The Sacred Theatre of Summerisle

“The silly old beetle goes round and round” -School Girl – Summerisle class 1973

The Wicker Man is perhaps the most authentic of all British horror films.

One of the many reasons I feel connected to the story of the inhabitants of Summerisle is that they represents a way of life that places drama, music and the power of storytelling as its driving force, connecting all those who live on Summerisle in a rich tapestry of ritual.

At its heart, The Wicker Man presents a society that has embraced a form of sacred theatre that I have spent over twenty five years manifesting, through my work as a writer and director with FoolishPeople. An organisation I founded in 1989 to explore the power of ritual art.

The ritual theatre performed on Summerisle is sacred to those who engage in it, not confined by the boundaries of the proscenium arch or the edge of the stage. This is a form of storytelling that can instigate powerful change via entry into a theatre of manifestation.

All forms of ritual manifest living breathing stories, that are inhabited by spirits, in the form of archetypes hidden within us all. The epic journeys these characters undertake mirror the trials and tribulations of own lives. Myths, that humans have engaged in creating for aeons. When audiences enter and witness these narratives they experience the true power of art.

Ritual instigates transformations. Transformation in our relationship to nature and the environment we exist within, transformation in our relationship to our lives and personals myths. Transformation that redefines how we relate to our own passage through time and the stories we engage in telling with our friends, family and loved ones.

Ritual Theatre has the power to bring us into contact with the numinous. When conducted correctly, rituals become living worlds, manifesting across the minds of all witnesses. They ebb and flow within the blood of all participants; the barrier between audience and performer does not exist due to the immersive nature of ritual theatre. Imagination is the gateway to the numinous truths that have the power to redefine the nature of reality.

“It’s most important that each new generation born on Summerisle be made aware that here the old gods aren’t dead.” – Lord Summerisle

There are as many forms of ritual and sacred theatre as there are stories. Each human culture has explored this form of storytelling, indigenous to its place, time and people. Each ritual takes shape from the narrative of a story that unfolds during its performance.

The roots of theatre imagine a space where stories are performed across entire landscapes, where the sky itself becomes the stage for gods and spirits to meet. One aspect remains present in all forms of theatre, the ritual space. This is the area which the performance/story/ritual manifests within. The stage. The primal site where transformations take place. It can of course be a small area, a circle, a small room. The palm of a hand. There are no limitations in our imaginations to how stories are created. In fact the question is often, what ritual does this landscape, this wood, this field, this house require to be told?

The sacred theatre of Summerisle is unbounded. Almost limitless. The Wicker Man shares a fragment of an immense ongoing ritual that we explore via Police Sergeant Neil Howie’s investigation of the missing girl Rowan Morrison. We see the shadows of it playing out through the lives of the residents of Summerisle. The May Day celebrations are just one important festival amongst many others that must be celebrated and every person Howie meets performs their roles. Their personalities are not entirely human, their human identities have merged with the archetypes they manifest, transforming them into living myths.

Summerisle’s grand ritual exists across the whole Island, because perhaps the greatest and most vital role is that of the island/landscape itself. We witness its materialisation as Howie explores Summerisle, from the songs sung within the tavern to the skyclad women who jump through the fire in the stone circle in the grounds of the Manor. With Howie as our guide, we come into contact with so many strange and beautiful stories. It’s almost frustrating not to be able to follow these apparitions, to see what secrets they hold. The mother breastfeeding her child in one arm, whilst holding an egg in the palm of her other hand in the ruins of the desecrated church is such a magickal and mesmerising emblem. Each character is a doorway to another layer of an immense ritual. A passage which, if you were able to follow, would lead down to deeper levels of the magick engaged with on the Island. Each Islander exists within a society where everyone, from the smallest child, to the oldest Islander are aware their performance is part of an ongoing ritual, that strengthens their community’s connection to the Island’s story within the larger environment of the natural world.

This performance takes place from the moment they are conceived, with their birth acting as their entrance into the ritual space. It continues long after they exit the stage, from this plane of existence, onto where they will continue to play a role, as ancestors, worshiped and called upon in the spirit realm, supporting the divine theatre of Summerisle.

“And on that girl there was a man
From that man there was a seed
And from that seed there was a boy
From that boy there was a man
And for that man there was a grave
From that grave there grew a tree”

Summerisle’s grand ritual is beautiful and yet also horrifying. To someone such as Sergeant Neil Howie, who doesn’t understand its rules, he is too constrained and institutionalised to realise the true power of what he represents. Not as a police officer, but in his role as the Fool archetype.

Like so many of us, Howie realises that transcendence comes at a cost, and each step on this path must be carefully and authentically considered. The question is, can Howie willingly embrace another truth that exists outside his comprehension, before it is too late? The only way to save himself is to literally embrace that which he despises and fears.

More often than not, audience members seek to fully engage in the mystery of a ritual, they thirst for authentic forms of art, and it’s natural for us to become enraptured by wonder and become deeply immersed in sacred narratives. You just need to look around to see their forms present, desecrated and mutated throughout popular culture. These forms of art hold us at bay.

Ultimately when we engage with rituals that include our experiences, as facets and methods of communication via which transmission takes place, we quickly learn how much power we have to alter the course of the narrative of the ritual, by simply engaging and offering our own story to the grand meta-narrative. We see this throughout Summerisle, in the story of how Lord Summerisle’s father taught him the importance of the Island’s rituals.

“He brought me up the same way to reverence the music and the drama and rituals of the old Gods. To love nature and to fear it.” – Lord Summerisle

There are always those who are unwilling participants in other people’s stories, and even though it has to be a personal choice to fully engage and join a ritual (it is Howie’s choice), people can be challenged by the purity they observe and the nature of what the ritual performance offers to them as individuals.

All rituals are dangerous, both for audience and performer, this form of art insists that those who take part confront the truth they would run from. What greater ritual is there to engage with, than to learn why you were born? The real reason you made your way into the ritual space? What is the true nature of your character? The archetype hidden beneath the layers of inherited identities, learning the secrets of what we should spend our life attempting to accomplish is a challenging and demanding proposition.

Sergeant Howie’s journey to the heart of Summerisle’s ritual space is that of a fallen god. He witnesses the topography of the landscape, from high above Summerisle, within the natural world, watching the beauty of the island from the perspective of a spirit, a God high above.

To commence the ritual he must come down to earth. It could be argued that the ritual begins upon his arrival, when his plane lands. Via the watery portal of the harbour, an ominous precursor the sea-change Sergeant Howie will be forced to undergo.

Howie must insist he wishes to make Land. The Harbour master as the guard of the sacred space understands that it is vital for the spell they are undertaking that the Fool willingly steps off the cliff. This is the contract between the shaman and participant. And when Howie forces the Harbour master to permit entry, it is in this moment that Howie must join the performance. The other residents are seen, running to join the scene. Eager to play their part and willingly support the Harbour Master’s performance, in this, the first moments of Howie’s entrance.

However, I would imagine that the true start of the ritual is far earlier. Even before Howie’s birth. For those who make their home on Summerisle understand that their ritual is the story the Island tells itself over and over, so that it never forgets its true purpose.

It’s in those first moments inside the ritual, Howie learns that the normal rules of human engagement and communication are not extant on Summerisle, for this is an island of wonder, where ritual is always present, where friends engage with each other through the telling the
Island’s story in each and every moment they breathe. The level of understanding that would have been afforded to those who existed within the ritual space of Summerisle is immense. These are not ignorant pagan Islanders, but a people who have found a way to be truly happy. Their peace and joy, is exuded each time Howie comes into contact with them, but they never get angry or lose their tempers. It’s obvious they know who they truly are beneath the surface of their flesh, the archetypes that play out through their lives. Alder MacGregor, the landlord, mentions that he plays the Fool every year when he discusses how his costume seems to shrink each time.

I have no doubt that every home and family on Summerisle has its own individual connection to the narrative of the ritual, the roles past family members have played. When Howie first meets Rowan’s mother, she seems high, her performance is virtually hypnagogic. Wherever Howie turns, Islanders are submerged beneath the spell of their performances. They never contaminate the ritual with lies, for they know that this would make their manifestations within the ritual inauthentic, and if they are anything, it is authentic. Even Rowan’s sister understands this when she innocently explains that Rowan is the Hare.

Howie struggles long before he meets the Wicker Man. He refutes the impact the community has on his own beliefs and ideologies in an attempt to banish and undermine the way of life Summerisle has adopted. Even his simple engagements with the ritual performers, one to one, appears uncomfortable and unpleasant for Howie. He never treats them as his equal, he belittles their choices, all so his investigation might find a truth that fits his worldview. The community of Summerisle only need suggest that Rowan could have been sacrificed and Howie delivers the firm belief that they are heathens, capable of killing one of their own, when the truth is far more complex and interesting. Although Howie witnesses elaborate complex manifestations all around him, he cannot admit their worth, for in doing so he risks dismantling the structures that the society and religion he upholds have insisted are real, true and valid.

Lord Summerisle offers a space within the ritual for Howie, yet it’s Howie choice to engage with this in a predictable manner, this is how he opens himself to possession by the Fool archetype, in the earliest stages of manifestation. To the Fool, both the wonder and horror of their experience is all too real.

In the end, all forms of audience and witness are equally powerful. Their journeys are no less important or valued just because they wish challenge the framework of the ritual, rather than support or imbue it with belief and power. In fact, it can be said that those that resist change, offer something more powerful to the process. Transmutation is far more dramatic and enjoyable when we earn the knowledge in a mythic struggle with the profane. What is life, if not the culmination of a challenging journey to confront the numinous at the end of our days?

Mindless and willing acceptance of myths that seek to define, rather than allowing us to become whatever we choose to be, offer us nothing apart from subservience to meaningless fiction.

Sergeant Howie seems to suffer from a limited perspective and willfully lacks a basic clarity of perception. He ignores his base instincts and in doing so loses the opportunity to change the course of the performance he finds himself lost within. He is unable to recognise the danger he is in, or the nature of what is being offered to him. He does not understand that it is his right as audience and witness to define what is real and not real within the ritual. He lacks the bravery and cunning to change the course of the ritual. This could be attributed to the particular rigours of his Christian belief system, but not all Christians would have dealt with their engagement in the May Day ritual in the manner Howie did. Many would have delved deeper beneath the surface of the story and attempted to change it from within. Their very presence could have altered the course to the May Day celebration, and I don’t think it would be very hard to find a new route through the ritual.

No matter where Howie’s investigation takes him, he is confounded by deeper levels of the ritual playing out through the lives of the Summerisle performers, every life propagates another layer of Summerisle’s grand ritual. Perhaps I’m being unfair to poor Howie. For there is no ultimate or final truth, because the truth contained within all forms of ritual is alive, ever shifting, growing to strengthen the Island’s shared narrative. Always present and authentic. A powerful story, that will not fit within the confines of Howie’s limited and meagre world view.

The ritual offers many paths, but in the end Howie ignores the truth of the performance that he is submerged within. The songs of Summerisle that manifest throughout his journey are all disregarded, the only one he comes close to succumbing to is Willow’s song. The bitter irony here is that the sacred performers of Summerisle offer him a way through his experience. All he needs to do is accept his animal nature, learn and become a man, consent and allow Willow to take his virginity, thus making him an unsuitable candidate of the most appropriate kind.

It is not to be. We understand instinctively the terror and shock when Howie confronts the truth of his participation, that he is to be a virgin sacrifice to the old gods. Yet Sergeant Howie is still rewarded for his participation in his final encounter with the numinous, paused within a fragment of time, screaming in both terror and wonder, as he beholds the hideous grandeur of the Wicker Man. His perception cracked wide open by the horror that every sacred myth hides.

John Harrigan

This essay was first published in the book ‘Folk Horror Revivial: Field Studies
Wyrd Harvest Press – ISBN 9781326376376

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