To the people of Summerisle, profanity is funny.
It’s easy to see why Christianity has defined the horror genre so much. The excesses of apostolic ritual, its insistence on extreme moralism, the deep fears of being corrupted by darkness; many denominations lend themselves to theatrical stories of a heightened battle between good and evil. Christian characters expectantly populate the stories of the demonic; whether it’s exorcists struggling with their faith, or the “low-key conservative vibes” of Ed and Lorraine Warren. But if Christianity gives our characters the tools to protect themselves from evil, it also gives them a lot of fear; those that make them vulnerable if they fall prey to subversive forces.
In The wicker man, Scottish Highland policeman Neil Howie (Edward Woodward) arrives on Summersisle, a small island in the Hebrides, to investigate the supposed disappearance of a young girl, Rowan. Once there, his steadfast Christian values are challenged by the explicit, folksy paganism of the islanders. The church is abandoned, the ministers have fled, and the discouraged islanders crave old gods and, among other things, dry, lumpy tombstones. Christianity is out, and a celebration of nature, reincarnation, and the sun gods is in place. The human body is not something to be kept in strict and shameful order. It should be celebrated and displayed naked as much as the Scottish coastal weather allows. Schoolchildren learn about reincarnation and phallic symbols. Vigorous folk songs are sung directly to the innkeeper’s beautiful daughter. And, above all, everyone is acting a little weird.
To a normal viewer, none of this is particularly scary. It’s more of a fun look into a sheltered, alternate world of the 70s. But for our protagonist, a devout believer in God and the law, it’s terrifying. His efforts to restore the traditional order lead him down a path at the end of which lies something unimaginable.
Howie has many problems with Summersisle, but above all he despises their profanity. Rowan’s disappearance and the obstructive nature of the islanders sometimes seems like a lower priority than expressing his distaste for the island’s free, sexually expressive, and scientifically “alternative” nature. As a strict police officer, he still feels he has enough authority to challenge Summersisle’s paganism, although there are one and many worshipers of the sun god. But the societal and religious order feels like a powerful protector even if you are alone.
While there’s a lingering unease about the film, you can’t quite call it anything like terror. Rather, the characters are defined by a quirky cheekiness. Howie is lured to the island, so he will freely become a human sacrifice (being burned alive in a huge wicker facsimile of a man) to save the island’s crops. On a rewatch, you feel like the islanders are deliberately trying to strangle him. It is as if they express the strangeness of their paganism because it does not threaten them. He must consider them dangerous if he ever wants to fall into their trap.
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Fertility rituals, bartenders pushing the pelvis, suspending a child’s umbilical cord over its grave, letting puppets fornicate on a bed, and the many, a lot folk songs (which are surprisingly all earworms); all take on a playful quality once you know they’ve specifically chosen a stranger who will be appalled at them. Profanity is funny to them because it’s funny that tiny acts of subversion and denial can have such a frustrating, even devastating impact on someone. Even as their sacrifice is offered, they watch with joyful, singing abandon.
wicker Male has developed a well-deserved wealth of fans over its nearly 50-year life. But I approach it from a more specific point of view. Firstly, as a Scot, this is exactly how I want my country to be represented; thick sweater, singing cheerfully and with many eyebrows. But I’m also someone whose Christian faith has faded with age, and who is more likely to look critically at my former religion.
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To take away from The wicker man that “paganism is evil” is to misinterpret the end. The film’s criticism of religious extremism also extends to Howie’s beliefs. Trapped in this giant basketry, Howie realizes that although he knows full well that the beliefs of the pagans are false, such conviction has not saved him. He balks at the realization that the islanders cannot be confronted or convinced by the fact that there is no proof that their rituals work, that people are more than capable of committing horrific acts without any proof of their effectiveness.
In his final moments, Howie sings a hymn to drown out the fear that is likely consuming him: what has been done in the name of my religion that has caused similar damage? Who died just like me, knowing the cause was wrong? What scares Howie isn’t the pagans’ transgressions, but how little attention they give them. He is afraid of a world where it is normal to defy God. The moral height he takes in Summersisle blinds him to the fact that he is the only one not in control. If he were a little less indignant, he might be able to see what awaited him. The people of Summersisle predicted his outrage and took advantage of it. If Howie hadn’t been so freaked out about the pagans, maybe that wicker man would have been left empty on May Day.