Another holiday I celebrate is Walpurgisnacht. This is a traditional spring festival that falls on April 30 and the first of May – exactly six months after Halloween – and it marks the cross-quarter point between the Spring Equinox and the Summer Solstice here in the northern hemisphere. (If you live in the southern hemisphere, these dates are reversed; Halloween occurs on April 30 and Walpurgisnacht happens on October 31.) While Halloween is all about the end of summer and the spirits of the dead, Walpurgisnacht is all about the end of winter and the regeneration of life. Both festivals are “sensitive” times of year when the lines between this world and Duat are blurred and paranormal beings (e.g., ghosts, demons) become more capable of interacting with us than they normally are. For this reason, Walpurgisnacht celebrations usually involve lighting great big bonfires, wearing scary costumes and making all kinds of noise to drive away demons and the last vestiges of winter for good.
This festival is the Teutonic equivalent to the Celtic Beltaine, and it was re-named after Saint Walpurga, an English missionary to the Frankish empire who was canonized on the first of May circa 870 CE. In German folklore, it was widely thought that witches would hold ecstatic revels with their on the Brocken mountain during Walpurgisnacht. This theme resurfaces in countless works of literary and musical art, from Goethe’s version of Faust to the demo version of Black Sabbath’s War Pigs (which was originally titled Walpurgis).
Walpurgisnacht is a big deal for me and my brothers and sister in Set. The first one we celebrated together was in 2004. It fell on a Friday that year, which meant it also fell on our weekly Sabbath. At that point, it was still just me and Tony; neither of us would meet Patrick or Tina for several more years, and we’d only been worshiping together for just under 5 months. Since I was living alone at the time, we could have done a fancy ritual at my place; but we really wanted to do something outdoors, and this restricted our options considerably. We ended up going to a nature park, where we invoked Big Red’s blessings beneath a blood red sky and rocked out with Him to some Danzig. Then, after the Sun went down, we headed back to Tony’s place and watched a film that has since become mandatory Walpurgisnacht viewing for us (and for anyone in our immediate families). That’s right; I’m talking about the original 1973 version of Anthony Schaffer’s The Wicker Man.
The most recent poster art for The Wicker Man
There just aren’t very many films that have anything to do with Walpurgisnacht or any of its equivalents (e.g., Beltaine, May Day, etc.). In light of this fact, I tend to watch Halloween-themed movies at springtime. I may put away my Halloween movies at the end of November, but I pull them right back out again in April. I’m sure this must seem strange to some people, but since Walpurgisnacht is like the “sister-festival” of Halloween, I think it makes perfect sense. That being said, The Wicker Man – which is one of several British “folk horror” films from the late 1960s and early 1970s – is absolutely perfect for Walpurgisnacht. Not only does it take place during this most joyous occasion; it even relates to the specific purpose of the holiday. It’s also one of the most bizarre and original films that’s ever been made; there’s nothing else quite like it (aside from the atrocious 2006 American remake with Nicholas Cage, to which I’ll return in just a few moments).
The protagonist of this film is a Scottish police sergeant named Neil Howie (played brilliantly here by Edward Woodward). Howie’s a real man of the law who takes his responsibilities as a police officer very seriously. He even insists on removing religious graffiti from public property, which is ironic since he also happens to be a hardcore evangelical Christian. This is a man who lives and breathes by the Word of his God; he’s so devoted to his faith, in fact, that he’s still a virgin (despite the fact that he looks like he’s in his forties and that he has a fiancée who probably wishes he’d screw her brains out). All of which is to say that Howie is a very special kind of individual; he’s a domineering asshole, he has no sense of humor whatsoever, and he has a total lack of sexual experience. But if there’s one thing Howie isn’t, it’s a hypocrite; he really means what he says, he practices everything that he preaches, and he devotes every fiber of his being to upholding the law, even when doing so seems tedious or laughable to others.
One day, Sergeant Howie receives a mysterious letter from someone on the far off island of Summerisle. According to the letter, a little girl named Rowan Morrison has gone missing and the unidentified author suspects foul play. Without even hesitating for a single moment, Sergeant Howie packs himself a bag, hops on a plane and goes straight to Summerisle – where he meets the strangest assortment of people he’s even seen. These people break out into random musical numbers and run around naked in graveyards. They also dance around maypoles, jump over fires, stick frogs in their mouths to alleviate sore throats, and hold eggs while breastfeeding to increase their fertility. But the most horrifying thing to Sergeant Howie’s mind is that these people continue to worship the old Celtic Gods and that their children only learn about Jesus in a comparative religions class at their school. In other words, the people of Summerisle are all Pagans; there isn’t a single Christian anywhere on the entire island. And to make matters even more confusing for our poor protagonist, nobody on Summerisle has ever heard of any “Rowan Morrison.”
The people of the island were Christians several generations ago, but they rejected Christianity after their crops failed. Then the leader of their community, a Victorian agronomist named Summerisle, developed a mutant strain of apple that could survive in the island’s harsh climate. This miraculously revived the island’s economy to such an extent that its people are now able to sell huge shipments of their apples all over the world. Ostensibly, Summerisle was an atheist who simply used Celtic folk traditions to keep his people happily working in the fields, but even his descendants – including the current Lord Summerisle (played by Christopher Lee in what is surely his best performance ever) – now accept the Old Gods of Britain as real. Much of The Wicker Man is spent showing us just how the current generation practices its religion, and the film resembles a documentary in this respect. It’s almost as if Summerisle actually exists and the filmmakers simply convinced its inhabitants to let their everyday activities be filmed.
The men and women of Summerisle are truly equal in every way; there’s no sexism to be seen anywhere on the island. The women have just as much freedom and power to do what they want as the men, and the people believe in and pray to Goddesses as well as Gods. The institution of marriage doesn’t appear to exist, either; everyone seems to sleep with any consenting adult they want to, and the “legitimacy” of any children they produce is never questioned or challenged. Since many of these people run around naked in public, they don’t appear to be inhibited by any of the normal Western neuroses about sex and the human body. They also don’t seem to have any concept of “death” as we normally understand it. For them, the ancestors of their community have simply changed into different life forms (as demonstrated by their tradition of planting trees over people’s graves). But the most interesting thing for me is that the people of Summerisle never dismiss the Christian God as being “false” or “unreal.” They accept His existence just as readily as they accept their Sun God and their Goddess of the orchards; they just disagree with Sergeant Howie that Yahweh is “the one true God.” Even while they shock and confuse the protagonist’s tender sensibilities, they’re always respectful to his faith.
Edward Woodward as “Sergeant Neil Howie”
Normally horror films are about chaos intruding upon order, but The Wicker Man is really about a collision between two fundamentally different kinds of order. Sergeant Howie’s order is based on chastity, obedience and self-denial. The most important thing for him is to always do what’s right, even if it means not getting what one wants or being miserable for the rest of one’s life. While Howie’s concept of “what’s right” is sadly intolerant of other worldviews, he’s at least a very respectable character, and we can identify with his sense of alienation. (Even in his own society, the other police officers make fun of him behind his back for being a virgin, while they pay lip service to “Christian virtue.”) Even the people of Summerisle can’t help but respect Howie, for he’s a Christian who holds himself to the exact same standards to which he holds everyone else (miracle of miracles!).
But Summerisle’s order emphasizes survival and gratification. The islanders care less about sticking to the letter of any law or scripture; they’re only interested in what will ensure a bountiful harvest for their community. They have no interest in being miserable and will do whatever they can to preserve their serene agrarian paradise. This may seem pretty fanatical, but the islanders are generally more likable and wholesome than Sergeant Howie. They’re ecstatic and emancipated, completely comfortable with who and what they are. And while Howie must wait until death to reach the paradise his faith promises, the people of Summerisle are already living in their heaven; they even hope to be reincarnated so they can stay on their island forever. The Wicker Man is brilliant for many reasons, but it’s especially brilliant in its utter objectivity; neither Summerisle’s way of life nor Sergeant Howie’s is represented as being completely good or bad. Many people walk away from this film thinking it’s “anti-Christian,” “anti-Pagan” or perhaps even “anti-religion” in general, but I think it all depends on the beliefs of the individual viewer.
Edward Woodward does a great job of making Howie seem like an asshole and making him sympathetic at the same time. Howie might not be the most open-minded of people, but if you were stuck in a jam, he’d be a great person to have at your side. And Christopher Lee loved the script so much that he acted in this film for free. His character is equally as likeable as Woodward’s, but for very different reasons. Lord Summerisle is very witty indeed; one of my favorite lines in the entire film happens when he and Sergeant Howie are watching some comely young ladies jumping naked over a fire. Howie exclaims, “But they are naked!”, and Lord Summerisle says, “Naturally! It’s much too dangerous to jump through the fire with your clothes on!”
I love The Wicker Man because it presents an image of the society in which I wish I could live. Wiccans, Druids, Goddess worshipers, Kemetics, Asatruar and others are all subordinated groups that live in the midst of one dominant group in particular (e.g., Christians). The Wicker Man provides us with a much-needed fantasy of what it would be like if things were the other way around; what would it be like if Christians were the subordinated group, instead? There was a time in history when this was exactly how it was, but no one today was alive at that time. None of us will ever know what it was like to live in a world where polytheism was the norm, where we could make offerings to our Gods and Goddesses in public and not be ostracized for it. But I also love The Wicker Man because it doesn’t shy away from showing us the dark side of this fantasy. Those who identify as part of a majority often enjoy certain advantages over the minorities that live alongside them, and they are often completely blind to these advantages. Sociologists call this “dominant group privilege” (and some of the more established forms today include white, male and/or Christian privilege). If Western polytheists were to actually achieve a society like Summerisle, we would need to be prepared against the threat of our own privilege causing harm to others. The Wicker Man appears to warn us against this problem very specifically.
There’s very little else I can say about this film without giving away any spoilers, but I would like to say a few words about the 2006 remake with Nicholas Cage. Cage plays the Sergeant Howie character, except he’s neither a Christian nor a virgin. He’s just a typical divorced alcoholic anti-hero who works in law enforcement and who spends the entire movie feeling sorry for himself. And instead of Summerisle being a perfectly emancipated society in which everyone is equal, this version is ruled by fanatical super-feminists who have absolute power over all the men in their community. Unlike the original version, the Nicholas Cage remake isn’t thought-provoking, and it’s neither objective nor impartial toward its characters. We’re clearly meant to side with the Cage character as he blasts his way through the evil, unsympathetic feminists (and it’s hard to do that because he’s so goddamned annoying). While there’s something to like about all of the characters in the 1973 film, there’s nothing to like about any of them in the 2006 version. In fact, the entire movie comes across as a Westboro Baptist Church advertisement against women’s liberation in general. (“See? This is what happens when you let women go to COLLEGE!”)
Christopher Lee as “Lord Summerisle”
The original Wicker Man certainly doesn’t keep within the normal parameters that filmmakers usually employ for horror. It mostly takes place in broad daylight, not at night; the supernatural is discussed, but it’s never actually seen; there’s no clear distinction between “good” and “evil”; and the film resembles a documentary, a witty black comedy, and even a musical all at once. However you may choose to categorize it, The Wicker Man is surely a masterpiece.