The Discomfort Zone:
The Wicker Man
James Fleming unpacks the alienating experience of Robin Hardy’s 1973 folk horror classic, The Wicker Man…
Folk music plays as the camera soars over the Hebrides and out to sea. Cut to Sergeant Neil Howie (Edward Woodward) piloting a sea plane over the small, hilled, grassy islands, going westwards to Summerisle. The pictures roll past, gentle as the spring sunshine that glistens on the surf. The music’s simple, rustic, a thatched cottage set to a beat. Howie lands his seaplane and meets a gang of gnarled and buckled islanders on the shore, who all deny any knowledge of Rowan Morrison (Geraldine Cowper), the young girl that was reported missing to Howie in a letter addressed directly to him.
The Wicker Man (Robin Hardy, 1973) begins with idyllic, sunlit mystery, as if it were a rural English soap opera or the cosiest of detective stories. Howie goes round in circles trying to find Rowan, looking for answers but seeing only the islanders practising their pagan faith: teaching their children about the phallic symbol of the Maypole in their religion lessons at school; holding toads in their mouths to cure sore throats; adults having group sex in the fields at night. Summerisle is a self-contained community of pagans: their faith, with its emphasis on Nature, sex, and sexuality, is as normal to them as taking Communion is to Howie, a Catholic. He’s ‘the good guy,’ a sergeant come from the mainland to find a missing child, uniformed and solid and trustworthy as any policeman, anywhere. As soon as he goes onshore, however, and starts roaring his blustering, Catholic horror at Summerisle’s paganism, the protagonist has become the intruder. Howie, who, presumably, is more representative of the viewing public than the islanders, and whose values better fit its norms, is an alien.
He walks into town, heading for the post office on the high-street, run by Rowan’s mother. The camera shoots him going down the street from behind, from the side, keeping pace with him as he walks, cutting to islanders’ faces peering at him out of their living room windows or from their front doorsteps. The Wicker Man almost immediately challenges the audience to regard Howie, and, by extension, themselves, as hostile, invasive, other; a threat to an established way of life. A psychic change like this is a very tall order, but it’s the fulcrum whereon The Wicker Man’s weirdness hinges. Its ability to destabilise the viewer, its power, comes from that cognitive dissonance, the knowledge that we, or at least our values, are the invading aliens: the film’s weirdness is no less than the sensation of minds changing.
It is a subtle weirdness, difficult to put one’s finger on. Watching Howie go through the sunlit scenes, shouting at schoolchildren and accosting shopkeepers, is like wearing someone else’s skin – it just doesn’t feel right. Not only does it not feel right, but the skin starts to crawl as we watch him and laugh at his outrage and how unbothered the islanders are, because this man, the hero, is difficult to align oneself with, when he bandies his uniform and religion about as if they make him inherently superior to a faith that is, at root, only different, no matter how inhumane it is eventually revealed to be.
The Wicker Man is an alienating experience, and only becomes more so as it moves towards its infamous, chilling closing scenes of madness and human sacrifice, where we learn that the islanders and their faith are much farther removed from what we know and take comfort in than we had initially thought. At the film’s close, after he’s found Rowan and she’s lead him back to Lord Summerisle (Christopher Lee) and his gathered people, Howie is locked inside the wicker man and burned alive, a sacrifice to Summerisle’s old Gods to ensure next year’s harvest is plentiful. The wicker man looks out to sea as Lord Summerisle leads the islanders through ‘Summer Is Icumen In,’ swaying in time with its lilting, circular rhythm. Howie’s prayers give way to pained, wordless, animal howling, and the wicker man collapses in on itself as the May Day sun sinks below the horizon. Howie’s last dash to find Rowan, his capture, his final beseeches to God and Lord Summerisle, and his brutal, noisy death, are all filmed in daylight. The islanders don’t feel the need to wait until the cover of night to practise their faith. Out there, on the edge of the Hebrides, they needn’t fear arrest nor punishment, so they can make a human sacrifice while the sun still shines.
Shooting the bulk of the film in daylight makes it all the more claustrophobic and unsettling. The audience is trapped among a people very removed from what they are comfortable with, and with only a hero to whom they cannot relate to rely on. There is nothing familiar on Summerisle, nothing reassuring. The islanders’ fearlessness and calm make Howie’s set of ordinary, mainland values look otherworldly, mad; Lord Summerisle’s retorts and counterpoints make Howie’s declarations that Jesus Christ is ‘the one true God’ seem not only hypocritical, but also tenuous and arbitrary. Director Robin Hardy shot The Wicker Man plainly, with no artifice and no special effects. The scenery and actors and story create the weirdness, the madness, of the film, which is not so much in the paganism and human sacrifice as it is in the film’s overall effect: the audience’s realisation that their core beliefs are as arbitrary and alien to some as the wildest pagan rituals are to them.
To confront an audience with the inconsistencies of their own thinking is a very rare quality in works of art. Rarer still is art that does not preach its message, which is where The Wicker Man’s genius lies: it delivers that realisation through story and aesthetics, through surface level weirdnesses, without cloaking it in layers of metaphor. It is all the more powerful because all it has to say is on the surface: everything lies in the experience of watching the film, in the watchers’ cognitive dissonance. Do they root for the religiously flawed Howie, who has the benefits of a just cause and of being more closely aligned to the watcher’s reality? Or, would they rather see Lord Summerisle and his people be rid of this sergeant, who has battered his way into their lives, intruded on their routines and work and worshipping, condemned their faith, and accused them of heresy?
The Wicker Man asks the watcher a very old question: how is one to reconcile the familiarity and security of their own way of life with the threat it poses to somebody else’s, once they become aware of those people? Throughout the history of Western civilisation, when confronted with concepts that are alien or opposite to their own (as when Old World colonisers sailed around the world and encountered new peoples and faiths and ideas) the immediate reaction has been fear, hatred, and, ultimately, extreme mental, emotional, spiritual, and physical violence against the peoples whose modes of living challenged the intruders’ own. Over time there have been protests and bloodshed and anger and more protests, but no conclusion has ever been reached, and the only answer to this question that The Wicker Man offers is the death of Howie. The pattern, however, is clear: consciousness rebels against what is alien to itself.
Though theirs is a much quieter rebellion, Summerisle’s people still react to Howie’s faith with only suspicion, patronising patience, or sneering laughter. They have no desire to understand him. They want only to use him to ensure that their own needs and desires are fulfilled. The Wicker Man makes no point, except to say that no matter who has what faith, when two polar consciousnesses meet, and make no effort to reconcile themselves, violence is inevitable, and the winner is merely whoever is the stronger of the two. This is not a mind-blowing revelation; it’s something that has been known for ages. What makes The Wicker Man truly remarkable is how it places the viewer within a community that’s stronger than the character that is most relatable to them, and then lets the violence unfold on the murderers’ small, cut-off isle, far away from all else that is familiar, where they needn’t hide in the nighttime.
Here neither party is correct. Until Howie is captured at the film’s close both are equal threats to the other: Howie could return to the mainland and bring back reinforcements to Summerisle; the islanders always have him outnumbered and outgunned. If there is an answer to The Wicker Man’s central question, then it is not seen in the film itself. All we have here is a role-reversal, a white Catholic at the mercy of a larger group of pagans, reenacting the pattern that has been recurring for centuries: encounter, rebellion, hatred, fear, violence, death. It’s a simple manoeuvre to just change the positions of the players, but its efficacy, its power, testifies to the genius of The Wicker Man. Art that challenges humanness’s inconsistencies, and hypocrisies, is a rare and, despite its weirdness, and often also its brutality, very beautiful thing. For to engage with it is to engage one’s own reflection, to open one’s blind eye, and to walk into the discomfort zone of one’s shortsightedness.