The green, mist-shrouded landscape of British folk horror seems at first an off place to go looking for science fiction. Stories about, in film, television, and literature (and doubtless in ribald songs belted out at the local pub where Britt Ekland works) of sinister moors, sylvan glades, and ruined old stone circles where unlucky backpackers go missing, tricked into the land of Faerie by the Good People or lured to some fate no more known than “and they were never seen nor heard from again.” The very nature of folk horror, tied as it is to the rural land, to ancient rites and long forgotten goddesses seems to preclude science fiction from having much to do with it. Until one remembers, that is, how much of our ancient architecture was built in accordance to the movement of the stars and the moon, when one remembers how important cosmology was to our neolithic ancestors. The introduction of science fiction into the quaint, menacing world of folk horror then seems to make much more sense. That blend of Pagan ritual and practical science, astrology and astronomy, is in perfect blend in Children of the Stones, a British television drama from 1977 that is fondly remembered as one of the most terrifying children’s programs ever aired.
From its very first moments, Children of the Stones establishes a disconcerting mood, that curious blend of the idyllic and the threatening that is essential to good folk horror. A father and his son (Gareth Thomas and Peter Dimm) are driving through a lovely countryside, having a good-natured conversation about, well, history and the etymology of the word “phantasmagorical.” Their seemingly peaceful drive, however, is accompanied by an ominous, at times even confrontational eerie soundtrack composed of chanting and wordless singing that descends on occasion into outright screaming. The father and son, Adam and Matthew, are traveling to a small rural town famous among historians for being contained entirely within a large, incredibly old circle of standing stones that Adam plans on researching. The townsfolk are, as is often the case, welcoming in a way that seems sinister. When Matthew is approached by local girl Sandra (Katharine Levy), herself a recent transplant, he gets his first inkling that something untoward is afoot. She warns him to be wary of the town and of the other children, who are unnaturally pleasant and referred to by Sandra as “the happy ones.”
Matthew’s astrophysicist father Adam is himself soon attuned to the oddity of the town when Sandra’s mother, Margaret (Veronica Strong), recently hired as docent of the local museum, hints that something is not quite right with the town, and that people who move there tend to undergo a curious change of nature — and that no one ever leaves the town, ever crosses the perimeter of the mysterious stone circle. Matthew witnesses this change first hand, when one of the boys Sandra identifies as “unchanged” suddenly arrives in school much happier and much smarter than he was the day before, with all of his own suspicions about the town seemingly forgotten overnight. Matthew and Sandra then encounter a mad old tinkerer living in what he calls a sanctuary, protected by a strange amulet. Slowly, the quartet of Adam, Margaret, Matthew, and Sandra unravel the mystery of the stone circle and the town within it — discovering in the process an astounding cosmic horror that stretches far beyond the confines of the earth and involves, among other outre notions, time bubbles, mind control, and sort of a psychic black hole in outer space.
There is a lot to love about Children of the Stones even as an adult. It is a wonderfully acted piece of scifi-horror, with a superb cast of teenagers played by actual teenagers and a script that avoids the most predictable pitfalls of its own premise. One expects this sort of yarn to involve children who discover a terrible secret and then are frustrated by the adults who condescend to them and refuse to believe that it is anything but imagination or a prank. Children of the Stones is blissfully free of that trite conceit, and one of its most endearing qualities is that Adam and Matthew have a cheerful, intellectual father-son relationship, and that Margaret and Sandra are similarly warm and smart. When Matthew starts reporting back on the strangeness of the town and how he thinks it might have to do with the stones, Adam is quick to accept it as a possibility rather than dismissing it as the fanciful fiction of an overactive teenage mind in a new town. Instead, the adults Adam and Margaret agree that something peculiar is indeed afoot and launch their own investigation, in complete support of their children even if they aren’t totally convinced that it’s some wicked magic emanating from the stones. There is a welcome degree of respect between children and adults and none of the bickering and sniping so common in horror involving teens and grown-ups. They form a very likable and relatable core of protagonists, and the respect with which they treat one another regardless of age makes the horror creeping into their lives all the more effective.
One of the most common ways folk horror generates its horror is by trapping people in a remote, unfamiliar setting from which there is no easy escape. The city dweller visiting the countryside, the backpacker lost on the moors, hapless Sergeant Howie stranded on Summerisle in The Wicker Man. At first, the town in Children of the Stones seems to accessible. There’s a highway running through it, for crying out loud. There are phones and a post office and other towns nearby (at least by country standards). But then the eeriness mounts as those not in the thrall of the stones’ mysterious power find their attempts to leave, even temporarily, confounded at every turn by seemingly innocuous circumstances. Compounding that is the far more mundane fear of being a kid in a new town, where the thrill of the new is tempered by fear of the unknown, by being unaware of, say, the social cliques, the pervading youth culture. The fear of isolation even among a crowd. That alone is enough to give a kid ulcers, never mind that the locals might be mind controlled by ancient magical stones.
And then comes the revelation, and once again Children of the Stones subverts the expectations one attaches to a story like this. We expect, especially looking back from a vantage point in the 21st century with so much folk horror behind us and so many conventions of the style established, that the townsfolk form a cabal still practicing the ancient Pagan ways, and that our heroes have been lured into the confines of the stone circle as some sort of offering or sacrifice to the old gods. And we do get that to a degree. New people are lured to the town, and the locals are part of an enigmatic cabal that partakes in queer rituals. But the nature of the sect and the rituals, presided over by politely menacing village mayor Hendrick (Iain Cuthbertson), goes far beyond merely luring unsuspecting innocents into their wicker man for a May Day sacrifice. The ancient Pagan edifice of the stone circles and the chanting and the seemingly endless invitations to village Morris dances hides a much more science fictiony revelation about the nature of all that occurs in the town, one that would have been perfectly at home in a Quatermass series.
Ruling over it all though, and the thing every kid who saw it in 1977 seems to remember, is the disconcerting chanting that is used pervasively (at times even annoyingly) on the soundtrack. It’s like something out of a Sun Ra composition, full of discordance and something like panic drowning out the more rhythmic character one expects from chanting, even mysterious ancient Pagan chanting invoking the ancient gods of screaming mad aeons, as Lovecraft might refer to them. No listless skulking around in a circle wearing cheap robes and muttering “Hail Satan” in a despondent monotone for these cultists. The townsfolk of Children of the Stones are joyous in their ritual, smiling happily and Morris dancing their hearts out as they join hands and caper about within the stone circle — but the sound emanating from them, from these happy, grinning mirth makers, is a sound effused with off-putting fear. Many a British kid who watched this when it first aired marks that cacophonous blend of elation, terror, and madness as the soundtrack to more than a few nightmares.
In the United States, we were by and large deprived of complicated children’s programming like this, or if we got it, we had to get it at the movie theater, usually in the form of one of the late 1970s films made when Disney was going through its weird phase. But we were not totally denied such adult children’s programming. Young cable television channel Nickelodeon had a programming block called The Third Eye during which they would air all sorts of creepy kids’ fare, including as it turns out, Children of the Stones. For those of us who missed the original broadcast in Britain, or the later broadcast in the United States, we can take solace (of a scary sort) in the fact that Children of the Stones is preserved on DVD and online, ready to freak out a whole new generation of kids with its ghastly chanting, its threatening locals, its cosmic horror and ancient rites, and its incredibly high-waisted bell-bottom trousers. And then on top of all that is the ending, one in which we discover that ancient forces like this might be escaped from, but they can never be defeated. That there are forces — supernatural, from the ancient earth, and cosmic, from the deeps of outer space, which will still use mankind as playthings, and we all of us are powerless against them. They will remain, waiting, and the cycle will start over again. Good night, kids! Pleasant dreams.