Folklore in Horror
I have a weakness for the horror film.
As a kid—and I mean a fairly young kid, no more than 9– my uncles used to drag me to see them at the theater…the only way my grandmother would allow them to go is if they took me with them. And because I was always a bit of a tomboy, I had to go and act like I was not scared. Of course, that’s how my fascination with being scared began.
When I look at the genre of horror films from the standpoint of folklore, it becomes even more interesting to me. So much of the thrill of horror is that it is based in folklore—urban legends, folk tales, supernatural and paranormal memorates, even religions (like voodoo and Catholicism) are all fodder for horror films. Many times, we are already familiar with the premise of the movie–the man with the hook in his bloody stump that terrorizes teenagers, the ghost that appears when you say their name in the mirror, the zombie, the vampire, the poltergeist, the haunted house, the demon—because they have appeared in our own communities through friend-of-friend retellings or personal memorates.
An interesting film, from a folklore standpoint, is Candyman, which is based on the short story “The Forbidden,” by Clive Barker. The protagonist in the film, Helen, is a graduate student studying the urban legend of the Candyman. As she traces the roots of the legend, and its possible meanings for the culture that perpetuates the tale, we are drawn deeper into the supernatural aspects of the film. The dialogue of the Candyman bears similarity to Neil Gaiman’s novel American Gods, in that the Candyman, like the Gaiman’s gods, depends on the belief for survival. The Candyman kills so that he will not be forgotten, so that his name will be written on walls. He cites Helen’s disbelief in the legend as the reason for his most recent killing spree.
In the Candyman, we find elements of several popular urban legends combined. Candyman is summoned by saying his name 5 times, much the way Bloody Mary is rumored to be summoned. The initial tale regarding Candyman, is that he attacks a babysitter—a frequent theme in urban legends—with his hook for a hand—another frequent theme. In the course of her fieldwork, Helen finds candy that has been offered to Candyman that has razor blades embedded within it, which is a reference to other urban legends about tainted candy, which normally make their rounds at Halloween. Bees also figure into the Candyman tale, and bees frequently have folkloric associations, particularly in Celtic culture, of being messengers between the spirit world and our own.
Horror films, with their frequently supernatural or paranormal themes, use folk beliefs and folkloric components to draw us into the plot and make us suspend our disbelief. The familiarity of traditional culture helps us to form a connection with the plot and the characters, and in turn, the genre of horror transmits traditional culture. In many respects, horror has been a terribly underrated genre, just full to the brim of commentary on culture. What scares us is very telling of our culture. And there’s a reason that horror movies tend to become more popular as the economy tanks. People are scared, and rather than be scared that they aren’t going to be able to keep a roof over their heads, or food on their tables, they would rather externalize that fear and be afraid of the Candyman, or Michael Meyers, or Freddy, or Jason, or Ghostface (and Scream is a very sharp commentary.) The added bonus is that they get to leave those guys at the theater. Horror films and horror literature fill a vital need for catharsis in our culture.