Picture this: a movie that takes place mainly during the day, on a picturesque Scottish island. There is very little action in the movie; it’s mainly a police procedural, with a stony-faced, prim and proper policeman questioning the local population. The film contains almost no violence, except for a very brief scene towards the end. Indeed, what earns it its “R” rating is nudity; a few scenes of naked women dancing. Other than that, it could air on broadcast television with no cuts.
Moreover, did I mention this film has a number of songs? It’s not exactly a musical, but there is fast-paced nursery rhyme-like patter, a few ribald drinking songs, and a ballad performed by one of the aforesaid nude dancers.
There’s almost no blood, no sinister torture chambers, no howling dogs on desolate foggy moors; instead there is only a quaint little village in a quiet part of the world. I ask you, with such a setup, can a film really be scary?
Comes the answer: this is possibly the scariest movie I have ever seen.
It follows Sgt. Neil Howie, a devout Christian police detective, who is dispatched by seaplane to the remote Summerisle to look for a missing girl. The townspeople are not unfriendly, but not exactly helpful either, referring Howie to Lord Summerisle, the nobleman whose family has administered the island’s affairs for generations.
During Howie’s investigation, he sees odd things. Strange rituals out of centuries past, like maypoles and disturbingly explicit fertility rites, quite at odds with his conservative Christian beliefs. When at last he meets Lord Summerisle, he confronts him about the unsettling things he has witnessed, and Summerisle acknowledges that, as part of a program to revive the island’s agricultural output, his grandfather gave the people back their ancient, pre-Christian folkways, to entice them to believe in the Old Gods of the Harvest.
Howie is appalled and horrified, and in view of everyone’s refusal to aid him in finding the missing girl, begins to suspect that she has been sacrificed to their Old Gods in some sort of bizarre druidical ceremony.
I really liked Howie, who is played perfectly by Edward Woodward. His refusal to compromise his beliefs, and unwavering resolve to find the missing child no matter what stands in his way, make him easy to root for. And also perhaps easy to… but no, that would be saying too much. This is not exactly an unknown film, but it would be wrong to spoil it.
The late, great Sir Christopher Lee is also fantastic as Summerisle. Offhand, I’d say it’s his best role. In fact, he said it was his best role. Of course, playing a charming but sinister aristocrat was pretty much Lee’s standard, but the devil is in the details, and it’s how he plays it that makes this interesting. He seems relaxed, almost easygoing, compared to the straight-laced Howie. But, let’s just say he has another side to him…
Okay, but what makes this movie so scary? I did say it might be the scariest film I’ve ever seen, after all. I can’t spoil it, but if I’m going to make such a bold claim, I have to try and justify it somehow.
Those of you who made it all the way through the sprawling post I wrote about the Metal Gear Solid 2 book a while back may remember that I made reference to a non-fiction book called The Meme Machine, by Susan Blackmore. Blackmore is a student of Richard Dawkins, the well-known evolutionary biologist. Dawkins coined the word “meme” as an analog for “gene” in the realm of culture. A “meme” is a unit of information; a word, a phrase, a song, a mannerism, a belief, that is transmitted through human culture, by a process not unlike evolution.
Dawkins derived his neologism “meme” from the Greek word mīmēma, which means “imitation.” And just as Dawkins described genes as “selfish,” memes likewise seek only to replicate themselves, so much so that we can analogize memes as if they were beings with conscious desires.
It’s all quite interesting, and Blackmore takes Dawkins’ idea and runs with it, arguing that the human brain evolved as a kind of super-powerful meme replicator, and our capacity for imitation of memes allowed us to evolve into the dominant life-form on the planet.
As she explains:
Memes spread themselves around indiscriminately without regard to whether they are useful, neutral or positively harmful to us… they are selfish like genes, and will simply spread if they can.
Elsewhere, Blackmore proposes the following thought experiment:
Imagine a world full of hosts for memes (e.g. brains) and far more memes than can possibly find homes.
Of course, as Blackmore takes pains to point out, it’s not as if these memes are literally flying around the world, taking over human brains and using them to replicate themselves. It’s just that, ah, they might as well be. It’s not literally true, but it’s a good model for approximating the behavior we see in the world. (Anyone who has studied Economics will be familiar with this sort of thing.)
However… there is something curious about all this. Because there is another Greek word Dawkins might have used instead, that describes much the same phenomenon. The Ancient Greeks tended to model human thought as the work of external entities—e.g. inspiration being given from Apollo, lust from Eros, and so on.
The Ancient Greek word I’m thinking of is daimōn, from which we get the modern word “demon.” “Meme” and “demon” even sound somehow similar, with the same phoneme as the central component. Now consider Blackmore’s hypothetical rewritten:
Imagine a world full of hosts for demons (e.g. brains) and far more demons than can possibly find homes.
In an instant, we have transformed the work of modern scientists (one of whom is famously an atheist) into something that sounds like what the wrinkled old woman living in a strange cabin in the woods tells the horror movie protagonist.
And this is what I find curious: the superstitious ancients described the world as inhabited by invisible spirits that took hold of people’s minds. The modern memeticists describe the world as inhabited by invisible memes that take hold of people’s minds.
If I tell you that I got an idea for a story when “out of the blue, it just popped in my head,” you would nod understandingly. If I said I got the idea when “the God of Fiction whispered it in my ear,” you’d think I was a bit of an oddball, at best. Yet, for practical purposes, the two are the same.
So if you say someone is possessed by a demon, it seems strange, but being possessed by an idea is totally normal.
Coming back around to The Wicker Man, this is what makes the film so scary. At the end, we see people who are possessed by something. We could argue all day about whether it is some true supernatural force or merely certain memes which they have learned to imitate; memes handed down from an ancient tradition dating back millennia. The film, like all great horror, leaves much to the audience’s imagination.
Practically speaking, it doesn’t much matter, does it? The fact is, there is something—call it a demon, a meme, an idea, a fashion, a spirit, whatever name suits you—that can take hold of human minds and compel them to do things that seem unthinkable to those immune to the phenomenon.
And that’s the ultimate horror of The Wicker Man. Here, in this bucolic setting, we gradually uncover the darkest impulses that lie in the hearts of human communities; primitive urges predating everything we call civilization. A base need for rituals that give meaning and provide a sense of power, of grandeur, even, to those craving it.
Unnerving, unsettling, disturbing and uniquely memorable, The Wicker Man is one of the greatest horror films ever made.