“There are horrors beyond life’s edge that we do not suspect, and once in a while man’s prying calls them just within our range.” – H.P. Lovecraft.
So far, during my brief time on this earth, I’ve walked through the confines of many eerie and disquieting places. From the abandoned streets before the cockcrow to the shadowy figure lurking beneath the pale glow of a solitary street lamp; cities breed fear. A fear of being surrounded by people, yet being decidedly alone. Yet for every place of horror, there exists a place of delight. It is a classic example of the inherent dualism between “good” and “evil”. That for every place of vulnerability and of terror, there exists a sanctuary – a place of retreat and refuge, a place that we can distinctly call home in a meaningful sense. For many, this sanctum is the British countryside.
This pastoral setting is often reduced to the idyllic village fete, dotted with laughing children, or to the crunch of Dubarry boots on a dirt track and the gentle hum of a Range Rover passing by. It is a place of tranquillity, where all is at rest and everything lies snug in its place. But these villages and fields are not necessarily less sinister than the dark alleys of our cities. They are merely better liars.
For every verse of poetry written by a Romantic, and every “Bake Off” tent erected, a potent counter-culture has eagerly bred beneath the surface; its anti-pastoral sentiment seeping into the heart of British culture, though seldom recognised by the masses.
This sentiment does not pretend to appeal to our longing for the numinous but instead derives from a disenchantment with the painful anxieties of modern life. Unlike the Romantics, this view does not seek to mask and hide its discontent in the sweet smell of the roses or to bury its head in a bouquet of daffodils. Rather, it unashamedly embraces the brutality of the myths and history of the past, and reveals what the writer Iain Sinclair has claimed is a “psychotic breakdown”, by presenting an “argument between the English pastoral and unscripted brutal violence”.
Yet this horror is quite unlike the evils presented in the majority of modern horror culture. There is no psychotic villain chasing you up a fell with a shotgun or a chainsaw, nor is there a Catholic priest ready to sprinkle a demented child with holy water.
Its capacity to provoke fear and to instil terror derives from both a recognition of the power of mother nature and from the ancient traditions and legends that predate Christianity and modern lifestyle. It is a Britain unbound, without a unifying system of law or government; where it allows for the possibility of extreme practices developing in isolation, away from the prying eyes of the outside world.
Perhaps the most obvious horrifying aspect of the pastoral is the overwhelming influence of nature itself. Whether this is the nooks and crannies of the nearby copse, the sharp edges of fields, or the ploughing of the soil, a dichotomy presents itself between the life that flourishes and the death that returns everything to the soil.
It is an acceptance that nature is a cycle reliant on death as well as birth; of the pain that demise brings about, and the sexual desire and fertility that allows for life’s renewability. Even the rural economy revolves around the necessity of death feeding life. The animals we breed are born with the intention of death in mind, and the crops we sow are intended to be harvested.
This image becomes all the more horrifying when placed in anthropomorphic terms. Richard Adams’ novel Watership Down follows a colony of rabbits who are forced on an epic peregrination after one rabbit’s vision of the landscape drowning in leporine blood – a phantasm that proves true thanks to man’s expansive desires. Yet, whether this notion is examined through the medium of animals or not, death is deeply entrenched in the pastoral. Perhaps no example is greater than death himself being commonly portrayed as armed with that most rural of tools: a scythe.
However, one cannot truly understand the sinister side of the pastoral without examining its most disturbing aspect: the people. A popular stereotype has prevailed of rural communities and the idea of “the local”. This fear of a small, well-connected local community has been deployed for use in many films, ranging from Robin Hardy’s The Wicker Man to Edgar Wright’s Hot Fuzz.
This anxiety stems from a basic social fear of “insiders” and “outsiders”. It is the fear of not belonging, of being isolated among folk you know nothing about. This fear is far from irrational. In folk horror, it is the community that destroys the individual. No supernatural evil is required, only the determination and will of the local cult.
The idea of rural cult traditions detached from the modern world allows for extreme and frightening possibilities. The majority of modern people now live detached from our history, with our myths and legends passed out of memory, and our roots upturned from birth by replacing local traditions with global desires.
The possibility, then, that there are those who have not followed the same path is deeply unnerving. It would be the case that we would share a country, but our values would starkly differ. Ours, a diluted sense of nationhood; theirs, an identity rooted in the traditions and practices of the past. It allows for our fear of a people who still embrace dark traditions, ancient folklore and false gods.
Of course, one should not go as far as believing in such supernatural traditions, or believe that these cult communities currently operate in modern Britain. Instead, one must understand why such a fascination with the dark side of the pastoral and its local people has developed. The answer lies in the rejection of aspects of modern existence and the pains of modern life. Rather than engaging with a Britain which many people feel has lost its character and soul in any political sense, people go in search of something deeper and more fulfilling.
This quest is part of the acknowledgement of a dilution of one’s identity in a globalised world, leaving the alternative of delving deeper into the earth and into one’s history. There is something almost archaeological about its practice. Notably, the desire to uncover something lost and untamed lying deep below Britain’s surface. But crucially, this belief refuses to slip into blind nostalgia. It does not take pride and inspiration from the past and the landscape. Instead, it is about acknowledging its pain and its beauty, its life and its death. To escape from the constraints of the present and be connected to a past that is not rose-tinted and perfect, but raw and earthy. It is fundamentally a desire to be far away from the modern and urban world – a simultaneously terrifying but appealing prospect.