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‘The Wicker Man Effect’ and the Everyday Folklore of UK Calendar Customs

Sophie Parkes-Nield | Sheffield Hallam University


Amid the bleating of goats and sheep, a man pleads to Jesus to save him as the flames lick at his wooden cage. The people, gathered to watch his painful demise, sing an ancient song, ‘Sumer Is Icumen In’, in the hope that the sacrifice will procure a bountiful harvest.


The unforgettable dénouement of the 1973 British film, The Wicker Man, is all the more barbaric given that the film, until that point, is colourful, eccentric, even twee. Or as acclaimed short story writer, Sarah Hall, whom the BBC recently commissioned to reimagine its setting – the fictional island of Summerisle – in 2023, said, ‘hokey, and not terribly well made.’


The life and legacy of The Wicker Man is unusual. Its original release was disappointing, a B-film to Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now. But in the years that followed, The Wicker Man has outgrown its B-film status and has gone on to become, thanks to word of mouth, timely re-releases, and a notorious remake with Nicolas Cage, a cult classic.


In 2023, the film’s fiftieth anniversary, a ‘final cut’ was shown in UK cinemas on Summer Solstice, a special commemorative collector’s edition was released, and the soundtrack was the focus of a special show at London’s prestigious Barbican. There has been copious press attention, and artists have been invited to revisit the film through new commissions aimed at contextualising the film’s legacy. And this builds on a steady stream of tributes paid to the film over the years: visitors to Alton Towers can ride ‘The Wicker Man’ wooden rollercoaster, while Sing-Along-A-Wicker-Man has been encouraging audiences to celebrate the film’s songs in auditoriums across the country. As The Big Issue noted in its recent discussion of the film’s impact, the story of The Wicker Man is ‘a folk tale in and of itself’.


It is also widely regarded as exemplary of the Folk Horror genre, one of three significant films that the genre’s foremost scholar, Adam Scovell, has dubbed the ‘unholy trinity’, alongside The Witchfinder General (1968) and Blood on Satan’s Claw (1971). It is Scovell’s 2014 ‘Folk Horror Chain’, describing the common motifs found in Folk Horror film and literature, that has largely been used to define the genre, and The Wicker Man’s memorable climax is a paradigm example of what Scovell terms the ‘summoning’: the inevitable violent, climactic event that occurs as the result of the ‘skewed morality’ of an isolated community.


Summerisle’s violent act can also be regarded as a calendar custom: a traditional, recurring event performed by the community for the community. Summerisle’s custom comprises dance, song, ritual, play and costumed procession, much like the many calendar customs that continue to take place in UK communities today. A cursory glance at the directory CalendarCustoms.com neatly conveys the proliferation of customs, but also their variety; from the chasing of a cheese down Cooper’s Hill to the parading of straw bears, calendar customs continue to light up neighbourhoods in their idiosyncratic ways throughout the year.

A woman holds a cheese wheel aloft at the bottom of Cooper's Hill, Gloucestershire.
Cheese rolling at Cooper’s Hill, Gloucestershire. Another England, Andrew Robinson.

The legacy of The Wicker Man, however, has coloured our popular perception of these cultural happenings. ‘The Wicker Man effect’ is the term I propose to explain the common reaction to the UK’s calendar custom: that our traditional customs are somehow weird, spooky, and the product of an insular, inward-looking community. ‘The Wicker Man effect’ has influenced numerous Folk Horror texts, both on screen and in literature, with their casting of calendar customs as violent summonings. Early readers of my novel-in-progress, set across the weekend of a fictional village’s custom, have commented that their presumption has been that my fictional custom will somehow channel the supernatural; that my characters will reveal a predilection for the unsavoury, uncovering an unpleasant truth. ‘The Wicker Man effect’ is their automatic position.


Does ‘The Wicker Man effect’ present a problem? On the surface, it seems not; in fact, the ostensible popularity of Folk Horror may even present an opportunity to raise the profile of our folkloric practices. But when we consider the deeper machinations of ‘The Wicker Man effect’, I believe its impact means the significance, the resonance, of our real-world customs is downplayed, even lost. Doc Rowe, documentarian of British folklore, writes that though we appreciate the ‘dances and rituals we may see overseas, it is sad to realise that we know little of our own. Moreover, it seems extraordinary to me that often we are embarrassed by, or even ridicule, our own indigenous cultural traditions.’ In reframing our customs as eerie and sinister, we distance them from everyday life, remove or distort our genuine attachment to them and point the finger at those that do perpetuate them.


Few of our customs, if any, can be considered truly macabre, like the custom portrayed in The Wicker Man. Men dancing with reindeer antlers at daybreak, as is the case at Abbots Bromley in Staffordshire each September, might be odd, even a little unsettling, to newcomers. A King astride a Shire horse and paraded through Castleton in Derbyshire, his body hidden beneath a heavy cage decorated with wildflowers, may also seem a little peculiar. You might not necessarily want to encounter the snapping jaws of the ‘oss down a Padstow dark alley in May. But for the residents of the city, town or village that perform such a custom, it is usually a joyous occasion: the chance to celebrate with friends and family, rekindle relationships with returning former residents, reflect on the passing year, and feel part of something meaningful.

Men holding deer antlers stand in two rows facing each other in Abbots Bromley, Staffordshire.
The Abbots Bromley Horn Dance, Staffordshire. Another England, Andrew Robinson.
A person under a mound of flowers, riding a horse.
The King at the Castleton Garland Ceremony, Derbyshire. Andrew Robinson.
A crowd of people wearing white celebrate May Day in Padstow.
May Day in Padstow. Another England, Andrew Robinson.

Though it is unclear why some of our customs began, giving rise to rumour and legend, the origins of some customs are well documented and understood. For example, rushbearing festivals, once widespread and now found in pockets in the North of England, grew up around the renewal of rush-strewn floors of civic buildings. Of course, St Chad’s Church in Saddleworth no longer requires rushes to make dirt flooring more palatable to the knees of its parishioners, but the Saddleworth Rushcart revived in the 1970s and presided over by the Saddleworth Morris Men ever since, occurs around August bank holiday each year and brings together morris dancers from across the country and hordes of local people. The sight of the ‘jockey’, a morris man perched on the top of a cart piled high with rushes and paraded about Saddleworth villages over the course of the weekend, is as bizarre and as unexpected as the dancers at Abbots Bromley and the King at Castleton. The custom brings palpable joy to the host and participating morris dancers, as well as the flocks of people who line the streets to watch it (and, inevitably, indulge in what the pubs have to offer). But, as frivolous as it may seem, these events can be deeply resonant for those who orchestrate, participate, and observe.

A woman climbing a rushbearing cart at Sowerby Bridge, West Yorkshire.
Rushbearing at Sowerby Bridge, West Yorkshire. Another England, Andrew Robinson.

Richard, one of the organisers of the Saddleworth Rushcart, has been involved in the orchestration of over forty Rushcarts. He describes the atmosphere as ‘crackling with energy’ when the morris men bring out the cart ‘because we’re doing the same thing at the same time of year at the same place that’s been done for 200 years.’ He feels a responsibility towards his Saddleworth ancestors to maintain the tradition and when, in 2020 and 2021, that could not be achieved, due to the COVID-19 lockdown, he swapped Saddleworth for Cornwall, feeling truly deflated. ‘Devastated, I think, is a better word,’ he says.


There is something at odds with the everydayness of the custom – that it recurs at a given point; it is carried out much in the same fashion – and its importance for those involved. Perhaps the calendar custom can be compared to a community-wide birthday, or a more widely celebrated holiday, like Christmas, celebrated by only a few. Certainly, for those organisers that I have spoken with, their custom enables them to honour and feel rooted to the place that they call home.


Comparisons can, of course, be made with Summerisle’s custom. Summerisle, too, ‘crackles with energy’ as the custom gets underway, and it seems everyone has a role to perform, carried out with the polish expected from years of repeated performance. But The Wicker Man invites us to look upon Summerisle’s residents at first with scepticism, scorn, and a lack of seriousness – a pharmacist that treats a cough with a frog held in the mouth, a teacher that expounds the virtue of the phallic symbol – and then, as the film reaches its zenith, with horror. This is what film scholar Dawn Keetley calls ‘the monstrous tribe’, often found in Folk Horror: the host community, ostracised from mainstream life, with their peculiar, later barbaric, ways. Though I am not naïve to propose that all UK communities and their customs will be welcoming, that all individuals will feel at home at a calendar custom, whether taking place in their home community or another, I would like to think that a neighbourhood that has a deep sense of pride in their place and people would also be receptive to outsiders that recognise it, too.


I have long enjoyed The Wicker Man, in spite – or perhaps because of – its blasé attitude towards real-world folklore, and I can belt out the chorus of ‘The Landlord’s Daughter’ with the best of them. But I also worry that, in perceiving our customs to be odd, even dangerous, and their custodians to be peculiar and insular, thanks to the legacy of The Wicker Man, we risk underestimating or misunderstanding the value of the calendar custom and the joy they can bring to our lives. A calendar custom can give an individual purpose, engender a sense of belonging, define personal and collective identity, offer opportunities for personal development, and bring people together. Perhaps most importantly, the calendar custom can also offer much-needed fun, play and release, the chance to celebrate in the streets with neighbours and friends. As the UK establishment pays little mind to our folkloric practices – for example, the UK is not party to UNESCO’s 2003 Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage, which celebrates its twentieth anniversary this year – and much of the stewardship of our customs falls to passionate people in the community, I only hope that we can acknowledge the important contribution our intangible cultural heritage makes to the places we live and, most importantly, towards understanding who we are.

 

Further reading:

  • Boyes, Georgina, The Imagined Village: Culture, Ideology & the English Folk Revival (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1993).

  • Hannant, Sara, Mummers, Maypoles and Milkmaids: A Journey Through the English Ritual Year (London: Merrell, 2011).

  • Hutton, Ronald, Stations of the Sun: A History of the Ritual Year in Britain (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996).

  • Roud, Steve, The English Year: A month-by-month guide to the nation's customs and festivals, from May Day to Mischief Night (London: Penguin, 2008).

  • Rowe, Doc, May Day: The Coming of Spring (Swindon: English Heritage, 2006).

Sophie Parkes-Nield is a writer, PhD candidate and Associate Lecturer at Sheffield Hallam University, researching English calendar customs at the Centre for Contemporary Legend. Her practice-based PhD in Creative Writing sees her writing Thankstide, a novel set across the weekend of a fictional village’s custom. Her debut novel, Out of Human Sight, came out in January 2023.


@sophparkes


www.sophieparkes.co.uk

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