Given that it’s the weekend that Hallowe’en falls on, it’s probably a good idea to explore a horror film. I’m not so sure that The Wicker Man falls neatly into that category, but it’s certainly chilling enough to warrant a mention.
When police officer Neil Howie arrives on the fictional Scottish island of Summerisle to investigate the case of a missing girl, it is quickly apparent that something is afoot. The islanders deny all knowledge of her, and repeatedly mention the enigmatic Lord Summerisle as the figure of authority that Howie should seek out. Ignoring this, he continues his investigation and observes all manner of strange happenings.
After learning that Summerisle’s inhabitants follow a pagan religion, we watch Howie’s growing discontent and disgust with the disrespect that flies in the face of his Christian values. The Wicker Man explores a great number of taboos, and Howie’s exaggerated outrage forces us to be the non-judgmental observer. Given the 1970’s were the height of the ‘sexual revolution’, this might be why this cult classic resonated so well with audiences. The way that the arbitrariness of what is deemed sacred or sacrilege is presented to us makes us question what right Howie has, as an outsider, to intervene in the education of the island’s children and the rituals of its people.
And yet we still feel so uncomfortable because of the conspiratorial nature of the missing girl, Rowan. The rituals still feel unnatural because something doesn’t feel right. We sympathise with Howie – the simple, God-fearing man – because he is desperately trying to understand the unknown in the same way that we are.
“I think I could turn and live with animals. They are so placid and self-contained. They do not lie awake in the dark and weep for their sins. They do not make me sick discussing their duty to God. Not one of them kneels to another or to his own kind that lived thousands of years ago. Not one of them is respectable or unhappy, all over the earth.”
– Lord Summerisle, The Wicker Man (1973)
Of course, our suspicions are finally confirmed when we learn that the pagan ritual of sacrifice is to be invoked to stop the crops from failing again next year. Unfortunately for Howie, he is to be the sacrifice, and the seemingly innocent ‘missing’ Rowan is in on the plot too. This is where the line is drawn, and our uncomfortable tolerance becomes frightened anger. A willing sacrifice has the potential to be tolerated, but Howie’s screams of “O God! O Jesus!” as he is led to the eponymous Wicker Man make him an unwilling sacrifice, and make the islanders fanatical murderers.
The film’s strength lies in its subversive nature. Within the plot, Christian Britain is subverted by Pagan Summerisle. Sex is celebrated instead of shamed, masks and idols are involved in worship, extravagant rituals are performed jovially rather than somberly. There are few overt horror archetypes – instead of dark Gothic settings of castles and forests, we are given a bright and beautiful Scottish isle. The folk soundtrack to the film is perhaps the most obvious out-of-place element, where a more sinister soundtrack would seem more appropriate. But this subversion does exactly what it is supposed to. It keeps us on-edge, disturbed, confused, and worried for the entirety of the film.
With Howie inside, the Wicker Man burns to the hails and songs of the islanders. It cracks and breaks, revealing the setting sun. The credits roll and the folk music plays.
But the tension remains, left to dissipate naturally, if it can at all.