I’ve told this story before on my blog, but it keeps coming up. One of my earliest introductions to the horror genre was through British television programming for children. I’m not British. I was living in the U.S. at the time…Michigan. For some reason the local cable companies were doing some sort of testing or neighborhood offer or something in which they offered cable for cheap or free and my family signed up. This was the early years of cable television (at least in the midwest of the USA). Nickelodeon, a TV channel aimed at kids, was just starting up. Nickelodeon didn’t yet produce the horrible shows like SALUTE MY SHORTS (or whatever it was called) that they ended up creating in the late 80s, they just purchased cheap shows from other countries and constantly played them over and over again until you got to know them really well.
Among those shows were a bunch of strange British programs from the 1970s and early 1980s having to do with the occult, Celtic mythology, psychic powers, and ghosts. Shows like CHILDREN OF THE STONES (1976), INTO THE LABYRINTH (1980), THE WITCHES AND THE GRINNYGOG (1983), and (the original) THE TOMORROW PEOPLE were my imagination’s bread and butter. I wasn’t used to watching British programming and, based on the styles and locations, I had no real reference for the time period they took place in. I liked anything without clear references. I hated anything that usurped the dominance of my own daydreaming. The separate fictional locations within these shows blended in my fantasies into a magickal version of England in which everything was brown, everyone had bellbottoms with shag haircuts, and groovy, multicolored light displays mixed with deep mahogany wood paneling and drab council flats in an eternally damp, always haunted, mysterious antique shop of culture and history.
Most importantly, perhaps, the children in these shows were intelligent…at least in comparison with their counterparts on American television. Likewise, the plots were somewhat complex. They involved understanding new ideas and philosophies in a manner characteristic of adult sci-fi or well written young adult fantasy novels rather than the simplistic good/evil shoot ’em up pseudo-plotting of most of the TV programming I was bombarded with. They involved a strange combination of folk tales and traditions with modern technology and situations that I could identify with.
As I grew older I sought out media that seemed to be an extension of this “universe” that was so important to me when I was young. A lot of it was British television shows and movies, but the aesthetic (as I identified it) seemed to cross over into other countries, genres, and mediums (including music). I thought of it as a genre unto itself, though there was no particular title for it. Fast-forward to around 2009 or so (and skipping lots of subcultural exploration in the mean time) which was when, wandering around the internets, I first came across the (apparently fan-made) term “folk horror” to describe exactly what I had always loved but for which I had no title!
When I put the first year’s list of horror movies together for my blog in 2012, I discovered a website dedicated to folk horror that was just in its infancy and listed many of the shows and movies I had sought out over the years. This year I returned to the website and am pleased to see it has grown and now lists some TV shows I have not yet seen (SHADOWS and THE MIND BEYOND: STONES, in case you were curious)! There are also other sites and even click bait lists of “folk horror” films that pop up when one does a Google search for the term. Thank goodness for time passing! If you truly love something, just wait…the world will catch up and bring it to you in a nice package (thanks to the diligence and dedication of less lazy fans, ahem).
Today’s horror movie is actually a TV series from 1969 called THE OWL SERVICE and it is an excellent example of folk horror. It is well acted and directed and has a 60s hippy-dippy freak-out style, heavy with experimentation, that often marks the best of the genre (I can finally officially call it a genre!) Though presented in separate segments, it is not much longer as a whole than a traditional movie so it can easily be binge watched.
Adapted by the author from a popular and critically acclaimed novel for young adults, THE OWL SERVICE follows three teenagers from distinctly different classes who are brought together at a Welsh country home (more like a mansion) for a summer vacation. They discover a set (a “service”) of dishes in the attic that seem to be the focus of a strange power that begins to take over their lives and even dictate their actions.
Of course this “power” ends up being connected with an old Welsh legend from the earliest collection of prose literature in England, the Mabinogion, and soon the children begin to realize that the legends in the books are still alive in the nature and the people that surround them.
The show THE OWL SERVICE was also a great success when it was released in the early 70s and, by all accounts, children and adults were on the edges of their seats waiting to find out what would happen next. When it came time to sell the show overseas, there were some problems. This isn’t one of the TV shows I saw on Nickelodeon as a child. It deals with some disturbingly adult themes both literally and as subtext. It’s hard to believe that it was aimed at young adults. Even I was disturbed by one scene that, should you be familiar with the kinds of legends that the show is based upon, is obviously intended to reference a rape. The main female character, just a teenage girl, is slowly made synonymous with the archetypal spring “maiden,” a virgin, who must lose her purity and be reborn, in a way, to represent the passing of the seasons. That’s fine and well for an ancient myth, but when that myth presses itself upon the lives of realistically portrayed children it becomes something quite perverse. The female character, from the very beginning, is a subtly sexualized cypher. The male characters are destined to come into mortal conflict and possibly sacrifice themselves. What is interesting about THE OWL SERVICE, however, is not how it retells the ancient mythologies, but how it presents its characters resisting them and, finally, developing as individuals in relation to the myths that dominate them (both ancient and contemporary myths). The female lead resists her role as a sexualized cypher and her need to step out of this stereotype, along with the other characters, is part of what drives the story toward its hopeful (though ambiguous) conclusion.
I have previously described gothic literature and film as compressing one’s sense of space (into a castle, haunted house, etcetera) and extending one’s sense of time (through tragic legacies, ghosts, repeating the past, and so on) in order to express the existential terror of eternity. Folk horror is somewhat similar, but it takes into account that these conditions (or “intensities”) are both real and created. As a metaphysical reality, the ever present, personally reductive immensity of “eternity” (as metaphor for all of the unknown forces that surround and controls us) is horrifying to a poor little, ant-like human being. However, as a narrative (or a belief), it can be the source of redemption. Folk horror often deals with where realities and narratives (or legends) intersect and identifies this intersection as a magickal state of possibility. It is here that reality may be changed by narratives and narratives can be changed in response to new realities.
THE OWL SERVICE (1969):
I am linking here to a Youtube Playlist, as opposed to an individual streaming movie, so that you may watch the episodes of this TV show back-to-back without interruptions.