I don’t exactly remember when 1973’s The Wicker Man first entered my sphere of consciousness. My guess is that I first heard about it around the time I first encountered the great Sir Christopher Lee in his role as the over-the-top megalomaniacal villain in 1978’s Return From Witch Mountain. Regardless, this small-budget British cult horror film has been on my radar for a long, long time. It’s one of those movies that few people now have seen, but that everyone’s heard rumors about.
As the years went by, I would occasionally hear whispers from this critic or that fan about how scary and creepy The Wicker Man is. As for me, I never had any idea what ti was about, other than it involved an island and Paganism. I’ve always been strangely attracted to it, probably because I have a thing for Sir Christopher (honestly, he makes anything, if not good necessarily, at least worth watching). In spite of this, I never actually made any effort to see it until this past week when the Nostalgia Critic posted a review of the ill-regarded 2006 re-make (it’s Nicolas Cage month). Not wanting the review to spoil the original for me, I finally bunkered down and rented it on iTunes.
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The film lives up to its reputation. As someone who is usually unaffected by notoriously so-called “scary” movies (I love The Exorcist, but come on! Is it really that scary?), The Wicker Man is as unsettling and creepy as you’ll ever see, and it certainly put me in a different mood the rest of the night. And dat ending, man . . .
Anyway, without spoiling too much, Edward Woodward (that’s a mouthful) plays Sergeant Howie, a police officer sent to the remote Summerisle to investigate the disappearance of a young girl. Immediately we know almost intuitively that something is not quite right about the island. The villagers are friendly, but strangely aloof to Sergeant Howie’s questions. The Sergeant first recognizes something a little off-centre about Summerisle when the riff-raff at a local tavern make advances toward the landlord’s daughter in full view of her father who does nothing to stop it but rather encourages it.
Sergeant Howie is a devout and rigidly moral Christian (maybe Catholic, probably Scotch Anglican) whose discomfort grows into horror when he discovers that the residents of Summerisle are modern Celtic pagans involved in fertility cults and human sacrifices, led by the villainous Lord Summerisle (Christopher Lee). Sergeant Howie is what we would call today in America a “Culture Warrior”. He still thinks of the West as Christendom, and of the Queen’s realm as a Christian nation. The presence of full-fledged paganism within the Kingdom is a scandal to him. Though now it seems quaint, back in 1973 it was still possible to believe in such a thing as Christendom. Sergeant Howie represents modern Christians in a state of culture-shock, coming face-to-face with an old foe long thought to be defeated.
We live in an age ripe with wannabe Pagans whose idea of occultism is worshipping trees and burning cheap incense sticks. It is easy to forget when faced with the benignity of it all, how cruel and vile real historical Paganism was. The religion portrayed in The Wicker Man never actually existed, though it would not be surprising if it had. Ancient Rome was rampant with infanticide and perversion. India and the Americas engaged in ritual human sacrifice. So far removed from the horrors of ancient polytheism, we fail to realize that when Charlemagne crashed down the idols of Northern Europe he was not just being an intolerant crank. He was saving people from primitive barbarity.
This kind of Paganism has mostly vanished from the Western world. What has risen up in its place is indifferent secularism. If we read the film as an allegory for Christians in the modern world, then the Pagans of Summerisle represent the rise of secular humanism, and Sergeant Howie represents the modern Culture Warrior, bent on maintaining the Christian status of the West despite the advances of the hosts of the Enlightenment, not realizing that the Pagans have already won.
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READ AT YOUR OWN RISK
And indeed in The Wicker Man, the Pagans do win. Sort of . . .
In one of the most shocking and frankly depressing endings in horror film history, Sergeant Howie discovers that all of his adventures on the island have been a ruse to lure him to the May Day festival, where they plan to sacrifice him to their gods to bring good crops. They set him inside a giant wicker man and set it ablaze. As the flames rise, Sergeant Howie prays for forgiveness, then begins to recite the twenty-third Psalm (twenty-second if you use the Septuagint) and dies a martyr’s death. The film ends as the great wooden figure collapses under the setting sun. Chilling to the bone.
Sergeant Howie is the modern Christian, confronted with a force of evil he does not understand. His first reaction is anger, followed by fear. The Culture War has followed a similar path. In the end, though, Sergeant Howie realizes that he is part of a much longer history. The history of death for Christ. This touches on a subject we covered last week. “Whoever loses his life for my sake will save it.” In the end, Sergeant Howie does not despair, but goes willingly to his martyrdom in the hope of the resurrection.
As The Wicker Man was released in 1973, before most of the Culture War took place, in some ways it could be considered prophetic. At first we were outraged. Outraged that the new pagans would murder their children, or approve of unnatural marriages. Then when we realized we were losing, we trembled in fear at the coming onslaught. At this point in history it is time we follow the example of Sergeant Howie, and every martyr before and after, and gladly accept our cross.
“But lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal.” (St. Matthew 6:20, RSV-CE)
It is here that Paganism is overcome. Not in legislating morality or bullying it out of existence, but in bringing the Light of Christ to the nations and setting an example for them. We all have our appointment with the wicker man. I have no idea whether any of this was the intention of the filmmakers. In fact I rather doubt it. Even without the parable the movie works fine as a horror film. And of course there is nothing scarier than Christopher Lee dressed up as a woman. But I am becoming convinced that horror, when done correctly, is usually the most Christian of genres. There is a lot to glean from The Wicker Man.
Sergeant St. Howie the New Martyr, pray for us!