The Wicker Man is a British mystery horror film that was first released in 1973. The Wicker Man is a fascinating case study on what is truly terrifying to humanity. Upon viewing the film, it can be ascertained that in a patriarchal society, there is nothing more terrifying than a woman who has autonomy over her body and who is complete control of her sexuality.
The film begins with sweeping shots of the Scottish Highland landscape, as an airplane carrying Sergeant Howie travels to Summerisle, a remote Hebridean Island. Sergeant Howie is headed to Summerisle to investigate the disappearance of a young girl named Rowan Morrison, after Howie had been alerted to Rowan's vanishing from public view via a letter. Throughout the film, Howie collects clues to track down the location of Rowan, living or dead, as the film journeys towards a heinous conclusion.
The fictional island of Summerilse is different than the islands that reside near it off the Scottish coast, as the individuals who reside on Summerilse's soil are devout pagans. The resurgence of the worship of the Old Gods and Old Goddesses is directly tied to the success of the fruit and vegetable crops on the island, which began to flourish when the first Lord Summerilse came to the island in 1868. Among the pagan rituals practiced on the island, a special emphasis is placed upon fertility rituals, due to the fact that the fate of the island is dependent on a bountiful harvest each season.
The women of Summerilse are in complete control of their sexuality. The women on the island copulate when and wherever they want. Howie observes this in disgust when he first arrives upon the island and sees couples openly having sex in the fields. Howie is also a target of seduction by Willow, who is the daughter of the Landlord of The Green Man Inn. Howie staunchly sticks to his Christian beliefs, and refuses to have sex with the comely Willow. Upon viewing an extended edition of the film, the viewer realizes that Willow finds herself to be the Goddess of Love made flesh. Willow embraces this tangible incarnation and chooses to have numerous consensual casual sex partners. To Willow, each sex act is a sacrifice for the Goddess that resides within her.
Sergeant Howie also disagrees with the lessons being taught to schoolchildren on the island. In his quest to find Rowan Morrison, Howie enters an all girls classroom. Miss Rose, the headmistresses, is teaching the girls about the May Pole, and the significance of the May Pole as a phallic symbol and regenerative force in their religion. Howie is visibly repulsed by the lesson plan and is asked by Miss Rose to continue the conversation outside of the classroom. Once they are out of earshot from the girls, Howie rails into Miss Rose, claiming that the lessons that are being taught to the children are repugnant.
Sergeant Howie is a devout Christian and becomes deeply disturbed upon viewing how the residents of Summerisle pay homage to the Gods and Goddesses of their pagan ancestors. Howie is particularly distraught when he sees women participating in these rites. Early in the film, when investigating a churchyard which had long been abandoned by Christian ministers, Howie encounters a young woman nursing near a grave, holding a baby to her breast in one hand and an egg in another. Furious, Howie gathers two pieces of wood in the graveyard and creates a makeshift cross. Glaring at the mother, Howie places the cross atop a mausoleum and then leaves in a huff.
One of the most powerful instances of Howie's aversion to the power of female reproduction in the film occurs when Howie treks to the home of Lord Summerisle, the leader of the island. En route, Howie observes a nude group of teenage girls in a circle, who are being overseen by a pregnant woman clad in a gown of diaphanous white. A fire is started, and the naked teenagers each take a turn leaping over the fire, while chanting:
"Take the flame inside you
Burn and burn below
Fire seed and fire feed
To make the baby grow;
Take the flame inside you
Burn and burn belay
Fire seed and fire feed
To make the baby stay...."
Upon seeing the fire leap ritual, Howie has had enough. Howie confronts Lord Summerisle, saying that a murder has been committed on Summerilse. Lord Summerilse retorts in turn:
Lord Summerisle: Well I'm confident your suspicions are wrong, Sergeant. We don't commit murder here. We're a deeply religious people.
Sergeant Howie: Religious? With ruined churches, no ministers, no priests... and children dancing naked!
Lord Summerisle: They do love their divinity lessons.
Sergeant Howie: [outraged] But they are... are *naked*!
Lord Summerisle: Naturally! It's much too dangerous to jump through the fire with your clothes on!
Sergeant Howie: What religion can they possibly be learning jumping over bonfires?
Lord Summerisle: Parthenogenesis.
Sergeant Howie: What?
Lord Summerisle: Literally, as Miss Rose would doubtless say in her assiduous way, reproduction without sexual union.
Sergeant Howie: Oh, what is all this? I mean, you've got fake biology, fake religion... Sir, have these children never heard of Jesus?
Lord Summerisle: Himself the son of a virgin, impregnated, I believe, by a ghost...
It is imperative to note that the women and teenage girls of Summerisle are not doing naked rituals to be leered at by the male gaze. In lieu of that, the women of Summerilse are partaking in such rituals in order to be impregnated by a God of their own free will and volition. The nudity, as Lord Summerisle aptly stated, is a safety measure. The Wicker Man also has an undeniable nod to Goddess power and the mythical authority possessed by pregnant women. This is evident by a scene in which pregnant women traverse through the orchards, touching each tree and plant along the way, presumably to pass their fertility on to next years harvest.
In The Wicker Man, Howie represents the patriarchal Christian's belief that there is something profoundly profane about women being in control of their own sexuality, and in regards to having autonomy over their own bodies, as both are signs of women having strength. Numerous feminists have spoke about patriarchal control over women's bodies, one of the most notable being Gloria Steinem in her essay entitled "The Politics Of Muscle." In order to ensure that female strength is used for work and not rebellion, Steinem argues that patriarchal culture makes women ashamed of the strength that they possess. Steinem also claims that all patriarchal cultures value weakness in women. (It is important to acknowledge that outside of the confines of gender, Steinem notes the inadequacy of using strength as a way of explaining oppression in other cases). The patriarchal premium on women being weak and complacent is highlighted in The Wicker Man by Howie's obsession with defending the "virtue" of the women of the island, and instance that the islanders learn about the organized Christian religion, which has notoriously degraded and stripped women of agency for centuries. Howie is met in staunch opposition by Lord Summerisle, as highlighted by this exchange:
Sergeant Howie: And what of the TRUE God? Whose glory, churches and monasteries have been built on these islands for generations past? Now sir, what of him?
Lord Summerisle: He's dead. Can't complain, had his chance and in modern parlance, blew it.
Religious zealotry, both Pagan and Christian, abounds in The Wicker Man. This religious fanaticism is what ultimately ties The Wicker Man together. Howie researches the religion of the island in the Summerilse Library, and upon discovering that human sacrifices can occur, writes off the islanders as being "mad." Howie cannot see the hypocrisy that he is spouting, as Christians were responsible for the deaths of 60,000 people (of this number, most are women) during the height of the European Witch Hunts from 1450-1750... these deaths themselves akin to being sacrifices to the Judeo-Christian God. The deaths and burnings that occurred are certainly going against the inherent feminist beliefs of Jesus, along with forgiveness, which is another major tenant of the teachings of Christ. Meanwhile, the jingoism of the Pagan islanders is also placed in a negative light; it is dubious that a human sacrifice will bring back their apples when the success of such a crop on thin soil is inherently against the natural environment of the island. As the islanders circle the burning Wicker Man, singing "Sumer Is A-Comen In," their eyes are shining with the light of religious radicals. The facial expressions depicted on the actors that play the islanders are no different than the individuals who are featured in Jesus Camp, which is a documentary on the militant Evangelical Christian right.
A masterpiece of horror, The Wicker Man plays on the fear of women who control their own sexuality and who have autonomy over their own bodies, which is an inherent horror that is present in every patriarchal society. The women of Summerisle are strong, independent, and have successfully cast off the patriarchal chains that had long bound them. This horrifies Sergeant Howie, who is the representation of patriarchal culture in the film. In the end, society as a whole needs to review the values that it confers upon it's populace. Fear of the power of women needs to be expunged from society as a whole. Until then, feminists around the globe can only hope that patriarchy one day will have an appointment with the Wicker Man, finally ensuring that the patriarchal values that continuously maltreat women go up in smoke.
AmandaOfHappiness is a MA student of Women's Studies on the Eastern seaboard of the United States. When she is not reading horror or fantasy, she is mulling over how she would rather be in Scotland. She can be reached at AmandaOfHappiness@gmail.com