Film studies

May Day Mayhem: Setting the scene of The Wicker Man

The Wicker Man by Steve A. Wiggins, explores the position of The Wicker Man (1973) as a ‘holiday horror’, where energy and tension is tied into the Celtic, pagan traditions of May Day. Beginning with a brief overview of how May Day has been celebrated, this study considers the role of sexuality and fertility in the film, before delving into an exploration of theology and how clashes between religious sects make the fiery ending inevitable.

To celebrate this forthcoming book, and the upcoming 50th anniversary of the folk horror classic, author Steve Wiggins explains holiday horror, the history of May Day, and the decision to situate folk horrors in the spring.

Now that spring is in the air, and Easter past, we come into that strange realm of May Day. While some parts of the world still celebrate the holiday, May 1 has tended to pass out of modern consciousness, wedged as it is between Easter and the upcoming summer holidays (and Memorial Day in the United States). We tend not to think much about archaic holidays, but for a peculiar variety of horror film, called “holiday horror,” such red letter days are prime time.

So why bring horror films up in the spring? Isn’t their natural habitat in autumn, half a year from now? Holiday horror is the answer. Holidays are scattered throughout the year and writers and directors have produced horror films about many of them. The largest collection of such films revolves around Christmas. The old British tradition of telling ghost tales at that time of year may play into it, along with the naturally long, cold nights of the northern hemisphere. A substantial number also congregate around Halloween, leading to an October association with the genre. But in spring, when light is increasing, and nature is blooming, who expects horror? Holidays do.

The most famous May Day horror film is undoubtedly Robin Hardy’s The Wicker Man. Celebrating its fiftieth anniversary this December (next to the bête noire of seventies horror, The Exorcist), the focus is clearly on the celebration of Beltane, or May Day. In fact, without May Day there’s little frame on which to hang the movie. If you’ve not watched The Wicker Man, and intend to do so, be aware that this post will contain a few spoilers.

Sergeant Neil Howie (Edward Woodward) of the West Highland Police has been drawn to remote Summerisle to investigate a missing child. He arrives to find a thriving Celtic pagan community on the island, presided over by Lord Summerisle (Christopher Lee). The occasion is May Day and Howie comes to conclude that the islanders intend to offer the missing girl as a sacrifice to heathen gods. Of course, Howie has been lured to the island to be the sacrifice himself, offered up in the eponymous wicker man. Along the way considerable dialogue regarding the differences between a Christian country and pagan citizens fuels much of the anticipated horror.

Those familiar with the holiday horror genre often draw parallels to the 2019 film by Ari Aster, titled Midsommar. Like The Wicker Man, it too is holiday horror. Midsommar, however, is based on the celebration of the June solstice. This raises an interesting point regarding Beltane, or May Day.

May Day is a pre-Christian celebration. Since we lack Celtic written records of their holidays, evidence from antiquity is sparse. The picture is complicated somewhat by the adoption of the “Wheel of the Year” by some branches of Wicca and pagan revival religions of the present day. Based on the dates of the equinoxes and solstices, we divide the year into four seasons. Easter falls somewhere near the spring, or vernal equinox. Christmas is near the winter solstice. Approximately halfway between the solstices and equinoxes, contemporary paganism has drawn on ancient Celtic holidays to create an eight-spoked “wheel” for the year. Falling roughly midway between the vernal equinox and summer solstice (Midsummer), is Beltane (May Day).

May Day is a holiday largely reconstructed from poorly documented materials. We know very little of how the day was observed in bygone eras. The main elements seem to have been the dancing around a maypole and the use of bonfires. Bonfires were a fairly typical festal element—holidays weren’t as “branded” then as they are now. It’s just that lack of knowledge, however, that gives room for The Wicker Man to make horror part of the holiday.

The May Day devised for the film was largely dreamed up by Anthony Schaffer, the screenwriter, and Robin Hardy, the director. Drawing much of their inspiration from James Frazer’s classic, The Golden Bough, they constructed a holiday that had horror only in its closing moments. Indeed, watching the movie for the first time, many viewers wonder why it’s horror. Until the end. Despite the research Hardy and Shaffer did, May Day as presented in the film is largely a work of fiction, combining folklore, Celtic traditions, and some early seventies license regarding sexuality. The result, while somewhat chaotic, ultimately works.

Popular media is sometimes underestimated as a source of information. The Wicker Man has, however, influenced modern ideas of May Day. In parts of the world where it’s celebrated as Labor Day, May 1 remains a well-recognized holiday. In much of the western hemisphere it has been relegated to that part of the calendar where a red-letter day has now faded to gray. Where it is recognized, at least among those familiar with horror, it is known as when the unwary must keep their appointment with the wicker man.

The Wicker Man by Steve A. Wiggins will be published on August 1st and is available now to pre-order.

Find out more about The Wicker Man on the Liverpool University Press website.