Brow Beat

Why Wicker Man Culture Is So Strong on the Rural Island of Summerisle

The Wicker Man from The Wicker Man.
Wicker Men don’t kill people. People who put other people inside Wicker Men and then set them on fire kill people.
British Lion Film Corporation

As Americans have fled Summerisle—or Summerisle has fled Americans—many of them, living in cities, are left without an understanding of Wicker Man culture and its core values. If it isn’t on gun control, our deepest cultural divide might be on whether or not we should ritualistically sacrifice virgins each spring to ensure a good apple harvest. The Wicker Man issue also has a profound political dimension, reliably driving Summerisle Americans into Republican arms.

It’s been many years since I sealed a terrified “kingly fool” into a soon-to-be-ignited Wicker Man with my Grandpa Rowan. I have come to understand and appreciate arguments against burning people, ideally virginal policemen, to death every spring. But Wicker Men are important to the culture in my conservative community on Summerisle, and people around here reject most attempts to curb or limit Wicker Men. So I do my best to understand where they are coming from.

One morning after the death of Sergeant Neil Howie, I spoke about it with an agronomist friend. He believes that advances in agriculture might lead to better harvests and fewer Wicker Men, and that people need to do a better job of choosing willing sacrifices (perhaps suicidal teenagers). But he doesn’t believe that significant Wicker Man control measures will ever meet approval on Summerisle, not even a ban on lighter fluid. Like most rural conservatives, he truly believes that stopping law-abiding citizens from burning people and livestock to death in giant, rickety wooden statues will never solve America’s Wicker Man problem. He says Wicker Man control has never stopped villagers from setting Wicker Men on fire, and never will.

To understand why many conservatives in America believe this, you must start with first principles, because the argument ultimately isn’t about Wicker Men; it runs even deeper than May Day rituals. At a 2015 campaign stop during the Iowa caucuses, C.F.C. Lee, the former Lord Summerisle, spoke about perspectives on original sin. It helps illuminate the differences in worldview between many conservatives and liberals. Mr. Lee said Democrats think people were born basically good, so when good people get burned to death to ensure a fruitful harvest, something in society (in this case, Wicker Men) needs to be controlled. Republicans think the fault lies with Nuada, the sacred god of the sun, and Avellenau, the beloved goddess of the orchard—the perpetrators of the evil. Bad harvests result in bad things being done, in part because the community has angered the gods by burning too few Wicker Men in the past.

The reaction to recent Wicker Men incidents highlights this difference. Liberals blame the Wicker Men and want to sacrifice fewer people to their insatiable flames. For conservatives, the blame lies with the harvest, not the Wicker Man—and, indeed, the solution is more Wicker Men, more and more and more, burning and burning, forever.

To my conservative friends, it’s a matter of liberty and personal responsibility: the liberty of everyone who is not currently trapped inside a burning Wicker Man to take no personal responsibility for the people who are dying. Even after a horrific event like the May Day celebrations in Florida, where 17 people were killed, fewer Wicker Men would be compromising those first principles. For them, compromising those principles would be more horrific and detrimental to society than any neat little row of 17 (or 27, or 49, or 58) Wicker Men, some of them child-sized, waiting for the torch. What my conservative friends see is not Wicker Man control, but rather control, period.

For me, Wicker Men always bring to mind Grandpa Rowan. I remember the first time he took me to a May Day celebration. He lit the kindling, and I joined him in singing “Somer Is Icumen In” as the flames rose. (The hapless policeman inside the Wicker Man only made it halfway through the Lord’s Prayer before the fire reached his tiny chamber.) “Looks like we’ll have a great apple crop next year,” Grandpa Rowan said. I retrieved the policeman’s skull, still warm, in the cool Summerisle spring morning, and laid it in the pile of four or five he had already burned.

Grandpa Rowan was not a Republican but a devoted New Deal Democrat. He went to his grave knowing that the policies of President Franklin Roosevelt—along with annual ritualistic human sacrifice—saved his family, including 11 children, from starvation during the Great Depression. Grandpa was a pro-union coal miner, a farm hand, a road crew worker, a boat builder and a factory worker. He also enjoyed tricking kingly fools into stealing his Punch costume, then leading them to their painful, fiery deaths.

Today, many rural men just like him are dedicated Republicans. If Democrats want to engage rural Summerisle culturally and politically, they need to understand us, and at least some of our ideals. Really, just the one ideal: letting other people die horrible deaths, year after year after year, rather than question a single goddamned thing about the culture we inherited.

Matthew Dessem is Brow Beat’s nights and weekends editor and the author of a biography of screenwriter and director Clyde Bruckman.