The Wicker Man: Games of truth, anthropology, and the death of ‘man’
by Robert Farrow
The Wicker Man, a cult classic of 1970s British cinema, portrays the investigation of an authoritarian police officer (played by Edward Woodward) into the mysterious disappearance of a young girl in the remote Scottish island of Summerisle. It becomes apparent that the islanders observe various ancient pagan traditions, and Sgt. Howie—a committed Christian—becomes increasingly suspicious of them. Eventually, he comes to suspect that she is somewhere imprisoned, earmarked as a human sacrifice for the Mayday festival of Beltane.
As the mystery unfolds, Howie comes to realizes the awful truth: the missing girl was a mystery fabricated in order to lure him to Summerisle, and it is in fact he who is to be burnt alive in the Wicker Man as an offering to the renewed cult of the old gods. This sinister ending has ensured this film a place in the annals of horror despite its divergence from the tropes of most horror films of the 1970s. The Wicker Man presents no bogeymen, no vampires, and no sinister music; its ending is all the more shocking, in fact, for the twee charm of the villagers and the folk-music score, which lead the audience into a false state of complacency that mirrors Sgt. Howie’s own vulnerability. And in a further departure from other examples of the genre, the antagonists are in no way demonized.
So, if The Wicker Man breaks so many of the genre rules, why is it such an unsettling film? One answer is illuminated by the complex matrices of truth, power, and knowledge made familiar by the French historian and philosopher, Michel Foucault: The Wicker Man presents us with an alarm call to wake us from “anthropological sleep,” and to tear down and burn our own false conceptions of “man.”
Foucault, a noted critic of the social sciences, rejected all positive notions of objectivity and human nature. For Foucault, we exist trapped within a kind of postmodern labyrinth (or “archive”), where truths are relative to the societies and practices that develop them. This is not a facile cultural relativism. Instead, we are invited to understand truths as problematized, colored by the contexts and subjects that produce them. The power structures that (so to speak) restrain us are also what makes our freedom possible, conditioning our thought at a collective, unconscious level.
Foucault’s own diagnosis of the present took the form of investigations into (often obscure) historical documents that aimed at exposing the implicit “truths” that underlie social practices and norms, thereby supporting his position as a thinker of social and historical relativity. As his work developed, it became clear that the driving force behind his work was an interest in how senses of identity are formed when the self is essentially a product of certain power/knowledge relationships, discourses, and games of truth.
Foucault’s early works—and The Wicker Man—offer this message: identity is best understood as an amorphous, shifting fiction, an “anthropology” that is to be exposed. When the full import of this becomes understood, the effect is rather more unsettling than the fraternity gorefests that typify many later horror films.
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