The land remembers

Simon Aeppli on the folk horror landscape of 1970s Northern Ireland

by Jennie Kermode

Operation Bogeyman: The Folk Horror Landscape Of 1970s Northern Ireland
Operation Bogeyman: The Folk Horror Landscape Of 1970s Northern Ireland Photo: Simon Aeppli

There’s always a lot more going on at film festivals than the screenings themselves. One of the highlights of this year’s Docs Ireland is a talk by filmmaker and academic Simon Aeppli called Operation Bogeyman: The Folk Horror Landscape Of 1970s Northern Ireland, exploring the intersection of the landscape and the stories which have emerged from it, some of them making their way into cinema. I was delighted to get the chance to chat with Simon before the festival began, and with a very personal perspective on the subjects he explores, he had no shortage of things to say.

“I've made a whole body of work, lots of short films in my hometown of Eden, in Carrickfergus. And right about 2016, I'd finished a series of films, and then I was looking for new ideas. I must admit I was really looking to get a little bit further than Carrickfergus.” He laughs. “I live in Surrey, in Farnham. I teach for a film school. And there's a place called Aldershot, which is very close to here, and it's the home of the British army. It's a working class town. There's a large migrant population of Nepalese. But parts of it really reminded me of parts of Carrickfergus, Ballymena. You know, there was something there.

Simon Aeppli
Simon Aeppli

“Maybe it's the working class nature of it, but of course, there was this presence of the British Army during the Troubles. They left. I knew that there was the 1972 bombing there by the Official IRA. And what I did was I started walking around, and then I ended up in this military cemetery. And within this military cemetery, you could start to map out Ireland. So I was trying to get away from Northern Ireland, but continually returning back to it. And two things which are well kept in Aldershot are the military cemetery and the military library.

“There's a military archive there in the library, so I went there and started sort of looking at all the books that they had on Northern Ireland and came across Richard Jenkins’ Black Magic And Bogeymen: Fear, Rumour And Popular Belief In The North Of Ireland 1972 – 74. I don't know if you're familiar with the text, but when I opened up the book, one of the first stories that jumped out of me was about devil worship feared in the locality of Carrickfergus. So I'd gone all the way around and come back. I suppose this is the nature of these things: they spiral around until you find the centre, or maybe the edges are more interesting.

“I love horror films. I mean, I would argue that horror films are the most immersive cinematic genre. My earliest memories of watching films would be my dad leaving Halloween or Death Race 2000 on the VHS player. I remember watching Day Of The Dead with my friends, but being absolutely terrified of it. Horror films have always been very immersive for me. So when I read Jenkins’ book, I could see this relationship between this personal landscape of Northern Ireland and the Troubles, but also horror.”

I ask about the continuing oral tradition in Ireland, how much he feels that contributes to that ongoing legacy of stories that bleed through into horror films.

“It's interesting,” he says. “I think when you look at the birth of folk horror, in the mid Sixties, into the Seventies, apart from The Wicker Man it was a very English landscape. There wasn't a lot of production in terms of horror in Northern Ireland, possibly because there was enough horror going on.

“When you actually look at those early days of the Seventies, the kind of ritualistic violence that was happening, the relationship between folk horror and that violence is actually very close. So in terms of the films themselves, there's the work of Roy Spence, the amateur filmmaker – The Testament Of Caleb Meeke. I remember watching that a while back and thinking, though it's an amateur film, there were elements of Roy's work that touched on folk horror. His relationship to landscape is very interesting.

“The Hungry Grass, I suppose, is a key film,” he muses. “I read that The Outcasts by Robert Wynne-Simmons has just been released. He was the writer of Blood On Satan's Claw. Supposedly they've unearthed The Outcasts, this Irish folk horror film that was buried or whatever. And the other film which I think is interesting, though you wouldn't classify it as folk horror, but it certainly has sort of elements of the weird and eerie in it, is Pat Murphy's Maeve.

“You know, it starts with her when she flies in and she looks over some standing stones, and there's a sequence by Giant’s Causeway. So I think in terms of that relationship, the oral storytelling is integral with the landscape. In film, landscape is often a backdrop, whereas in folk horror, the landscape itself is the muddy reality of it. And those early films, it's debatable whether they are horror films sometimes as well – whether Wicker Man is really a musical and Witchfinder General is a western. But if you look at Witchfinder General, they were using the real landscape from the story, which adds another layer of storytelling on top of what’s already centuries of story.

“In Northern Ireland – I forget who it was who said it – we don't have many philosophers, but we have a lot of poets. And I think something about the idea of story is embedded in who we are. It's part of our culture. It's part of how we solve problems but also make problems. It's that oral tradition. And I suppose that long legacy of the Gothic that we have. The thing that's not in the Gothic, which is in folk horror, is the horror.”

I suggest that folk horror is also more focused on ordinary people, whereas the Gothic tends to revolve around the upper classes. There’s also the rural element – and when we hear about film from Northern Ireland, it’s usually centred on Belfast.

Stories in the landscape
Stories in the landscape Photo: Docs Ireland

“Oh, absolutely,” he says. “What struck me when I read Richard's book was that even though I had grown up in Carrickfergus, 10 miles outside of Belfast, like, my parents were originally from the top of the Shankill Road. My grandparents lived on the Shankill Road until they passed away in the Nineties. And so I'd always had this relationship to Belfast. It's where you would go on a night out. But when I think of my mental map of the conflict, you often think of Belfast. You think of it as an urban war. Whereas actually, so much of the conflict was rural.

“Looking at the Satanic panic, what's interesting is a lot of those stories happened in rural areas. If you want a story to take over, you need to put it somewhere where it's far away enough from people, but close enough to people. So the rural works that way. The stories don't really work so well when they're on a busy street in Belfast where people can see each other all the time or talk to each other. But there's something about that tension within the rural. And as well as being where folk horrors are, it's an interesting way to look at landscape. Sometimes the real horror of folk horror is actually how deprived some of these countryside areas are.”

People talk about the troubles, but really it's been centuries and centuries of cultural conflict. How does he feel that has contributed to the development of a unique kind of folk horror?

He nodes. “Yeah, we've got centuries of it. There's an Irish writer called Dermot Bolger who said, you know, we have to go back three centuries to explain a fight outside a fish and chip shop. And it's this idea that the past in Ireland, and in the north as well, it’s got such a grip. Like, where do you begin? When you watch documentaries about the Troubles, they often start with a card at the beginning saying the Troubles started in 1968. But actually, when you go to somewhere like Islandmagee, there’s the story from 1641, where allegedly, you know, the Protestants threw the Catholics off the cliffs, and there’s the witches of 1711, you know, those stories.

“Interestingly, I got a friend to put a post up on the Islandmagee memories page on Facebook, and I got these great responses from people who didn't specifically say that they remembered the black magic scare, but they started talking about all these different things that they had witnessed around the area. Fire in the distance with people supposedly dancing around. But you know, those stories are embedded within the landscape. And I suppose what happens, which is interesting, is that we forget how to read those stories and we forget how to see those stories. And I suppose what I'm interested within my practice as a filmmaker is looking for an absent present.

“You're looking for something which is not there, but there. You look into the landscape using your camera and using sound recording to record interviews or atmosphere. But often what it is, it's about talking to people and hearing their stories that will take you into something much deeper, richer. There's so many examples, of storytelling in Ireland and Northern Ireland, but I suppose there is a long heritage of that.”

I ask how he’s gone about finding stories.

“I used to be very interested in actually videoing people and talking to them, like in a more traditional documentary,” he reflects. “Now what I'm interested in more an essayistic approach to making films. I will go and speak to people, but I won't necessarily interview them and have them in the film. Sometimes I'm writing down their stories and thinking about their stories. So that's where walking is really important, actually accessing a landscape in a place. in a slow way. There's a relationship between writing and walking. They slow everything right down. So then there's just chance and coincidence that you might bump into something or somebody, as well as this idea that you return to places.

Richard Jenkins' Black Magic And Bogeymen: Fear, Rumour And Popular Belief In The North Of Ireland 1972 – 74
Richard Jenkins' Black Magic And Bogeymen: Fear, Rumour And Popular Belief In The North Of Ireland 1972 – 74

“A lot of what I'm looking at is this idea of how to use haunting as a sort of framework to look at conflict. If you take away the supernatural element, what you have is this way of looking at the traces of stories or the traces of events that have happened. Visually, those are hard to find. But what often happens is, I've gone repeatedly back to places and then discovered new things. One of the Satanic stories, supposedly, the Carrickfergus one, it reads like it's from a Hammer horror film. There's Knockagh monument and there's a goat's heart that's been found at the Knockagh monument. And, you know, the next one's going to be human. And people supposedly saw people with grey cloaks going up to the Knockagh.

“There's a writer called Georges Perec, a French writer, who talks about this idea that you sit on a street corner unobserved, and if you can't see anything in ten minutes, stay a little bit longer and then stay a little bit longer. And then he says, if you can't see anything interesting, you don't know how to look. So sometimes it's about giving yourself these sort of strategies. I have very simple strategies where I go and I hang out, I walk to a place, I walk around it. Maybe I might speak to someone, maybe I won't. Maybe sit, drink some water or eat my sandwiches and watch. And then I come back.

“In between coming back, I always go to the Belfast Newspaper Archive. It’s this extraordinary resource that we have – if you're dealing with the past, go in and find all these incredible stories and these snapshots of a place. But when I returned to the Knockagh, I was looking down over Carrickfergus to see the castle. And I was thinking ‘Oh, that's where the old cigarette factory was,’ and it turns out to be the Seapark Forensic Science Northern Ireland building.

“In there, supposedly – I've never been able to gain access from it, so a lot of this is hearsay – are the majority of the unsolved murders from the Troubles. So, you know, by going to find the Satanists at the top of the Knockagh monument, I find myself overlooking, essentially, a vault. The head of the police actually nicknamed Seapark ‘the vault’ because of all these varied histories. So yet again, this idea of going to look somewhere else for a story and then finding myself coming back to Carrick and finding a deeper story that I never even thought was there.”

Does he feel that there are stories being told now, or perhaps horror films that are coming out now, that are helping Northern Ireland to progress through this stage and perhaps to move towards a more stable, lasting peace?

“It's a hard one because I suppose that's quite a big ask of filmmakers. I mean, when I think about it, I worry a little bit. A lot of the early films I've made, I deliberately didn't want to look at my home landscape through the lens of the Troubles. And I've started to look at that. There is this kind of worry that I'm not a historian, I'm not a politician, I'm a filmmaker, and my films are subjective. I leave objectivity to the side of the road. This is my experience. I'm interested in history, but I'm interested in my engagement with that history.

“If someone wants to find out about the Troubles, they're probably better going and watching documentaries about it or reading some books about it. I'm trying to look at that landscape in a different way. But I suppose as filmmakers, I suppose sometimes you have to embrace that sort of history, and then you're finding ways to tell those stories.

“Cinema is a great way of pulling people together, always has been. I mean, this is what's really amazing about Docs Ireland. When you look through the program at Docs Ireland, there’s work which is dealing with Northern Ireland, but also, you know, you can go to see a documentary about Blur. It’s an open space and a more experimental space to discuss these ideas.

“The interesting thing about documentary is that once a documentary is finished, hopefully there's a discourse around that. You might see something that makes you want to go on Google or makes you want to go speak to somebody about it or have a discussion with somebody. Docs Ireland has given me the opportunity to talk about a project that's not quite finished, a project that might never be finished. It's interesting when you said about there about stories not ending. The writer, Avery Gordon, who wrote an incredible book on haunting called Ghostly Matters, she talks about hauntings as stories without ends. This idea that haunting is something that doesn't have an end.

“I mean, in Hollywood, in traditional storytelling, ghosts always have an end. They have that second death, don't they? Unless they're going to have a sequel. But, you know, that idea that stories just do continue...” He breaks off.

Satanists in Northern Ireland?
Satanists in Northern Ireland? Photo: Docs Ireland

We talk about the recent wave of horror that’s been coming out of the country, and he mentions Mandrake, which he’s heard is good. i tell him that was my opinion of it, and he says that he really needs to get round to watching it. We move on to talking about Remi Weekes’ refugee story His House.

“That's an extraordinary film,” he says. “Not so much about intergenerational haunting, but this idea that we carry the ghost with us. So what's interesting about that particular film is that the characters end up in a strange house on the edge of London, but actually they brought the ghosts of their trauma and this unfinished business that happened on them on the way to the house.

“With horror and ghost stories they're finding a way to unpack the legacy of slavery, the legacy of illegal migration. When I talk about the haunting legacy of psychological warfare in Northern Ireland in the early Seventies, you know, that haunting legacy of trauma can be dealt with in very interesting ways with horror. It's a genre that doesn't go away. It's not like the western. I mean, the western has come back a little bit.” He references Kevin Costner’s latest film, [film id=44763[/film]Horizon: An American Saga[/film]. “But the western feels like quite an old form, whereas horror and the ghost story doesn't seem like it's going away. I think that's because it does actually relate a lot to present day politics and social and economical problems that we have.”

We discuss his plans for the future, and he says “What haunting has given me is a really interesting framework to find other stories. I've found a story about where I live in Farnham. A Caribbean author committed suicide here, set himself on fire in theSsixties. He had lived here for five years, and he'd written a ghost story called My Bones, My Flute, My Bones. That's a project that I want to produce and look at the idea of this Caribbean story within this field in England. I think with all my research into horror and haunting and exploring something which actually, for me in Northern Ireland, I feel like it's my story to tell – I think it has given me the confidence, as well, to tell various other stories. But I think I will always be looking at the world through the eyes of the ghosts.”

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