The Wicker Man - Pagan Parable?

When anyone mentions The Wicker Man the first thing that probably comes to mind is Nicolas Cage screaming, “Not the bees! Not the bees! AUGH!” (Which coincidently is also how Facebook reacts when I share articles from The Babylon Bee). The Wicker Man is pretty much universally reviled, but what you may not know is that it’s a remake of a 1973 film sometimes called “The Citizen Kane of horror.” As horror movies so often do, it reflects something of its time and offers perspective on our own.

I’ll walk you through the important and interesting points of the story so you don’t have to watch it. There will be spoilers!

Based on the David Pinner novel, Ritual (which in turn was adapted from a movie pitch), The Wicker Man tells the story of Sergeant Neil Howie (Edward Woodward) as he searches for a missing girl on a remote Scottish island. The information regarding her disappearance came to him personally and anonymously. From the moment he lands his seaplane in the Summerisle harbor, he finds the residents difficult. At first, they won’t send a boat to bring him ashore, and when he shows them a picture of the girl, Rowan Morrison, they clearly give him the runaround.


We should pause for a second to consider the names. Neil is of Celtic origin and means “passionate,” which Sgt. Howie is, both in his religious convictions and as an officer of the law. Some viewers complain that he’s too stern and unlikable. His last name may derive from Hughie, which means “spirit,” though I wonder if it’s an allusion to Lugh, the Celtic god of the sun, with the “ie” indicating “son of.” (This will be relevant later).


Rowan Morrison’s name is just as deliberate. The red rowan berry was believed to protect against witchcraft, while the stem is in the shape of a pentagram. However, this is countered by her last name, which means “dark.” Without realizing it, the staunch Christian Howie is following a path which will lead him to “dark magic.” It’s a sick practical joke being played on him and the sympathetic audience.


Director Robin Hardy and screenwriter Anthony Shaffer were notorious pranksters, and their love of trickery is woven into the story. Howie visits the local tavern and inn, The Green Man, and continues asking questions. But first he must interrupt a bawdy song about the innkeeper’s daughter. No one is worried about a missing girl. He notices that there are framed pictures of a new Miss Summerisle at the harvest festival going back for years, but that last year’s portrait is missing. When he asks the innkeeper what happened to it the man deadpans that it must have been broken, even as he’s standing next to a broken picture. Adding insult to injury, while Summerisle is renowned for its produce, Howie’s dinner is canned vegetables.

That night, after saying his prayers and remembering his most recent Holy Communion, Howie is tested. First, he sees an orgy outside his window. Then the innkeeper’s daughter, Willow MacGregor (Britt Ekland), sings to him through the bedroom wall in a clear effort at seduction. The camera lingers on her naked body, inviting our lust as well. Howie burns with a feverish desire and sweat pours down his face as he struggles with himself. By resisting he proves his virginity and pureness of heart.

Continuing his investigation the next day, Howie visits the school and is horrified to find the boys dancing around a maypole while in the classroom the girls frankly discuss its phallic symbolism. In the one empty desk (presumably Rowan’s), he finds that a girl has tied a beetle to a nail in a gross parody of the maypole. Or is it to signify Howie as he’s tortured and comically reeled in to a dark end? Eventually, Howie confirms that Rowan is dead and visits her grave. There he finds a nursing mother with an egg in her hand, and he and tears down an altar to clear space for a makeshift cross. 


When he goes to the house of Lord Summerisle (Christopher Lee, who couldn’t possibly be the bad guy, right?) to complain about the mishandling of Rowan’s death and demand that he be allowed to exhume the body, there are naked girls leaping over a fire in a fertility rite. The conversation goes as follows: 


Howie: What religion can they possibly be learning jumping over bonfires?

Summerisle: Parthenogenesis.

Howie: What?

Summerisle: Literally… reproduction without sexual union.

Howie: Oh, what is all of this? I mean, you’ve got fake biology, fake religion… Sir, have these children never heard of Jesus?

Summerisle: Himself, the son of a virgin, impregnated, I believe, by a ghost.


Fake biology, fake religion, mockery of the true religion. It’s basically like being on Reddit! When Howie pushes further, noting that Christ, “the true God,” has been worshiped in that very area for generations, Summerisle replies, “He’s dead. Can’t complain, had his chance and in modern parlance, blew it.” 

Lord Summerisle goes on to explain that his grandfather arrived on the island to cultivate fruit trees in an inhospitable climate. To his mind, the best way to inspire the cooperation of the people living there was to give them back their old gods and practices. His experiments worked, the fruit harvest was bountiful, and the islanders pushed the Christian priests and ministers back to the mainland. The second Lord continued the family tradition out of love and raised his son to love the old gods and revere nature.

Howie: He brought you up to be a Pagan!

Summerisle: A heathen, conceivably, but not, I hope, an unenlightened one.

Yes, enlightenment: the age-old objective of the elite.

After Howie and the alderman dig up and open the girl’s coffin, all they find inside is a dead hare. Well, what did he expect? Rowan’s little sister had told him that’s what she is now. Really, it’s simply another trick played on our earnest officer to make him a fool. Howie determines to leave Summerisle the next day, which happens to be May Day, and come back with more men, but the farce in which he’s found himself only continues to become more absurd, even as it seems he’s gained the upper hand. 

As part of the Spring ritual, everyone puts on costumes. Lord Summerisle himself dresses as a man-woman, leading the masked islanders (and a disguised Howie) in song and dance, sacrifice to the sea, and a symbolic beheading. Finally, Howie sees Rowan and attempts her rescue, still in his ridiculous costume, but this too is part of the trick. Lord Summerisle specifically wanted Howie there, and Rowan was willing bait.

The unnatural crops have started to fail. Any logical person would have foreseen this. Of course, the people believe that the answer is more sacrifice, but it has to be the right sort of sacrifice. Willow and the Librarian (Ingrid Pitt) explain they needed a man who would come of his own free will, with the power of a king by representing the law, a virgin, and a fool.

When the science fails, human sacrifice returns.

Upon seeing the enormous and terrible Wicker Man and knowing its purpose, Howie warns Lord Summerisle that when the crops don’t return next year, he will find himself placed inside the effigy. The Lord, shaken, proclaims, “They will not fail!” Howie, though his name may mean son of Lugh, claims another father. “I am a Christian. And as a Christian, I hope for resurrection. And even if you kill me now, it is I who will live again, not your damned apples.” The movie ends with him singing a hymn and cursing his murderers even he is burned alive.


The Wicker Man arrived at a time when people had lost faith in the counterculture of the 60’s, and, rather than return to the church, considered other options. As we’ve already seen, there was inclination to deny biology, gender, and reason itself. A good story stretches ideas to their logical extremes, and what we see in this one has eerie parallels to today. If there’s any comfort to be found in this deeply unsettling film, it’s in seeing how Howie was prepared to stand firm in his faith. 

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