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Children of the Wicker Man

Anti-Enlightenment and the folk horror revival

In his Commentaries on the Gallic War, circa 58-50 BC, Julius Caesar reported, in third person, on his conquest of the German and Celtic tribes that unsuccessfully resisted the advances of his invading Roman legions. Among his wildly propagandizing account is a notable detail pertaining to Gallic superstition and the ghastly rituals through which it took shape. “They believe that the only way of saving a man’s life,” writes Caesar, “is to propitiate the god’s wrath by rendering another life in its place, and they have regular state sacrifices of the same kind. Some tribes have colossal images made of wickerwork, the limbs of which they fill with living men; they are then set on fire, and the victims burnt to death.”

The image of human flesh rendered inside a crammed wicker colossus inspired British filmmaker Robin Hardy’s The Wicker Man (1973). But perhaps more than the film’s hellacious climax, a tone-setting confrontation between its two principals (and the ideologies they embody in turn) reveals the The Wicker Man’s governing thematic and seals its fate as a bona fide classic of a horror film subgenre. 

The ideas and imagery of The Wicker Man have sprouted up across the landscape of contemporary horror cinema.

Midway through the film, Sergeant Howie (Edward Woodward), a police officer summoned to a private island in Northern Scotland, meets the island’s self-appointed sovereign to obtain permission to excavate a grave site, hoping he’ll unearth the body of a missing girl. The locals appear to hold onto some peculiar “old ways,” and having encountered only obstruction from them—some denying the child was missing, some denying she existed in the first place, and others flatly mocking the sergeant’s authority—Howie expects similar recalcitrance from whatever nobility presides over the ignoble mob. To the sergeant’s surprise, Lord Summerisle (Christoper Lee), whose geniality and flamboyant liveries seem like parodies of aristocratic Victorian manners, offers his blessing.

The meeting unfolds less as the othering of rural backwardness the viewer might expect and more as a collision between two belief systems, equivalent in their comparable ridiculousness. At one point, Howie confronts Lord Summerisle, yelling, “What is all this? You’ve got fake biology, fake religion! Sir, have these children never heard of Jesus?”

To which the laird replies, smirking, “Himself the son of a virgin, impregnated, I believe, by a ghost.”

Howie’s encounter with the lord of misrule complicates the picture. Lee’s Summerisle reveals that heathenry on his namesake island is not an ancient tradition that isolation sealed away from the civilizing influence of Christianity. Instead, it was only more recently adopted after his grandfather, a pioneering Victorian biotechnologist, bought the once-arid island, leveraging the promise of paganism among the commoners as a means of implementing his new agronomy.

The bit of backstory provided in this exchange reveals what makes The Wicker Man not merely a movie about stumbling upon some horrifying folks, but a definitive piece of “folk horror”—a subgenre now enjoying an ascendance, thanks in equal part to the renewed interest in films like The Wicker Man and a new cycle of pictures tapping into folk horror’s fundamental tropes and anxieties.

Like much folk horror, The Wicker Man first appears to be a rural exploitation story in which an urbanite stumbles across a backwater burg where society’s standardized pieties aren’t observed. But it twists into a story about how useful a naive scapegoat—the “fool,” as Howie is positioned by Summerisle—can be in keeping the pitchforks pointed down at the land and never up at the landowner. Whether Lee’s character buys into his folksy, back-to-the-land heresy is irrelevant. For all his rituals and ceremonies, he remains gentry. This is what governs his actions, and what seals Howie’s fiery fate.

In Ari Aster’s Midsommar (2019), a group of curious American millennials decamp to a remote Swedish hamlet for a highly Instagrammable solstice festival (think Maypoles, peasant dresses, flower crowns, and all the other summery, Coachella-chic accoutrements). In Wicker Man fashion, their arrival is more auspicious than it initially appears, as they end up embroiled in a conspiratorial pagan plot, unfolding against the ceaseless daylight of the Scandinavian mid-summer. Even before Midsommar, the ideas and imagery of The Wicker Man have sprouted up across the landscape of contemporary horror cinema, tapping into fears about manipulation, xenophobia, urban-rural divides, crowds gone mad, post-truth epistemology, and a lurking sense that personal agency is illusory, with the actions of the individual governed by forces that are (or are presented as being) beyond our ken.

Folk horror may be best distinguished not by its mere depiction of Satanists, pagans, witches, buxom nudes wreathed in summer garlands, but by the manner in which they pose threats to our fundamental beliefs.

In Folk Horror: Hours Dreadful and Things Strange, Adam Scovell identifies isolation, landscape, skewed morality, and a happening/summoning (often in the form of ritual sacrifice) as the four links in the “folk horror chain.” In Robert Eggers’s The Witch (2015), a family of seventeenth century Puritans banished from their New England village must carve out their place in a hostile, unforgiving landscape. Crops fail, family members disappear, livestock is unsettled, and adolescent girls fall prey to the hysterical throes of puberty. In Eggers’s film, it’s as if nature—that immortal “devil’s playground”—is avenging itself on the colonizers who came to tame it.

Other recent films weave fear from similar threads, whether it be the traveling caravan of freak-folk cultists in Mandy (2018), men driven mad by witches and Ren-Faire troubadours in The Love Witch (2016), the small town ritual occultism of Aster’s Hereditary (2018), or the body-swapping conspiracy of Get Out (2017), which transposes folk horror’s urban/rural, civilized/heretical dynamics on the differently fractured psychogeography of American race relations. Where Lord Summerisle mobilized his minions in the service of crop-rotation and agricultural planning, the snarling, upper-crust baddies of Ben Wheatley’s Kill List (2011) seem intent on restoring something of the Glory of England herself, amid the woeful warmongering escapades and economic recessions of the Blair era.

In contrast to horror films that teach us to fear Satanists simply because they are Satanists (Rosemary’s Baby, The Mephisto Waltz, House of the Devil), The Wicker Man and its progeny force us to reckon with the deeper implications of the hooting-and-hollering heretic cabal. Folk horror may be best distinguished not by its mere depiction of Satanists, pagans, witches, buxom nudes wreathed in summer garlands, but by the manner in which they pose threats to our fundamental beliefs. Unlike most horror, in which an interloping monster is either destroyed (in order to purge a threat to an established order) or otherwise incorporated into that order, folk horror operates by implicating the viewer in the dissolution and destruction of that order.

It is a sentiment that resonates with audiences today, as op-eds warn us about the perils of populism, the menace of crowds, the threat of fake news, and the need to return to the consensuses of yesteryear. Such thinking only ever makes this imagined Golden Age of social agreement feel less like a genuine historical belle époque and more like a mythic past—“nostalgia for an age that never existed,” as Jello Biafra would put it.

An April 2019 Guardian essay from Sarah Henstra informs us that “no matter our politics, giving up our individuality to group interests comes at a steep psychological cost.” Reflecting on her participation in a women’s march, she draws the conclusion that “collective feeling can turn on a dime from selfless devotion to devouring hatred. Hazing, bullying, torture, riots, mass suicides are the horrible costs of group psychology gone wrong.” Henstra is far from alone in her denunciation of the mob, joined by a regular chorus of professors and columnists penning serious screeds about the threat that the ideology-erasing concept of “populism” poses to liberal democracy. As the American President brings likeminded white nationalists into the limelight, the Democratic Party machine evokes the specter of the extreme left to scare its supporters from shining their flashlights towards the fringes. It’s an anxiety that evokes Allan Brown’s appraisal of The Wicker Man in his book about the film, stating that it “exposes the universal truth that when a consensus is a mile wide it is never more than a millimetre deep . . .”

The first wave of folk horror crested during the waning of a vital counter-culture that had wholesale rejected long-held beliefs about social order, gender, sexuality, and imperialism. If 1968, the year Witchfinder General was released, marks the beginning of the folk horror cycle, it also marks the moment where utopian visions of social revolution were abandoning a politics of collective liberation and ceding to New Age philosophies of personal transformation. The genre’s development maps onto the what Scovell describes as “a backdrop of confident optimism disintegrating impossibly quickly into a nihilistic pessimism.” The films crack open the space between the promise of Paris 1968 and the repression of Kent State 1970, between the dream of Woodstock and the nightmare of Altamont, between The Beatles and Black Sabbath.

Folk horror’s original social context saw the energy animating the 1960s collectivist repudiation of traditional values fizzle and fade into the following decade’s interest in esotericism, astrology, and the occult. Some hippies who suspected that the existing social order could not be willed away with songs about peace and love reasoned that they could at least build their own Buckminster Fuller-style domes and settled into agricultural communes to experiment with pantheistic spiritualties.

The first wave of folk horror crested during the waning of a vital counter-culture that had wholesale rejected long-held beliefs about social order, gender, sexuality, and imperialism.

In the best films of folk horror’s original cycle, the alternative belief system is equally horrific and alluring—stirring in the viewer a productive, and unsettling, sense of ambivalence. In Penda’s Fen (1974), the excavated pagan roots of an English village trigger a sanctimonious and conservative English teenager to come to terms with his own queer sexuality and mixed heritage. At the end of the film, the ghost of a pagan king emboldens the boy to embrace the ambiguity that his identity crisis has engendered, encouraging him to reject his fealty to Queen and Country in favor of the “sacred demon of ungovernableness.”

While The Wicker Man’s viewers are not exactly invited to cheer as Howie burns, the merry music and free love of the Summerislanders does seem more fun than the dour abstention of the film’s ostensible protagonist. Teenage daughter Tomasin’s entry into the forest at the end of The Witch is also treated with similar ambiguity. The witches’ coven is both a source of fear for the viewer and freedom for the character, who after accepting the enticing offer of a talking goat—“Wouldst thou like to live deliciously?”—gets to literally fly away from her overbearing, repressive family.

The overlapping intention here is not mere proselytizing, or preaching the ethical superiority of some alternative, some hippy-dippy, left-liberal, or openly Satanic worldview. Indeed, some read the end of The Wicker Man as a defense of Howie’s beliefs (a reading encouraged by the rictus grinning Summerislanders who gaze upon his burning body, joined together to sing some sinister folk shanty). But finding horror in the space between opposing belief systems, rather than in the content of belief systems themselves, allows these films to appeal both to the permaculture-curious anarchist sporting a “Cops for Crops” back patch and the Christian viewer scared of the Beltane-observing freaks who hate their un-freedom.

A 1998 reappraisal of The Wicker Man in a Scottish broadsheet identified the shifting appeal of a film that, since its release, was regarded as little more than a relatively obscure Brit-film cult classic:

Now, as demonstrated by the enthusiastic remarks of a group of New Age twenty-somethings with Celtic tattoos (that’s Celtic with a hard C, folks) and faces full of ironmongery, The Wicker Man has become keenly appreciated not only by mainstream film buffs and horror hounds but by people who find it a vindication of their own mystical beliefs. It is as though a movie of The Diary of Anne Frank were to become a hit with Nazis, who’d come along to cheer the feel-good ending when the storm troopers haul the Frank family out of the attic.

It’s a sarcastic quip that probably seemed absurd at the time, invoking a comparison so far outside the sphere of consensus that it’s easy to brush off as a harmless joke. But it seems, like so many historical absurdities, considerably less funny now, as white supremacist attacks on synagogues and racially motivated murders regularly dominate the fickle news cycle. The surge of blood-and-soil, volkish fascism in North America makes the counter-cultural embrace of folk horror antagonists seem more deeply uncomfortable, especially when groups like the Soldiers of Odin and the Wolves of Vinland incorporate runic symbols and pagan iconography that seems culled from some hard-bound Compendium of Folk Horror.

In Gods of the Blood: The Pagan Revival and White Separatism, Mattias Gardell argues that during the 1990s, Ariosophic occultism and Norse heathen religions like Asatru overtook Christian Identity as the spiritual dimension of the white supremacist movement. This might seem like a crude projection of the fears of the present onto the films of the past, demanding a revision of that old Mark Twain quote: “To a man with a Hammer film, every nail driven into the palms of a scapegoat looks like brigades of /pol/ cybernazis unleashing Pepes of pestilence to trigger the libs.” But the association between the appeals of paganism and fascism was not lost on The Wicker Man helmer Robin Hardy, who in a 1979 interview was quoted as saying: “It was no accident that Hitler brought back all those pagan feasts at the Nuremberg rallies. The ovens would be lit later.”

Such evaluations may be reasonably deemed a little suspect; like a variation of the internet-favorite Reductio ad Hitlerum fallacy, in which the themes of Hardy’s film gain consequence in their evocation of the world-historic cataclysm of the Holocaust. But they gain a renewed (and again, sinisterly absurd) significance in the present moment, where symbols of paganism and white nationalism are being revived not only in conspicuous tandem, but confused confluence. In place of a more conspicuous swastika, a more obscure runic symbol—a Celtic cross, Thor’s hammer, the German Wolfsangel—will suffice. Once again, the symbols and regalia of the past (be it the imagined distant past of pre-Christian heathenry or the more recent past of the Third Reich) are being revived. We live in an age where, ludicrous as it may seem, certain viewers may well cheer the Nazis hauling Anne Frank out of her annex.

The barbarism that some imagine to be confined to the past—or to some faraway, rural-backwater-bucolic location that itself seems unmoored from the march of progress—is never as distant as it seems.

But old-timey spellings painted on village signage (or movie posters, as in Midsommar), or churches hosting pagan rites, amount to more than a palimpsestic eeriness: at its core, folk horror is speculative fiction about the failures of the Age of Enlightenment. In Tentacles Longer than the Night, Eugene Thacker explains how the universal maxims of Enlightenment thinkers are conditional. Kant’s categorical imperative requires one to act “as if” the values dictating their actions are universally valid. In supernatural horror, the conditions of this logic are violated by the appearance of some entity that threatens the anthropocentric view of the world, evoking terror from the knowledge that Enlightenment rationality is bumping up against its limit.

The renewal of folk horror (particularly in the American context) speaks to an unsettling truth, festering in contemporary political and cultural life.

Folk horror, by contrast, inverts rather than negates Enlightenment philosophy: the mob sacrifices the individual, peasant superstitions supplant science and reason as the true source of knowledge, a holistic and animistic conception of the universe overtakes an atomistic and mechanistic one. The genre presents a return of these things that had to be repressed in the transition towards a rational, individualistic, and ultimately capitalist social order: witchcraft, female empowerment, sexuality, and an organismic, earth-based conception of the universe.

Here the idea is not so much that logic and reason have reached some natural limit, but rather that the promises of the Enlightenment are always provisional, subject to revocation following one too many bad harvests. Again, the ideological structure may seem warped and inverted, but it possesses an internal, contingent consistency. The death of Sergeant Howie turns the standard horror trope of sexuality and impropriety leading to death on its ear. Unlike the many slain corpses stacked elsewhere in the horror genre, Howie’s sin is precisely his dopey virginity and piousness. 

For all its dabbling with the supernatural, the folk horror genre is ultimately one rooted in materialism. The landscape holds considerable power over its people, but not in a mystical way. Allan Brown argues that The Wicker Man specifically can be read as a sci-fi story about technological failure—without the barren fruit trees caused by the poor performance of Lord Summerisle’s experimental botany, no sacrifice would be needed. If the Enlightenment philosophy that provides the grounds for contemporary liberalism involves a faith in humanity’s ability to transcend material conditions, to behave as if laws were universal and human ingenuity had no natural limits, then The Wicker Man brings us back down to earth, and we are reminded of the material conditions that make modern society possible.

Chained up in the wooden structure, Howie attempts to reason with the Lord:

Your crops failed because your strains failed. Fruit is not meant to be grown on these islands. It’s against nature. Don’t you see that killing me is not going to bring back your apples? . . . Don’t you understand that if your crops fail this year, next year you’re going to have to have another blood sacrifice? And next year, no one less than the king of Summerisle himself will do.

In this moment, Adam Scovell argues, the film is “laying down the law/lore of folk horror; that fear supplanted into communities comes back to haunt those who sowed its first seeds.” Burning to death, Howie calls out to his Christian god; the villagers sing and dance as they offer him up to their pagan lords. The viewer may feel that Howie is right, the apples won’t come next year, but the horror comes from the realization that Summerisle is also right: the sacrifice will be accepted. 

Like the detestable vogue in white nationalist movements, which cop their iconography and philosophy from the rubbish heap of some imagined pre-Christian, Aryanist past, the renewal of folk horror (particularly in the American context) speaks to an unsettling truth, festering in contemporary political and cultural life. The return to symbology of Neo-Paganism, or the back-to-the-land return to the supposed “realness” inherent in far-off solstice festivals (an attraction of authenticity alluring the lambs of Midsommar), suggests not so much an antidote to the cult of Enlightenment rationality as its uncanny complement. Think only of Julius Caesar himself, whose grisly imagery of human bodies crammed into a flaming wicker statue was utterly self-serving: casting Gauls and Celts as paranoid pagans in order to justify their slaughter and conquest at the tips of legionnaires’ spearheads.

The horror latent in folk horror, then as now, is not an abject fear of pagans or free-loving hippies or straight-up Satanists. It’s the unsettling knowledge that the people are often all too willing to trade one form of power and subjugation for an aesthetically different manifestation of those same conditions, if only to restore faith in power itself. Even if the crops continue to fail, and the heathens of Summerisle never again taste a locally sourced organic apple, it doesn’t matter: the sacrifice succeeds. Killing Howie need not bring back the damn apples themselves, so long as it restores faith in ritual, mysticism, heathen magick, and the other counter-Enlightenment energies that Lee’s Summerisle, in all his sinisterness and sartorial preposterousness, wields in a perverse seasonal pageant, all undertaken to consolidate his own power: as gentry and patriarch, one Lord substituted for another.