M. Keith Booker
The Wicker Man is the quintessential example of the cult horror film. Made by a director who was, at the time, virtually unknown (and who would never make another important film), The Wicker Man was not heavily promoted by its own studio, which doubted its viability and thus was not initially a huge commercial hit. Indeed, it was initially released only as the lower half of a twin bill that featured a much more prestigious British horror film, Nicholas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now. Yet The Wicker Man has remained on the radar of horror fans for half a century, gradually growing in reputation and slowly building a devoted following. It is now widely regarded as the ultimate folk horror film, and it is the one with which all other films in the genre are inevitably compared. The Wicker Man contains most of the standard elements of its particular type of folk horror, the type in which a modern individual (or individuals) wanders into an isolated enclave in which an alternative culture is still practicing the “old ways,” gradually bringing it into conflict with the modern intruder(s), generally to the disadvantage of the latter. What makes this film special, though, is that its contrast between tradition and modernity is so ambivalent. The traditional culture practiced on the island of Summerisle is neither unequivocally evil nor unequivocally good: it is not even truly traditional. Similarly, the modern intruder, Police Sgt. Howie (played with grim commitment by Edward Woodward), is neither entirely virtuous nor entirely despicable—or entirely modern. In addition, the confrontation between Howie and Summerisle has other implications that disrupt any attempt to interpret the film within the terms of a simple tradition vs. modernity binary, because there are ways (especially within the cultural context of 1973) in which Summerisle actually represents the new, while Woodward represents the old.
The Wicker Man begins with an amusing on-screen acknowledgement that reads “The Producer would like to thank 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.” Thus, anyone encountering this film for the first time might easily have concluded they were about to view some sort of ethnographic work about the culture of a real island. Both Lord Summerisle and his island are entirely fictional, of course, and it seems almost certain that, within the world of the film, they would be less than hospitable to any outsiders attempting to make a film about them. Still, this opening acknowledgement gives the film a sort of anthropological air from the very beginning—and we will essentially serve as amateur anthropologists as we watch the film, trying to understand how the culture of Summerisle works.
The film then immediately cuts to a sequence in which Howie is piloting a small seaplane on his way out to the island, to which he has been called via an anonymous letter reporting the disappearance of a young girl, Rowan Morrison (Geraldine Cowper) on the island. Aircraft of any kind, of course, are emblems of modernity, though the notion that Howie is to be associated with the modern is already established in this scene. Meanwhile, the fact that Howie has to fly out to the island (where he receives a less than enthusiastic greeting) also immediately establishes that the island is quite remote and potentially very much cut off from the modern world.
Most of the rest of the film involves Howie’s efforts to track down the girl, efforts that seemingly receive anything but full cooperation from the locals. For most of the film, Howie has little success in locating the girl or determining her fate, but he does begin to piece together a picture of what the culture of the island is like, as do we as viewers of the film. The film also slowly builds an atmosphere of vague dread as well (and Howie) gradually begin to suspect that he might be in serious danger, largely because of the hostility he encounters at almost every turn, combined with the sense that the culture of this island is very much at odds with Howie’s staunchly conservative Christian belief system. The film builds atmosphere in other ways, as in its very effective use of music, an aspect of the film that is usefully discussed by Paul Newland.
In one of the most influential takes on The Wicker Man (originally published in 2010, but now available in a slightly updated on-line version), Rob Young argues that this film demonstrates that
“paganism could still be found alive and well in 70s Britain, if you knew where to look. The alternative ritual society that draws the Christian Sergeant Howie into its web on Summerisle, led by Christopher Lee’s magus character who has elected to “reverence the music, and the drama and the rituals of the old gods”, exists in an Eden of its own making (clue: its chief export is apples).”
Young then goes on to conclude that The Wicker Man “daringly broaches the casket of Anglo-Saxon tribal memory and, in the battle between the old gods and the Judaeo-Christian cult which supplanted them, declares the pagans victorious.” Indeed, Young’s vision of an opposition between Christianity and the old gods of the distant past is certainly the most obvious structural feature of The Wicker Man. I would argue, however, that this opposition is far from a simple binary one, even if the film continually invites us to see it that way.
For example, after Howie takes up lodgings in the local inn, he almost immediately becomes the object of the erotic attentions of the landlord’s comely daughter, Willow (played by Swedish actress Britt Ekland, already well on her way to a career as an international sex symbol, a career that would see her only a year later in a high-profile role as a Bond girl in The Man with the Golden Gun). Willow is portrayed as almost completely irresistible (conveyed to viewers by an extended nude dance that she performs in the room next to Howie’s in the end), and it is clear that Howie is sorely tempted by her siren-like behavior. Indeed, the fact that he does eventually resist is one of the film’s clearest signs that Howie’s Christian piety is genuine—if perhaps a bit extreme. This encounter also seems to identify Howie’s piety (and sexual repression) as the polar opposite of Willow’s free-spirited sexual openness.
Indeed, it is initially tempting to view The Wicker Man as having been built on a simple polar opposition between the invented pagan folk religion of Summerisle and the stern, strict Christianity of Howie. Such an opposition is a logical basis for folk horror, and it has sometimes been used quite effectively. One might consider, for example, Robert Eggers’ The Witch (2015), billed as a seventeenth-century “New England folktale,” which very much depends on an opposition between the excessively stern patriarchal religiosity of the film’s New England Puritans and the sensuous, celebratory, women-centered practices of the film’s witches. However, Eggers’ film itself actually complicates this opposition in some important ways, while confounding such simple polar oppositions is absolutely central to the success of The Wicker Man.
For example, it is true that virtually everything Howie learns about the culture of the island is horrifying to his Christian sensibilities, including their open acceptance of sexuality, which they freely celebrate, even with their children, whom they teach to value the pleasures of the flesh. Yet this acceptance—even celebration—of the sexual was a key element of many of the countercultural forces of the 1960s, which still had considerable influence in 1973, when this film was made, so that many in the initial audience would surely have been much more horrified by Howie’s prudery than by the island’s comfort with the sexual 9as they might still be today). It is also the case that many other aspects of the folk culture of Summerisle correspond to the interests of the 1960s counterculture, which had a certain fascination with things such as folk medicine, folk music, and the occult. Howie, meanwhile, is also particularly horrified to learn that Christianity had once been practiced on the island, but that it has now been replaced by its own custom brand of nature and fertility worship, which seems to be rooted in ancient Celtic traditions.
Of course, The Wicker Man is not a film that is particularly concerned with absolute authenticity in its representation of Celtic folk customs, a characteristic that has brought the film a certain amount of criticism from folklore purists. On the other hand, Adam Scovell (who clearly regards The Wicker Man as the ultimate folk horror film) suggests that folk horror is “never all that fussed with a genuine, accurate recreation of folklore. It instead plays it through broad-stroke ideas which, in a populist medium, often build into genuine forms of rewrites of history and culture” (28). In any case, one could argue that absolute ethnographic accuracy is far less important to this film than the overall impression that this culture conveys. That is certainly true, but I would also argue that the lack of authenticity in this folk culture actually serves a positive purpose in the film because it serves as a reminder that the culture of Summerisle is not an authentic folk culture even within the world of the film. Instead, it is a culture that was invented by Lord Summerisle’s grandfather after he bought the island and then began to use it to grow experimental strains of fruits and vegetables that he himself, a noted horticulturist, had developed. In fact, a close look shows that this entire “folk” religion, seemingly based on love of nature (including the free expression of natural sexual impulses), is really designed as a method of social control that is designed to induce the islanders into working for the Summerisles and cultivating their crops. Meanwhile, Lord Summerisle himself is a somewhat sinister figure, partly because he is played by British horror icon Christopher Lee, whom viewers at the time would know best for his performances of characters such as Dracula. Indeed, it seems certain that the casting of Lee was meant to cast suspicion on the good intentions of Summerisle—while it should also be noted that Lee himself, recognizing the film’s horror potential, was instrumental in getting it made, even going so far as performing in it without pay.
Among other things, the invented nature of the folk culture of Summerisle can perhaps be taken as a commentary on the conscription of the old ways by the New Age sensibilities of the 1960s counterculture. Read this way, the invented and inauthentic nature of the folk culture of Summerisle suggests that the conscription of certain aspects of the ancient folk cultures by the 1960s counterculture might have had its own problems with authenticity, possibly because the young people attempting to draw on what they saw as a more genuine, precapitalist way of living in harmony with nature did not necessarily understand the cultures they were drawing upon.
Throughout The Wicker Man, the police officer Howie (and he seems determined to inform everyone he meets on the island of his official status) stands in the film as an emblem of conventional authority, while the cultural practices of the islanders seem, at first glance, to echo those of the youth-oriented counterculture of the 1960s, still very much a presence in the world of 1973. It is primarily in this sense that the culture of the island seems to represent the new, while Howie represents the old, though it is also the case that many aspects of life on the island (such as the presence of electricity and running water and the fact that the crops of the island are grown as part of a thriving commercial enterprise) undermine any attempt to see it as an anachronistic ancient culture. And, of course, it is also the case that the invented version of Celtic folk culture practiced on the island, while derived from ancient sources, is literally newer than Christianity on the island, where Christianity had long been practiced before Lord Summerisle’s grandfather bought the island and converted it to this invented folk culture, seemingly designed to secure the cooperation of the islanders in growing his crops.
On the other hand, this latter fact tends to undermine any attempt to view the culture of Summerisle as being a sort of hegemonic version of the hippie culture of the 1960s, given that it is actually designed to further the rule of the members of the aristocratic Summerisle family, who essentially rule the island as absolute despots, which would seem a throwback to medieval times, except for the fact that Lord Summerisle seems like more of a capitalist oligarch than a true medieval lord. Add in the fact that Summerisle is perfectly willing to include human sacrifice as an element of his invented culture and that the islanders seem so in thrall to his rule that they seem to follow his lead without question, and it is clear that this culture might not be quite as harmless and life-affirming as it might first appear.
Vic Pratt has thus argued that “The Wicker Man was not a simplistic film which depicted counter-culture free spirits as heroes and uptight authorities as fools. Lord Summerisle – trendily polo-necked, down with the kids, but still, ultimately, landowning gentry – is out for his own ends, his propagation propagation of pagan belief a handy tool for the control of his island’s serfs. Pagans might have more fun; but will sacrificing Howie cause the crops to succeed or fail? It remains bleakly uncertain.” Indeed, Pratt sees the ultimate message of the film as a rather dark and nihilistic one, a far cry from any notion that it celebrates nature worship: For him the film suggests that “nature cannot be controlled” but that “people can – with religion a powerful means to that end.”
In any case, as Murray Leeder points out, The Wicker Man is quite critical of both Howie and Lord Summerisle, the film’s two figures of authority: “The policeman is a blundering fool, and the lord is a deceptive manipulator. Each is absolutely possessed of moral and religious certainty in his actions, but neither paganism nor Christianity is shown to possess any real power” (51). This suspicion of established authority, of course, corresponds well to the attitudes that were central to the countercultures of the 1960s and early 1970s, which included a suspicion of established religions. On the other hand, in another complication, the hippie-like culture of the islanders is not opposed to the authority of Lord Summerisle, but is quite overtly designed to shore up that authority.
Dawn Keetley points toward still another complication when she appropriately describes The Wicker Man as a key example of “anthropocentric” folk horror. That is, while the film might seem to deal with a sort of nature-worship, the fact is that the culture described in the film (as well as all of the specific events of the film) is dominated and controlled by human beings, who are, in fact, asserting their colonial control over nature, including the careful cultivation of invented (unnatural) strains of apples and other crops. Of course, the recent failure of the apple crops on Summerisle suggests that this human control over nature is lagging, and in this sense (even if inadvertently) The Wicker Man nicely illustrates Keetley’s characterization of folk horror as a form of “ecological crisis fiction,” reflecting the negative impact of centuries of human colonization of the natural environment (14).
This view undermines any attempt to see the opposition between Howie and the islanders as a simple one between culture and nature, just as the film continually undermines such oppositions in general. Similarly, the film continually undermines any tendency to see Howie’s Christianity as the benevolent other to the sinister folk religion of the island. The middle-aged Howie, still a virgin because of his extreme piety, is almost comically horrified by the free and open attitude toward sexuality he discovers on the island, just as he seems excessively hot and bothered by Willow, again to an extent verging on comedy. Indeed, for most of the film, the reactions of the grim and humorless Howie are something of a source of humor in his own right, while his particular version of Christianity seems so stern and joyless that the lives of the islanders, filled with sex and drugs and singing and dancing, seem rather pleasant and healthy in comparison.
Meanwhile, the manipulative nature of the religion of Summerisle recalls Karl Marx’s famous dictum that “religion is the opiate of the masses,” designed to “drug” them into submission. Marx, of course, was talking primarily about Christianity, but this well-known characterization suggests some strong parallels between Christianity and the folk religion of Summerisle. Indeed, one of the complexities of this film is that, even though it appears to be based on a polar opposition between Howie’s Christianity and the folk religion of Summerisle, there are many ways in which the film itself undermines this opposition. For example, several aspects of the film remind us of the work of many scholars of religion who have pointed out the many ways in which Christianity has strong roots in the pagan religions that came before, as in Sir James George Frazer’s The Golden Bough, published in numerous volumes between 1890 and 1915. In a nutshell, Frazer concluded that pre-Christian religions tended to be fertility cults that revolved around the worship and periodic sacrifice of a sacred king, elements that were then incorporated into Christianity. In The Wicker Man, we can see that many of these elements have been incorporated into the invented folk religion of Summerisle as well, further undermining any attempt to read this film in terms of simple polar oppositions.
In short, The Wicker Man is seemingly constructed through a series of polar oppositions (the opposition between mainstream British culture and the culture of the island can also be framed as one between Christianity and pagan nature worship, or modernity vs. tradition, or repressive authority vs. individual liberation), but then all of these oppositions ultimately unravel, making it impossible to see one side of the opposition as absolutely preferable to the other. These unraveling oppositions create an air of interpretive uncertainty that is key to the atmosphere of the film and that place viewers somewhat in the same situation as Howie: just as he attempts to solve the mystery of the lost girl (and at the same time to figure out just what kind of culture he has happened into), we not only follow him in his interpretive struggles but also have the extra task of trying to figure out just what we think of it all—and just whose side we are supposed to be on.
It’s a very neat (and very difficult) trick, because so many things in the film (including the fact that we are trying to solve the same riddles as is Howie) at first seem to align us with the policeman. After all, the very terms of folk horror tend to cast the modern visitor in the role of protagonist and the “pre-modern” culture he encounters in the role of frightening other, while most viewers of the film are presumably members of modern mainstream societies similar to the one to which Howie belongs. Structurally, the film figures Howie as a representative of the normal and the islanders as figures of the aberrant. In addition, the narrative format of The Wicker Man (and other similar films) means that Howie is very much the point-of-view character: we see everything essentially through his eyes, gaining information about the island only when he does.
This latter fact only makes it natural for viewers to sympathize, and even identify, with Howie while watching the film. This identification, though, is made difficult by the fact that Howie is such an unlikeable prude. Meanwhile, his religiosity might be so extreme that it doesn’t seem normal at all to many viewers. In addition, Howie is so convinced that his stern religious view of the world is the correct one that he experiences none of the hesitation that viewers might experience in assessing the practices of the island, and his complete confidence in the rightness of his own position makes him seem much less likeable. In fact, it is easy to be amused at Howie’s assurance of the rightness of his own views, so that even Christians might be amused when Howie makes clear his disdain for the far-fetched pagan religious ideas of the inhabitants of the island, only to be answered by Lord Summerisle with the reminder that his beloved Jesus was “the son of a virgin impregnated by a ghost,” a point that also breaks down the polar opposition between Christianity and paganism in the film.
Nevertheless, the islanders do act in very suspicious ways from the moment Howie arrives at the island, which tends to make viewers feel that they are up to no good, thus shifting our sympathies away from them. Then, however, we learn at the end that all of this suspicious behavior has been carefully planned intentionally to look suspicious, thus luring Howie into an unwilling complicity with their plans for him. But then, in another turn, those plans turn out to be absolutely murderous, revealing that the islanders really are sinister, at least from the point of view of modern viewers, who are unlikely to believe for a moment that the sacrifice of Howie will really make the island’s crops grow better—or to accept that the sacrifice would be justified even if it did help the crops.
In film’s shocking and powerful final sequence, we see the island’s chief cultural ritual, a sacrifice to the “old gods” who still live on the island—those as far as we can tell they still live only in the sense that the Summerisle family has kept their worship alive as a means of social control. This elaborate final ritual involves the entire population of the island as part of a celebration of the old ways—but also as part of a carefully planned attempt to lure Howie to his doom. The ritual seems to have much in common with the medieval carnival, which was itself all about (temporarily) overturning normal polar oppositions. For example, during this final ritual, Lord Summerisle dresses in feminine clothing (with sneakers as amusingly modern addition) and wears a long wig, skipping solemnly along in what seems a disavowal of his patriarchal power (but in what is actually designed to solidify and maintain that power).
The final ending, meanwhile, is a poignant one in which Howie is sacrificially burned to death inside a giant wicker man. For the islanders it is a joyous moment, and some viewers might be tempted to share that view, given that Howie is such a self-righteous prig, which potentially decreases our sympathy for him. However, the film goes out of its way to reinforce the impact of the film’s ending by showing Howie at his most sympathetic. For one thing, it gives Howie a rather dignified demise by having him stick to his beliefs to the end (whatever he is, he does not appear to be a hypocrite), praying to his particular god to his last breath, rather than panicking and forgetting all about his professed religion. Then, just to be sure, the filmmakers also toss in some innocent farm animals who are killed in the same fire as Howie, just in case some viewers might feel that Howie’s demise is deserved and thus sympathize with the sacrifice.
All in all, The Wicker Man is a fascinating film, largely because it seems so structurally simple but then turns out to be so much more complex than it first appears, building itself upon a series of polar oppositions that it then proceeds to dismantle. In many ways it is a quintessential example of the classic folk horror film, and it does an excellent example of creating an isolated island culture that appears to operate on a significantly different basis than does the modern mainstream society of Britain. This culture draws in substantial ways on ancient Celtic religious and cultural traditions, but it also resonates in important ways with the counterculture of the 1960s and early 1970s, demonstrating the way in which the film undermines any attempt to read it as opposing an ancient culture (represented by the island) to a modern one (represented by Howie). Indeed, the film continually insists on undermining the simple oppositions (modern vs. traditional, Christian vs. pagan, sexual repression vs. sexual freedom, even male vs. female) on which it appears to be based.
NOTE ON VERSIONS: Several different versions of The Wicker Man have been produced over the years. The above discussion applies specifically to the 88-minute cut currently available on Amazon Prime Video, known as the “Theatrical Version” because it is the version that was originally released to theaters. A few minor details vary from version to version (there is also a 99-minute “Director’s Cut,” released to DVD in 2001, and a 91-minute “Final Cut,” released to Blu-Ray in 2013). However, all of the key points made in the above discussion would still hold for these alternative versions.
Keetley, Dawn. Gothic Nature: New Directions in Ecohorror and the EcoGothic, no. 2, March 2021, pp. 13–36.
Leeder, Murray. Horror Film: A Critical Introduction.Bloomsbury Academic, 2018.
Newland, Paul. “Folksploitation: Charting the Horrors of the British Folk Music Tradition in The Wicker Man.” Seventies British Cinema. Edited by Robert Shail, British Film Institute, pp. 119-28.
Pratt, Vic. “Long Arm of the Lore: Robin Hardy on The Wicker Man.” Sight & Sound, July 2016, https://www2.bfi.org.uk/news-opinion/sight-sound-magazine/features/long-arm-lore-robin-hardy-wicker-man. Accessed October 16, 2021.
Scovell, Adam. Folk Horror: Hours Dreadful and Things Strange. Auteur-Liverpool University Press, 2017.
Young, Rob. “The Pattern Under the Plough: The ‘Old, Weird Britain’ on Film.” Sight & Sound, April 2020, https://www2.bfi.org.uk/news-opinion/sight-sound-magazine/archives/old-weird-britain-film-rob-young. Accessed October 16, 2021.