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Burning Questions About ‘The Wicker Man’ – Fifty Years Later, The Folk-Horror Classic is More “Now” Than Ever

When I saw the recent footage of Burning Man attendees slogging their way to dry ground under torrential rains, I texted an image to a friend with the message: “Drowning us won’t bring back your damned apples.” Being a fellow fan of The Wicker Man, he immediately shot back, “Sergeant Howie’s miracle was a little late.”

For anyone who hasn’t seen this 1973 classic—or only knows it from memes of Nicolas Cage screaming “Not the bees!” in the cringeworthy 2006 remake—my friend was referring to the film’s protagonist, a straitlaced police inspector (played to steely perfection by Edward Woodward) who visits the remote Scottish island of Summerisle looking for a missing child and winds up as the main attraction in a pagan sacrifice. In his final moments, he prays—well, screams—for his Christian God to intervene. A Burning Man-sized heavy downpour would have done the job, but Jehovah was out to lunch that day. As the movie’s drolly psychopathic villain, Lord Summerisle (Christopher Lee) remarks, that God is dead: “He can’t complain. He had his chance and, in modern parlance, blew it.”

We don’t know if the ancient Celts actually sealed up their victims in wicker effigies and set them on fire to ensure a good harvest—our only evidence is a one-line reference in Julius Caesar’s Commentary on the Gallic War, and he was a well-known druidophobe—but the film’s climactic scene certainly leaves you with the feeling that it could have happened, and maybe still could happen today if the crops start to fail. If we’ve learned anything from recent events, it’s that we are imperfectly civilized. It doesn’t take that much to get us howling for sacrifice.

The rained-out Burning Man made a convenient punching bag on social media, but I actually find it reassuring that, two millennia after Caesar, large numbers of people still gather in a wilderness to get high, get naked, and sacrifice a big wooden dude to the dark gods of whatever (of course, considering that the freak desert storm was almost certainly a direct result of climate change, it’s also possible that the dark gods are completely over our shit). To me, Burning Man is less a child of performance art or glamping or NSFW Tumblrs than it is to the film that inspired it: Robin Hardy and Anthony Schaffer’s The Wicker Man.

I first discovered the movie in the early 1990s, thanks to the recommendation of a friend at a video store who knew I was always on the hunt for weird, hard-to-categorize 1970s British cult favorites like O Lucky Man! and Nicolas Roeg’s Performance. I recognized the names of several Hammer Film regulars on the VHS box—Lee, Diana Cilento, Ingrid Pitt—and figured I was in for something in the vein of The Torture Chamber of Dr. Sadism, with a lot of cleavage and Technicolor blood.

“It’s not really a horror movie,” my friend told me. “It is, but it isn’t.”

Then what is it? I asked.

“It’ll mess with your head,” was all he would say.

That night I popped it into my VCR and an opening crawl appeared on the screen:

The Producer would like to thank The Lord Summerisle and the people of his island off the west coast of Scotland for this privileged insight into their religious practices and for their generous co-operation in the making of this film.

It’s a documentary? I wondered. That seemed unlikely. But as Sergeant Howie landed his seaplane at the dockside and showed a photo of the missing Rowan Morrison to the locals, I decided—okay, it’s not a documentary, but it was a real coup that they’d been able to film on the actual Summerisle.

You can maybe forgive my gullibility. It was just before the dawn of the World Wide Web, after all. You couldn’t just look things up and find out there was no such place as Summerisle. Added to which the movie felt real. It had that same washed-out, lived-in verismo that all 70s British movies have: they couldn’t afford custom-built sets, so they used real ruined castles and villages, of which the British Isles have more than a few. It lend movies like The Wicker Man a tactility that American horror movies sometimes lack. I later learned that all of the extras in the opening scene were actual West Highland country folk, not actors, who were filmed wearing the same clothes they’d put on that morning. The accents weren’t feigned and the dialogue wasn’t scripted. All of it left me with the vague, unsettled feeling that if the story wasn’t real, then it also wasn’t entirely unreal.

The film keeps walking that fine line for a while. Like Sergeant Howie, you soon notice that everything is normal in Summerisle except for the parts that are weird shit. It’s mostly normal. The candy shop has chocolate March hares instead of Easter bunnies. A little girl puts a frog in her mouth so it will catch her sore throat. The local schoolkids learn about phallic symbols. Everybody has tree names like Oak and Ash and Willow and they put dead bunnies in people graves. Howie goes out walking and sees a naked girl crying as she straddles a tombstone. Meanwhile, the locals go on wearing their thick island sweaters and 70s miniskirts like this is just how you do stuff. Even when you find out that these are all modern-day pagans, cheerfully worshipping their sexy death gods on May Day, the movie never completely settles down into familiar Hammer Satanic-horror territory. It keeps a foot in the mundane (when Lord Summerisle leads the sacrifice, he’s wearing a mustard turtleneck and deck shoes).

Only when the villagers decide it’s time to get down to burning Sergeant Howie alive so they can save their apple crop does the unreality finally become too much to rationalize (Are they actually going to do this? Yup, they sure are). Howie’s death seen goes on a lot longer than you think/hope it will. First he attempts to reason with his killers; then he blusters and threatens, rages like an Old Testament prophet, prays to his God, and finally just screams in terror along with the chickens and pigs that share his fate (one of which reportedly urinated on Edward Woodward during his big speech). Meanwhile, the good folk of Summerisle keep on lighting the fires, then have a big community sing of “Sumer is Ycumen In” as Howie’s dying screams fade away. You can imagine them all sitting down for a picnic lunch afterwards.

It didn’t dawn on me until that moment just how freaked out I was. My friend at the Videocentre was right: The Wicker Man was messing with my head.

The uncanniness of British May Day festivals was apparently what inspired the movie in the first place.

Playwright Anthony Schaffer was on holiday in a small English country town and noticed how eager the locals were for him to leave before they began their quaint/ancient/vaguely disturbing May Day rituals, which involved Morris dancers and a man-woman priest figure holding a scythe and a guy in a horse suit playfully snapping at the bums of giggling teenage girls. Can’t understand why they were embarrassed to him see that, Schaffer thought: it started him down the path of considering just how hardy the old rituals are, and just how thin the veneer of civilization can be. What would be lurking underneath if you could rip that veneer away entirely?

Schaffer had never written horror before: he was known mainly for sly whodunits like Sleuth. Robin Hardy, the director, had never done horror either, and it shows. There are no jump scares in The Wicker Man, barely any blood—a mere trickle from Howie’s lip at the end—and relatively few shadows. Most of the movie takes place in broad daylight. This, I believe, is part of what makes The Wicker Man remarkable. It’s not always trying to scare you: that would risk breaking the tension. Sometimes it titillates you, sometimes it amuses you, and other times it’s just plain weird. But creeping just under the surface is a growing terror—the kind of unresolved angst you find in other non-horror horror movies like Carnival of Souls and After Hours—and it took directors outside of horror to find that rare tone. Let’s just say it would have been a different movie if Hammer or American International had gotten it first.

It would be decades before the term “folk horror” would be coined to describe films of this kind… if a movie as odd as The Wicker Man can be said to have a “kind.” The genre—in which the pagan world overwhelms the modern one—includes such classics The City of the Dead (1960; also starring Christopher Lee), Witchfinder General (1968), and Blood on Satan’s Claw (1971). All of these had made their mark before The Wicker Man was even an idea. For the record, Schaffer has said they weren’t an influence, but it seems clear they all draw from a common well.

Folk horror, which has its roots in H.P. Lovecraft and Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery,” came of age in the late 1960s when British hippies were turning on at Stonehenge and learning the unpronounceable names of Celtic gods. Proper, fuddy-duddy establishment Brits greeted this with a mixture of ridicule and nervous attraction—not because the neo-pagans were doing something new and radical, but because they seemed to be tapping into much older celebrations: the ones involving blood-soaked stone tables and flint knives.

And the movie is a celebration: May Day, to be specific, traditionally associated with fertility of the crops and, well, the other kind. More than once you feel the buoyancy of the festival. That is one thing my video-store friend didn’t tell me: The Wicker Man is a musical. Well, sort of. People sing. Playing over the titles is a mashup of two Robert Burns songs, “The Highland Widow’s Lament” and the playfully roguish “Corn Rigs.” The lyrics deal with one of Burns’s favorite topics, outdoor sex in the state of nature with a willing local colleen. It’s a light and friendly note to begin on, one that connects getting back to nature with getting it on. Later, the pubcrawlers of Summerisle will sing bawdy songs (“The Landlord’s Daughter”) and hauntingly erotic ones (“Gently Johnny”).

In one memorable scene, Willow McGregor (Britt Ekland), the island’s resident sexpot, will tempt Sergeant Howie by dancing naked on the other side of his bedroom wall while singing.

Her number is sometimes called “Hey Ho” but is more properly known as “Willow’s Song” (the Sneaker Pimps covered it in the 90s as a kind of rave ballad). By this time the sex is no longer playful or bawdy implied. It’s right in your face and frankly dangerous, wound up in regenerative corn-myths of death and rebirth. Willow’s invitation—which a perspiring, pajama’d Howie somehow manages to resist—is only a prelude to his actual death. As in all horror movies, the line between sex and death is paper-thin.

The residents of Summerisle, we learn, have few hangups about sex… or killing. Like other folk-horror films, The Wicker Man plays on our deep longing for a return to tribal simplicity, and an even deeper fear of what the tribe will do to us. As in Jackson’s short story, the biggest fear is not that Dracula will drink our blood but that we ourselves will be the monsters. There are occasional witches in folk horror but rarely any actual black magic. It’s not the supernatural but superstition that overwhelms rationality: a madness that lures people with sex, feeds them on tribalism, and drives them to murder. Sometimes the local pagans put on robes and paint their victims in blood, but—more terrifyingly—they’re just as likely to go on wearing their street clothes when they cut your chest open with a kitchen knife. This fear of crazed heathen murder-hippies was already bubbling up in the zeitgeist even before Manson, Tex, and Sadie started smearing blood on the walls at Cielo Drive.

But The Wicker Man is not social commentary: its roots are mythic. Its plot is a retelling of Euripides’s The Bacchae, a classical Greek drama in which uber-rationalist King Pentheus forbids the worship of Dionysus, the Syrian god of madness, wine, and cross-dressing. His worshippers, the bacchantes, are local women who’ve been driven into a drunken frenzy and are out yowling in the woods, having sex with random strangers and breastfeeding wild animals (if you’ve ever witnessed a Nashville bachelorette weekend, you know). Pentheus is a prude: in the Muppets version, he would be played by Sam the Eagle. Determined to put a stop to all this woke insanity, Pentheus disguises himself as one of the revelers and infiltrates the orgy. In so doing, he is falling straight into the trap Dionysus set for him: the bacchantes (including his own mother) tear him to shreds and play games with his severed head.

Scholars refer to this kind of ritual as “The Comedy of Innocence”—based on the belief that the innocent (that is, hoodwinked) victim must appear to consent to its sacrifice. Ancient people knew that the gods wanted blood sacrifice—usually animals, sometimes people—but they didn’t want the angry spirit of the victim coming back, so before they stuck in the blade they had to make sure they got his permission… or at least the illusion of permission. The victim has to come to the place of sacrifice of his own free will. He also (as we discover) has to be a virgin. This is why Willow offered Sergeant Howie a night in the sheets, knowing he’d refuse: by giving him a way out, the folk of Summerisle can always tell themselves that Howie had a choice.

But of course he didn’t. From the moment Sergeant Howie sets foot on the island, he’s trapped. The bastards even sabotage his plane. Structurally, The Wicker Man is a roach motel: like Raiders of the Lost Ark, it’s a movie in which the character’s choices literally don’t matter. The “lost child” that brings him to the island turns out to have been bait for a trap.

Everything he sees has been carefully curated, every clue deliberately placed in his path, every move he makes has been anticipated. At the movie’s climax, Howie literally walks straight to the place where he’s going to be burned alive. When Lord Summerisle says, as only Christopher Lee can, “Come, it is time to keep your appointment with the Wicker Man”—it hits you out of nowhere, and yet in hindsight it feels inevitable. It’s the first and only time the film’s title is spoken in the dialogue, and yet we have a sense the Wicker Man was always waiting for us.

The movie was not perfect when I first saw the 78-minute theatrical version—the one that its studio, British Lion, chopped down hoping to cram it into a late-night double feature. It felt rushed and uneven. Some scenes seemed to refer to earlier ones that were missing. Shots happened out of sequence. Then, thanks to a 1-inch video copy made for Roger Corman, seventeen minutes of footage were later restored. This is the version I prefer, in which the story happens over three days instead of two. They give the movie a better slow burn, as well as deepening our appreciation for Sergeant Howie. In the longer version, he seems less of a prig and more sincere in his faith, the perfect (though clueless) Christian martyr.

The restored footage made the movie better, but could not make it complete. Nothing can do that now: reportedly the negative wound up under the foundations of the M5 highway, including a lost scene in which Lord Summerisle gives Howie a lecture on apple cultivation. It doesn’t sound like any great loss, but reportedly this was a favorite scene of Christopher Lee, who pushed to make the movie happen and (rightly) considered it among his best work. He plays a different kind of villain: civilized, witty, occasionally odd (bonus: you get to hear Lee sing in his “opera” voice). There are lots of odd performances in the movie: Aubrey Morris (Mr. Deltoid from A Clockwork Orange) as a way-too-happy gravedigger, and the great choreographer Lindsay Kemp as a very unlikely innkeeper. They all seem like fine, quirky people right up to the moment they kill you.

As the films of Ari Aster demonstrate, folk horror is not dead. Midsommer is basically The Wicker Man IKEA-style. Like Hereditary, it also features a main character whose path to sacrifice is pre-determined. Like The Wicker Man, its jokes never quite break the tension.. Ari Aster swears that “I let go of The Wicker Man as an influence the minute I decided to make [Midsommar]”—but he couldn’t have been letting go too hard, seeing as just about everything in The Wicker Man winds up in Midsommar, right down to the maypole dance. Both films play on the most seductive theme of folk horror: that we can be free, we can belong, we can get high and get laid as long as we’re willing to shed that veneer of civilization and surrender ourselves to the tribe.

The true horror of folk horror isn’t the loss of independent choice, but the ways people convince themselves that everything they’re doing is fine. This is the irrationality—what Bonhoeffer called “moral stupidity”—that leads mobs to burn synagogues, hang witches, and invade the U.S. Capitol hunting for Nancy Pelosi, all while feeling just fine and happy about it. In Midsommar, Dani (Florence Pugh) chooses the sacrifice and in The Wicker Man Sergeant Howie is the one chosen—but both movies end with someone being burned to death while the mob’s smiling faces are bathed in firelight and simple joy. Go look at footage of Nazi Party rallies and you’ll see that same worshipful joy in the masses of Storm Troopers and Hitler Youth. Go look at footage of January 6 and you’ll see those smiles of wonder on the facepainted insurrectionists. These are not smiles of cruelty. These are people who are happy because at last they truly belong

The horrors of The Wicker Man are not safely locked in the early 70s any more than they are safely buried under the M5 highway. The irrationality of the tribe is very much with us. We may think that we have no more choice than Dani or Sergeant Howie, but we always do. Our choice is whether to stand with the sacrifice or the guys with the torches and knives.

Either way comes at a terrible price.

For each of us, our appointment with the Wicker Man is still yet to come.

 

 

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