To obey is better than sacrifice, and to hearken than the fat of the rams. For rebellion is as the sin of witchcraft (1 Samuel 15.22).
he Wicker Man, a cult classic of 1970s British cinema, portrays the investigation of an authoritarian police officer (played by Edward Woodward) into the mysterious disappearance of a young girl in the remote Scottish island of Summerisle. It becomes apparent that the islanders observe various ancient pagan traditions, and Sgt. Howie—a committed Christian—becomes increasingly suspicious of them. Eventually, he comes to suspect that she is somewhere imprisoned, earmarked as a human sacrifice for the Mayday festival of Beltane.
As the mystery unfolds, Howie comes to realizes the awful truth: the missing girl was a mystery fabricated in order to lure him to Summerisle, and it is in fact he who is to be burnt alive in the Wicker Man as an offering to the renewed cult of the old gods. This sinister ending has ensured this film a place in the annals of horror despite its divergence from the tropes of most horror films of the 1970s. The Wicker Man presents no bogeymen, no vampires, and no sinister music; its ending is all the more shocking, in fact, for the twee charm of the villagers and the folk-music score, which lead the audience into a false state of complacency that mirrors Sgt. Howie’s own vulnerability. And in a further departure from other examples of the genre, the antagonists are in no way demonized.
So, if The Wicker Man breaks so many of the genre rules, why is it such an unsettling film? One answer is illuminated by the complex matrices of truth, power, and knowledge made familiar by the French historian and philosopher, Michel Foucault: The Wicker Man presents us with an alarm call to wake us from “anthropological sleep,” and to tear down and burn our own false conceptions of “man.”
Foucault, a noted critic of the social sciences, rejected all positive notions of objectivity and human nature. For Foucault, we exist trapped within a kind of postmodern labyrinth (or “archive”), where truths are relative to the societies and practices that develop them. This is not a facile cultural relativism. Instead, we are invited to understand truths as problematized, colored by the contexts and subjects that produce them. The power structures that (so to speak) restrain us are also what makes our freedom possible, conditioning our thought at a collective, unconscious level.
Foucault’s own diagnosis of the present took the form of investigations into (often obscure) historical documents that aimed at exposing the implicit “truths” that underlie social practices and norms, thereby supporting his position as a thinker of social and historical relativity. As his work developed, it became clear that the driving force behind his work was an interest in how senses of identity are formed when the self is essentially a product of certain power/knowledge relationships, discourses, and games of truth.
Foucault’s early works—and The Wicker Man—offer this message: identity is best understood as an amorphous, shifting fiction, an “anthropology” that is to be exposed. When the full import of this becomes understood, the effect is rather more unsettling than the fraternity gorefests that typify many later horror films.
Ostensibly, The Wicker Man’s narrative organization centers around Howie’s investigation into the disappearance of Rowan Morrison, but the clash of cultures between Howie’s “civilized” Christianity and the hedonistic abandon of the pagans provides the film with its thematic structure.
The panoptic, “all-seeing eye” looks out from the bow of the harbor launch that greets Sgt. Howie on his arrival by water plane.
“Have you lost your bearings?” asks the Harbormaster, just before he and his colleagues deny all knowledge of the missing girl. This is a good indication of what is to come: Howie invariably finds the natives unhelpful and obstructive, and the witchcraft, nakedness, lewdness, drinking, and dancing he will encounter do not sit well with his position as a committed Christian and officer of the law.
The first “game of truth” is the investigation into the girl’s disappearance. This is essentially a detective story—a quintessentially scientific project that uses a defined series of practices to discover evidence and reveal a “truth.” His investigations are frustrated by evidence that doesn’t fit the pattern he recognizes: the missing photograph of the previous year’s harvest, a grave with no body, people who talk in riddles, the use of masks. Although Howie’s methods begin to bear fruit, he is unaware of the wider game of deception that is being played. Like the beetle fixed to a nail in Rowan’s school desk, Howie moves inexorably closer to his own demise with each step he takes.
The audience, similarly misled by the false clues given to Howie, search for the “truth” of the movie. But The Wicker Man defies easy categorization, since it is not strictly speaking a horror movie. Nor is it a psychological thriller or a drama, but some sort of combination of the three. One is tempted to suggest that this film doesn’t know what it is, a problem of categorization that captures the essence of the postmodern condition.
The people of Summerisle have their own truths and schema for understanding the world, based around the veneration of fertility gods, maypoles, and open sexuality. The world of bonfires, herbalism, maypoles, frogs in mouths, buried hares, and copulating snails recalls Foucault’s discussion of Borges’ essay that introduced the possibly apocryphal Chinese dictionary that categorizes animals under such unfamiliar headings as “tame,” “embalmed,” “stray,” “fabulous,” and “having just broken the water pitcher.” This alien taxonomy indicates for the audience, as it did for Foucault, the otherness of unfamiliar categories of thought.
“I see it all stems from the filth taught here in this school!” remarks Howie on learning of the veneration of the penis encouraged by the local teacher. Foucault always emphasized the role of institutional knowledge in forming subjectivity, and it is no different on Summerisle. The school, the registrar, the library, the apothecary, and the public house all play their part in Howie’s deception.
Summerisle also has its own anthropology, its own creation of the self. Consider the loaf baked in the shape of a man for the Beltane festival. At the head of their community is Lord Summerisle, played by Christopher Lee (sans cape and fangs) in one of his favorite roles as the charismatic leader of the pagan community. As the Dionysus to Howie’s Apollo, Lord Summerisle is the closest thing Howie has to a nemesis in the film. However, unlike the Hammer Horror monsters Lee was more familiar for playing in the 1970s, Lord Summerisle is a villain who acts not out of malice or evil, but from the inspiration of a belief system, an anthropology.
Fraser’s classical study of anthropology and comparative religion, The Golden Bough, was a main source of inspiration for the filmmakers. It tells us that our earliest source of information about druidic British religion comes from Julius Caesar and details the various Celtic rituals of human sacrifice, noting that many such rituals survived until the nineteenth century in remote parts of Scotland. Clearly, Howie is unaware of any such occurrences, as the paganism of Summerisle comes as a surprise to him: it is an unthinkable counterpoint to his own worldview.
The net draws tighter around Sgt. Howie, who still believes he can save Rowan from becoming the next May Day sacrifice. He tears around the labyrinthine village, encountering the various residents of Summerisle who are variously masked as fur, fowl, and fish in readiness for the festival. Foucault used the analogy of wearing a mask to describe his approach to history and identity—we attempt to unify our weak notions of identity under a series of “masks” that prohibit true identity formation, deceived by the chimera of universal truth. The image we are therefore presented with is one of the Foucauldian project: the search for truth in the masked maze.
This interpretation is strengthened by the events of the narrative: Howie, in order to infiltrate the rituals, steals the mask of Alder MacGregor, who is to play “Punch the Fool” at the parade. But the trap is sprung, and Howie’s grisly fate soon becomes apparent as he is led to the wicker man.
Unlike the original druidic Wicker Man (the Wicker Men recorded by Roman historians had expressive faces stuffed with flowers woven into them, and were located in woodland areas) the one depicted in the film is faceless and located on a beachy cliff top. The adopted location, framed by the sea and the setting sun, recalls one of Foucault’s best-known passages, from the end of The Order of Things:
“Man is an invention of recent date . . . (to be) erased, like a face drawn in the sand at the edge of the sea.”
The blank, unstaring face of the Wicker Man is a tabula rasa for anthropological projection, and represents not a particular anthropology (such as pagan or Christian) but anthropology itself. Howie, the representative of scientific investigation, of religious theology and rationality—of the values of the Enlightenment—is both figuratively and literally trapped in “man” at the climax of the film. Thus, the film indicates the problematic of the postmodern condition: the paradoxical attempt to escape the grand narratives of “man,” the loss of spirituality, the loss of perspective.
Moving beyond “anthropological sleep” is easier said than done, and though we can sense the fallibility of our idols, it is something else entirely to abandon them. It is through the practices we involve ourselves in that our sense of subjectivity develops, and what for Howie becomes a noble Christian martyrdom is a successful Beltane sacrifice for Summerisle. Since Howie—inflexible, judgmental, and pompous—is unable to abandon his own understanding of “man” and see the pagans on their own terms, his fate is sealed. As he has chosen to be a virgin, Christian, man of the law and the king of fools, he is their ideal sacrifice.
As he burns, the Wicker Man crumples before the setting sun of a life, an anthropology, a story, a game of truth, a history, an image of man washed away by the timeless movement of the sea. Therein lies the true moment of dread, inspired by all the greatest horror movies—The Exorcist, Night of the Living Dead, Frankenstein, Evil Dead, etc.—for the greatest fear is not of death, but of the loss of the self, of identity, of autonomy, of subjectivity.
The postmodern prison is like Howie’s—an image of “man” woven from brittle individual strands so skillfully that, despite the fact that any individual thread can easily be broken, one cannot fully escape: something that Foucault doubtless came to realize before his premature death.