There is some corner of England that will forever be a foreign field—creepily familiar but horrifyingly other. Welcome to Scarfolk; you might even survive the experience.
Scarfolk is the latest stop on a psychogeographical tour of the United Kingdom that probably starts on the Summerisle of the original Wicker Man movie and chugs off—watched by silent villagers in animal masks—towards the Royston Vasey of the League Of Gentlemen TV series.
Royston Vasey, dreamed up by Mark Gatiss, Steve Pemberton, Reece Shearsmith and Jeremy Dyson, had a veneer of normality, a peculiarly comforting Northern town peopled by average working class types... but scratch the surface and all manner of weirdness would emerge.
Scarfolk is cut from the same cloth. The creation of Richard Littler, it purports to be the online presence of the local council of “a town in North West England that did not progress beyond 1979. Instead, the entire decade of the 1970s loops ad infinitum.”
Specifically, Scarfolk seems to base much of its philosophy on a certain style of public information films from the 1970s which have since become cult viewing for the YouTube generation. Very often shown late at night just before the broadcasts stopped—yes, kids, they used to play the National Anthem after the late news and the TV would just STOP!—these have become minor classics of hauntology. In The Spirit of Dark and Lonely Water, a hooded grim reaper stalks children playing in the shallows of a pond. Put a rug on a polished floor? You might as well set a man trap. A boy climbs an angrily fizzing electricity pylon, reaching for his Frisbee...
Scarfolk takes this and runs with it, right off the edge of a cliff. There is danger everywhere in Scarfolk, lovingly and convincingly rendered in faux-1970s designs. There is beige. A lot of beige. The success of Scarfolk is that, at first glance, it appears to be so genuine. It’s only when you look closely that you see Scarfolk is so twisted and disturbing that it might actually be a circle of Hell.
Examples are almost too numerous to list—you’re much better visiting Scarfolk and losing yourself in it. One of the recent posts is about a campaign called simply “Don’t”: “The council became increasingly concerned that citizens were too actively involved in ‘doing.’ Because ‘doing’ is a morally and politically ambiguous activity the council decided to take control and enforced ‘not doing’ until they could clarify and ratify only positive, socially acceptable expressions of ‘doing.’”
Children are particularly disturbing in Scarfolk. Like the Denton twins in The League of Gentlemen, Scarfolk’s kids are knowing and eerie and slightly Satanic. “Never accept sweets, alcohol or cigarettes from a child” warns one poster, with creepy kids staring with oversized eyes.
A piece on a 1971 book entitled “How to wash a child’s brain” says: “...Always wear woollen gloves (or mittens) [...] After the child’s brain has been removed with the two brain spoons, rinse it in a solution of vinegar, ammonia and curry powder, then rest the brain on a soft cloth or tea towel for a few minutes, or for as long as is convenient.”
And witness the Summer Holidays Diseases Colouring Book:
The colouring book itself was produced by Scarfolk Council Health Board Service Council and was distributed throughout hospitals, schools and junior covens.
While providing children with a fun creative pastime, it also subtly alerted them to the dangers of horrific diseases such as rabies and bed wetting, instilling in the children a deep-seated fear of foreigners, close relatives, harmless household objects, animals, vegetables shaped like animals, and belly buttons.
Scarfolk has its own progressive rock bands with Roger Dean-esque covers, its own versions of Mills and Boon romances, even its own television channels... but beware, the televisual abyss in Scarfolk gazes back.
It’s the attention to detail that makes Scarfolk such a success. Richard Littler obviously has the minutiae of the 1970s landscaped firmly branded on his brain. I lived through the same things, absorbed the same information, which is why Scarfolk chimes with me so well. I do wonder how it appears to those who didn’t live through those times, or didn’t live in England.
Scarfolk is a triumph of psychogeography and pretty much what the internet was invented for, as far as I’m concerned. Go visit, by all means, but don’t say you haven’t been warned. And when—if—you leave Scarfolk, I guarantee that there are certain things you won’t look at in the same way ever again. For example... are those children looking at you in a bit of a weird way right now..?
David Barnett is a journalist and author based in the North of England. His novel Gideon Smith and the Mechanical Girl, the first in a series of steampunk/alternate-history/Victoriana adventures, is out from Tor Books in September 2013. He grew up in Wigan, Lancashire, which is very like Scarfolk.