On first glance, cosmic horror and folk horror appear to have very little in
common. One is concerned with the vastness of the universe, humanity’s
meaningless position in an indifferent and uncaring cosmos, and the unbearable psychological weight of unknowable knowledge. It explores creatures older than time itself, creatures we cannot possibly begin to imagine or comprehend, and how they see us as nothing more than mere ants. The other is planted firmly on Earth, its roots deep within the soil of small, rural communities where the ancient, pagan beliefs of humanity reign and inspire terror in unsuspecting outsiders. The two subgenres, it would seem, are completely contradictory.
That is not the case.
Cosmic horror came from folk horror and, more and more as horror ebbs and flows in the 21st century, cosmic horror influences and informs folk horror. To understand, one must look at the origin and development of cosmic horror to appreciate how these seemingly incompatible subgenres continue to connect and influence each other.
“The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.” – Howard Phillip Lovecraft
Cosmic horror itself is a complex term. Cosmos, ironically when one considers how it was later adapted by literary critics to describe the work of H.P. Lovecraft, comes from the latinized form of Ancient Greek κόσμος or kósmos, which means ‘order, proper order of the world’. It refers to the universe in which we find ourselves in and is often used to characterise the inconceivable vastness of the environment beyond the bounds of the Earth. It can also be used to characterize the metaphysical, a philosophical concept concerned with the study of space and time, how human consciousness perceives and understands reality, and the relationship between mind and matter.
It was developed as a literary philosophy by New England writer HowardPhillip Lovecraft. A reclusive, creative, and highly conservative man, Lovecraft specialized in weird tales of horror, science fiction, and fantasy. Though not particularly famous, successful, or appreciated during his short life (1890-1937), his creation of the fictional Cthulhu Mythos and fictionalized versions of New England towns, known retrospectively as ‘Lovecraft Country’, secured his legendary status in the horror genre alongside gothic literature greats such as Edgar Allan Poe, Nathanial Hawthorne, Charles Maturin, and Matthew Lewis. It was within Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos, a term coined by his protégé August Derleth to identify the tropes, motifs, settings, and lore frequently employed by Lovecraft in his writing, that he developed what we now understand as cosmic horror.
Influenced by Lovecraft’s atheism, paranoia and paralyzing nightmares as a child, cosmic horror sees humanity as insignificant in the grand scheme of the universe. The universe is a vast, unknowable, unquantifiable void in which the trials and tribulations of humans mean nothing. The cosmos, Lovecraft believed, was not actively or intentionally antagonistic or cruel; it was simply indifferent. We are here by sheer chance and nothing we do matters.
This aspect of cosmic horror’s philosophy is heavily influenced by the concepts of existentialism, nihilism, and absurdism. Existentialism is concerned with finding meaning in the human condition without traditional ideas of religion, and it is often accompanied by fear and anxiety about one’s identity and place in the universe.
Nihilism is the absolute rejection of meaning, including all religious morals, ethics, and principles, because life is inherently meaningless. Nihilism was a great source of anxiety for philosophers and intellectuals in the 20th century. German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche noted that people used to derive meaning from God, religion, and the Church, but after the horrors of the First World War and the rapid speed with which the world was changing, people no longer believed in God. ‘God is Dead’, he famously declared. In his book ‘The Will to Power’, he argued that once people realise our actions mean nothing, “nihilism appears at that point, not that the displeasure of existence has become greater than before but because one has come to mistrust any ‘meaning’ in suffering, indeed in existence… it now seems as if there is no meaning at all in existence, as if everything were in vain.”
Absurdism combines existentialism and nihilism. It asserts that while life is indeed a meaningless experience in a lawless and chaotic universe, it is human nature to find and create meaning. Absurdism exists in a paradox: it both embraces and accepts our insignificance in the cosmos and encourages our
attempts to forge meaning.
Lovecraft was acutely aware of these theories, later reflecting that “all [his] tales are based on the fundamental premise that common human laws and interests and emotions have no validity or significance in the vast cosmos at large”. As he developed his fictional cosmos, Lovecraft began to incorporate and apply these philosophical concepts to his combination of science and the supernatural, his ancient Old Ones or Elder Ones. These were prehistoric Gods who ruled before mankind existed and continue to rule in various extraterrestrial environments and dimensions. These creatures, like the cosmos, do not actively
hate us or see us as a threat – we are nothing to them.
Stories featuring these creatures often explored the decline of civilization, which Lovecraft was convinced was an inevitability and his belief was only strengthened by the anti-conservative culture of the 1920s and the devastating Great Depression. He was highly critical of humanity’s anthropocentric understanding of the universe and explored how this perspective psychologically damages both his individual protagonists and civilization on a wider scale when confronted with creatures who have no place for humanity in their world. This taps into one of the most important aspects of Lovecraft’s specific brand of cosmic horror: the horror comes not only from the revelation of meaninglessness of the cosmos, but our powerlessness to stop whatever emerges from it.
Humanity is also a victim of ignorance in these tales. Our scientific understanding of reality and what lies beyond our planet was not only not advanced enough to truly comprehend what is out there, but our psyches are not strong enough to handle it, especially without religion as a psychological safety net. This is the reason for one of Lovecraft’s most famous motifs: the pursuit and influence of forbidden knowledge. “We live”, he said, “on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far.” He sincerely believed that scientific discovery would either make humanity “go mad from the revelation or flee from the deadly light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.”
For Lovecraft, humanity’s ignorance was our savior and our doom. Knowledge helps us understand the cosmos, but once we understand it, will we want to continue living with this horror? Like the Victorians before him, who explored Darwinism, evolution, and the development of psychology in works such as 'Jekyll and Hyde', 'The Lifted Veil', and 'The Island of Doctor Moreau', Lovecraft channeled all these fears and anxieties into his work.
But what does this have to do with folk horror?
“Ancient wisdoms that have been long repressed and forgotten rise up again, very often to the consternation of complacent modern man” – Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched: A History of Folk Horror
Folk horror is a relatively new term. It was used by Shakespearean scholar Oscar James Campbell in the 1930s who called the German fairytales that influenced William Wordsworth ‘folk horror’, but it didn’t gain popularity until BBC4’s History of Horror documentary. The hosts used the term to describe three films that have now become known among horror fans as ‘The Unholy Trinity’: 'Witchfinder General' (dir. Michael Reeves, 1968), 'Blood on Satan’s Claw' (dir. Piers Haggard, 1971), and 'The Wicker Man' (dir. Robin Hardy, 1973).
Tales of folk horror have been around for centuries and several important literary figures tried their hand at it, including Algernon Blackwood, M.R. James, Robert Louis Stevenson, and Thomas Hardy. One of the most famous folk horror stories came from horror writer Shirley Jackson, whose short story The Lottery encompasses practically every folk horror trope. Folk horror stories tend to have several characteristics:
They are often set in isolated rural places with small, old communities of ‘folk’ who are collectively ‘set in their ways’
Tradition is a way of life and is not, and should not, be questioned or challenged
Ancient religious and/or cultural (often pagan) beliefs reign and clash with modern notions of spirituality
Corruption of the establishment occurs
Folklore and mythology are an often a critical part of the story
The protagonist is usually an outsider who lacks understanding of the area
The theme of Man versus Nature
The horror comes from people rather than a supernatural or extradimensional entity
Outwardly, it would appear that folk horror is the furthest thing from cosmic horror but when you break down the interconnecting themes, settings, external influences, and psychological explorations each subgenre incorporates, it becomes evident that they complement and inform each other.
Both folk horror and cosmic horror are predominantly set in isolated, rural locations –'Colour Out of Space' or 'Notebook Found in a Deserted House' come to mind. These locations are often incredibly old and thus have thousands of years’ worth of history buried within the soil. This taps into the existential dread of realizing humanity is a relatively new addition to the Earth and that things have existed eons before us. Cosmic horror does this on a much larger scale, but the principle is the same.
Pagan religion is a reoccurring characteristic in folk horror. Although he was a staunch atheist, Lovecraft was an admirer of paganism and its ancient roots. For Lovecraft, worshipping something you can actually see and experience – the weather or a harvest, for instance – made much more sense than a singular, invisible God. Lovecraft also respected and was drawn to the monotheistic elements of paganism, which likely informed his vast pantheon of Gods within his Cthulhu Mythos.
Rather than having one God be responsible for everything in existence, Lovecraft used paganism’s monotheism to create cosmic creatures that ruled over specific dominions or ways of life. And in the tradition of Ancient Greek, Roman and Egyptian mythology, Lovecraft imbued some of his Gods with recognizable human characteristics and personality traits, and suggests that every culture in the world has some version of the Great Old Ones or Elder Ones. Lovecraft was also influenced by one of the greatest pagan horror tales of all time, Arthur Machen’s The Great God Pan, and referred to it several times throughout his writing, attempting to recreate the uncanny, alienating horror he experienced when reading it for the first time.
“Religion is still useful among the herd,” Lovecraft reflected, “it helps their orderly conduct as nothing else could. The crude human animal is in-eradicably superstitious, and there is every biological reason why they should be. Take away his Christian god and saints, and he will worship something else...”. It is interesting to note that at the heart of cosmic horror is a loss of control, an admittance of powerless, whereas folk horror reclaims that control buy harking back to our evolutionary, tribal, nature-fearing roots. Indeed, many cosmic horror stories explore humanity connecting with extradimensional creatures and admiring them with a religious zeal. Humanity reveres the Cthulhu Mythos creatures as Gods because we can’t comprehend them as anything else; their reality is beyond our understanding, so we create our own.
The pursuit and consequences of forbidden or unknown knowledge is another interconnecting theme. The protagonists in cosmic horror and folk horror stories are often outsiders who either actively pursue a goal of gathering occult (occult meaning hidden, not supernatural) knowledge or stumble upon a community or history alien to their own, cosmic horror’s being literally alien and folk horror’s being metaphorical. In cosmic horror, the protagonist often comes face to face with the bleak realization that the universe is much older and more complex than we believe and/or can understand, which sends them into psychological turmoil as they grapple with their insignificance and powerlessness in an indifferent cosmos – think of Danforth going insane when he sees the ancient, unnamed evil in 'At the Mountains of Madness'. In folk horror, the protagonist is often powerless in the face of a community where pre-modern thinking dictates the way of life – think of Sergeant Woodward’s conflict with the pagan Lord Summerisle in 'The Wicker Man' and his ultimate demise as a sacrifice to the Gods for a bountiful harvest. Both subgenres utilize the same principles and execute them in a similar fashion; the only difference is the scale.
Lovecraft believed that myth and folklore shielded our fragile psyches from the realities of the universe and dreaded the violation of scientific discovery upon our perception of the world. He saw science as “something oppressive”, whose “shocking revelations will perhaps be the ultimate exterminator of our human species—if separate species we be—for its reserve of unguessed horrors could never be borne by mortal brains if loosed upon the world.” Cosmic horror, he understood, has been around since humanity was capable of consciousness and increased as evolutionary, scientific development progressed. “Cosmic terror appears as an ingredient of the earliest folklore of all races”, Lovecraft said, “and is crystallized in the most archaic ballads, chronicles, and sacred writings”. He was aware of his debt to folk horror, which rose in response to the potential of cosmic horror (though the existential and nihilistic dread did not have a name yet) and actively incorporated it into his cosmic horror.
Both subgenres were heavily influenced by the political atmosphere in which their tales were written. Folk horror, especially folk horror cinema, grew in popularity as British and American politicians were ripe with controversy and the general public realized that the establishments that had ruled them for so long could not be trusted. Cosmic horror developed during and after the First World War, the decadent 1920s, and the Great Depression. There were also anxieties surrounding the destruction of the environment during the evolution of both subgenres, and this fear evoked a powerful reaction from both: cosmic horror looked outward to space and folk horror looked inward, at our ancient, pagan roots.
The final connection between cosmic horror and folk horror is their monsters. While it may appear that grotesque alien creatures and rural farm folk are the furthest things from each other, hear me out.
Film philosopher Noel Carroll proposed a theory that monsters, the etymology of which comes from the word ‘monere’ which means ‘to warn’, are horrifying because they are simultaneously “impure” or “interstitial” but also familiar, and therefore categorizable, to us in an uncanny way: man and beast (werewolves), man and supernatural (demonic possession), intelligent and inanimate (weather or inanimate objects such as cars or power tools taking on active antagonistic characteristics), or even living and dead (zombies and vampires). Being able to categorize something removes its power.
What makes the monsters in cosmic horror and folk horror so terrifying, more so than any other subgenre, is that they are either so far removed from our comprehension that even trying to articulate what you see can drive you mad (as in the case of many of Lovecraft’s stories) or so familiar that threat seems unreal until it’s too late (as in stories like 'The Wicker Man' or 'The Lottery'). What cosmic and folk monsters have in common is their simultaneous uncanniness and incomprehensibility.
In many ways, folk horror paved the way for cosmic horror. When comparing two subgenres that seem so far removed, it is fascinating to discover just how indebted they are to each other and how they influenced, and continue to influence, each other in both literature and cinema.