The first day of May isn’t just about that cornball Justin Timberlake meme that stopped being funny three years ago, it’s also a day of celebration that dates back to pagan times to commemorate spring in the Northern Hemisphere. May Day stretches back to Roman celebrations of the goddess Flora (guess what she’s goddess of), as well as Walpurgisnacht, which in Germanic folklore is also known as Witches Night. Walpurgis Night technically takes place on April 30 but anything named Witches Night is automatically one of the most badass days of the year. And you might have an idea of what Walpurgis Night is all about already. Remember “Night on Bald Mountain,” the Mussorgsky piece from Fantasia about a mountaintop witches sabbath? Sure, that technically took place on St. John’s Eve (June 23), which now is around what we consider the summer solstice, but you get the idea. Plus, back in the day May Day essentially was the start of summer.
May Day celebrations became more secular after the introduction of Christianity. While goddesses could no longer be acknowledged, traditions could still carry on. Dancing around the maypole, celebrations with food and sweets and the crowning of the May Queen all usually took place. But when one considers the pagan roots of the holiday, it seems like a natural breeding ground for folk horror - specifically horror films that tap into the idea of hidden pagan cults lurking in the countryside, practicing witchcraft and offering human sacrifices under the guise of nature. Basically, blood-soaked flower crowns.
It’s a favorite genre of mine and has produced some truly cracking horror films over the years, so here are a few to watch tonight or this week as you celebrate spring!
The Blood on Satan’s Claw (1971)
When a young boy accidentally discovers a strange corpse in the countryside, a small town in England begins to spiral out of control. A young man finds his fiancée has gone mad in the middle of the night, with a claw replacing her hand. And then children of the village fall under the spell of a young girl, who commands them to rape and murder in the name of Satan, transforming them into something truly horrific.
The Wicker Man (1973)
This is pretty much the G.O.A.T. when it comes to folk horror and for good reason. The strange pseudo-musical focuses on a remote Scottish island where a young girl has gone missing. Sergeant Howie, a devout Christian, is outraged by the paganism he discovers on the island - including elaborate May Day celebrations, which eventually lead him to suspect the girl will be offered as a human sacrifice to the gods. Sure, the remake has the bees but the original has Christopher Lee and can’t be missed.
The Witch (2015)
Tense and starkly atmospheric, The Witch follows a family cast out of their Puritan community who must now struggle to survive in the harsh and unforgiving New England woods during winter. If this wasn’t bad enough, their newborn son does missing, their eldest son becomes bewitched and their creepy twins claim to talk to Black Phillip, the family goat. As the family are torn apart by black magic, teenage daughter Thomasin discovers how to live deliciously.
Kill List (2011)
Ben Wheatley’s crime thriller starts off with Jay, a British soldier coming home to mounting bills and an offer he can’t refuse: contract killing with a friend he trusts. But be careful who you go into business with, especially when they ask you to sign a contract in blood. When Jay is finally sent to kill a member of Parliament, he witnesses a strange pagan ritual that makes him a target and forces him to cross a line he never thought possible.
There are tons of other great folk horror entries I haven’t touched on (Witchfinder General for one!) because it’s late and I could seriously go on and on but let me know some of the films you dig in the comments, I promise I do read them!