Opinion: with its horror, blood, gore, menace and violence, medieval Irish literature has a rich repository of imagery for reimagining as folk horror
Two seasons of Black Spot (or Zone Blanche in its original French) have recently landed on Netflix, as part of the latest group of excellent French and Belgian crime dramas. Where series such as Unit 42 turn to high-tech cyber-crime to get their fresh spin on an old formula, Black Spot adopts the atmosphere and iconography of folk horror.
The action centres on a remote French town, deep in the heart of an ancient forest which exerts a dark, supernatural power over the town's inhabitants. The use of the forest as a hostile and seemingly sentient force is reminiscent of the 2017 series The Forest (La Forêt), and both shows switch back to decades-old memories of previous traumas in the forest, which have left their mark on central characters.
But the originality of Black Spot lies in its extensive use of imagery from the popular repository of Celtic mythology, cleverly reworked for the 21st century. First is the group of young, environmentalist anarchists who are opposed to the use of a local quarry for storing toxic chemicals. They call themselves the "Children of Arduinna"; Arduinna is thought to have been a tutelary goddess of the Ardennes region.
Trailer for Black Spot
Attestations of this goddess are actually quite scant in the historical record. Through a process known as interpretatio Romana, local gods and goddesses of the Celtic-speaking peoples were equated by Roman authors with their own pantheon. As a result, any information about the particular qualities of Arduinna or the local nature of her cult has been lost and she is depicted in Classical sources as an equivalent to the Roman goddess Diana. Her adoption in Black Spot as the signifier of the young activists is in-keeping with the modern reinvention of early Celtic religions as eco-friendly and anti-establishment, ideas that would have been alien to those who originally made offerings to her.
Without giving any spoilers, a mysterious horned figure seems to inhabit the forest and is later identified by some characters as Cernunnos, who again seems to have originally been a local god. Cernunnos’s cult may have originated in north-eastern Gaul and spread throughout the Gaulish and Celtiberian regions during the Roman period. Although there are only a few written attestations of his name, the image of a horned god is known from more than 50 iconographic representations.
Perhaps more than most local deities of the Celtic-speaking regions, Cernunnos was subjected to a process of simplification and interpretatio Romana. As a result, people have assumed that he was a god of fertility and nature, and that his cult was known in Britain and Ireland, though there is no evidence to support these suppositions. But again, his use in Black Spot plays on 21st century imagery and ideas to great effect.
Black Spot also uses crows as symbols of death and foreboding who flock in the town and the forest to ominous effect throughout the series. An Irish audience can’t help but think of references in medieval Irish narrative literature to the Badb, who represents death and slaughter, appearing on the battlefield in the form of a scald crow to triumph over corpses. Medieval Irish authors were influenced by Latin literature – particularly Virgil’s Aeneid – and drew on imagery of the Furies in representing female war deities. In the earliest surviving version of Táin Bó Cúailnge, for example, another malign goddess, the Morrígan, is also identified as Alecto – the provoker of war in the Aeneid – showing that in medieval Ireland the process of interpretatio Romana was still alive and well.
So, why aren’t Irish film-makers drawing on this rich repository of imagery that is ripe for reimagining in the folk horror vein? Filmed in Ireland, The Hallow (2015) made effective use of ideas derived from modern folklore, such as changelings and the banshee. Aside from one token "ancient book", apparently an English copy of the 11th-century Lebor Gabála Érenn (Book of the Taking of Ireland, or Book of Invasions), there was little in the film that pointed back to the rich – and frequently horrific – repository of early medieval Irish literature.
Trailer for The Hallow
It is the Early Modern era that seems to be most favoured by adherents to the folk horror genre, whether it be the English Civil War setting of Ben Wheatley’s A Field in England (2013), the 17th-century New England of The VVitch (2015) or – touching the very end of the late Middle Ages – the 15th-century Alpine backdrop to Lukas Feigelfeld’s Hagazussa: A Heathen’s Curse (2017).
Perhaps the Early Modern's associations with witchcraft exerts a particular pull, but the early Middle Ages have lots of offer. From reanimated corpses to talking decapitated heads, from bloody prophecies to the genuinely unsettling tone of many of Ireland’s dark and violent saga narratives, medieval Irish literature is waiting to be exploited and reinvented by modern screenwriters and directors. "Myth" is a process of continual reimagining, and "traditions" are continually reinvented. Such reinvention could lead to a creative revival for Irish film and TV comparable to that currently being seen in excellent French and Belgian co-productions like Black Spot.
The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ