This week Ruby is the outsider from the big city, trapped in a village in thrall to a local tradition that’s very real and very deadly. Yes, Doctor Who is back in the world of folk horror, but it’s far from the first time…

 

This week the Ruby plunges headfirst into the world of folk horror with 73 Yards. It’s a particular strand of the horror genre, combining many of the elements seen in 73 Yards. There’s an isolated rural community, people who talk of the ‘old ways,’ and modern day skeptics who come to regret ignoring the warnings. And there’s a secret, raw, occult culture hidden just below the surface of modern village life. But tonight’s Doctor Who is far from the first time the Time Lord and their companions have faced the dark forces of folk horror. In fact, the result has been some of the best, and scariest, Doctor Who of all.

 

The Abominable Snowmen Doctor Who
The Abominable Snowmen ticks some of the boxes with its folklore, but the Tibetan setting doesn’t quite match (c) BBC

The 1960s

In the 1960s, Doctor Who had stayed away from the genre of folk horror. Most Earthbound tales aimed to present some version of history, so there was little space for ghosts, ghouls, and ancient evils. A couple of stories had come close. The Time Meddler had its collection of local villagers and something odd going on in the monastery. The Abominable Snowmen had an old legend coming to life to reach out its claws towards an isolated community in the grip of superstition. The Ice Warriors’ plot featured long buried forces awakening below our feet. It also highlighted the brittle nature of the rational, scientific mind, as it broke trying to deal with such horrors.

Yet none fully embrace the folk horror tradition. Although all the stories here have a fundamentally science fiction based explanation at their core, its too much to the forefront in the 1960s entries. Time Meddler’s mysterious monk is a rather jolly, mischievous time traveller. We find out almost immediately that the Ice Warriors marooned aliens, and the community they harass more Star Trek than The Wicker Man. Abominable Snowmen ticks most of the boxes. Its pseudoscientific rationale still basically amounts to an evil spirit possessing the dead body of the community’s leader. But its Tibetan setting means there are no country pubs where the locals stop to stare, black masses, or any of the peculiarly British myths or legends.

 

In The Daemons, the local vicar turns out to the Master, attempting to summon the Devil himself (c) BBC Doctor Who
In The Daemons, the local vicar turns out to the Master, attempting to summon the Devil himself (c) BBC

The Dæmons

After barely dipping its toe in folk horror’s dark waters in the previous decade, Doctor Who dived deep beneath them for 1971’s The Dæmons. Part of the era when the Doctor was exiled to Earth, it leans to be the quintessential folk horror story. In fact, by changing a few names and lines of dialogue, you remove the Who element entirely. After all, it’s one of the few stories in which the TARDIS doesn’t even appear! You’d be left with an effective slice of folk horror in which an eccentric government scientist visits a remote village and encounters a satanic vicar intent on raising the devil.

Yet is also remains one of the most highly rated serials for the Third Doctor, and one of the most loved stories featuring Roger Delgado’s original Master. In the sleepy English village of Devil’s End dark forces are stirring. A man drops dead of fright in the graveyard one night, and sudden storms appear and disappear from nowhere. A policeman falls into a trance and attempts a murder. But most ominous of all, the tracks of giant cloven hooves scar the surrounding fields. But is there any connection to the mysterious new vicar, Mr. Magister, or the BBC Three team (32 years before the channel really existed) making a live report about excavating the nearby burial site known as the Devil’s Hump?

 

Despite being relatively bloodless, The Dæmons was horrific enough to receive complaints for its ‘satanic’ content

The Doctor and his assistant Jo are determined to find out. Their face brings them face to face with stone gargoyles come to sinister life, cultists performing black masses in the church crypt, and eventually the Devil himself. Compared to horror films of the period like Blood on Satan’s Claw, the action’s relatively sanitised. The satanic chants consist of Mary Had a Little Lamb recited backwards and the human sacrifices never quite get around to sticking the knife in. But that just goes to prove that you don’t need gore and sex to evoke the genre’s timeless creepiness.

The Dæmons’ only slight weakness is its pseudo-scientific explanations. They’re to be expected in Doctor Who. But the Doctor’s brittle annoyance as he insists there’s no such thing as witchcraft, merely the use of ritual to focus psychic energies to effect events at a distance, feels misplaced. After all he’s essentially criticising others for simply giving the same thing a different name.

 

In Image of the Fendahl, the Doctor encounters the cosmic personification of Death itself (c) BBC Doctor Who
In Image of the Fendahl, the Doctor encounters the cosmic personification of Death itself (c) BBC

Image of the Fendahl

The next Doctor would also embrace the world of folk horror with great results. However, while Tom Baker’s first three seasons as the Time Lord are usually associated with gothic horror, it wasn’t until producer Graham Williams took the helm that folk horror came to the fore. Image of the Fendahl debuted halfway through Williams’ first season for Hallowe’en in 1978. Despite the new team’s later association with making Who sillier and funnier than before, this early story is about as nerve shreddingly terrifying as the show has ever gotten, giving Blink a run for its money.

The Doctor and his friend Leela have a typical enough entry into the story. Detecting the running of a dangerous time scanner in the present day, the TARDIS lands in the vicinity of the Fetch Priory manor house. But soon the pair realize they’ve landed in the middle of a much darker adventure. Something in the woods is killing people, their corpses decomposing at an advanced rate. A human skull, millions of years older than is even possible, is possessing people and causing freakish events in the area. A group of cultists have infiltrated the scientific team experimenting on the skull. Their plot is nothing less than to use it in a dark ritual to summon Death itself.

The Doctor knows what it is that he and Leela are facing. And he is afraid. So very, very afraid.

 

Despite all the scientific know-how at his disposal, the Doctor relies on the help of salt wielding local wise woman Ma Tyler and her knowledge of the Old Ways

That fear is part of what elevates Image of the Fendahl to its place as one of the scariest stories. Tom Baker sells every atom of the Doctor’s incredible pain as the skull psychically attacks him. Nor is the Time Lord immune to the entity’s ability to attack with fear, rooted to the spot in terror as its Fendahleen monsters, worthy of HP Lovecraft, close in. Meanwhile, his very real doubt that he can save the world this time adds to the doom laden atmosphere.  Even free will is brought into question, as the plot reveals that the Fendahl has manipulated the entire existence of everyone present to bring them here to play their part in its intricate plot.

That sense of inevitability is a recurring trait of the best folk horror. The question is often not how the heroes prevail. Rather it’s how they’ll fall before the inexplicable and unknowable forces ranged against them. Local wise woman Ma Tyler is another familiar folk horror archetype. She knows the Old Ways, and that knowledge is the Doctor’s greatest ally in the fight. Well along with her shotgun loaded with salt, and Leela and her sharp warrior’s knife, that is.

 

Could the Fendahl be the One Who Waits? And whose life might it have manipulated to provide the God of Death with the perfect human vessel this time?

It’s no wonder that we might well see the Fendahl again one day. Russell T Davies has previously picked it out as a personal favourite. He’s even suggested he has an idea for a sequel he never got to use during his first stint as showrunner.  Certainly the Williams era is clearly a key influence on the season so far. While the Fendahl, as the cosmic personification of the concept of Death, would sit comfortably among Maestro and the Toymaker.

You could even say there’s no better title for Death than ‘The One Who Waits…’

 

 

The locals attempt to sacrifice the Doctor at the Nine Travellers stone circle (c) BBC Doctor Who The Stones of Blood
The locals attempt to sacrifice the Doctor at the Nine Travellers stone circle in The Stones of Blood (c) BBC

The Stones of Blood

The next season’s The Stones of Blood brought more folk horror for the Fourth Doctor and his latest companions, his fellow Time Lord Romana and his robot dog K9, continued their quest for the Key to Time. Back in the heartlands of folk horror again, they investigate an ancient stone circle in Cornwall with a sinister secret. Despite the name, the number of stones in the Nine Travellers keeps changing, while a local cult of druids make blood sacrifices to the monoliths in worship of the Celtic death god the Cailleach.

The notion of bloodthirsty stones roaming the land for prey sounds more ridiculous than scary. But in one of Doctor Who’s most horrific scenes ever a couple camping near by are attacked in the night, drained of life, their flesh disappearing to expose their bones as they scream in terror. Old paintings in the local manor house contain clues to the ancient conspiracy. Ghostly voices in the mist call the unwary to their doom, and ravens remain ever watchful. Then there’s the elderly archeologist Professor Amelia Rumford on hand to assist the Doctor and Romana, with enough spark and charm to rival Wilfred Mott. It’s all classic folk horror stuff.

At least for the first half. Though the second two episodes are as purely entertaining the first two, they take a decided step away from folk horror. Unusually for one of these stories, the science fiction rationales for all the horror elements are explained midway through. From there on out it’s a fun, but rather ordinary, Doctor Who adventure about lost spaceships parked in hyperspace, and a legal system surrendered to overly literal AIs.

K9 & Company

As a footnote, this period features one last folk horror connection. The pilot for K9 & Company, the first attempt at a spin-off centered around Sarah Jane Smith, never led to a series. However, it did give us Sarah Jane and K9 Mk III taking on cultists in village full of secrets. Remarkably it contains no science fiction or supernatural elements at all. Well, apart from the tin dog in the middle of it all. The result is a little Scooby Doo as Sarah Jane unmasks which of the locals would have gotten away with it if not for those meddling kids.

Though hilariously, it’s implied that one of the red herrings Sarah Jane investigates are actually just the local swingers.

 

The crumbling walls of the village church hold a sinister secret in The Awakening (c) BBC Doctor Who
The crumbling walls of the village church hold a sinister secret in The Awakening (c) BBC

The Awakening

As it entered the 1980s Doctor Who, more than ever, was a show built around a character who loves to explain things. Folk horror is often most unnerving when there are no clear explanations at all. Its protagonists are frequently adrift, aware they’re trapped in a world with definite rules, but only a vague idea what they are. The Awakening is one of the few stories on this list to capture that element of the genre. It’s all the creepier for it, too.

The Fifth Doctor brings Tegan and Turlough to visit Tegan’s grandfather in the village of Little Hodcombe. The whole community is in the throes of preparing for the upcoming recreation of a Civil War battle that took place there centuries before. But there’s something sinister about their zeal. Local magistrate Sir George Hutchinson has become obsessed with recreating the battle and vicious to anyone uninterested in taking part. Figures are stepping out of the past into the present day with no explanation, like living ghosts. And as both Sir George’s mania and the villagers’ violence continues to build, it becomes clear the old battlefield will see new blood spilled.

Worst of all, Tegan is being lined up to be burned alive as the human sacrifice to anoint proceedings…

 

There’s a basic SF explanation provided, but ultimately the Malus is a malign force soaked in the battlefield blood of generations

While The Awakening does provide some explanation for events, they’re more opaque than usual. Everyone has fallen under the influence of the Malus, a giant creature long buried under the village and which feeds on blood, fear, and death. We’re told it’s an alien machine fallen to Earth before the village was constructed above it. But that hardly matters. With no dialogue, it appears a huge demonic face, leering through the cracks in the wall of the village church. It’s as unknowable as it is silent, and we experience its plans through the feverish malice of those it infects.

Naturally, by the closing scenes the Doctor has banished the Malus. But the unease lingers. After all, it wasn’t controlling the villages but rather bringing forth their worst qualities. The real darkness in The Awakening lies inside all human beings, and can awake again one day…

 

The vicar's faith may not be strong enough to defend the village church from an ancient curse in The Curse of Fenric (c) BBC Doctor Who Nicholas Parsons
The vicar’s faith may not be strong enough to defend the village church from an ancient curse in The Curse of Fenric (c) BBC

The Curse of Fenric

Doctor Who’s final brush with folk horror of the 20th century came in its final season with The Curse of Fenric. In some ways, the story steps away from the usual motifs. An isolated village, unfriendly to strangers, becomes a World War II naval base on full alert. Where folk horror might usually have a suspect local lord or a sinister vicar, Fenric gives us a scheming CO and a secretive computer scientist. The catalyst for most of the old stories is a new arrival unprepared for the horrors to come. However, here the Seventh Doctor arrives already knowing more than almost anybody else.

But plenty of the familiar tropes still abound. Two young women ignore the warnings of the Bad Things waiting in the dark waters for those who step off the path of righteousness and return as vampires. A Christian church mysteriously has ancient pagan runes carved into its stones. Moreover, the very act of deciphering them may be enough to unleash the evil they hold back. The stones in the graveyard tell their own story of a curse passed down through the centuries. And an ancient evil that’s dwelt under everyone’s feet this entire time, rises. An evil which can’t be defeated by any power on Earth, but can only be outwitted by navigating the rules it sets itself.

Probably what sets Fenric apart from standard folk horror, and into the world of Doctor Who, is the scope. Because as the Doctor plays chess against a devil, it’s not a single soul, or even a village, at stake but the entire planet.

 

Human Nature's scarecrows (c) BBC Doctor Who
Human Nature features some folk horror imagery but it is much more concerned with its emotional dilemmas (c) BBC

Doctor Who returns

When Doctor Who returned in 2005 it was more accessible than ever before. It was also entering a media environment where there lines weren’t so much drawn in the sand as in the concrete. Television for mature audiences was more violent and explicit than ever before. But family fare like Doctor Who was expected to be much more careful about what it put on screen. In the past, the Doctor picking up a gun and threatening, even actually shooting, someone would have been an uncharacteristic rarity. Now, it was strictly impossible. Similarly, while Doctor Who could still send smaller members of the audience scuttling behind the sofa, it was much more careful about how it did so.

Perhaps that’s why it’s rarely gone full folk horror since its return. There have certainly been stories that have danced around the edges of the genre though. Tooth and Claw is one of the closest. It has a wild countryside setting, cultists, and the terrible local legend they worship which turns out to be real. Yet the way it restricts itself to the corridors of Torchwood House, advances its plot mainly by running around those corridors at speed, and focuses on aristocrats and royalty as its main characters, prevents it from really building that folk horror atmosphere. Rather its an adventure story runaround which borrows some the elements.

 

Folk Horror… in space?

In many ways the Tenth Doctor era comes closest later in Season Two with The Impossible Planet/The Satan Pit. There’s a community living over a literal pit holding a literally satanic secret. Impossibly old runes threaten to overtake the mind and soul of anyone foolish enough to read them, while other such markings provide the clue to how to defeat the evil. The bulk of the locals become pawns of the evil force. The mob they form threatens to destroy those few left with the will to resist the influence. And above all, it drips with that unique folk horror sense of creeping dread with every shot, and every note of the unnerving soundtrack.

Really, it’s just the little matter of it being set thousands of years in the future, on a dead planet in orbit a black hole. Throw in a village pub and a few locals armed with pitchforks and you’d have peak folk horror.

Meanwhile, the two part Human Nature/The Family of Blood places the dilemma of “John Smith,” the Doctor’s disguise so good even he doesn’t know he’s the Doctor at the forefront. So much so, that everything else really only exists to explore it. The Family of Blood themselves are recent arrivals from outer space rather than the awakening of some ancient force. As a result, despite some aspects like the village, isolated school, and above all, sinister scarecrows stalking the land, it’s not really folk horror.

 

Doctor Who Series 11 - Episode 8 - The Witchfioders - Willa Twiston (TILLY STEELE)
Willa Twiston (TILLY STEELE) in The Witchfinders, a classic folk horror template of villagers in the grip of witchy paranoia (c) BBC

The Witchfinders

This all means that 2018’s The Witchfinders stands alone as the only true folk horror entry in Doctor Who’s second life. Its early 17th century setting is in common with many of the folk horror greats. Its subject matter of witches and those that hunt them is also familiar territory with folk horror while even the title calls to mind classic 1968 film Witchfinder General. Evil is unleashed by chopping down a tree despite dire warnings not to, another classic folk horror tradition.

Forces darker and more terrible than humanity can understand lie dormant below our feet. In fact, the very ground itself turns against the human race in The Witchfinders, the sentient mud filling up the dead to cleanse the land of the living. The subtext is that without the consent of the land they farm, no community can survive. That’s a message woven through many of the old tales.

Meanwhile, there are regular competitions bobbing for apples to celebrate witch-killing day. The local lady of the manor acts as a rabble rousing populist for the villagers, but, in classic style, is in fact a corruption and the source of their problems. And the very real supernatural threat is also used as cover to even some old scores between rivals.

Indeed, village life is so well sketched that the inevitable explanations involving aliens, and a guest turn by the actual King of England and Scotland, can’t overwhelm the folk horror vibes.

If The Witchfinders has a weak spot in his folk horror credentials it’s that it’s just not scary enough.

 

Evil is only every 73 yards away in this week's Doctor Who (c) BBC/Bad Wolf
Evil is only every 73 yards away in this week’s Doctor Who (c) BBC/Bad Wolf

73 Yards

All this time travelling through Doctor Who history brings us back to tonight and 73 Yards. Assuming it’s not in fact a reboot of a classic British Saturday morning kids show (ask your local Generation X elder), it’s on course to be the show’s closest brush with folk horror in decades.

The Doctor and Ruby Sunday arrive on the clifftops of west Wales. But in the village pub, Y Pren Marw, the villagers live in fear of a scroll bearing the legend “Rest in peace, Mad Jack.” The local wise woman warns that the Spiteful One moves through the gaps in the world. And something is coming. Who is the mysterious Roger ap Gwilliam? What has happened to place supernatural powers in ascendance and the forces of science in retreat? 

Questions none of us have the answers to. Until tonight. See you on the other side!

 

The TARDIS becomes stranded in a remote Welsh village in 73 Yards (c) BBC/Bad Wolf Doctor Who
The TARDIS becomes stranded in a remote Welsh village in 73 Yards (c) BBC/Bad Wolf

Doctor Who continues on Friday at midnight BST with 73 Yards on iPlayer in the UK, and on Disney+ everywhere else except Ireland

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