Botanicult Fiction: Something Wicker This Way Comes
By Alex Henderson, Curator of Living Collections, Royal Botanical Gardens
The Wicker Man is a 1973 film directed by Robin Hardy, written by Anthony Shaffer and starring Edward Woodward, Britt Ekland, Diane Cilento, Ingrid Pitt and Christopher Lee. It is regarded within the cinematic category known as folk horror. Folk horror is a genre where the cinematic scares come not from an evil individual or person but instead from the rural setting in which it is set. This frequently includes themes of paganism, witchcraft and ancient curses. In the case of The Wicker Man (set on the fictional Scottish island of Summerisle) this deals with the failure of the island’s specially hybridized agricultural crops, Hebridean myth, folklore and pagan practices.
The plot revolves around the disappearance of a young girl Rowan and the resultant search undertaken by a religiously devout and conservative police officer sergeant Howie who has difficulty adapting to Summerisle life. He is especially disturbed by the islander’s worship of pagan gods and upcoming May Day celebrations. After investigating Howie learns that even though the island has developed special cultivars of fruit trees hybridized especially for Summerisles’ climate that these crops have failed. He is horrified to learn that a sacrifice must be made to appease the pagan gods and ensure the bounty of the next harvest. When Howie finally discovers that Rowan’s grave is empty, he presumes that she is to be the sacrifice. The plot takes a final devastating twist when the sergeant learns who is really to be sacrificed. This leads to the films terrifying but cinematically iconic ending.
The Wicker Man is perhaps one of the most unusual horror films ever made but over the years has become well regarded by film critics. It has been likened to the Citizen Kane of the horror genre and in one poll was voted the sixth greatest British film of all time. Of the 275 films made by Christopher Lee, this he considered to be his finest work. It holds up well today through its themes of denial. Examples include that if a sacrifice is made the crops wont fail, the denial of different religious beliefs or the denial of social acceptance and the way individuals choose to follow certain tenets which together form belief systems based upon philosophical, ethical and moral codes. The tropes of this film have modern analogies to denial of climate change, denial of indigenous rights, or even the conspiracy theories surrounding the denial of COVID-19. These are just a few examples, but the list goes on and shows how contemporary the themes of The Wicker Man are forty-seven years after its release. So popular is the film that homage has been payed to the film many times over. My particular favourite is the video for the Radiohead song Burn the Witch whose storyline greatly resembles that of The Wicker Man.
One final word of warning. Don’t make the awful mistake of watching the 2006 remake. If you do accidentally see this version let me warn you in advance. You will wish it were you who was being sacrificed and sooner rather than later!
Botanicult Fiction is an affectionate review of plants in pop culture viewed through the lens of plant nerds and curated for your reading or viewing pleasure during this challenging time of COVID-19.