Horror is built on a concrete set of rules established by the genre’s forefathers: Don’t go into the basement, attic, or backyard to casually check out suspicious, ominous noises; don’t break into abandoned hospitals or derelict cabins on a dare or for funsies; never go anywhere alone.
There are additional rules depending on which country you’re in. In Ireland, it’s strongly recommended for all to avoid deep, dark woods, whether alone or in company, and for parents to foster a healthy paranoia regarding their child’s true identity. It’s impossible to enjoy a leisurely stroll through Irish forests or beside Irish waterways without stumbling upon an entity either mischievous or downright evil, be it a fairy, a ghost, or the undead.
Ireland’s horror instincts are currently embodied by Lee Cronin’s excellent debut, The Hole in the Ground, now in theaters and streaming on DIRECTV. In the film, a single mother, Sarah (Seána Kerslake), comes to believe that her young son, Chris (James Quinn Markey), is a changeling, a fairy that disguises itself as a human child, after he goes missing and returns days later, unharmed and with no accounting for his disappearance. But Sarah notices that Chris isn’t himself. He won’t engage in silly face contests with her anymore. He’s calm, and much too quiet. He also has a taste for spiders.
Cronin’s film shares DNA with two recent entries in Irish horror canon: Corin Hardy’s The Hallow and Michael Tully’s Don’t Leave Home, which both orbit kidnapped children couched against the backdrop of Ireland’s grand, forbidding woodland. In The Hallow, conservationist Adam (Joseph Mawle) moves to the middle of nowhere with his wife, Claire (Bojana Novakovic) and their infant son, Finn; creatures heralded by encroaching fungal goo come in the night to try and steal Finn away, a new addition to their patchwork “family.” In Don’t Leave Home, Melanie (Anna Margaret Hollyman), an American artist, takes on a commission from an exiled priest, Alistair Burke (Lalor Roddy), and is ensnared in Alistair’s longstanding and inexplicable connection to a string of child disappearances.
Don’t Leave Home, The Hole in the Ground, and The Hallow together comprise a loose trilogy of contemporary Irish horror movies oriented on the country’s old legends. Tully even incorporated real-world Irish history in the fabric of his movie, that of Ireland’s Vanishing Triangle, a series of cases involving young women who went missing between 1993 and 1998 and were never heard from again. In its own way, Don’t Leave Home argues the oldest justification for fairy folklore: People believed in changelings because believing in them was easier than accepting life’s harsh realities. A sickly child wasn’t a child at all, but a dying changeling left in its stead; the real child was in the faeries’ custody, living out their life in eternal summer.
[Ed. note: the rest of this article contains mild spoilers for The Hole in the Ground, The Hallow, and Don’t Leave Home]
Those myths leave little comfort in The Hole in the Ground. Same with The Hallow, in which faeries — spindly, gray-skinned beasts, closer in appearance to goblins than sprites — want Finn for themselves, and they’ll go to awful lengths to keep him in their clutches. In The Hole in the Ground, Sarah’s tormentor takes a similar form, with one other major defining feature: It’s hollow. When Sarah retrieves Chris from not-Chris’s lair, the cavernous breach of the title, she encounters the shapeshifter’s extended family. One opens its maw wide with a wheezing screech, and instead of a row of teeth, there’s only pitch-black darkness. The thing is altogether malevolent.
Both films reject gentler interpretations of folklore in favor of terror’s delights; they’re scary, and though Don’t Leave Home is neither as successful nor as wedded to Irish folk narratives, it’s still suitably unnerving and beautifully made. What none of these movies do is play coy with their genre. In the 1400s and 1500s, followers of Martin Luther might have taken his teachings on changelings as an excuse for violence against their own kids. That level of world context is academically fascinating, but context isn’t the same as genre or plot. Don’t Leave Home, The Hallow, and The Hole in the Ground favor lessons taught by their ancestry: The pain of loss, the fleeting nature of life.
These are the lessons of many Irish horror movies, of course, even movies unrelated to fae machinations. Ivan Kavanagh’s The Canal spins a classic haunted house yarn, while David Keating’s Wake Wood transplants bits and pieces of Stephen King’s Pet Sematary to rural Ireland.
But these films similarly bend around separation of parents from their children. In The Canal, a father struggles to protect his son from malicious spirits. In Wake Wood a couple, grieving the death of their daughter, take reckless action to bring her back and suffer consequences for their desperation. They’re macabre narratives where the supernatural is a vehicle for mourning. Ultimately that’s the legacy of Ireland’s folkloric traditions: Whether in The Canal or Wake Wood, Don’t Leave Home, The Hallow, or The Hole in the Ground, Irish horror captures a nation’s fear of losing its children.
Andy Crump is a contributor for Paste magazine, The Playlist, WBUR’s The ARTery, Slant Magazine, The Hollywood Reporter, and Birth. Movies. Death., and is a member of the Online Film Critics Society and the Boston Online Film Critics Association. Follow him on Twitter @agracru.