories Deep Breath and Into The Dalek) for a new generation in the excellent A Field In England.

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On television, folk horror was explored by two excellent Play For Todays: 1970’s Robin Redbreast by John Griffith Bowen, directed by James MacTaggart, and 1974’s Penda’s Fen by David Rudkin, directed by Alan Clarke.

In Doctor Who, the genre was first appropriated in the Jon Pertwee era. The Doctor had been brought down to earth and Terrance Dicks and Barry Letts, determined to find an alternative to the rapidly stale variations of ‘alien invasion’ and ‘mad scientist’ tropes, embraced the genre to close Pertwee’s second season. The ideas of magic and superstition are the perfect counter balance to the scientific approach the Doctor traditionally employs to solve his problems.

The Dæmons

Doctor: Jon PertweeWriter: Guy Leopold (Barry Letts and Robert Sloman)Director: Christopher BarryLocations: Aldbourne, Oaken Coppice and Four Barrows, WiltshireSeason: 8 – 5 episodes (22nd May – 19th June 1971)

Folk horror tropes: sleepy village with a suspicion of outsiders; white witch; ‘memories’ of the earth; reference to Witchfinder General Matthew Hopkins; maypole and morris dancers; recently arrived sinister clergyman; human sacrifice.

Surely the nearest a Doctor Who serial ever came to a Dennis Wheatley novel? A quaint English village, Devil’s End – the name is perhaps a little too on the nose. It’s full of custom and tradition, local white witch Miss Hawthorne (a bravura performance from Damaris Hayman) is concerned a malevolent visitation is likely after the nearby ancient long barrow is disturbed by an archaeological dig. The Master fulfilling the ‘sinister minister’ trope is new village Reverend Victor Magister (both Latin for Master and the name of a necromancer in ancient mythology). The Master summons up the devil incarnate, Azal, in the hope of harnessing his power. When Bok, a stone Gargoyle, comes to life, it catches the attention of the Brigadier and leads to his most famous line – a typical military response: “Jenkins, chap with the wings, there… five rounds rapid”.

The Dæmons is a richly-layered folk horror Who tale. The Master’s first year on screen is brought to an enjoyable denouement, which is perhaps more than one can say for the model shots of the demised church. The cast and crew looked back on the serial with great fondness and it encapsulates much that made the Pertwee era a success. Yet the genre wasn’t attempted again until the subsequent era of the show.

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Image Of The Fendahl

Doctor: Tom BakerWriter: Chris BoucherDirector: George Spenton-FosterLocation: Stargroves, East End, Hampshire (previously used in The Pyramids Of Mars)Season: 15 – 4 episodes (29th October – 19th November 1977)

Folk horror tropes: suspicion of outsiders; skull with demonic powers; white witch, doomed hiker.

Arriving near the village of Fetchborough, the Doctor and Leela, tracking a sonic time scan, encounter a field of cows in a wonderfully pastoral scene. The Doctor converses with the bovines in case they are an intelligent alien life (he does the same thing with some chickens in Carnival Of Monsters). He and Leela are alerted by a local to investigate a series of strange occurrences near Fetch Priory, the research lab of the noted scientist Doctor Fendelman (Denis Lill), Thea Ransome (Wanda Ventham – making the second of her three appearances in Who), Adam Colby and Max Stael. The scientists have been experimenting on an ancient human skull and Fendelman’s use of a time scan releases an unknown force, which attacks a passing hiker, his body reduced to a rapidly decaying husk. Ma Tyler, a local white witch with second sight, and her son help the Doctor to overcome the consequences of Fendelman’s experiments, which see Thea Ransome become the core of the Fendahl, a creature created from the skull.

The director, George Spenton-Foster, a veteran of the supernatural thriller anthology Out Of The Unknown, brings a wonderful sense of the uncanny to these four episodes. The musical score is deliberately sparse (there is no incidental music for over half of the first episode) but crucially (Nu Who take note!) when it is used it is done very effectively. Chris Boucher named Colby’s dog Leaky (after the archaeologist Louis Leaky) Tom Baker was particularly tickled by the potential double entendre, which Terrance Dicks later exploited with relish in the novelisation. Image Of The Fendahl is, arguably, a more satisfying slice of folk horror than The Dæmons using fewer of the tropes. A genuine case of less is more.

The Stones Of Blood

Doctor: Tom BakerWriter: David FisherDirector: Darrol BlakeLocations: Rollright Stones, Oxfordshire; The Manor, Little Compton, WarwickshireSeason: 16 – 4 episodes (28th October – 18th November 1978)

Folk horror tropes: suspicion of outsiders; stone circle; Druid sect; priest hole; doomed campers.

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The Doctor, Romana and K9 arrive near a stone circle – “The Nine Travellers” – and notice some of the stones are missing. They meet Professor Emilia Rumsford and the enigmatic Vivien Fay, who are researching the stones. The site attracts a regular Druidic sect. Later The Doctor and Emilia uncover evidence of Vivien’s real identity. She’s an alien and controls moving stones, called Ogri, that are enriched by a component of blood. There is an especially dark scene wherein two young campers, who have merely touched the stones, are literally absorbed on the spot leaving only their skeleton remains – possibly the last time 70s Who was truly scary.

The Stones Of Blood serves the folk horror genre well – at least in its set up, however, the less said about the final episode, an overplayed courtroom drama set in hyperspace, the better. The Stones Of Blood was filmed at the Rollright Stones in Oxfordshire, where an actual legend suggests one cannot easily count the number of stones, which lends itself well to the concept of stones “travelling”. There are believed to be 74 stones at the site but only nine were featured in the story. Beatrix Lehmann, in her final acting role, is tremendous as the redoubtable Professor Rumsford, who takes a particular shine to K9. Tom Baker admired her skills enormously and suggested to Graham Williams that the Doctor might have an older companion: Williams laughed off the idea. Big Finish put it into practice nearly thirty years later with the marvellous Maggie Stables becoming Evelyn, who was a great foil to Colin Baker’s Sixth Doctor.

The Awakening

Doctor: Peter DavisonWriter: Eric PringleLocations: St Bartholomew’s Church, Shapwick, Dorset; Tarrant Monkton, Dorset and Martin, HampshireDirector: Michael Owen MorrisSeason: 21 – 2 episodes (19th – 20th January 1984)

Folk horror tropes: sleepy village with a suspicion of outsiders; maypole and May queen; disfigurement; carvings of the Devil; Civil War allusions; priest hole; psychic projections; ‘memories’ of the earth.

Tegan wants to visit her grandfather Andrew Verney, only for the time travellers to discover, upon arrival in a sleepy English village, he has been imprisoned. Little Hodcombe has been commandeered and isolated by a Civil War re-enactment society lead by maniacal local magistrate, Sir George Hutchinson – a memorably over the top performance from Denis Lill (again). Sir George is at odds with local school teacher Jane Hampden (Polly James) who believes (rightly) the war ‘games’ have got seriously out of hand. The idea of memories of the land is brought to the fore as the re-enactment has awakened the malevolent Malus, manifest as a large stone face which breaks through a wall in the crumbling village church – a brilliant final set for Who by long-serving designer Barry Newberry.

Will Chandler (a perky performance by Keith Jayne) is a nice addition to proceedings. The denouement is, either by coincidence or design, an homage to The Dæmons, although the effects here are more satisfying.

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The Witchfinders

Doctor: Jodie WhittakerWriter: Joy WilkinsonDirector: Sallie AprahamianLocation: Little Woodham, GosportSeries: 11 – Episode 8 (25th November 2018)

Folk horror tropes: suspicion of outsiders; witchcraft and ducking stool punishment; ‘memories’ of the earth.

The Doctor, Graham, Yaz and Ryan arrive in 17th century Lancashire and witness the brittle landowner Becka Savage using a ducking stool to try her own grandmother as a witch. The Doctor’s girlish delight in apple-bobbing (a foreshadowing of the witch dunking that comes later) is soon replaced as she discovers the soil in the area is composed of some kind of alien substance. Yaz befriends Becka’s cousin, Willa. The Doctor’s attempt to pass herself off as Witchfinder General are thwarted by the arrival of King James, known for his paranoid suspicions of witchcraft. The Doctor stands accused of witchcraft by Savage and is dunked. Her survival solicits a terrifying confession from Savage.

One of the better episodes of the most recent series of WhoThe Witchfinders is a fairly explicit take on some aspects of folk horror and the effects are finally able to do justice to the concepts. Graham gets to wear an big hat, to the clear delight of Bradley Walsh and Alan Cumming steals the show as a larger than life version of King James I/VI.

Honorable mention: K9 And Company

Protagonists: Sarah Jane Smith and K9Writer: Terence DudleyDirector: John BlackLocations: Sheepscombe and Miserden, GloucestershirePilot: Episode 1 (28th December 1981)

Folk horror tropes: sleepy village with a suspicion of outsiders; winter solstice; Hecate-worshipping occultists.

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The pilot for the adventures of the Doctor’s faithful tin dog features the quiet village of Moreton Harewood. Sarah Jane’s Aunt Lavinia has left for a lecture tour. There are increasing reports about a coven of villagers worshipping the mythical Hecate. When Lavinia’s ward, Brendan goes missing, Sarah Jane and K9, a gift from The Doctor, race against time to discover the truth…

Folk horror is a potent ingredient of Doctor Who both classic and modern but it has been used sparingly for the most part. As always, this is not a definitive list and further suggestions of other moments which reference it are welcome in the comments section.

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