A Journey to Summerisle: The Music and Atmosphere of Psychological Horror
Art by Dan Mumford (www.dan-mumford.com)
*A note on the italicized material: This blog follows a tight narrative on a variety of aspects of the Psychological Horror genre and the Horror Community. As a method of keeping with a narrative, I include brief bites of creative writing, a sort of short story that bleeds in to the next post, beginning with the ending of the first post on this site. Consider it our metaphorical journey through these dark works, to accompany the literal one.
“You’ll simply never understand the true nature of sacrifice”.
The darkness is eternal here, impenetrable blackness all around. The wind is still blowing, howling against some cliffs with the sound of waves crashing below. Out of the darkness, appears an image-
Nuada, the God of the Sun.
Suddenly, we hear singing and –
We are in the middle of a Church service where Sgt. Neil Howie of the West Highland Constabulary is about to give a sermon. After this, we are on plane, flying to a small island off the coast of Scotland called Summerisle. Sgt. Howie has been summoned here to investigate the disappearance of a child.
An anonymous letter draws Howie to Summerisle, which is, in essence, the opening of Anthony Shaffer’s The Wicker Man. From here, we are steeped in a story of religion and paganism, of Old Gods and modern Christian beliefs, of will and temptation.
It is important to our cause that we discuss great stories in the psychological horror genre, such as the 1973 classic The Wicker Man. Here I provide a review and analysis of the film, as I will with others over my next two posts, before moving into the more concrete area of this blog, which will be analyzing the issues within the horror industry. To start, look at the intelligence, intricacy and subtle genius of The Wicker Man’s plot, something that has disappeared almost entirely from the genre today.
The Wicker Man is largely a religious film that happens to be a psychological horror story. A waking nightmare for a God-fearing man dropped among pagans who he believes are attempting to sacrifice a young girl to some ancient God for the sake of their crops.
We know that something is wrong with this place the second Howie steps off the plane. But we aren’t quite sure exactly what is wrong. The music, while set to gay and joyous tones, is unnerving. The people, while nothing but accommodating, are unsettling at best.
Our first journey into the depths of psychological horror begins here, where we will deeply examine the role music and atmosphere.
The Music of The Wicker Man
It was not until recently that it dawned on me that every song in the film is about Sgt. Howie.
When the film begins, we hear a song in the Church; Howie sings along, happily. The Church is a bastion of his faith. On the island, this is not the case. Sgt. Howie is presented to the viewer as an uptight, overly religious prude, but we see this world from Howie’s point of view, and so we begin to adopt his sentiments. The songs he hears on Summerisle are frequently sexual, praising rebirth, rejuvenation and the phallic symbol.
Even with “loosened morals” of modern society, this makes us uncomfortable. Sgt. Howie’s introduction to the people of Summerisle is in the pub/hotel The Green Man, through a song called The Landlord’s Daughter. The song serves a notice to Howie, the actual Landlord’s Daughter, is promiscuous and proud.
The next day, Howie decides to investigate the school about the missing child. Here, he hears an old classic children’s song with an added section about sexuality, rebirth and circle of life.
Howie, later that night, can hear Willow (The Landlord’s Daughter) singing a provocative song from next door to his rented room. Willow sings of love and life and sexual pursuits. Howie is a virgin and she is making him an offer. Howie fends off the temptation, seeking his Bible instead.
At every turn, we are confronted with what Howie might call lewdness in the songs. Yet all of it was, by design, created to test Sgt. Howie’s will.
It is something, we find later, to be of great importance to the people of Summerisle.
The Soundtrack of Psychological Horror
Music, like all things in the psychological horror genre, serves a purpose. In my last post, I discussed the low brooding theme of John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982), and how it served to keep the viewer constantly uneasy about the outcome of turning every corner.
While we rarely ever encounter The Thing, we feel its presence.
A similar remark can be made regarding Anthony Shaffer’s The Wicker Man. To listen to the music of Summerisle on a surface level, one would get the impression that they had entered some paradise. Yet, listening carefully, we can pick up much more.
The first song we hear after the Church scene occurs as Sgt. Howie is flying over the island, looking for a place to land. The song, which happens to be a rendition of a tragic Gaelic tale, has overtones reminiscent of a funeral procession.
We know Howie is going to his death.
Just as the solemn bagpipes warn us of Sgt. Howie’s damnation and ultimate demise, the soundtrack that follows a psychological horror film (or television program or video game, for that matter), must reflect the ultimate other that we must eventually confront.
For the John Carpenter film, it was the thing and for Sgt. Howie, it was his untimely death.
Atmosphere and The Wicker Man
Isolation, as in most psychological horror stories, is a major theme of The Wicker Man.
Sgt. Howie, for better or worse, is completely alone in this most dreadful of places. He did not believe that such things could happen in the modern era, but he was wrong. The child, Rowan Morrison, has been missing, supposedly, for months. When Howie arrives on the island, no one claims to have ever heard of her. Yet Howie persists until he finds proof that she existed.
Then villagers acknowledge her existence, but tell him she has died.
Howie persists in his investigation, and finds that not only does she exist, but she is also not dead. Howie keeps striving to find her, keeps looking, keeps going round and round, never realizing the true danger or “the true nature of sacrifice”.
Inevitably, Sgt. Howie meets the bastion of this society, the illusive Lord Summerisle, who neatly explains the history of this place, as well as the philosophy he holds regarding God and Society.
It is through Sgt. Howie’s viewpoint that we see such symbols of Summerisle’s belief system. A ruined, abandoned Church. A woman, sitting in the ruined Churchyard, breastfeeding her child in one arm, and holding an egg in the other. Harvest celebrations, the image of Nuada. Fire dances performed in the nude, and ritual sacrifice. To the educated eye, it is clear, to everyone else (including Howie), it is madness.
Howie, while enraged by Lord Summerisle’s words, finally finds himself realizing that he is all alone in this place. Yet there is much and more that he does not realize, never knowing until the final moments of the film why he was summoned there.
But all the elements of foreshadowing are here. In the Beetle scene and in Sgt. Howie’s conversation with Summerisle, we find that Howie is told directly what his fate will be and yet he does not realize it.
Ignorance is bliss for some, I suppose, but for others, it can be fatal.
Atmosphere in Psychological Horror
Such elements are all around the film, and add only to the eerie atmosphere of isolation and deceit set forth early on.
Generally, it is not necessarily a sense of hopelessness, but a rather a sense of unknowing. H.P. Lovecraft once wrote that “the oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown”.
Gloominess is fine, but a sense of terror or dread caused by uncertainty is conceivably better for filmmakers and for writers. Rumor has it that the filmmakers of The Wicker Man were instructed by the British Lion film studio to have the film end with storm clouds and a torrential downpour that would save Sgt. Howie’s life.
The Director chose not to do that.
Sgt. Howie, ultimately, burns alive, screaming “Jesus” at the end of his prayer. The film ends with the credits rolling and a bloody red sun setting in the distant horizon.
We know not whether Howie ascended or if his ritualistic sacrifice led to a better crop season for the people of Summerisle.
All we can do is watch.
“Come. It is time to keep your appointment with The Wicker Man”
– Lord Summerisle
The fires weep away and eventually darkness takes us again. Madness took Summerisle in those days, but as the light floods in we find ourselves someplace where the madness reigns supreme and holds sway over all. The road is stretched out before us. Come along now, it is getting darker. We walk and walk, making no sounds but for the shuffling of our feet and the whisper in the wind. Leaves ruffle. Off in the distance, somewhere, someone is laughing. We come to archway, just around a bend that reads Elizabeth Arkham Asylum for the Criminally Insane. The gate opens slowly and walking through, we see-