Religion in The Wicker Man and Midsommar
The Wicker Man and Midsommar are two films belonging to the genre of folk horror. Both of these films imagine a scenario in which ignorant outsiders visit pagan cultures just in time to end up as sacrificial victims in their festivals celebrating summer. The movies share a number of important elements and symbols, including maypoles and fertility rituals, although Ari Aster said that in directing Midsommar he did not specifically intend to copy The Wicker Man 1. In any case, the most interesting element of both stories is their treatment of religion. At the heart of both The Wicker Man and Midsommar is a clash between two civilizations, one of which is Christian and the other, pagan.
An Overview of The Wicker Man and Midsommar
The Wicker Man is a British cult horror film from the 1970’s, directed by Robin Hardy. This film follows the adventures of a devout Christian police officer named Sergeant Neil Howie. Sergeant Howie travels to the Scottish island of Summerisle, an island where many Celtic pagan rituals are still practiced, to search for a missing girl named Rowan Morrison. He quickly learns that things are not as they appear on Summerisle. At first the natives claim they have never heard of Rowan Morrison, but later they change the story and claim that she has died and been reborn as a hare. His search eventually takes him to the home of Lord Summerisle, the ruler of the island. Lord Summerisle explains that his Victorian grandfather reintroduced the pagan rituals to the island in order to motivate the locals to grow the new strains of fruits he had developed. Sergeant Howie, upon discovering that the crops failed that year, surmises that the natives intend to sacrifice Rowan to ensure a bountiful harvest for the following year. However, when he crashes the island’s May Day celebration, he learns that the islanders had instead selected him to be sacrificed. The pagans place him in an enormous wicker man which they set ablaze. Sergeant Howie has just enough time to beg his God to welcome him into his kingdom of eternal bliss before he burns to death.
Midsommar, released in 2019, is a movie directed by Ari Aster. In this film, a group of American graduate students travel to Sweden to take part in a midsummer festival hosted by the pagan Hårga, of whom their friend Pelle is a member. Not long after the festivals and rituals begin, the graduate students start mysteriously disappearing one by one. One of the graduate students is a young woman named Dani, who lost her family the previous winter. Although she struggles to acclimate to the Hårga’s way of doing things at first, she ultimately joins the Hårga after they make her their May Queen. As part of her inauguration as May Queen, she burns her ex-boyfriend, an anthropology student named Christian, alive during one of the rituals.
Both movies create an atmosphere of tension and suspense by drawing attention to minor details of the setting that seem out of place or not quite right. In The Wicker Man, for instance, when Sergeant Howie investigates the desk of Rowan Morrison in the schoolhouse he notices that the children have hammered a nail into the desk and are torturing a large beetle by tying it to the nail. In Midsommar, a similar moment of confusion results when, on a tour of the Hårga village, a foreign guest from the UK notices that a caged bear has been left out in a field for no apparent reason. When he asks a local named Ingemar about it, Ingemar refuses to give a straight answer, instead stating simply, “It’s a bear.”
Ari Aster further conceals information from the viewers by capitalizing on the Swedes’ taciturn nature 2. In The Wicker Man, Sergeant Howie often finds himself embroiled in conversations that go nowhere and leave him even more confused than before. By contrast, in Midsommar entire scenes may transpire in which little or no meaningful dialogue is exchanged. One of the most dramatic examples of this occurs towards the end of Midsommar, when Pelle’s sister Maja convinces Christian to sleep with her despite having never once said a single word to him! The effect, in either case, is to accustom the viewer to a sense of ambiguity and uncertainty about what is happening and why. In so doing, the movies increase the tension and highlight the alien nature of the pagan culture on display.
Christians Versus Pagans
At their core, both The Wicker Man and Midsommar are about religion. Specifically, they attempt to explore what happens when someone from a Christian-normative culture and background visits a pagan community with practices they don’t understand. In both movies, the pagan culture is portrayed as peaceful and laid-back, often in explicit contrast to the Christian culture; but also holds dark secrets. The audience is thus invited to project themselves onto the outsiders and consider how they would behave in their place.
The first scene of The Wicker Man features Sergeant Howie attending a church service with his fiancee, thus illustrating his deep devotion to his faith. When he arrives on Summerisle, he’s shocked and horrified by the locals’ pagan beliefs and lack of interest in Christianity. He particularly despises their casual attitudes toward nudity and sex. For instance, the locals sing cheerful songs about the sexual escapades of the innkeeper’s daughter Willow, teach their children about fertility in elementary school, and jump naked over bonfires. His mistrust of the pagans becomes even stronger as he suspects they intend to sacrifice Rowan Morrison.
The clash between the two types of religions comes to a head when Sergeant Howie visits Lord Summerisle. When Sergeant Howie complains to Lord Summerisle about what he has seen, he touches off the most important conversation in the movie:
Summerisle: It’s most important that each new generation on Summerisle be made aware that here, the old gods aren’t dead.
Howie: And what of the true God, to whose glory churches and monasteries have been built on this island for generations past? Now sir, what of him?
Summerisle: He’s dead. Can’t complain. He had his chance and, in modern parlance, blew it.
Howie: What?! 3
Somewhat ironically, given the pagans’ supposed love of nature and the popular stereotype of Christians as anti-science, Sergeant Howie is the character who seems the most attached to conventional scientific facts. For instance, he is the one who points out that cash crops like apples were not designed to grow in the Scottish Hebrides, calling such a scheme “against nature.” Elsewhere, he notes the pagans promoting strange folk remedies in both their apothecaries and classrooms, and dismisses them as “fake science” to go along with their “fake religion.” At one point, when he walks in on May Morrison attempting to treat her daughter’s sore throat by stuffing a frog in her mouth, he pronounces her “raving mad.”
Although the characters in Midsommar never explicitly discuss religion the way that those in The Wicker Man do, it’s probably not a coincidence that Dani’s neglectful boyfriend is named Christian. Indeed, the conflict between Christian and pagan beliefs in Midsommar seems to be embodied by two literal men: Christian on one hand and Pelle on the other. From the moment that Dani meets Pelle he takes an unusually strong interest in her. He actively encourages her to come to Sweden, even going so far as to tell her he would be especially happy to have her along with him. When, on Dani’s birthday, he gives her a beautifully-rendered sketch of her without even being asked, she casually informs him that Christian forgot her birthday. It seems as though Pelle wants to supplant Christian as Dani’s lover because he thinks Christian isn’t good enough for her. Tellingly, once Dani becomes the May Queen, Pelle kisses her on the mouth in front of everyone and nobody objects–not even Dani herself.
While Dani is the character who gets most of the attention and sympathy from the audience and director, Christian’s side of the story is quite interesting in its own right. The audience first meets Christian in a restaurant, where his two best friends are pressuring him to dump Dani and find a more fun girlfriend. He never gets a chance to do so, however, because that very same night Dani discovers that her sister has poisoned both her parents and herself. Ever since, Christian stays with Dani out of obligation and guilt.
Interestingly, although Christian shows no obvious religious inclinations he otherwise acts a lot like a negative Christian stereotype: judgmental, insensitive, passive-aggressive, sexually-repressed, and obsessed with looking like a martyr. In an attempt to get away from Dani and her problems, he often does the opposite of what she needs and wants him to do. For example, when she wants to accompany him to a party, he tells her to stay at home in bed. He also deliberately keeps her ignorant of his plans to spend the summer in Sweden. When Dani confronts him about the decision to go to Sweden, he offers her a half-hearted apology, to which she replies: “You didn’t apologize, you said, ‘sorry,’ which sounds more like ‘too bad.'” Even when Dani has a panic attack in the Hårga encampment, Christian, rather than showing her empathy, instead tells her to take time to herself. Pelle later capitalizes on the tension between them when he says to Dani, “[D]o you feel held by [Christian]? Does he feel like home to you?”
Once Christian and his friends arrive at the Hårga village, his reaction is the exact opposite of Sergeant Howie’s. While Sergeant Howie is disgusted by pagan rituals and practices and tries to distance himself from them as much as possible, Christian approaches them with genuine curiosity and an eagerness to fit in. Right from the start he shows himself willing to take hallucinogenic drugs from villagers he’s only just met, and eat and sleep alongside them as well. On the first day of festivities, the graduate students witness a ritual suicide called ättestupa, in which community members who have reached age 72 throw themselves off a cliff and have their heads smashed in with a hammer. Initially, Christian is so disturbed by the ceremony that he throws up. However, when Dani expresses her own horror to him later, he replies: “That was really, really shocking. I’m trying to keep an open mind, though.” The trailer also features a scene of him telling Dani to acclimate, while Dani replies that she just wants to leave 4. It doesn’t seem to occur to Christian that the religion he is named after and grew up around expressly forbids the killing of the elderly and infirm, or euthanasia of any kind 5.
The tragic irony of Dani abandoning Christian in favor of the Hårga is that Christianity itself does provide useful tools for coping with grief and loss–as long as people know how to make use of them. Even suicide carries less stigma than ever before now that most Christians understand it as a complication of mental illness rather than a choice 6. Christian could have lived up to his name, staying with Dani over the summer and helping her in her grief and loss, instead of running away. Perhaps then he would have stayed alive and their relationship might never have ended.
Convert Or Die?
In both The Wicker Man and Midsommar, at least a few of the pagans attempt to entice the outsiders to convert to their pagan belief systems. This attempt is more blatant in Midsommar but it occurs in The Wicker Man too. In The Wicker Man Sergeant Howie flatly refuses to accept or make any concessions for the pagans’ way of life, and so he dies. By contrast, in Midsommar Dani does attempt to join the Hårga culture, and in so doing, survives–at least for the duration of the film (although as one astute fan points out, the movie never explicitly states that Dani is truly safe with them 7). The filmmakers might have wanted to turn the tables on the historical record, since Christians have, historically, spent much time and energy trying to convert pagans on pain of death. They generally accomplished this aim through superior military might and weaponry. On the other hand, what can a single, unarmed Christian–or even a small group of them–do when confronted by an entire pagan society?
In The Wicker Man, Willow attempts to seduce Sergeant Howie by taking her clothes off and singing to him through the walls of their rooms. Although Sergeant Howie is sorely tempted, his disdain for sex outside of marriage causes him to refuse her advances. He doesn’t realize it at the time but she’s trying to save his life. If he sleeps with her he will no longer be a virgin and thus, cannot be offered as a virgin sacrifice. Similarly, the pagans at various points test Howie’s resolve by telling him to leave the island and stop meddling in their business. He presumably could have taken their advice at any time, except for his unwillingness to allow them to sacrifice Rowan Morrison. His Christian faith simply will not permit him to stand by as an innocent girl is sacrificed, as, like all Christians, he sees human sacrifice as no more than murder.
In other words, in order to save his own life, Sergeant Howie has to accept the pagans’ customs and outlook, and even take part in them himself. Although the pagans intend to trick and taunt him, he still has a choice about whether or not to blend in and do things their way. His stubbornness, and resolve to cling to his faith in the face of their pressures, ultimately seals his fate. In this way, The Wicker Man is able to portray both him and the pagans with relatively little judgement, instead focusing on how any sort of religion can cause people to act in foolish or destructive ways.
On the other hand, in Midsommar, Christian’s willingness to blend in with the Hårga does not save him. Unlike his friends Mark and Josh, who regard the Hårga as a mere curiosity or research project, Christian seems genuinely interested in their way of doing things. He even takes the Hårga’s side when one of the elders reveals that Josh has vanished along with their holy book. Towards the end of the film he, like Dani, undergoes a “conversion” of a sort, albeit less freely than she does. First he accepts a hallucinogenic potion from the Hårga during Dani’s May Queen dance. During the ensuing feast, Maja, who has been eyeing him ever since he arrived, lures him away to take part in a ritual sex act so she can conceive a child by him. Whether Christian is entirely cognizant of what he is doing in this scene, or whether he’s acting under the influence of drugs, is never made clear. Still, it’s not hard to see why he would go along with Maja’s scheme. By now he has lost both his best friends and his ostensible girlfriend to the Hårga, and so he likely feels that he has little left to lose.
Furthermore, Christian’s death is even more gruesome and humiliating that Sergeant Howie’s. After he escapes from Maja without any clothes on, he is paralyzed, stuffed into a freshly-disemboweled bear skin, and burned alive in a temple surrounded by the corpses of his friends while his ex-girlfriend looks on and smiles. Ostensibly, Dani wants Christian to burn because she caught him having sex with someone else. However, on a deeper level, she has to eliminate Christian either way, since he was the one connection that she still had to the Christian-informed culture that she grew up with. By killing him, she severs that connection for good, leaving her free to become a full member of the Hårga.
In summary, if too much Christianity dooms Sergeant Howie, too little is what ultimately dooms Christian and his friends. Still, at least a true believer like Sergeant Howie can take some comfort from the notion that he will be rewarded for dying as a martyr. Christian, by contrast, has no such hope to fall back on. Given the lack of interest he and his friends exhibit in Christian theology and beliefs throughout the film, it’s doubtful he could suddenly conjure up a vision of heaven and eternal reward at the last minute. He simply dies, horrifically and pointlessly, as a sacrifice to gods he does not believe in.
Sign Of The Times
Every film is a product of the times in which it was made, and The Wicker Man and Midsommar are no different. In all likelihood, the different ways in which the movies treat religion have a lot to do with the religious values of their writers, actors, and consumers. The religious landscape, after all, looked very different in the 1970’s than it does in modern times. These discrepancies seem to account for the differences in the way the characters of these two movies behave, and how their behavior is received by the audience.
The 1970’s, when The Wicker Man came out, were a time of tremendous cultural upheaval on both sides of the Atlantic. Religious traditions had less power and influence than ever before, a process that started in the 1960’s and continues to this day 8. People were experimenting with free love and alternative relationship styles 9. Popular music was becoming increasingly daring and controversial, and the relatively new genres of hard rock and heavy metal were gaining in influence 10.
Even at that time, Sergeant Howie would have looked like a figure from an older generation to any younger people who watched The Wicker Man. Edward Woodward, who played him, was then in his forties 11. While Sergeant Howie is reasonably attractive for someone of his age he still comes across as a grumpy and stuffy older man who spends much of his time lecturing other people about religion and law. Although his circumstances invoke sympathy from the audience, particularly in the latter part of the film, the narrative makes no attempt to position him as cool or relatable.
Sergeant Howie’s absolute belief in the primacy of Christianity, both in his own life and in British society, looks particularly striking in a modern secular context. At one point he asks Ms. Rose, the local schoolteacher and priestess, where he can find the churchyard that contains Rowan Morrison’s grave. Ms. Rose explains to him, very slowly and carefully, that since the building by the graveyard is not used for Christian worship, technically it is not a church. In all likelihood Sergeant Howie has never seen a graveyard that wasn’t attached to a church. He simply takes it for granted, as many British people in the early and mid-twentieth century would have, that a church is where one worships, and the yard of the church is where one buries their dead. Similarly, the reason why the pagans on Summerisle seem so creepy and strange is because so few people at the time could have imagined living in such a way.
By contrast, Midsommar takes place in modern times, after decades of secularization and religious pluralism. Nowadays people have more freedom to worship as they want than they would have had in past eras. However, they also have no conventional belief system to fall back on, and no ready-made way of coping with the inevitable tragedies of life. As families and religious communities shrink, and as technology takes the place of person-to-person contact, people are also lonelier than ever before 12. As such, many of the people who watch Midsommar can immediately identify with the lonely and checked-out characters on the screen, particularly Dani, and understand perfectly why they would be attracted to the Hårga.
What’s more, even many people who do identify as Christian are less rooted in their traditional beliefs and more vulnerable to outside influences. Much like Christian in Midsommar, modern Christians often attempt to treat all religions equally and do not single out their faith or lifestyle as better or more valid than any other. The millennial Christian writer Matt Walsh, in his book Church of Cowards, laments that in modern settings,
It is not enough for you to simply allow for the existence of sinful people and behaviors. You must accept them. […] It is quite possible to tolerate without accepting, which is why accepting is the point, not tolerating. The church, according to the culture, must do much more than tolerate our sins. It must accept–acquiesce to, assent to–those sins. 13
Interestingly enough, The Wicker Man itself foreshadows many of the situations depicted in Midsommar during its conversation between Sergeant Howie and Lord Summerisle. Lord Summerisle’s grandfather, the scientist who first attempted to grow crops on the island, was an atheist and only invoked the pagan gods and rituals to motivate the locals to work for him. However, Lord Summerisle goes on to explain that, “What my grandfather started out of expediency my father continued out of…love.” Lord Summerisle himself eagerly immerses himself in pagan beliefs and leads the rest of the islanders in their pagan rituals. The point that The Wicker Man seems to be making is that the materialism and lack of religion in the life of Lord Summerisle’s grandfather is ultimately what paved the way for his descendants’ wholehearted embrace of paganism. In much the same way, Dani’s unmet need for meaning and solace drives her to embrace the Hårga.
Both The Wicker Man and Midsommar depict a clash of cultures. The central characters in both movies come from a Christian-normative culture, though their level of knowledge and observance varies. Throughout their respective movies they explore a pagan culture that seems utterly alien to them. However, the underlying message of both movies seems to be that nobody can live without any sort of religious belief for very long. Eventually, if cut off from conventional religions like Christianity, people will begin to explore other means of spirituality and connection, no matter the consequences to themselves or others. Audiences who watch these movies are invited to reflect on whether they could resist the allure of the pagan cultures depicted and, if so, what if any spiritual beliefs hold them back. Either way, they will emerge with a greater understanding of the importance of spirituality.
- Travis, Ben. “Midsommar Director Ari Aster On Avoiding The Influence Of The Wicker Man.” Empire, 3 July 2019. https://www.empireonline.com/movies/news/midsommar-director-ari-aster-on-avoiding-the-influence-of-the-wicker-man/ Accessed 6 July 2020 ↩
- Gee, Oliver. “Swedish people just don’t understand small talk.” The Local, 2 July 2013. https://www.thelocal.se/20130702/48816 Accessed 23 June 2020 ↩
- The Wicker Man. Directed by Robin Hardy, performances by Edward Woodward and Christopher Lee, Lionsgate, 1973 ↩
- A24. “MIDSOMMAR | Official Trailer HD | A24.” YouTube, 24 May 2019. https://youtu.be/1Vnghdsjmd0 ↩
- Murdoch, Anthony. “Canadian archbishop: Selling euthanasia as ‘solution’ to suffering is ‘misguided.'” Life Site News, 15 May 2020. https://www.lifesitenews.com/news/canadian-archbishop-selling-euthanasia-as-solution-to-suffering-is-misguided accessed 23 June 2020 ↩
- Goins-Philips, Tre. “Beloved Pastor, Mental Health Advocate Tragically Takes His Own Life.” Faithwire, 10 September 2019. https://www.faithwire.com/2019/09/10/beloved-pastor-mental-health-advocate-tragically-takes-his-own-life/ Accessed 23 June 2020 ↩
- Acolytes of Horror. “How Midsommar Brainwashes You.” YouTube, 23 May 2020. https://youtu.be/gr2j0o_B2mw ↩
- Eberstadt, Mary. How The West Really Lost God. West Conshohocken, PA, Templeton Press, 2013 ↩
- Hills, Rachel. “What Every Generation Gets Wrong About Sex.” TIME Magazine, 2 December 2014. https://time.com/3611781/sexual-revolution-revisited/ Acccessed 28 June 2020 ↩
- Micky. “The History of Metal Music.” Rock My World, 12 June 2019. https://rockmyworld.com/the-history-of-metal-music/ Accessed 28 June 2020 ↩
- Bernstein, Adam. “Edward Woodward, 79, dies; British actor, spy in ‘Equalizer.'” The Washington Post, 17 November, 2009. https://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/11/16/AR2009111602636.html Accessed 28 June 2020 ↩
- Eberstadt, Mary. “A New Theory: The Great Scattering.” Primal Screams. West Conshohocken, PA, Templeton Press, 2019 ↩
- Walsh, Matt. “The False Virtues.” Church of Cowards. Washington, DC, Regnery Gateway, 2020 ↩
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