15 September 2015

Pleasure, horror, and The Wicker Man

One of my favorite movies is The Wicker Man (1973), a British production starring Edward Woodward and Christopher Lee.  The film has achieved some notoriety and most people have at least a vague idea of it, even if they haven't seen it.  In case you don't, a summary:

Sergeant Howie (Woodward), a Scottish police officer who also happens to be a devout Christian, travels to a remote island off the Scottish coast to investigate the apparent disappearance of a young girl.  He quickly discovers that the locals have some rather unusual habits.  They engage in various ancient pagan rituals, and pagan art and symbols are on display everywhere.  Sexuality is spoken of, and practiced, in startlingly frank and open ways (heterosexual only, but this film was made 42 years ago).  The repressed and priggish Howie finds all this rather offensive and disturbing, but pursues his investigation.  Eventually he meets the community leader, Lord Summerisle (Lee), who explains that his grandfather had revived ancient Celtic paganism among the people in connection with introducing new strains of fruit which made the island prosperous.

Howie suspects that the girl whose disappearance he is investigating is being held somewhere to be used as a human sacrifice.  As a major pagan ritual event is under way, he infiltrates the site, only to be unmasked.  The pagans had tricked him into coming there so that they could.....

.....and then comes one of the most jarring shock endings in film history, as the charming and hedonistic pagans turn murderous.  They force Howie into a huge wicker structure in the form of a man (hence the title) and burn him alive.  He, not the missing girl, is their human sacrifice.

Not only is this almost too horrific to watch, it achieves a remarkable flipping in the viewer's perception of the characters.  The annoyingly prudish and judgmental Howie instantly becomes a figure of profound sympathy, while the carefree pagans, dancing and singing as their atrocity proceeds, look like insane monsters.

The film interests me for several reasons.  Until you reach the ending, it evokes, to some extent, the dream of what the modern world might have become if Christianity had never existed (I doubt the ancient Celtic world was quite this sexually liberated -- casual sex gets a bit problematical without reliable contraception).  But the ending too has an important lesson, which is connected with the reason why modern pagans and "neo-pagans" don't commit human sacrifices.

I don't know whether ancient Celtic pagans actually sacrificed people by burning them alive (the Carthaginians did, though under circumstances quite different than those depicted here).  Ancient pagan northern Europeans certainly did commit human sacrifice, often by stabbing or strangulation, and plenty of corpses have been found in peat bogs which preserved them down to modern times.  The Christian fanatics of the Dark Ages routinely burned people alive, not as sacrifices but as punishment for witchcraft, heresy, and the like.  And in modern times ISIS used this method to murder captured Jordanian pilot Mu'âdh al-Kassâsbah, and has performed many other horrifying ritualistic killings.

What did all these people -- pagan, Christian, and Muslim -- have in common?  They were true believers.  They believed, fervently, in the literal truth of the religions they practiced.

In recent decades there's been an increased interest in paganism, with Druidic rituals being practiced at Stonehenge and a temple to the old Norse gods being built in Iceland, while syncretistic "neo-pagan" religions like Wicca and Thelema claim hundreds of thousands of adherents in many countries.  But no one seems to think this is dangerous; nobody who visits to observe the rituals at Stonehenge worries that he's going to be strangled and thrown into a peat bog.

The reason is that these modern pagan systems are more a matter of ritual and feeling a connection with ancient tradition (and having fun) than of actual belief.  Do modern enthusiasts of Norse paganism, for example, believe in the literal existence of Thor and Odin the same way ISIS believes in the literal existence of Allah?  I find that awfully hard to imagine.  And that's why they're not dangerous.  You don't commit atrocities for the sake of a god that you know is really just a traditional symbol, a projection of human passions, and not a living entity.

The charm of The Wicker Man's islanders is that for most of the movie they look like the same kind of people.  This is a place where something vaguely like Wicca or the Stonehenge revelry has become normative and evolved into a whole culture.  It's only when you reach the ending that you realize that's not what it is at all -- these people really believe this stuff.  And that's what makes the horror possible.

In this scene earlier in the film, the culture clash comes to the surface as Howie confronts Lord Summerisle, who explains how the island got the way it is.  The pagan leader's urbane and civilized manner contrasts with Howie's bigoted fury, but towards the end he shows a hint of fervor that adumbrates something dangerous.

One more video (NSFW):  In Howie's most-human moment except for the ending, he struggles to resist an almost-irresistible pagan temptation -- writhing in the torment of fighting against his own human nature which he has been taught is sin.


Anonymous Zosimus the Heathen said...

The Wicker Man is indeed a great movie. I only saw it by accident myself, having video-taped it when it was shown on TV here late one night a few years ago, but only because it came at the tail end of a bunch of other movies I was more interested in taping and watching. Unfortunately, one of those other movies was the terrible 2006 remake of the above film, starring Nicolas Cage (which, for some unfathomable reason, I thought would be more enjoyable than the original), which I watched first, thereby spoiling for me the twist ending of the vastly superior original (even worse, the only scene from the remake that most people consider worth watching, purely for its comedy value (a scene towards the end in which Cage's character is attacked by bees), was excised from the version I saw, apparently because the censors here have banned it).

Re your observations on modern pagans, and the things that make them different from the original ones, I can't help thinking of parallels with modern Satanists, most of whom claim to regard Satan as nothing more than a symbol representing various human drives, and who'd probably be no more likely to engage in human sacrifice than you or I (sensationalist fundamentalist Christian horror stories to the contrary notwithstanding). Indeed, that seemed to be the stance of Anton Szandor LaVey, founder of the "Church of Satan", whose shtick pretty much boiled down to: "Everything you've been told is a sin is actually good! Now give me lots of money for imparting such a profound revelation to you!" (Of course, one big difference between Satanists and pagans is that there's considerable debate over whether the devil worshippers of old really existed at all.)

The only thing I'd consider dangerous about modern pagans, at least of the Nordic variety, is that there seem to be more than a few neo-Nazis among their ranks (indeed, I've heard that the original Nazi ideology was influenced to some degree by Nordic pagan beliefs, although Hitler himself apparently never had much time for that kind of thing). Another potentially dangerous breed of modern pagans I've heard of are the members of an American outlaw motorcycle gang actually called The Pagans, whose founder, at least, apparently espouses some rather strange pagan beliefs. Indeed, outlaw bikers of any stripe often strike me as modern day versions of pagans, though probably more in their behaviour than their beliefs in most instances. (One thing I often find weird about these folk, at least the ones down here, is that they're fond of portraying themselves as the scourge of conservative, church-going society, yet far more often than not, their political beliefs and values are the same as those of conservative Christians!)

15 September, 2015 06:30  
Anonymous Marc McKenzie said...

Easily one of Christopher Lee's best performances (and of course Edward Woodward knocked it out of the park as well). I only saw all of the film recently, and yes, the ending is one hell of a shocker.

I have not seen the remake and I plan not to. Of course, that means I cannot comment on whether it was good or bad. :)

A couple of interesting interviews about The Wicker Man:



15 September, 2015 08:16  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

Zosimus: I've never seen the re-make and never heard anything good about it either. Why bother to re-make something that's already perfect? I've even heard about plans to re-make Blade Runner, believe it or not.

Good point about the analogy with LaVeyan Satanism, which made explicit the very point I was making about modern pagans -- that their deity is symbolic rather than held to be a real entity. In fact both LaVeyan Satanism and Wicca are largely derived from Crowley, a somewhat LaVey-like figure in his own way.

I don't have much doubt of the existence of Satan-worship in earlier times, such as Guibourg's group. Of course with claims from much earlier than that, it's harder to be sure.

I think the racist/fascist connection with Norse paganism is mostly a matter of people who start out racist glomming onto the paganism, rather than paganism guiding people to racism. A lot of racists are anti-Semitic, and in some cases this leads them to reject Christianity because of its Jewish origins, and such people are then likely to find a version of European paganism appealing, especially the Norse variety given its association with the warlike Vikings. But most modern neo-pagans start with a liberal or at least open-minded mind-set, fortunately. It's all part of the steady crumbling of the old Abrahamic monolith.

Marc: Thanks for the links! While watching clips I was considering for this post, I struck me strongly how good Woodward was. He embodies the character so perfectly that on first viewing it seems effortless.

16 September, 2015 03:18  
Blogger Ranch Chimp said...

Interesting points Infidel ... as far as the "Wicker Man" ... I have heard about it time and again as a favourite from folks over the years, but never got to see it ... just makes me think of it now to see it. "Ritual" ... interesting views you have ... I view "ritual" maybe a bit different than some, being that I look at it as common human art in a way, meditation, etc. I mean like everything we do seems ritualistic, whether its a certain dinner table arrangement, sports, holidayz, fashion, art, daily habits, religion/ beliefs, politics and on and on ... when I was commenting with you on a recent posting, I was describing going to a evangelical church that a girl I wanted to date requested I do with her back when I was a kid, and all these "loving christians" were dancing wildly, speaking in tongues, grabbing all over me, etc, etc (I freaked out being stoned and had no idea what in Hell they were doing) ... it WAS a ritualistic event ... HOWEVER ... these same people and branches of christianity related ... will swear up and down that they are AGAINST RITUAL and would NEVER condone to it (Catholicism ... same thing, smothered in rituals). Example ... if they are engaging in their holy sex acts (in marriage or whatever) allowed by christian belief, and making a baby let's say ... talking about love and God in the heat of the act ... are they NOT performing a type of "ritual"? Is not when Muslims in a mosque doing their daily on the knees and floor prayer gathering a ritual? They have NO BUSINESS criticizing Pagans when they are NO different ... same as your points on Islamic groups that you mentioned. Enough from me though ... have a good one Infidel ... my guess is the media's today will be covering those worthless GOP debates that were held last night, CNN yesterday was all over it like a cheap suit on sunday.

17 September, 2015 05:22  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

Ranch: It's well worth seeing (but be sure to watch the 1973 original and not the apparently-dreadful recent remake). It's true that a lot of things people do could be considered rituals, though I wasn't familiar with the idea of religious people actually rejecting the term -- touchy, aren't they?

17 September, 2015 18:42  
Blogger Ranch Chimp said...

Yes, I would watch the 1973 version ... especially reading what Zosimus commented above, thinking the new one would have maybe been better (I guess because of techs, effects or whatever), I noticed that some folks just remake and add parts (#2,3,4, ... the "return" etc)and they end up lousy compared to the first or original, then they sugar coat things more, you know?

But concerning "rituals" in Christian beliefs, I didnt know you were unaware of that ... YES, they have these, you could say "inner- Christian bitch fights?" (best term I could come up with to describe it), when they run out of Satanic or Pagan news stories to bitch about, they just attack each others cults and denominations. Example ... most evengelical branches of Chritianity dislike Catholics passionately, they consider the Catholic Mass as ritualistic (blood/wine in chalice consecration, worship of mother Mary, etc), the Catholic Church has recently even changed the "Hail Mary Prayer" (I noticed at a recent funeral wake I attended, and I told some people I was with "why" they changed the words) ... they wont say "Holy Mary mother of God" part any more ... I would assume though some of the older orders like maybe Franciscans may still do the older versions (to make it more BP- biblically correct), just as they changed when they genuflect (cant spell) and make the sign of the cross they changed it to "holy spirit from holy ghost". But yeah, these freaks that had their hands all over me back when that girl took me to church are the types that criticize ritual, yet they act like a bunch of f'n nuts in their ritualistic performance, when they freak out in their services, similar to some that do the snake ceremonies, etc, etc! Some of it is connected to the early "Black Mass" ceremonies and history, because modern christian fundies (early 1900's and after tribes/ cults) look at that as being a reversal of the catholic mass, which it was ... being it was created by Catholics, that turned dualistic you can say. Anywayz ... nough from me.

18 September, 2015 04:54  
Blogger Shaw Kenawe said...

I saw this film years ago and it haunted me for a long time. Thanks for bringing it back to my attention. I look forward to watching it again.

18 September, 2015 21:40  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

I'll be watching it again soon too -- just got the DVD.

19 September, 2015 18:33  

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