Almost as intangible as it is resonant, there’s a sub-genre of horror once more being unearthed out of the psycho-soil of the collective unconscious; folk horror. From the forest, from the furrows, from the field, it’s particular flavour is one of the isolated backwaters, strange townspeople and even stranger traditions. And it’s all over horror video games. What follows is a short list of where its roots have spread.
But before we get started, what is “folk horror” exactly?
A term that was probably most popularised in Mark Gatiss’ History of Horror, he used it to describe what has now become the holy trinity of it’s post-hippy cinema branch; Witchfinder General, Blood on Satan’s Claw and The Wicker Man. Each of these films had a number of things in common despite being tonally distinct from each other. Best defined as “the folk horror chain” by Adam Scovell, they all showcased:
1. An emphasis on the landscape. Rolling hills, tangled hedges, trees as old as the stones. The stories of folk horror happen with a powerful understanding of place. The setting doesn’t necessarily have to be rural, as urban folk horror exists too, but most folk horrors are naturally in an ancient countryside.
2. A sense of isolation and an accompanying strangeness. Protagonists in folk horror tales are usually fish out of water from the mainland. City-dwellers come into the village, trapped by space and alienated by the unrelatable customs. There is no escape as it would be too far for them to run, and there is no comfort, as the area is too surreal or hostile.
3. Creepy townsfolk. If there’s a community present, and there usually is, they’re unsettlingly off-kilter and have strange traditions not found in the modern world. A hive-mind, a crowd of psychos, a many-headed communal beast that feels as ever-present as the shadows they lurk in. And their morals are just not right.
4. A “happening”. Something where the countryside customs culminate into a festival of blood. The torture of a “witch”, the summoning of a demon, the burning of the wicker man. It can be grounded in harsh reality or in the fever-dream of the supernatural world. Or someplace in-between…
Allow me to add another link to that chain for the case of video games:
- 5. Exploration. As folk horror already has an inherent element of place, and because many of the above elements can be found in numerous point n’ click adventures (Mystery of the Druids), visual novels (Higurashi no Naku Koro ni) or even rail shooters (House of the Dead), I’m going to limit the list to games where the player has at least some degree of freedom to wander a map, were level design and psychogeography are key to the experience. Games as a medium offer unique modes of storytelling that no other type of mass media can, and player-driven exploration is one of them. It’s a natural transition from movies that guide you through a landscape at the director’s whim, to interactive video games that put that control in the player’s hands. You get to decide where you want to go, not the director.
So, here we go. If you’re from the Facebook group and not too into video games, here’s where you can get started. If you’ve already played these games and liked them, now you’re in the know. This selection should come as no surprise as they’re all classics of the medium. Perhaps, in a time were horror games are lost in a dark forest, the folk horror label is key to understanding why these particular games strike a buried chord in the soul.
Silent Hill 1, 2 and 3
Video games’ most infamous resort town turned sour, Silent Hill has a long history of horror. Heavily inspired by David Lynch and Stephen King, the original series was an American nightmare through a Japanese prism centred around the cursed lakeside town and it’s resident cult’s attempts to summon their gnostic “god”. You play as an outsider, be that Harry Mason, James Sunderland or Cheryl/Heather Mason, drawn to the town by supernatural forces. While 1 and 3 deal with the cult directly and throw you headfirst into a purposely ungraspable soap opera of internal politics, it’s 2 that tells more of the story of the town itself.
Once a place of spiritual power for the pre-colonial Native Americans, then a prison for frontier criminals, later a serene holiday destination, and presently a ghost town corrupted by occult activity, Silent Hill is swathed in culminated darkness. In Silent Hill 2, we follow widower James Sunderland, fresh from receiving a letter from his deceased wife Mary inviting him to their “special place” of Silent Hill.
But that “special place” manifests the inner-darkness of those who wander, as fleshy Francis Bacon style monsters. For the most part. Some enemies take their cues from the town’s dark past or the cult’s own mythology. James’ descent into the lairs of his own personal demons is as much a descent into the town and it’s historical layers. Did you know; Pyramid Head is both a symbol of James’ desire for punishment and a recreation of the executioners during colonial times?
The original Silent Hill games were released for the PS2 and should have stayed there as, after Silent Hill 4: The Room, the property was farmed out to new American development teams that clearly didn’t get what made the original games so special. That and the awful HD remaster, which you should avoid like the plague. Emulate them on PC or buy the original discs on eBay, because they are essentials to any horror fan’s collection.
The (Forbidden) Siren series
Unsurprisingly created by the same director of Silent Hill 1, the Siren series punches the walls between zombie and Lovecraftian horror, being known for it’s iconic “Shibito” enemies; townsfolk turned into butoh-styled revenants who are all far too happy to be undead. Siren 1 and 2 (or, Forbidden Siren 1 and 2 in EU countries) for the PS2 are unfortunately also renowned for incredibly convoluted puzzles and a strange mission system that has you repeat levels over if you didn’t beat them properly….whatever “properly” means. It’s PS3 reboot, Siren: Blood Curse, doesn’t fare much better, instead becoming too hand-holdy and easy. On top of feeling like the game equivalent of a bad USA remake of a good Asian horror film.
Regardless, the story it tells is uniquely disturbing. Set in the rural Japanese town of Hanuda and following multiple characters across a queasy non-linear timeline, the skies turn black and the rivers run red at the onset of a mysterious ritual. Like a Dance of Death rolling up to say a friendly hello to your grandmother, the type of horror it presents has the over-niceness of The Wicker Man or the video for Blackhole Sun, with a dense spatter of filth and gore on top. It combines the uncanny with the vicious, allowing a thick atmosphere of dread to soak into your bones as you explore the muddy corners of Hanuda.
There’s an emphasis on stealth over combat, with Shibito being impossible to kill permanently and often armed with guns that’ll take you out in two hits. But the most unique gimmick Siren boasts is it’s “sight-jacking” feature. Player characters all have the psychic ability to tune into the vision of the Shibito, meaning you can track their activity to plan when to sneak past, all while getting far too close to them as they giggle and mumble in distorted, unnatural tones.
Without saying much more about the plot due to spoilers (and because the story is confusing as all hell), things take a very Lovecraftian turn the further you delve into Hanuda’s customs, history and present state of horror. But before we move on to the next Lovecraftian game on the list, we’re going to another rural corner of Japan.
The Fatal Frame/Project Zero series.
Particularly II: Crimson Butterfly, as it’s set in a village. But village or no, the entire series explores Japan’s folk past. In broadstrokes, each game is a classic haunted house story where players are sent to cursed mansions, villages and mountains to unravel a mystery involving your character. Like the Siren series, but with a more traditionally gothic twist, the Shinto occult ritual is behind the paranormal inhabitants you face down. Replace the creepy villagers of a folk horror film with even creepier ghosts and you have Fatal Frame.
While very few of them are of the friendly variety, and the alienation the protagonist feels is immediate, each ghost you meet represents past inhabitants of the setting with many of them frozen in the state of ritualistic torture-sacrifice that killed them. The sense of place each game carries is palpable, and it’s characterised by it’s uniquely terrifying flavour of spectre.Yet there isn’t a drop of blood between them. The ghosts are rendered in a darkly monochrome, blurry photograph style that suggests more horror than it shows.
The player’s only weapon against enemies is, of all things, a magical camera. You take shots of each ghost to sap away their energy until they’re fully exorcised. Meaning you’re forced to stare the gnarled residents down or actively look for them in the dark before they grab you. This, the blurry, muddy design of each ghost and the emphasis on exploring each location’s ritualistic culture, concoct the lurking fear found in the best of folk horror. Curiosity killed the cat, but you’ll be compelled to keep digging as the game continues. Without spoiling anything, each game has a folk horror “happening” at the end, even though you’re already knee deep in all the paranormal ritual you think you can handle. If you can imagine something that would seem supernatural to even a ghost, then you’re getting there. And it’s terrifying.
The Fatal Frame (or Project Zero in the EU) series has been released across platforms from PS2, PS3, Xbox, Nintendo DS, Wii and WiiU. II is generally agreed to be the best in the series and is thus the hardest to find, often fetching over €100 on eBay. But they’re all good if you want something eerily folky or gothic.
If you want something more vicious, violent, visceral and very Lovecraftian on the other hand, look no further than Bloodborne. The noisiest and most fast paced entry to this list, many people are overlooking it as a survival horror game due to how transgressive it is. While most horror games like Silent Hill or Fatal Frame have the noisiest moments be the scariest ones, it’s the comparative silence in Bloodborne that will leave you on edge. A gothic successor to the Demon’s Souls and Dark Souls games, it rewards perseverance and creativity in combat while having a deep emphasis on place and exploration. The difficult boss battles the series is infamous for are mere punctuations to the geographies they lurk in.
The player character wakes in Yharnam city, a dismal necropolis renowned for it’s obsession with blood and the medicinal, magical and body-altering properties it carries. Unfortunately, it’s the night of “the hunt” and the afflicted citizens of Yharnam are out in droves, pitchforks in hand, bloodlust on their lips, and the smell of “beasts” in their nostrils. And you are left locked outside in the middle of it all. As players hack their own path through the streets, they learn about The Healing Church, the college of Byrgenwerth, and the ancient civilisation of the Pthumerians buried beneath the city. The strange traditions and histories of Yharnam city are intrinsically tied to The Old Ones; a race of god-like cosmic horrors heavily borrowed from Lovecraft that are both studied and worshipped.
The college dedicated itself to gaining insight into the nature of these Old Ones, receiving power and madness in the process. While the church dedicated itself to the administration of blood, and perhaps some more unsightly experiments. However, it seems that plots beyond human comprehension are in play, but those are there for you to attempt to figure out…
Bloodborne, like the rest of the series, is masterful in telling you just enough so that you’ll keep trying to unearth the plot and lore of the land for yourself. It’s always best to approach these games with as little knowledge as possible so at the risk of spoilers; there is most definitely a folk horror “happening” that involves a ritual and all the empty baby carriages you may notice on the streets. The winding stairs of urban Yharnam often give way to twisted backroads, creaking castles and lost hamlets outside the city, as well as a nether realm of nightmare that blurs the line between dream and reality. Rushing past these landscapes will ensure you’ll never fully grasp the story, but if you’re a folk horror fan, you’ll definitely wander and wonder until a grim realisation hits you…
Released exclusively on the PS4, Bloodborne is an absolute must-have for anyone with the console, and folk horror aficionados. Just don’t expect it to be easy.
And now for something slightly different. Here are a few games that are partially folk horror but just as delicious.
Resident Evil 4
Another essential, Resident Evil 4 marked a shift for the series and survival horror as a genre, that focused more action oriented gameplay for better and for worse. For our interests, however, the first third of the game is about as folky as it gets.
Our hero, special agent Leon S. Kennedy, is sent on a mission to rescue the president’s daughter from her cultish kidnappers in a rural Spanish village. Classic. The cult worships strange parasites, and in Resident Evil tradition, turn out to hold a more sci-fi secret rather than a magical one. The first of three segments is set in the village itself and it’s surrounding wilderness and mines, and would be a classic Hammer House of Horror episode if not for the grim, dirty art style.
The first third of the game, though with it’s own share of action, is more slow paced and undeniably still in the realm horror. Soon after it gives way to a more campy castle setting, replacing the villagers with dudes in purple robes, before moving on to a military research base and turning into a guns-a-blazing spectacular. But before it gives way to the shooting gallery, it isolates you in a place with strange traditions, stranger folk and a “happening” that’s so grotesque it would make John Carpenter squirm.
Tomb Raider: Chronicles.
I’ve argued in the past that, upon a replay, the original Tomb Raider games are survival horror. They’re unnervingly quiet, incredibly tense, punishing to the point of frustration and Lara is always frighteningly fragile and at a disadvantage to both enemies and terrain. But nowhere is it clearer than in the Ireland chapter of Tomb Raider: Chronicles.
As a framing device, Chronicles has Lara’s old friends reminisce on her past adventures during a memorial service for what appears to be her death in Egypt. Each chapter is a small, self-contained story that has Lara globe-trotting from Rome to Russia to New York. And to a small haunted island off the coast of Ireland, of all places, in a gunless, slow-paced chapter of pure horror.
As a teenager, she follows the parish priest sent to investigate strange sightings on the haunted heath, only to encounter a living bestiary of faerie folk. They capture Ireland’s dark and dreary weather flawlessly and showcase the creepiest imagery in the entire franchise. Hanged men, changelings, wraiths and kelpies all stand in Lara’s path when she’s not utterly alone, hanging from a cliff face by her fingertips.
What little plot there is culminates in an encounter with a demonic horseman, an uncovered grimoire hidden in a labyrinth, and some very legitimate references to Irish and British folklore. It is possibly the epitome of wyrd in games, creating a type of exploration-driven horror deeply rooted in the dark faerie folklore all too familiar to the Irish and British.
GTA: San Andreas
You may think I’ve gone mad, but hear me out. If you played Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas when it was still new, you remember how haunted it felt. Online rumours of serial killers, UFOs and bigfoot hiding somewhere beyond the fog wall, created a thick atmosphere of mystery. Mythhunters spent weeks of their lives exploring every polygon of the map looking for something, with no idea what they’d find. All they knew is that the truth was out there.
In the second act of the main story, after main character CJ is forced into fleeing south central Los Santos, he’s left in the rural Back O’ Beyond to find his feet again. Marking the first time in the GTA franchise were rural settings were used, it was easy to get lost in the trees….only to spot a “ghost car” mysteriously rolling downhill, sometimes exploding as if a poltergeist had manipulated it. Then there was the mysterious “chainsaw killer” wearing his black cowboy outfit and walking the backroads at night. Or how about the mysterious lights that would sometimes appear in the sky???
GTA: San Andreas somehow managed to build it’s own living folklore and urban legends that were legitimately thrilling and unnerving to the gamer community. With that same folky American vibe as Texas Chainsaw Massacre, X-Files or Night of the Hunter, San Andreas takes a surprising, likely accidental turn into folk horror once you’re outside the cities. You were isolated, the game seemed to do things of it’s own accord in certain spots of the map, strange rural NPCs would do even stranger behaviours and, well, as for a “happening”, nobody has figured that one out yet.
…some say that if you stand at the right spot at the right time, wearing the right clothing and holding the right weapon, Sasquatch will run past you faster than you can keep up….
These are all, of course, only games I’ve played. I’m sure that most other horror games fall into the folk category too upon inspection, making this list is far from complete. Even non-horror adventure games like The Witcher, Folklore and Okami have their roots deeply embedded in Polish, Irish and Japanese folk culture respectively, with the occasional horror twist. As with film, the folk horror label is just as ragged at the edges with games.
Take this is a starting point then. A small glimpse through the trees at the next field worth exploring. Who knows what you might unearth on your travels…