The Wicker Man plays tricks on you, as many great horror movies do. Get Out rips the façade off a family of wealthy, West Wing liberals to reveal nightmarish cruelty and racism. The Blair Witch Project is less about the witch than the project, and how frightening viewing life through a camera can make the world beyond the lens. The Ring poses as a murder mystery, The Babadook as a confrontation between a broken family and a supernatural entity, but in each case the endings complicate and confound our expectations of how such stories are meant to conclude.
But The Wicker Man, Robin Hardy’s 1973 horror film, is the trickiest of the lot. The film, loosely adapting David Pinner’s novel Ritual, presents the movie’s audience — assumed to be horror buffs, occultists, and the midnight-movie crowd — with a protagonist they couldn’t possibly sympathize with less, and an antagonist who hides in plain sight until revealing an insidious rhetoric that, for new viewers, would echo much of what we hear today.
Sgt. Neil Howie (Edward Woodward) is the type of cop who’d bust a Wicker Man audience member for possession. He’s an upright lawman from the Scottish Highlands, a devout Christian who’s saved himself for marriage well into adulthood. So when he is summoned to the island of Summerisle to investigate the disappearance of a missing girl, the discoveries that shock him delight us.
Summerisle, he finds, is home to a thriving community of neo-pagans, who honor the old Celtic gods and traditions primarily through sexualized fertility and virility rites. Young men are deflowered by the innkeeper’s daughter, an avatar of the love goddess, while the pub crowd listens in. Girls are taught about phallic symbols in school and cavort naked over a fire in hopes of bearing a god’s child. May Day festivities bring all activity to a halt as the townsfolk prepare a ritualized sacrifice in honor of the sun god and the goddess of the fields.
Presiding over it all is the towering aristocrat Lord Summerisle (Christopher Lee, relishing his role in what he’d go on to call the finest film he ever made). He’s a cheery chap, especially in comparison to Sgt. Howie, who reacts to sex ed and paganism the same way he’d react to an ax murderer.
Urbane, worldly, slightly hipsterish in his mustard-colored turtlenecks and wild Beethoven mane of hair, Lord Summerisle is the grandson of a Victorian scientist who developed a special strain of apple that could thrive in the island’s harsh climate. In order to cultivate happy but hardworking laborers, he reintroduced the old gods to the townsfolk, bringing pagan light and lust into their hardscrabble lives. After a few generations, both projects were a resounding success.
Until the year Sgt. Howie came calling. That year, the crops failed. “Disastrously so,” Lord Summerisle eventually admits.
Howie discovers this himself while he hunts for the missing girl, whose fate the townsfolk alternately lie and act blithely unconcerned about. That’s when the trick is revealed: The protagonist we found insufferable is right, and the pagans we found enticing are wrong.
Over time, Sgt. Howie’s suspicions seem justified, his concern over the children of Summerisle admirable, while the locals’ behavior seems less harmlessly horny and free-spirited, and more sleazy and sinister. Don’t they care that one of their own is missing, dead, or perhaps still alive and awaiting human sacrifice to bring those crops back?
No, they don’t, because they all know the real story. Young Rowan Morrison isn’t really missing. She’s just bait — for Sgt. Howie. A virgin invested with the law-enforcement powers of a king, a fool they duped into coming to them willingly, he is the sacrifice they’ve awaited. It’s he who they’ll burn alive in the wooden colossus called the Wicker Man. Unless Howie can talk his way out of it, which he tries desperately to do in the moments before he is marched off to his doom.
“Can you not see?” he asks. “There is no sun god. There is no goddess of the fields. Your crops failed because your strains failed. Fruit is not meant to be grown on these islands. It’s against nature! Don’t you see that killing me is not going to bring back your apples?” He turns to his chief captor. “Summerisle, you know it won’t. Go on, man, Tell them. Tell them it won’t!”
“I know it will,” Summerisle replies in his booming baritone.
Now angry as well as frantic, Sgt. Howie plays his final card. “Well, don’t you understand that if your crops fail this year, next year you’re going to have to have another blood sacrifice? And next year, no one less than the King of Summerisle himself will do! If the crops fail, Summerisle, next year your people will kill you on May Day!”
Summerisle’s response is confident, supremely confident, confident to the point of madness:
“They will not fail!”
The deluded denialism of Lord Summerisle and his people is made terrifyingly clear. In the nobleman’s piercing, clarion voice you can all but hear him clinging, white-knuckled, to the edifice of ideology he himself helped construct and enforce. He cannot admit that he’s wrong, can’t even brook the possibility. He’s telling himself the sacrifice will be accepted and the crops will return as much as he’s telling Howie or the assembled islanders. He’ll commit murder, doom his community to collapse and his people to starvation, before admitting the truth.
I think about those four words, and Christopher Lee’s perfect delivery of them, a lot. I hear an entire mindset, the complete conservative worldview, in those four syllables.
They will not fail! I see every headline, every tweet, every op-ed denying the climate crisis even as both the science and the lived experience of people from Puerto Rico to Paradise, California make its existence clear. (“It’s against nature!”) I hear Donald Trump proclaim he’s making America great again while he builds concentration camps for children and works tirelessly, to the extent he works at all, to strip away the social safety net for women, minorities, queers, the poor, and the sick, including many of his own supporters. And I hear those supporters cheer. Their power lies in the ability to deny what’s right in front of everyone’s face.
This goes beyond party. I hear Democratic politicians crediting white moderate hold-outs for the current impeachment drive rather than the left-wing women of color who led it. I hear centrists tut-tutting antifa activists while fascist pseudo-paramilitaries take over town centers and opt for barbarism over socialism. This too is Summerisle-style denialism, a refusal to grasp the severity of the problems and therefore write off the possibility of solving them.
And it goes beyond politics: I hear the voices of my educators in my Catholic high school and the pastor of my childhood parish, lecturing children about morality while abusing them and safeguarding the abusers. With God, or the gods, on your side, how can you be wrong?
They will not fail! For me, nothing captures the maddening insistence that we believe the unbelievable, support the unsupportable, and become active participants in our own immiseration quite as well as Lord Summerisle’s four-word proclamation.
In the face of those four words, Sgt. Howie is helpless. His cries for mercy, for reason, land on deaf ears as the people drag him to his place of execution. Even before Hardy’s camera whip-zooms into Howie’s terrified face as he catches his first glimpse of the Wicker Man and screams for his God, his fate has already been sealed. They will not fail!
The people of Summerisle burn Sgt. Howie to death because they believe in those four words. Here, then, is our real-world challenge: to fight that hateful certitude, and build a new system capable of putting out the fire.
Sean T. Collins has written for The New York Times, Rolling Stone, Pitchfork, Esquire, and Vulture. He and his partner, the cartoonist Julia Gfrörer, are the co-editors of the art and comics anthology Mirror Mirror II. They live with their children on Long Island.