By: Ryan Lakin
As we have moved through the horror genre reverse-chronologically, one thing I have noticed is how much context (both historical and cultural) determines what we, as readers, find scary or not scary. The more recent texts we have studied, like The Haunting of Hill House or The Exorcist, are often the ones in which the horror feels the most visceral and immediate. The older a text is, or the farther removed it is from our own cultural context, the harder we have to work to determine what its original audience found frightening about it. As a history buff, I love reading older texts for this reason. Nothing evokes the cultural anxieties specific to a certain place and time period better than its monsters.
This sense of cultural specificity is what makes The Wicker Man (1973) so effective, and the 2006 remake, starring Nicolas Cage, not at all. The original film is prototypically British, drawing on Celtic folklore, and the cultural anxieties surrounding it, as a potent source of horror. The film revolves around Sargent Howie, a British detective who travels to a remote island to investigate the disappearance of a young girl, only to have his religious, conservative worldview violently clash with the pagan beliefs and traditions of the island’s inhabitants. In her article “Fear of Folk: Why folk art and ritual horrifies in Britain”, Alexa Galea contextualizes The Wicker Man within the larger debates over British national identity, and the contentious role of Celtic folklore therein, which were taking place in the mid-twentieth century. During a time in which other nations were establishing museums and other tributes to their folk traditions, Galea explains that, up until this time period, the history of Celtic folklore and traditions in Britain were suppressed, as they were deemed at odds with a British cultural identity based around “civilized,” Enlightenment values. In her words, “the horrific rendering of British folk traditions in The Wicker Man speaks of an anxiety of their affirmations – that mankind is subject to the sublime chaos of nature and that society and nature are entwined” (Galea). The horror of the film is drawn not only from the folklore of the country that produced it, but the cultural anxieties surrounding it at the time if its release.
As motion picture properties are remade and mined for material decades after their original popularity, we see how these historical and cultural shifts change the stories that once proved effectively scary. The Wicker Man remake is especially egregious because of just how specifically the original worked for its intended audience, and thus how conclusively the remake fails to recapture any of that power. The Nicholas Cage remake tries to build on American cultural cachet, positioning the pagan group as descendants of the Salem Witch Trials, now settled in the Pacific Northwest. This loose grab bag of generic witch stuff (as well as possible confusion on the part of the screenwriters as to which Salem hosted the Witch Trials) serves to rob the story of any specificity. Lacking a clear folklore on which to build a horror story, the end result is a generic story without teeth.
Galea, Alexa. “Fear of Folk: Why Folk Art and Ritual Horrifies in Britain.” Journal of Illustration, vol. 1, no. 1, Jan. 2014, pp. 77–100.