Death Creeps is a monthly column of ecological readings on horror media. Combining the terror of the climate crisis with terror on screen and in print, Sydney Bollinger looks at how horror can act as a guide and reflection on our dire situation.
Dominion over Earth or communion with Earth? The Wicker Man asks audiences to consider how we love the earth during the climate crisis.
One of the core tenets of climate activism is the belief that the earth has regenerative power and will be able to support life for generations—as long as we take action. Of course, those who believe the situation is not so dire or refuse to accept the truth of climate science in its entirety cannot see the importance of regenerative practices—many of which have been around for millennia as part of Indigenous cultures and practices that honor the land.
Wrapped in these beliefs is the idea that life itself is sacred, and when something living dies, it has a purpose on Earth to benefit the lives of future generations. While it may not be a wholly radical notion, this kind of spiritual ecology often acts at odds with mainstream Christianity and evangelicalism, both popular in the “Western” world, where the climate crisis has its roots.
In Robin Hardy’s The Wicker Man (1973), these two worldviews are at odds. Despite the film’s age, it displays the tension between eco-spiritualists and evangelicalism when it comes to the climate crisis and the age-old question: who has dominion over Earth? The answer to this question has its roots in The Book of Genesis. After creating both Adam and Eve, God details their role on Earth: "Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth" (Genesis 1:28, NRSV). The implications of this instruction are complicated. When an almighty power gives humanity dominion over the planet, Earth is humanity’s to do with as it pleases.
However, The Wicker Man questions God’s directions to humanity by bringing Sergeant Neil Howie (Edward Woodward) to the remote Summerisle. This devout Christian man arrives with a mission—he must locate a missing girl, Rowan Morrison (Geraldine Cowper). The film’s primary source of tension comes from the friction between Howie’s devotion to the Christian god and Summerisle’s Celtic (or, according to Howie, “heathen”) religion. The islanders partake in public sex rituals and unnervingly withhold information about Rowan’s whereabouts, which itself is a sinful transgression. In watching the events unfold from Howie’s perspective, audiences join him in figuring out what nefarious thing must have happened.
Howie, then, becomes the audience’s understanding of Summerisle. His discomfort underscores each moment, from the shots that linger in disgust to the discordant score accompanying the film. This framing posits that Howie is correct in his adherence to God and insistence that the Summerisle residents return to Jesus and the “true God.” However, he continually misses Summerisle’s reverence for the land and life cycle, despite it seeping into each moment. His distaste at the island’s rituals—the few he has seen in his visit—is juxtaposed by his annoyance at the lack of fresh produce in his meal at the Green Man Inn. Howie expresses his dismay to Willow (Britt Ekland), the landlord’s daughter, who can do nothing but attempt to comfort him with (canned) peaches and cream.
While he clearly does not understand the rituals or culture of Summerisle, Howie expects the island to continue to produce its fruits and vegetables. In essence, he blames the residents for the lack of harvest, insinuating that the residents can control the output of the land. He misses the critical distinction between his belief system and the belief system of Summerisle. Howie believes humans have dominion over Earth, whereas the Summerisle residents have a more “communion-with” relationship.
Howie is again confronted with this difference in belief when talking to the schoolteacher, Miss Rose (Diane Cilento), after uncovering that the teacher and the children were “lying” about knowing Rowan Morrison. Once Miss Rose invites Howie outside to talk, Howie asks if Rowan is dead. Miss Rose says, “You would say so...Here, we do not use that word...We believe that when human life is over, the soul returns to trees, to air, to fire, to water, to animals, so that Rowan Morrison has simply returned to the life forces in another form.” This explanation of their belief in death—that it is simply new life, directly contradicts Howie's understanding of life, which is based on Christian theology that details a final judgment and then eternal existence in Heaven or Hell.
Summerisle’s spiritual ecology serves as the basis for a true reverence for the land, a reverence that understands the everlasting cycle of life on Earth. Though Miss Rose still lied—Rowan is not dead—her description of their understanding of life after life still holds power. In describing this belief, Miss Rose displays Summerisle’s understanding that all life, from plants to humans, is sacred, whole, and worthwhile. In climate activism, holding earth sacred matters. Humanity must understand that our centuries-old top-down dominion-over structure won’t last and instead contributes to the human-caused climate crisis.
Although Howie is our protagonist, he’s difficult to like, especially when framing this film through an ecological lens. His continual adherence to Christianity, without considering the worth and spiritual growth that Summerisle’s pagan religion may offer him slowly turns him into a villain over the course of the film. He represents the ways of the oppressor: capitalistic and human-centered. The residents of Summerisle use his zealousness to their advantage, which is revealed after Howie “escapes” with Rowan to the top of a cliffside. She happily reunites with her family and Howie is left dumbfounded, finally realizing he was the target of an elaborate ruse.
The residents of Summerisle have expertly played to Howie’s faults and can now sacrifice him to their gods to ensure a bountiful harvest in the coming year. As they lead him to the eponymous Wicker Man, Howie struggles and shouts about the futility of their efforts, reminding them that there is only one true God, and it’s his. Of course, human sacrifice is objectively wrong. Still, in the confines of the film—as an allegory for current movements in activism—it’s paramount that activists can topple the existing systems that constrain their work while also actively and continually harming the planet. Celebrating all life on earth and understanding the symbiotic relationships between every living creature means looking toward a future that is livable and safe for future generations. Just as the Summerisle residents made a sacrifice for the greater good of their people, humanity must make a sacrifice for the longevity of our home.
This does not mean that people need to sacrifice other people. Instead, everyone must start listening to the activists who tirelessly work to preserve our home and to Indigenous people whose traditional knowledge has developed a millennia-old relationship with the land. Then, the sacrifice that humanity faces is one of our current “comforts.” Individual sacrifices are not going to cut it, though. To address the climate crisis in any meaningful way requires a sacrifice of belief, system, and capitalist tradition. Summerisle chooses what they know is right—maintaining a nurturing relationship with the earth—over Howie’s Christianity and mainland ways.
Sydney Bollinger is a Charleston-based film writer who focuses on the macabre, the teenage experience, and eco-criticism in film. She is the author of the bi-monthly Slay Away column, Death Creeps, and an arts and entertainment writer for the Charleston City Paper and Into. Sydney is the creator of the Thursday Matinee, with a weekly newsletter released every Thursday afternoon in addition to film and television reviews.