Friday, 4 December 2015

The Devil Wore a Yellow Turtleneck and Trainers, or, Finding Fear in 'The Wicker Man'

For our final meeting of the year, Sheffield Gothic sat down to watch the 1973 cult classic The Wicker Man. As with any GRG film viewing, The Wicker Man was met with a lot giggling and at least two Outlander comments.

Warning: The following post contains SPOILERS

Danny was not impressed with the opening sequence

Watching in 2015, it is hard not to giggle at The Wicker Man. Stylistically it is so very, very '70s, and the accompanying soundtrack could easily make it very difficult to take the film seriously. Having just read director Robin Hardy's recollections on the making of the film, published in a Guardian interview in 2013- that the film was in fact shot in November and the leaves and blossom had to be glued by hand to trees to give the impression of spring, and that the goat in the final scene urinated all over the crew as they were filming inside the wicker man itself- didn’t make it in any easier.

My first experience of the film was at a sing-a-long version; we were studying it as part of our Modern Gothic module, so it seemed like a good idea to go along. Watching the film for the first time as your fellow cinema goers heartily belt out ‘The Landlord’s Daughter’ was certainly an interesting experience, I’ll say that much. Despite the bawdy singing and the laughter, I was still surprised when the credits rolled and one of our classmates leaned forward and asked: ‘I thought this was supposed to be scary?’

Because it is scary- how can it not be? The Wicker Man terrifies me more than any blood, gore, jump scare or CGI demon ever could. Not that these things don’t affect me; back when we showed the 2013 Evil Dead I spent the majority of the film hiding behind my hands (when I wasn’t wincing or trying not to jump out of my seat.)

From its innocuous opening to its fiery conclusion, The Wicker Man both plays upon and draws out our fears as an audience. The film raises a number of questions about the way societies and belief systems function, how irrational actions and atrocities can appear justified when facing desperate circumstances. We may not like the dour, devout Howie but we are nonetheless aligned with him as the representation of modern methods and logical thinking. As the islanders reject Howie’s faith as no less strange and unrealistic than their own, what we as viewers experience is arguably the rejection of rational. The revelation that by refusing to be drawn in by the island’s odd traditions and instead following his sense and reason Howie has only succeeded in dooming himself is one that sits uncomfortably in the pit of your stomach long after the film is over. Rewatching with this knowledge is no less ‘scary’, either. The villagers' feigned ignorance, their unwelcome attitudes, their suggestions and warnings that Howie leave before May Day all become far more sinister on a second viewing. The scene in the school room, which alienates and disturbs Howie, and in turn the viewer, becomes wrought with a sickening anxiety when we realise that Howie is little more than the beetle tied to the nail.
"He goes round and round until he winds up tight to the nail."

Christopher Lee reportedly declared The Wicker Man to be the best film he had ever made, and it certainly marks one his finest performances. He is utterly convincing as the charismatic and intelligent cult leader, Lord Summerisle. As viewers, we can only watch in horror as he leads Howie in a merry dance (literally) towards his death, catching the policeman in a trap that has closed tightly about him the minute he sets foot on the island. For me, as ridiculous as it looks, the fact that Lord Summerisle sends Howie to the wicker man dressed in a bright yellow turtleneck and trainers, leading the swaying chant as it burns, only adds to that horror. It’s not a particularly unbelievable cult, clad in druid robes and chanting in a faux ancient tongue, and as such it’s hard to disassociate. The mantra of ‘this is not real, this could never happen’ that applies to many modern horror films does not apply to The Wicker Man. After all, the rationalisation, the refusal, is the very thing that traps Howie within the burning effigy. And it’s terrifying.

Disclaimer: My fear of The Wicker Man definitely saved all our lives that one time Sheffield Gothic visited a small Yorkshire village on a research trip, were accosted by strange locals, and left in a hurry. They made out like we were the suspicious ones, but I knew better…

...But then again we are a pretty dodgy bunch.  Lauren Nixon is a postgraduate researcher in Gothic studies and gender at the University of Sheffield.  She's the co-leader and head baker of our cult.

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