In Haunt

By Emily Oldfield

The third in the series of ‘Manchester Folk Horror Festival 2’ interview articles on the HAUNT Manchester Blog – seeking to interview each of the members of the festival’s panel discussion, which has been organised by Julian Holloway (Lecturer in Human Geography at Manchester Metropolitan University) on behalf of HAUNT Manchester, and he will also be Panel Chair.

Manchester Folk Horror Festival 2 follows on from its 2018 debut, still continuing at the same venue of The Peer Hat, falling on the Saturday 2nd February 2019 (panel taking place 3pm - 4.30pm). Whilst the wider festival will explore Folk Horror culture and creativity of all kinds including performances, music and film, the panel discussion will be in front of an audience, with academics and experts discussing topical themes in the genre.

The panellists will be Julian Holloway himself (Manchester Metropolitan University) who is also Chair, Andrew Michael Hurley (novelist and author), Chloé Germaine Buckley (Manchester Metropolitan University), James Thurgill (University of Tokyo), Darren Charles (Folk Horror Revival) and Morag Rose (The Loiterer's Resistance Movement and University of Liverpool).

This interview focuses on James Thurgill, a cultural geographer, currently based at The University of Tokyo. Place, myth and memory are significant themes in his work.

The strange and uncanny aspects of place are after all a key interest for James, whose research frequently highlights the horror-tinged intersect between human geography, literary culture such as folk tales, and spirituality. It is exploring the spatial relations (i.e. how objects are located in relation to each other) that exist amongst these factors, which is a key part of his research.

Since organising ‘Strange Naturalism: Reflections on Occult Geographies symposium’ in 2011, James has continued to journey through the geographies of religion, spirituality and folklore – with his role in co-organising a week-long international conference titled ‘Uncanny Landscapes’ in 2013, cementing this further.

With titles of his work including ‘Geo-interventions: walking art, ‘deep-mapping’ and the biography of place’ and ‘Where should we commence to dig?’ – it is clear that James’ approach is not just via academic writing, but through a wide variety of forms; with art, photography and creative experimentation all valued.

His studies have seen James ramble through the rural counties of East Anglia in furthering an understanding of the literary representations of its landscapes, to considering the psychic archaeology of Glastonbury Abbey and even encountering the environs of Suffolk which inspired the ghost stories of M.R. James. And that’s just to name a few.

Just before Christmas 2018 he put out a call for papers  on ‘Geographies of Folk Horror: from the Strange Rural to the Urban Wyrd’, with the upcoming session (set to be held at the RGS-IBG Annual Conference 2019, 28th August – 30th August 2019, London) set up by James himself and Julian Holloway (Manchester Metropolitan University). Julian himself is chair of the Manchester Folk Horror Festival 2 panel and HAUNT interviewed him here.

In turn, HAUNT Manchester decided to speak more to James Thurgill about his upcoming appearance at the festival, interest in folk horror and much more…

What does it mean to you to be involved in the upcoming Folk Horror Festival and why do you think an event like this is important?  

“I feel incredibly honoured to be involved in this year’s Manchester Folk Horror Festival and I’m very grateful to Julian Holloway for inviting me. Living in Tokyo, I have few opportunities to take part in projects like this and it’s rare for me to have a chance to discuss a topic like Folk Horror outside of a classroom setting.

“It’s great to see events like this being held in the North. As the festival line-up demonstrates, there is a lot of interest in Folk Horror both in and around the Manchester area and it is exciting to see this being formally represented in Manchester. With its moors, peaks and passes, the North has long been fertile ground for folklore and a number of its more well-known tales have played a significant role in shaping people’s geographic imagining of the region; the Pendle witches, the Barghest and so on.

“What truly excites me about the event is the mixed line-up of artists, performers, writers and researchers who will be contributing to the festival. That the discussion will be taking place between such a varied group of individuals reflects the diversity in approaches to and understandings of Folk Horror. This kind of collaborative discourse is necessary in further establishing what Folk Horror is and how it relates to identity, place, cultural production and so on. Folk Horror is still very much an emergent area of research so events like the Manchester Folk Horror Festival are essential in bringing the topic and discussions of its importance to a wider audience.”

Is there a straightforward definition of ‘Folk Horror’ – or is part of its appeal the exploration of the term itself?

“In short, no, I don’t think there is. Some of the recent writings on the subject, for example Adam Scovell’s Folk Horror: Hours Dreadful and Things Strange (2017) and Folk Horror Revival’s Field Studies collection (2015), have done an excellent job of setting out the characteristics of the sub-genre and provide invaluable primers for anyone interested in Folk Horror. However, I don’t think a precise definition of what Folk Horror is (or isn’t) has been reached yet. There’s still a lot of debate surrounding the term and what it describes. It’s certainly a more difficult concept to grapple with than might first appear and is further complicated by its retrospective application to film and literature: we’re employing a new term to (re)conceptualise old texts.

“For me, Folk Horror describes a sense or a feeling about how certain films and texts fit together thematically or share a common aesthetic. There are no strict guidelines in place regarding the formulation of the sub-genre and this forms a significant part of Folk Horror’s appeal. I enjoy its ambiguity.

“That said, I view Folk Horror as a very British phenomenon. We need only look to Folk Horror’s foundational texts, the so-called ‘unholy trinity’ of Witchfinder General (1968), The Blood on Satan’s Claw (1971) and The Wicker Man (1973), to see how a very specific understanding of the British countryside and its history is utilised in the production of the sub-genre’s horror. The same approach to the British rural appears to be extended to a number of Folk Horror’s offerings; A Warning to the Curious (1972), Children of the Stones (1977), Red Shift (1978), Robin Redbreast (1970), Shadows (1975-78), The Owl Service (1969-70)

“What makes Folk Horror horrific is the idea that an unseen darkness pervades the (British) countryside; unspeakable horrors lurk beneath the otherwise peaceful exterior of the rural…horrors that are waiting to resurface. Folk Horror mobilises a more insidious, creeping sense of horror than is found elsewhere in the horror genre. It plants the seed in your mind that there is something primal out there surviving unnoticed in the landscapes around us: lurking, waiting, biding its time. The sense of ‘survival’ Folk Horror articulates is a vital characteristic of the sub-genre, it works to demonstrate a persistence of long-forgotten ancient evils and pagan practices, supposedly unmodern, unchristian and uncivilised ways, that seek to destabilise and disturb us.

“The sense of place and history that allows the summoning of these evils to occur is geographically specific, I think. It feels uncomfortable to speak of something like a Japanese Folk Horror, for example, precisely because this element of ‘survival’ isn’t really present in the same way, if at all. Japan hasn’t undergone the same historic process(es) of forgetting and burying non-Christian customs and beliefs as somewhere like the UK, so there’s no reason to fear their re-emergence.”

You currently work at The University of Tokyo. Is engagement with Folk Horror culture significantly different in Japan and has your experience of Japanese culture had a significant effect on how you perceive the genre?

“Living in Japan has certainly made me reassess the boundaries of Folk Horror in my own work, particularly when it comes to thinking about the relationship between geography, folklore and Folk Horror texts cross-culturally. I’ve become far more aware of my ‘Britishness’ (excuse the term) since living here and I’ve come to appreciate that the way I think about concepts like place, landscape and spirituality - an understanding that I’ve largely taken for granted until now -  is really quite different to how such things are thought of in Japan. To this end, I think I’ve become slightly dubious of attributing terms like Folk Horror to aspects of Japanese culture.

“I’d go as far as to say that Folk Horror isn’t really on the radar for the Japanese and the positioning of Japanese folklore and horror as ‘Folk Horror’ feels a little awkward. That isn’t to say that we can’t recognise certain thematic similarities or resonances between Japan’s cultural products and those of Folk Horror in the West. I’m just suggesting that it’s problematic to define these works as ‘Folk horror’, because they simply do not emanate from the same socio-cultural or historical context as the examples we find in Western cinema and literature.

“As I’ve suggested above, much of the terror that Folk Horror produces stems from this sense that ancient rituals and practices have ‘survived’ unseen, or from the re-emergence of supernatural threats from a forgotten past. The New Age turn of the 1960s and 70s made it possible for Western directors and writers to engage in what was a fairly widespread cultural nostalgia, a yearning for traditionalism, folk culture and esotericism, particularly so in the UK. The horror of films like The Wicker Man, The Blood on Satan’s Claw and the M.R. James adaptations commissioned by the BBC focuses on the unearthing of such forgotten horrors, juxtaposing the processes of modernity alongside the supposedly anti-modern practices of Paganism and rural superstition. But Japan doesn’t exist within the same socio-historical context.”

Considering the point about Tokyo, although Folk Horror is often perceived through rural themes, how do you think it can be considered in relation to modern cityscapes? 

“Given its scale and history, Tokyo has a great deal of urban legends and ghost stories. My students seem to relish scaring each other away from certain parts of the city with their own tales of supernatural horror. Many Japanese teenagers seek out spaces of urban horror to undertake kimodameshi or ‘test(s) of courage’; it's a popular pastime that takes people in search of cemeteries, haunted houses, abandoned asylums and so on. But these kinds of place are dotted throughout most modern cities; they’re not restricted to Tokyo.

“What makes Japan interesting for me is that you can find aspects of (rural) folk life throughout its city spaces, such as the presence of Shinto shrines dedicated to Inari Ōkami, an ancient deity associated with agriculture, particularly the harvesting of rice and tea. Happening upon such sites reiterates the presence of the old ways within the modern metropolis; the ancient gods of rural Japan are very much part of the contemporary urban experience.

“Of course, much of what we describe as ‘Folk Horror’ takes place in the bucolic surroundings of the countryside, though neither folklore nor the kinds of narrative represented in Folk Horror are necessarily restricted to such rural environments. Legends, mysticism and hauntings are equally common in cities and towns. Wherever people choose to settle they inevitably share the narratives and traditions they’ve brought with them from elsewhere. Urban spaces grew up from the mass movement of people from rural settlements to cities and towns; naturally certain aspects of folklore moved with them. While some elements of folklore directly related to the fears of rural communities they certainly weren’t eradicated in the transition to urban settlements. Instead, they changed form to suit their new environment.

“I would also suggest that there’s a specific uneasiness bound up with the urban experience; a feeling of unrest stemming from all those strangers living side by side – anonymity, spatial ambiguity, flux, violence and so on, it makes the city an unsettling space for many people. This sensation of the strange and uncanny city has been characterized in the works of psychogeographers, such as Iain Sinclair, and through explorations of the Urban Wyrd.

“Folk Horror also signifies a resistance to authority and organisation. In urban spaces where people are ordered by class, race, education, gender, crime and so on, we find increasing opportunities to explore narratives of resistance, to highlight the horrors and anxieties of city living through the Urban Wyrd. I’m not sure if something like the Urban Wyrd can be considered as Folk Horror exactly, but I do think that it demonstrates a shared hostility and discomfort that is experienced within both rural and urban environments and performs a challenging of the enforced organisation of bodies in city spaces.”

What sparked your own interest in Folk Horror?

“I grew up in deepest, darkest East Anglia. My family lived on the edge of a small town in the middle of Norfolk; an abandoned railway track ran along the back of our garden and this was the source for all manner of strange and ghostly stories in the neighbourhood. I remember that I once overheard a conversation between my mother and a neighbour. They were discussing how some local children had found a series of small clay huts, partially concealed by the woods lining the railway’s embankments, while out playing on the tracks.

Nobody knew who had built them or why, or even if they were inhabited, but I was warned to keep away in any case. Armed with sticks, I would defiantly go out and search for those huts with my younger brother as soon as an opportunity presented itself. We never did find them. There were other tales about the railway and the roads that crossed it, including sightings of Anglia’s infamous Black Shuck. Beyond the railway were the woods, a seemingly endless patchwork of fields, the moor - which once played home to the town’s gallows - and a pig farm. I would regularly wake to the screaming of those pigs being loaded into lorries, each one destined for the abattoir. It was a horrific sound. I think it was the experience of growing up in a place that seemed steeped in superstition that led to my later interest in the relationship between folklore, horror and rurality.

“I recognise elements of both the real and imagined terror of rural life in the films and books associated with Folk Horror. Many of these texts offer a sense of familiarity, as if portraying an inside knowledge of the rural, and it is probably this that's led to Folk Horror and the Strange Rural playing such a significant role in my work to date. In many ways Folk Horror feels like quite a ‘comfortable’ (sub)genre to work with. I feel somewhat at ‘home’ with it.

Can you tell us a little more about how your own work connects with or is inspired by themes in Folk Horror?

“Thinking about it, I’ve been working with themes of haunting and absence for the last 12 years or so. I owe a lot to Mark Fisher, who supervised my Masters’ research on the theme of hauntology while I was studying at Goldsmiths. Mark shared my interest in ghosts, memory and place and encouraged me to pursue the subject at doctoral level. I ended up writing my thesis on similar topics and haven’t really changed focus since.

“My work is largely concerned with the analysis of absence in the spatial experience, especially within strange, uncanny and haunted places. I’m interested in how people develop methods for exploring the immaterial and the ghostly. In the last few years I’ve been working more with a sort of historical and regional geography of folklore as well as examining popular representations of folkloric landscapes in literature. Folk Horror feels like a natural extension of this previous work and much of what I research is related to the same spatial ambiguity or discomfort that we find present in Folk Horror. Recently, I’ve been writing on the role of landscape in Folk Horror and the performativity of place in the literary hauntings of M.R. James’ ghost stories. There’s a definite connection between the two. Despite living and working in Tokyo, my ongoing research focuses on the relationship between folklore and geography in East Anglia and I’m still very much interested in the representation of the gothic rural.”

Why is engaging with Folk Horror culture important do you think? 

“However we define Folk Horror, I think its associated films and texts are useful in thinking about the way(s) we engage with the landscape, rural politics and the (perceived) divisions between urban and rural spaces. There’s also a sense of commemoration demonstrated in the celebration of Britain’s dark and grisly history, particularly in films like Witchfinder General (1968) and A Field in England (2013). I like the idea that Folk Horror might offer us a sort of counter-heritage, reflecting the struggle against modernisation and the survival of a rural folk culture. At a time where politics appears to be regressing rather than moving us forward, it is worth reiterating the horror of isolation and conservatism that Folk Horror presents us with.”

Readers can also visit James’ website IN:SITES, here: https://jamesthurgill.wordpress.com/

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