The first horror stories were arguably fairy tales — nightmares told as warnings, or case studies in sin. Naturally, plenty of films have adapted or interpreted these legends into a visual medium; however, while it’s one thing to craft a story based on myth, it’s another entirely to realize the myth in its full form on screen. The following films embody their source material literally and symbolically at once — they don’t shy away from the fantastic, but they also explore the psychological implications of the monsters they conjure.
CAT PEOPLE (1942)
While this film’s origins really lie in an RKO executive’s cheesy title suggestion, producer Val Lewton, director Jacques Tourneur and screenwriter DeWitt Bodeen crafted a tale that echoes dark fantasy maestro Algernon Blackwood’s story “Ancient Sorceries.” The titular beasts aren’t just humanoid mutants — they are mystic beings altered by sexual arousal. The film’s shadowy, surreal atmosphere lends it a dreamlike quality that increases the sensation we’ve crossed into a world outside of our own, and the theme of repression creates a symbolism that echoes the most impactful of legends.
As I’ve discussed in other articles, this Japanese ghost story is one of the eeriest efforts in its subgenre. While its plot — two women gaining revenge for their brutal murder — is nothing fresh, the simplicity lends it a fascinatingly traditional feel. I’m hard-pressed to think of a film that makes its phantoms seem both authentic and utterly other. By approaching the supernatural with such direct, visual boldness, the film becomes uniquely uncanny… and its emotional complexity comes as a shocking surprise. Come for the frightening phantoms; stay for the moral depths.
VALERIE AND HER WEEK OF WONDERS (1970)
Before Neil Jordan inverted Red Riding Hood in THE COMPANY OF WOLVES, this Czech film explored that fairy tale’s not-so-hidden sexual undertones through the lens of a whimsical vampire fantasy. Visually lush and atmospheric, VALERIE is undoubtedly made for adults, but its perspective is that of a naive preteen discovering her sexuality. It’s eerie, weird and full of entertaining fables, making it one of the most creative Red Riding Hood takes in all of cinema.
THE WICKER MAN (1973)
We can’t talk about folk horror without mentioning Robin Hardy’s seminal film. Starring Christopher Lee and an ensemble of unsettling masked children, this classic slow-burner still shocks with its astonishing climax. The film’s frank look at paganism generates fascination even before the horror sets in, and tints the patiently-building mystery with a spiritual unease. The monsters are human… but it’s their religion that lends them their terrifying purpose.
PICNIC AT HANGING ROCK (1975)
Sexual repression, cosmic mysteries and creepy Victorian manners — what more could one want in a horror movie? Opening with a theme performed by Pan’s pipes, renowned director Peter Weir’s early film is uncannily seductive. Setting the bulk of its action on a real Australian mountain — which has generated legends of its own — grounds the surreal tone with authentic texture. But it’s the unexplained events, rife with symbolism and haunting ambiguity, that cement this film as a mythological masterpiece.
This Dutch gem, released by Drafthouse Films several years ago, has gone grossly underappreciated. Its uncommon approach to the supernatural may throw some people off, but it’s also what makes it so brilliant: it shows folkloric demons as real people, bickering and striving to fulfill their hellish purpose. It’s dark, a little tragic, and hilarious at times… but most of all stylistically fascinating.
THE HALLOW (2015)
Movies have made fairies seem like innocent little creatures, all glitter and dragonfly wings… but Irish lore has a much different idea. Corin Hardy’s visually incredible debut explores the “Good People” as mythology describes them: liminal monsters who steal children. Combining body horror with creature-feature tropes, this film makes its legends immediate and visceral… while still paying homage to the ancient stories that inspire it.
THE WITCH (2015)
We all had to read THE CRUCIBLE and THE SCARLET LETTER in high school, but Robert Eggers’ incredible period piece takes Puritan terror one step further: he makes its legendary witch a real being. Never has New England lore felt so frightening and visceral. By keeping his Satanic principles simple — goats and mysterious illnesses replace crooked-nosed old ladies — and focusing on the paranoia that consumed so many colonists, Eggers makes us believe in the titular entity.
THE WAILING (2016)
I remember watching this film’s credits, overwhelmed by the distinct sensation that I had inadvertently summoned the devil. Like KURONEKO or BORGMAN, it approaches its local mythology head-on, showing demons and exorcisms with such physical ferocity that one can’t look away — but it’s the philosophical implications that truly make the film horrific. By the end of its epic length, horror has become despair, as human futility becomes the most damaging villain. Like the best fairy tales, THE WAILING’s monstrous entities echo nightmares that we face every day.
What folkloric films have given you nightmares? Leave suggestions for further viewing in the comments!