Folk Horror: Fire, Ash, Dirt, Stone and Night of the Eagle (1962)

Editor’s note: this article contains a full discussion of Night of the Eagle and as such contains spoilers.

“I DO NOT BELIEVE” are the first words both spoken and seen in Night of the Eagle. These words are the crux of a lecture being given by Professor Norman Taylor (Peter Wyngarde), a rational man who is deeply cynical about the new wave of magical thinking already diffusing through society by the 1960s. However, by this point in time, the supremacy of science and rationalism was already fraught with problems; as Taylor acknowledges, magic may have let the genie out of the lamp, but science was by then poised to unleash nuclear warfare. It’s the first acknowledgement of a broader malaise which filters through in the film: although it’s a microcosm, real-life concerns, such as professionalism and promotion, collide with the prospect of older, supernatural forces, and the end result is great anxiety and risk for all concerned.

Taylor is a success story, with a successful career, a beautiful and charming wife (Janet Blair) and two homes, although it’s wife Tansy, in the main, who seems to use their seaside cottage. He’s also in the frame for promotion within the university, despite a few problems rumbling along in his life – a female student who seems to be skating dangerously close to an inappropriate interest in him, her envious (and academically weak) boyfriend and perhaps most insidiously of all, other women in his life – colleagues and the wives of colleagues – who are bastions of passive-aggressive carping and bitter jealousy regarding him, though with characteristic 60s swagger, Taylor brushes this off, perhaps too readily. Tansy is less convinced, regarding one of the wives in particular as a ‘middle-aged Medusa’, but it seems that she has her secrets, too.

Appearances can be deceptive…

After a dreary Friday night playing bridge with a selection of oblivious males and watchful females, Tansy begins to act strangely. After their guests leave, Tansy becomes frantic, looking for something which she claims is a shopping list. Eventually, she finds what she’s looking for: an effigy, like a voodoo doll, woven into the fringes of a standard lamp. Taylor, a little baffled by her panic, continues to get ready for bed, but at around the same time he finds something very strange in one of the bedroom drawers – a dead spider in a ceramic pot. She demurs, saying it’s just a souvenir from their time living in Jamaica, but within a short space of time the Taylors’ quaint, domestic cottage is suddenly turning up a whole host of curios, charms and spells; it’s like looking again at a photograph and suddenly noticing a host of new details that you missed on the first glance. Taylor, the thinker, is decidedly unimpressed. The final straw comes with his discovery of a range of phials of graveyard dirt: he insists that the whole lot gets consigned to the fire, despite Tansy’s by now desperate pleadings that dark forces are poised to destroy him without her protections. True enough, almost the moment that the flames consume the charms (including, accidentally, a locket portrait of himself) Taylor’s extraordinary luck begins to fail. Blind chance, or something more?

The overriding feeling in Night of the Eagle is one of the loss of control: for me, it’s very difficult not to sympathise with Taylor – and by extension, the (largely) orderly world in which we live – as rule, principle and procedure dissipate. Suddenly, the world begins to move very fast; emotions spill over, rules are broken, even technology becomes unsafe. In a few deft moves which take place off-screen, the Taylors’ home is suddenly stripped of its modern conveniences. We even get a bit of pathetic fallacy – check out the ominous storm which precedes the first big scare and voila, a picturesque cottage in 60s Britain becomes a Gothic castle, complete with a malevolent thing on the doorstep, trying to get in – whilst making surely one of the most terrifying sounds ever committed to celluloid. But there’s no simple escape: when the lights come back on, even the analogue tech itself has become a conduit for black magic, a theme which returns right up to the film’s climactic scenes. The twentieth century is stripped back and pushed down into the murky past.

The dawning of the age of…

Unquestionably, Cold War era paranoia holds hands with magic in Night of the Eagle, from the moment it’s invoked in the first scene of the film until the very last scenes. It’s signposted once, but it lingers in the film throughout. The idea of people who look like us and act like us, but harbour destructive secrets and want to overthrow us by any means is something integral to so many films of the era. However, this also shows parity with the beliefs of the past, when it was witchcraft which threatened to do the same thing. At this time too, the irony is that the very real fear of the four-minute warning was very likely to have made people drift away from the rationalism which had made such a thing possible, even likely. The early 60s were already seeing a steady resurgence of interest in new-old religions, magic and paganism. This is the difficult impasse which seems to form the backbone of Night of the Eagle: the dark side of rationalism led people to look to the past, but the practices of the past they resurrected brought additional paranoia and the threat of harm. These things cast their shadows over the film, whether overtly or covertly. Night of the Eagle also excels, via its script, at reminding us just how long our relationship with magic has been. It’s thoroughly interwoven with our language, and it’s there in the dialogue: ideas are ‘bewitching’, people act as ‘good luck charms’, people laughingly suggest people ‘sell their soul to the devil’ for a good outcome. The script is simply able to add the phrase ‘we can press a button’, and we know now what that signifies, too.

“Witch or woman, what was it?”

Although Night of the Eagle’s approach to gender (and to race) can feel out of step with modern thinking, it’s an important factor in the film’s plot, and gender is very important in the film. Tansy is a housewife: Taylor implies that boredom has therefore driven her to her magical practices, but she insists – quite vociferously – otherwise. What Tansy is doing is operating within the domestic sphere where she ‘belongs’ to control the external environment, as witches have long done historically. Think about the stereotype of a witch: the cauldron, the broom. Objects which were part of the average home hundreds of years ago were imaginatively ritually re-purposed for witchcraft. Tansy isn’t so different, and even Taylor acknowledges that we – women – still use ritual in our daily lives, whatever form it takes; it’s just that Tansy is performing ritual magic. As much it pains me to hear Tansy castigated as ‘hysterical’ by her husband (oh, that word…) and to also see her on the reverse of that – utterly catatonic and self-sacrificial, that does not ultimately take away from the great power held by women in the film, or the wildly malevolent joy with which Flora Carr (Margaret Johnston) intones the words ‘burn, witch, burn’  as she attempts to kill Tansy – a phrase which gave the film its alternative title. It seems that Flora may have been defending her ward, a student who alleged that Taylor had sexually attacked her – or, she simply believed what she chose to believe. Incidentally, Flora does have a role outside the home, so she can add black magic to her professional credentials – although, by the end of the film, we’re shown in no uncertain terms that women really couldn’t have it all at the time.

If women are harmful sleeper agents, then consider also the impact of the Taylors’ tenure in Jamaica, where – we are told – Tansy first picked up her magical habit from fraternising with the locals. You don’t have too look too far for anxiety about the effects of a more ‘primitive’ belief system on a more developed one, and that could easily form the basis of a completely different article, but I will say this: the impact of this Jamaican magic is of note within Night of the Eagle because, as Tansy says, “it seemed to work”. It’s not simply harmful because it’s Other – it’s simply harmful. As we have seen in Svetlana’s feature on American folk horror, Haitian supernatural practices have become interwoven with American folk beliefs: this is another example of the terrific impact of racial and cultural Others on a Western cultural landscape. In the 1960s, ideas of horror seemed to have to adjust to this ever-changing landscape, poised to degrade at any time and sweep modernity away. Even wives were weaponising; even beliefs were vulnerable and permeable.

Folk horror and Night of the Eagle

This idea of precarious modernity is at the heart of a great deal of folk horror, and to my mind Night of the Eagle does share enough common ground here to qualify as folk horror – even if an outlier in a sub-genre which proves tricky to pin down anyway. First of all, Night of the Eagle does an excellent job of making the viewer feel nettled, uneasy – the way which Things are Supposed to Be is balanced on a knife-edge, and these things come tumbling down in quick succession. The creeping influence of witchcraft is making its way into modern life, content to kill those who stand in its way. In fact, here we have magical practices arriving on British shores thanks to a modern global network and the possibilities attached to an academic career: modernity has created the conditions necessary for this malevolent magic to thrive. The ancient college buildings and the clearly ancient cottage inhabited by the Taylors may now be modern in outlook and trappings, but they still become subsumed by ritual practices and supernatural dangers – those modern trappings even facilitate magic. Old and new are again united in the film.

Where it differs, perhaps, is in the way Taylor has to come to accept that strange things are happening; once he has done this, he can escape, although things cannot be the same again. A man of few words, we are never told how he feels, but we’re in the same position as him, by the end. We don’t know if the eagle falls by chance or intent. We don’t know if Tansy survives by chance or through magical protections. The world is a more uncertain place by the end of Night of the Eagle. In this respect, Norman Taylor is more of a Rosemary Woodhouse than a Sergeant Howie – he encounters a cult, and his rationalism gets modified by the encounter. The Taylors survive. But at what cost?

This tense yet ambiguous film doesn’t waste a frame, yet it still leaves us with questions. At the end of the film, there’s a delicious circularity in seeing Taylor sprawled against the same blackboard where “I DO NOT BELIEVE” is still written. One of those four words is obliterated as he presses, in wild-eyed terror, against it; the muddled message which remains, by accident or design, is perhaps the best way to summarise this fantastic film.