Wicker Lessons

Beltane creeps up unnoticed.  Not an official holiday in these parts, it is, hopefully, a sign of slightly warmer weather than we’ve been having in April.  It’s also the day that I can’t help but think of The Wicker Man.  One of the early intelligent horror offerings, it came out 49 years ago.  My book on the movie, as far as I know, is still scheduled to come out next year, on its fiftieth anniversary.  Watch this space for further announcements.  In any case, today I have a piece on The Wicker Tree—the “spiritual sequel” to the movie, appearing on Horror Homeroom.  Societies in old Europe tended to celebrate this as the beginning of summer, which explains why Midsummer comes half-way through June.  The seasons aren’t always the same in all times and places.

In Germanic countries, Walpurgisnacht, which began last night, was a time of concern about witches.  Our modern calendar tries to concentrate our fears in late October, but they are appropriate any time of year.  These days Beltane’s more of a day when we expect warmer weather to start rolling in and perhaps, especially this year, hopes for peace.  May tends to be a hopeful time—it’s a transition.  The persistence of our fears suggests that learning to deal with them might well be a good idea.  Instead of hiding monsters away, why not face them?  The Wicker Tree isn’t a great horror movie, but something holds true for it—the monsters are us.  In that film capitalism is the real horror.

What makes The Wicker Man the classic that it is is religion.  More specifically, the clash between religions, neither of which is willing to yield.  This is largely behind religious violence throughout history, up to the present.  Religions convinced that they’re the only possible way to the truth can’t recognize that believers of other religions feel exactly the same way.  Yet May is about transitions—one season giving way to another.  It’s part of the inexorable change that marks life on this planet.  We may not fear witches in the mountains any more, but we still fear what’s out there.  Beltane is a hopeful holiday—a day of blessing animals and building fires to encourage the strengthening sun.  Instead of making it a day of clashing beliefs, perhaps we should look for our common humanity in it.  Perhaps we can learn a deeper lesson from The Wicker Man.


Wicker Redux

The Wicker Man (1973) is a cult classic.  If it had had proper distribution and promotion it might’ve become a more mainstream hit when it was released.  Instead it was a slow burn.  Once it reached cult status controversy grew.  The movie doesn’t acknowledge, but was clearly influenced by, the novel Ritual by David Pinner.  I reviewed the novel earlier, and it isn’t particularly great.  The movie changes so much that it maybe was “inspired by” rather than “based on” the novel.  Several years later the director, Robin Hardy, decided to novelize the film.  His The Wicker Man also credits Anthony Shaffer because a good deal of the dialogue is lifted straight from the screenplay Shaffer wrote.  But the novelization also changes things.  That means there really is no novel that gives the full story of the film.

The creative process is never-ending.  Anyone who’s had a story published knows the tinkering that goes on, even after it appears in print.  The last word’s never truly that.  It takes restraint to leave something alone.  So Hardy wrote one of the more important characters out of his novel and wrote in another who seems to have very little connection to the story itself.  I’m still not sure what the point of adding him might have been.  Incidents that seem to be bracing for a sequel are present, and indeed Hardy wrote a spiritual successor that became a less impressive movie some years later.  Sometimes you do get it right the first time around.

Not that the movie is perfect—none are—but it has held up considerably well, growing in stature over the years.  A novelist, however, tends to have a deft touch that seems to be lacking here.  There’s a great deal of telling instead of showing.  Hardy’s Howie almost becomes a Mary Sue.  Tying his love of birds into the plot of the novel would’ve been one such deft touch.  Instead we have here a serviceable novel with much that’s familiar and even some that is strange and provocative.  It does restore some of the famously edited footage from the first cut of the film.  It tries to make Howie’s religious conviction clearer.  Changing parts of a story comes with the territory of those who spin yarns.  Hardy never really rose again to the heights he achieved in directing The Wicker Man.  It’s no wonder, then, that he felt compelled to return to it in literary form.


Mag Dash

I don’t do much magazine reading.  Back when I had more time (mainly before buying a house), there were a few with which I attempted to keep up.  Mainly, however, I’d buy a particular issue that I wanted to keep.  I suspect that’s because I’m a book reader and my time for pure reading is limited.  Strange thing for a professor/editor hybrid to write, but there you have it.  Each year I “pledge” a number of books to Goodreads to keep me honest, and achieving that goal adds a kind of friendly pressure on my reading time.  Magazines don’t count, and mostly I never read the whole thing.  My current book project is an analysis of the movie The Wicker Man.  This led to some magazine reading.

Horror movies, especially, have been traditionally treated as ephemera with little lasting cultural value.  Fan magazines, therefore, often provide most of the periodical treatment for some of these “B movies.”  The Wicker Man suffered legendary distribution problems and that may have been what prompted Cinefantastique to devote all its feature space to this particular movie back in 1977 (the movie came out four years earlier and was still struggling).  The article is a lengthy one, not quite to the extent of The Atlantic, but still several pages.  It was the origin of the much repeated epithet “the Citizen Kane of horror films.”  To read this I had to locate a copy of the magazine.  There was, fortunately, a seller in Beloit, Wisconsin who wasn’t extortionate (thank you!).  My experience in buying print materials from the seventies has often proven the opposite.

Occasionally someone glimpsing my books will cattily ask, “Have you read them all?”  No.  But then not all print matter is for reading all the way through.  Reference materials, for example, are consulted.  The way my mind works, I need to keep things around so I can find them again.  Studies have shown that retention for electronic media isn’t as reliable as it is for print.  That may change some day as we evolve more and more into extensions of our machines, but for now I use it to justify keeping books.  Since I can’t predict the future, I never know when some forgotten tome might come up again in a new project.  That has happened a few times already while working on my small book on The Wicker Man.  And that includes magazines with good articles.  This one is a keeper.


Next Books

The other day an older friend asked about my writing.  My answer was brief because it’s complicated.  Not because I do it from three to four a.m.  Not because many of my older friends don’t know what a blog is.  No, it was complicated because my next book is about a movie few Americans know, especially many of my friends.  I really don’t know many horror fans.  Academics, yes, but normal folk, no.  This is a little odd because statistically most adults like horror.  I feel I always need to explain why I bother writing such books.  (There is a reason and there’s even a book I’m working on to try to explain it.)  It’s easiest, in such circumstances, just to say “I’m keeping busy with it.”

The fact is the draft of my book on The Wicker Man is done.  It has been for a few weeks.  None of my published books are the same as their drafts initially were.  (This is the difference, say, between a dissertation and a first monograph.  Let those seeking advice take note.)  The draft follows the approved proposal pretty closely, but I now kind of do research backwards.  Or at least while the book is in process.  Unlike a professor with a library and sabbatical and summers off, I find my sources as I write.  My books, despite what might seem a narrow focus, range pretty widely.  My reading goes in directions not even I anticipated when I began.  Ideas lead to other ideas.  Soon there’s enough of them for an entirely new book.  So I’m reading my draft and reading other books and creating the Frankenstein monster that will be a codex.

Every time I reach that point where I say, “this will be the last book I need to read for this project,” only a matter of days later I find another.  And another.  Book writing involves both creativity and distillation.  It takes a lot of books read to make one book written.  All writers know that.  Some have trouble knowing when to cut off the research because, and this is a truth for all of life, there’s always one more.  The very month of my doctoral defense a new book on Asherah was published.  The external examiner brought it to my viva.  Obviously he knew that I couldn’t have read it by then (it had to be in German, of course).  It ended up on my bibliography.  So I plod along with my book already written, but not yet begun.  I said it was complicated.


Quest for Quest

The Quest for the Wicker Man is a rarity.  Not only is it very difficult to locate and very expensive if you do find it, it’s also a collection of essays where each one is worth reading.  I’d read some of it before, but since I’m writing a book on the movie I thought I ought to sit down and go through it cover to virtual cover.  I had to settle for a Kindle version—please bring this back in print!—and was reminded yet again why a paper book is so much more satisfactory as a reading experience.  You see, I’m a flipper (not the dolphin kind).  I like to flip back and forth while I’m reading.  Clicking and swiping (both of which, coincidentally, dolphins do) isn’t satisfying.  And if you underline in a Kindle everybody else can see it.  I prefer the privacy of a print book.

In any case, if you’re interested in probing a bit into The Wicker Man you’ll find quite a lot of information here.  (Available on Kindle for a reasonable price, if not a comfy reading experience.)  Many aspects of the film are covered here.  One thing I won’t be discussing in my book is the music.  Firstly, I’m not qualified to do so, and secondly, it is done well here.  Essays also discuss religion (which I will discuss in my book), paganism (ditto), and many other aspects.  This is a book of conference proceedings—a boon for fans, but bust for most publishers.  It’s also a boon for those who like marking up used books to the tune of 64 cents per page (the lowest price on Amazon).  

Some of us believe a page is an ontological entity.  Once narrative writing began those responsible for clay tablets soon settled on a size that is, well, handy.  You can hold it easily.  That concept translated to the codex, or “book” as we know it.  Scrolls were cumbersome, but books offered many advantages.  For hundreds of years they were the standard-bearers of accessible knowledge.  I miss page numbers when reading an ebook.  I don’t want to know the percentage of screens I’ve swiped.  I want to know how many pages I’ve read, what page I’m on, and how many pages there are to go.  (The best of electronic books preserve that information.)  The book was not a form that required improvement.  Well, at least that digression kept me from giving up too much information about my book.  If you want to read it, when it comes out, I recommend the print form.


Book or Movie?

The funny thing about people, or at least one of the funny things, is that when individuals get together we notice different things.  It can happen at in-person meetings or “virtually” through books.  I’m working on a book on The Wicker Man, as I recently noted.  Others have written on the movie, of course, and I’ve read some of their analyses already, but I’m continuing to read more.  Recently I finished Studying The Wicker Man by Andy Murray and Lorraine Rolston.  This particular book—more along the lines of a booklet, actually—has quite a few observations about the movie that I had missed.  Connections, or interpretations, that I’d failed to make despite having watched the movie many times.  It takes the meeting of the minds to bring many things to light.

One of the questions they raised (and there will be spoilers here) is why the movie bears the title it does.  Obviously the climatic moment of the film features a wicker man.  Murray and Rolston noted, however, that more could be going on in this title than is obvious.  Sgt. Neil Howie, the protagonist, is a lot like a wicker man himself.  I won’t repeat their wonderful work here but I will say it’s convincing.  The literary trope of “the hollow man” (it could be woman, or hollow person, but I’m writing from personal experience) can be a poignant one.  We know that life may carry on biologically, but what makes us who we are is what goes on inside.  The hollowness may be intellectual or emotional.  Either way it’s a trial.  It’s something that I wouldn’t have thought of without help.

Studying The Wicker Man may be slim, but it has some powerful ideas.  As a society we’re often impressed with size.  When a promotional photo wants to show an author with gravitas, they generally ask him or her to hold a thick book.  There is certainly a place for large books, but insight can come in any size.  This particular book is obviously designed for film studies courses focusing on this particular movie.  It does point out that “cult classics” become such by not being widely seen, so I realize many of my readers (presuming there are many) won’t be terribly interested in a book that analyzes a movie they haven’t seen.  If you’re one of them, and if you don’t mind a movie with an ending that will stay with you, I would recommend watching the film before reading the book.


B Film

October brings horror films to mind.  As soon as the calendar clicks over, discussions of favorite scary movies begins.  As I’ve mentioned many times before, it is the one time of year when those of us who watch horror don’t feel so odd.  It is a little strange, however, to be watching movies related to The Wicker Man at this time of year.  As holiday horror that particular movie is set at the other end of the year, in May.  So I had to see The Wicker Tree, something I’ve avoided doing all these years.  Neither properly a sequel nor a remake, The Wicker Tree is Robin Hardy’s re-envisioning of the story with a larger budget.  There’s no way to prove it, but it seems likely that it was released in response to the unfortunate remake of The Wicker Man in 2006.

There are any number of things that could be said about The Wicker Tree, not least of which is that it’s clear Anthony Shaffer was a far better screenwriter than Robin Hardy.  (Shaffer had written a sequel, more properly conceived, which has not been filmed.)  Robin Hardy was, of course, the director of the original movie.  Plagued by low budget, rushed filming, and lack of production company support, The Wicker Man nevertheless soared.  The Wicker Tree is what is termed a “spiritual successor”—it doesn’t directly carry on the story of the original, but draws its inspiration from it.  It was based on a novel written by Hardy titled Cowboys for Christ.  Two evangelical missionaries are sent to Scotland to convert as many lapsed Christians as they can.  Of course, their invitation to Tressock is a trap so they can be sacrificed on May Day.

Despite the many unanswered questions the film leaves, to someone raised evangelical it seems that Robin Hardy really doesn’t understand what evangelicals are.  Beth and Steve, on their tour through the lowlands, do things evangelicals just wouldn’t do.  They drink, they dance, they swear, they play cards.  The only thing he seemed to get about evangelicals is they like to sing and talk about Jesus and hand out pamphlets.  This is something I often see is movies—those who try to portray evangelicals haven’t actually been evangelical themselves and don’t understand them.  I also find this in my interactions with British colleagues all the time—they don’t really comprehend what evangelicalism is.  That could be a topic for its own post.  In any case, The Wicker Tree has its moments, but it’s convoluted, cynical, and off-the-mark.  It may’ve been intended as a spiritual successor, but its prototype required no re-envisioning.


Next Trick

Book contracts make me happy.  For my next trick, I’ll be writing a book on The Wicker Man for the Devil’s Advocate series.  This will be a short book, and hopefully priced down where individuals can afford it.  The Devil’s Advocate series was initiated by Auteur Publishing some years ago.  The series covers individual horror films in about 128 pages.  I pitched the idea of The Wicker Man for a couple of reasons.  One, Auteur didn’t have one in the series.  And two, I’ve been working on holiday horror for some time.  Holiday horror encompasses movies where a holiday features in the story, generally in a significant way.  Think Halloween, or April Fool’s DayThe Wicker Man takes place during a pagan celebration of May Day, falling neatly into the category.  You may see, in coming weeks, posts about various Wicker Man books.

While still in the horror genre, this next book will be a departure from the supernatural horror of Nightmares with the Bible.  Demons are frightening, no doubt, but Wicker Man is more about how religion can motivate people toward evil.  It is part of what has been termed the “unholy trinity” of early folk horror, classed with Witchfinder General and The Blood on Satan’s Claw.  This “unholy trinity” overlaps in time another famous threesome: Rosemary’s Baby, The Exorcist, and The Omen.  There can be little doubt that modern horror really began in 1968, which also gave us Night of the Living Dead.  Folk horror utilizes both folklore and the landscape—generally rural—as the basis for its fear.  And you can’t get much more isolated than Summerisle.

The hope is to get this book out in 2023.  That will be the fiftieth anniversary of the release of The Wicker Man.  Although it came out when I was eleven, I didn’t see it for another thirty years at least.  By that point in time I’d watched and read about enough horror to find out about and appreciate this particular, indeed, peculiar movie.  I was blown away the first time I saw it.  It is quirky but stunning.  Christopher Lee maintained throughout his career that it was his best movie.  I haven’t seen all of Lee’s movies (who has?) but I’m inclined to agree.  I’ll be getting to know this movie in some depth over the next several months.  Having watched it many times already, I’m drawing a map for a journey to Summerisle. You’re welcome to come along.


Reading Wicker

Have you ever read a book where factual errors make you question the larger picture?  I suppose being trained in research makes me more bothered by small inaccuracies.  Don’t get me wrong, I’ve made mistakes myself.  Even in publications.  But when they come near the beginning it’s rather unfortunate.  That’s not to say I didn’t enjoy Allan Brown’s Inside The Wicker Man.  I actually enjoyed it quite a lot.  There’s a real treasure trove here for fans of this cult classic.  I suspect it’s the definitive treatment of the misfortunes the film faced after it was shot, and even during the shooting process itself.  It’s somewhat surprising that so many of us have even heard of it.  When the film’s production company turns against the project it must present special difficulties. Errors are human. Most of the mistakes in the book were about religion.

For Wicker Man fans this book is a great resource.  Not only does it tell the story, but it serves as a useful reference. It includes information on locations, script excerpts, and behind-the-scenes stories.  You get to feel that you know the people involved beyond simply seeing them as characters in a play.  One of the points that Brown makes, while obvious in retrospect, is crucial:  The Wicker Man works as horror not in spite of religion, but because of religion.  I struggle to articulate what the two share in common, but it is useful to be reminded that a prime example comes in this unusual movie.  I wrote about it in Holy Horror, but there’s much even there that I left unsaid.

Brown had the distinct privilege of interviewing many of the people involved in the making of the film.  Most of the cast and crew have since died—the movie was, after all, nearly half-a-century ago.  Even so, when attempting to get at what a novel, movie, song, or piece of visual art means, the realization soon dawns that it’s often in the mind of the observer.  Some songs, for example, speak intensely to some people while being ignored by many others.  The Wicker Man never swam into the mainstream.  I discovered it during an intense period of watching as much quality horror as I could get my hands on.  Immediately I was struck by its intelligence and its strong message.  I’ve watched it several times since, making me, I suppose, a fan.  Enough of one to read this book and enjoy it, in any case.  And to recommend it to others who may be interested in the fascinating film it explores, along with its religion.


Witchfinder, Generally

In Holy Horror I describe the “unholy trinity” of movies that figure strongly Christian themes: Rosemary’s Baby, The Exorcist, and The Omen.  These movies span 1968 through 1976 and all were extremely successful.  Another writer earlier dubbed another three horror films from the same era the “unholy trinity” (I didn’t realize I was being trite) of folk horror: Witchfinder General, The Blood on Satan’s Claw, and The Wicker Man.  These three were low budget and not particularly successful at the box office.  They’ve all become cult classics, however.  I suppose that together these six films help mark the late sixties and early seventies as the beginning of a new realm of horror films.  Folk horror continued to exist but wasn’t terribly common.  It has recently been given a high profile by The Witch and Midsommar.

Of all of these films Witchfinder General stands out as the least obviously marked by horror tropes.  It’s set as a fictionalized account of the historical Matthew Hopkins, a man actually responsible for about a fifth of all British witch executions in the seventeenth century.  There’s nothing really supernatural in the film and its horror reputation is attributed to the cruel tortures depicted—these really pushed the envelope in 1968.  Not only was Rosemary’s Baby released that same year but so was Night of the Living Dead, another defining horror film.  The sixties were a chaotic time—the birth pangs of a new outlook that is still being resisted by many politicians.  We all know about the music of the era, but the cinematic impact was also immense, as these six films show.

As different as they are, these two trinities all feature horror that is fueled by religion.  Although this had been pointed out earlier in the century, people were now being made aware that, apart from the good religion does, it also brings potential evil into the world.  There’s no question that misguided over-protectiveness of Christianity led to many, many innocent deaths.  The more cynical might note that the Christianity being “protected” is actually key to an economic system that benefits the rich—that supports the interests of the wealthy.  The historical Matthew Hopkins was the son of a clergyman.  Apart from his reprehensible role in rekindling the witch trials in England, not much is known of his life apart from his preoccupation will executing “witches.”  As time has gone on, we’ve unfortunately circled back toward the religious conflicts in the folk horror trinity.  Watching horror may yield some valuable lessons.  


Electronic Ritual

Religion and horror go naturally together.  Perhaps that’s something I instinctively knew as a child, or perhaps it’s something only mature eyes see.  It’s clearly true, however.  While reading about The Wicker Man lately I felt compelled to read David Pinner’s 1967 novel Ritual, upon which the movie is loosely based.  In many cases it is better to read the book before seeing the film.  In other cases the movie ends up being the superior project.  I had to keep on reminding myself as I read the novel that it couldn’t be measured against a superior vision of what it could have been.  Having written seven novels myself (all unpublished) I hope that I have a sense of the process.  Unless you’re into the commercial side of things you don’t write for the movie potential—you have a story to share and this is your way of telling it.

The novel isn’t bad.  It’s written in a punchy style that I don’t really enjoy, but the story drew me in.  It almost wasn’t to be.  Like many novels of this era, print copies are difficult to find.  Those available on used book websites, or even on Amazon, probably because of rights agreements, sell for over $200.  That’s a bit much, considering that over two dollars per page is excessive for a novel.  I finally had to cave and get a Kindle version.  I don’t have a Kindle, but I have the software on my computer.  Reading it again reminded me of how superior a print book is to an electronic one.  Reading ebooks tends to be faster but like eating snack food, doesn’t really satisfy you.  

At one point the navigation function stopped.  Confused, I couldn’t go any further in the story and wondered if I’d reached a sudden but unexpected end.  With a physical book I could’ve paged ahead to find out.  In this case, with the controls frozen with that obdurate computer attitude, I had to find another way to make the illusion of reading continue.  I eventually got it going again after clicking here and there, but reminded myself again that ebooks should only be the last resort.  As for the story itself, it was okay.  I read it as a parable about intolerant religion.  I’m not sure it was intended that way, but it certainly seems like a reasonable interpretation.  It ends differently than the movie does, so I won’t put any spoilers here in case you decide to spring $200 to get a used copy.


Joyous Beltane

Every year around Beltane, I think of The Wicker Man.  Of course, the holiday itself, aka May Day, is no cause for alarm.  What makes the movie so effective—and I mean the original film, of course—is the fear of others’ religions.  My last two books have explored the nexus of horror and religion and The Wicker Man always stands out as an example of how naturally the two go together.  May Day, or Beltane, represents one of the cross-quarter days.  It falls roughly halfway between the vernal equinox and the summer solstice.  Days are noticeable longer now than they were back before the equinox, and Beltane, like many cross-quarter days, uses the symbolism of light to remind us of the seasonality of life.  While the light is here we should make use of it.

Photo by Ameen Fahmy on Unsplash

Agricultural festivals—and many ancient holidays began as such—acknowledge the importance of the lives of animals pastoralists depended upon.  Imbolc, the start of spring, was marked by sheep beginning their lambing.  Beltane was the point at which cattle could be driven to pasture.  It stands opposite Samhain, the origin of our Halloween, with Lughnasadh falling between.  These holidays were often celebrated with bonfires (thus The Wicker Man), but fire was understood as protective rather than destructive.  Although the Celts seem to have originated in east-central Europe, they were pushed to the northern fringes of the British Isles by other invading peoples.  Their location in chillier climes suggests that fire may have also held a practical purpose.

May Day is celebrated throughout much of Europe as a day associated with fertility.  This, it seems, was a major cause of concern among Christian missionaries.  Fertility is, of course, a natural hope.  Agrarian peoples rely on it to survive.  Fire served to bless the animals and to keep away the mischief of the little people, or nature spirits.  Much of what we know of Beltane, as with other Celtic holidays, has to be reconstructed since the Celts didn’t leave a scholarly archive that could be farmed for information.  Indeed, prior to widespread literacy what would’ve been the point of writing down what the folk already knew?  It was obvious that summer was on the way.  Even in years when the temperatures struggle to warm consistently, there are hints that “the light-soaked days are coming.”  The bonfires of Beltane represent the warmth and light that are on their way.  And what religion could object to that?


Remaking King

Pet Sematary is (or was), according to Stephen King, his most bleak book.  The first movie made from it (Mary Lambert, 1989) never reached the iconic status of The Shining or Carrie, but it nevertheless conveyed the dread of resurrection.  It also followed the novel pretty closely.  The new movie version, which came out last year, uses the more slick, modern horror style that just doesn’t have the same feel as the slow pace of dread.  The whole thing feels rushed to fit too much in.  It does add some nice touches, however.  Borrowing the creepy animal masks of The Wicker Man, it adds a religious procession of children to the eponymous cemetery right at the start and uses a mask to add menace at the end.  There will be spoilers here, so if you’re even slower than me at getting to movies, be warned.

The main source of fear, which is only shown a couple of times before the accident, is the speeding Orinco trucks along the road that kill people and pets.  Since horror is an “intertextual” genre there are several knowing nods toward the 1989 film, sometimes lulling the viewer into a false sense of security.  (Can you have security watching horror?)  King’s novel, and the original movie, point to the impending death of Gage, the young son of the family.  Faking out the viewer, the new film has the truck killing Ellie, Gage’s older sister, instead.  While this must’ve made Jeté Laurence’s role fun to play (for the dead child comes back—and when the monster is a fragile little boy of four or five it’s hard to believe) but it interferes with the explanation of death to her that makes up so much of the story.

Why the wendigo is brought in only to be dropped is a mystery.  The wendigo would make for a great movie monster, but trying to squeeze mention of it into an already crowded plot doesn’t really help.  The ending of the new movie is well set up, and the realization that she’s living dead on the part of Ellie is well played out.  Otherwise the film assumes the watcher already knows how it goes.  I suppose that’s a perennial problem with remakes.  The source of horror in the novel and in both films is the idea that the dead can come back.  It’s an ancient fear and one with which all of us eventually deal.  Now that the nights and early mornings are turning cooler and darker, movies like Pet Sematary come readily to mind and we know the horror season has begun.


Divided by Eight

Analogies are useful, but never precise.  When Midsommar came out last year, people were saying “It’s like Wicker Man.”  It’s a good analogy, but not precise.  The plots have quite a bit in common and both are part of the genre that we might call intellectual horror.  Midsommar is a slow burn where you know from the beginning that something’s not right, and you can’t quite figure out what.  I’ll try not to give away too much, in case, like me, you’re late in seeing it.  It involves a group in Sweden, the Hårga, who celebrate a Midsummer ritual every 90 years.  A group of five graduate students—and the writers of the movie actually do know what grad school is like—go to study the ritual.  In central Sweden, far enough north that it’s never really night, they discover a pleasant group of white-garbed believers who use a combination of drugs, sleep deprivation, and folk magic to get the pawns into place.

What fascinates here is just how a fictional religion, with some basis in reality, becomes the vehicle for horror.  The deaths of three of the students are all in the service of a belief system that involves runes, fertility rites, scriptures, and ritual suicide.  It’s self-aware enough that one of the students compares it to Waco early on.  If there were no exotic religion here, there would be no horror.  Tragedy, yes, but horror, no.  The entire energy of the genre draws from four of the students (the fifth is from the community in Sweden) not knowing what is going on.  The village of the Hårga is isolated, and there is no law to keep them within the bounds of secular behavior.  By the end of the film you feel that secular is much safer than religious.

Midsommar foreshadows much of the horror in the illustrations that the community readily supplies.  Paintings show what is coming although the viewers, like the students, don’t know what they’re seeing at the time.  Some of the horror is based on shock, but the director doesn’t stoop to startle scares.  Well, maybe once.  This is horror that you can see coming and you’re fully aware that it’s because the white-robed ones truly believe.  The ending is similar to Wicker Man and the message is much the same.  Religion, when taken too seriously, leads to the sacrifice of those deemed outsiders.  And you don’t have to go to Sweden to find it.


Cross Quarters

Happy Beltane!  We could use a holiday right about now.  For those of us who are under the spell of intelligent horror, May Day brings The Wicker Man to mind.  Not the remake, please!  I first saw it about a decade ago—my career history has made watching horror an obvious coping mechanism—and I was struck by the comments that the film was a cautionary tale.  One of the problems with being raised as a Fundamentalist is that you tend to take things literally and I supposed that the cautionary tale was against Celtic paganism.  The Wicker Man is about the celebration of Beltane on a remote Hebridean island, and it was only as I watched it a few more times and reflected on it that I came to realize the caution was about those who took their religion too seriously, pagan or not.

Photo credit: Stub Mandrel, via Wikimedia Commons

Lord Summerisle, after all, admits that his religion was more or less an invention of his grandfather.  More of a revival than an invention, actually.  In other words, he knows where the religion came from, and he has a scientific understanding of the soil and how and why crops fail.  That doesn’t prevent him from presiding over May Day celebrations to bring fertility back to the land.  The people, as often is the case with religions, simply follow the leader.  Of course, Beltane is a cross-quarter day welcoming spring.  It is celebrated in Celtic countries with bon fires and obviously those fires are to encourage the returning of the sun after a long winter.  The days are lengthening now.  I can go jogging before work.  The light is returning.

Capitalism, which is showing its weak side now, doesn’t approve of too many holidays.  Like Scrooge they think days off with pay are picking the pockets of the rich.  The government stimulus packages show just how deeply that is believed in this country.  Celts we are not.  So as I watch the wheel of the year slowly turning, and see politicians aching to remove restrictions so that money can flow along with the virus, I think that cautionary tales are not misplaced.  The love of money can be a religion just as surely as the devotion to a fictional deity.  Herein is the beauty of The Wicker Man.  Beltane is upon us.  As we broadcast our May Day it could be wise to think of the lessons we might learn, if only we’d consider classic cautionary tales.