The Wicker Man is, without a doubt, a key cultural touchstone in the modern Pagan movement. Even if you haven’t seen the film, you probably know at least some of the references like naked nature-worshipers jumping over bonfires and burning people alive in a gigantic wicker man which were first popularized in this film. The Wicker Man’s status as a folk horror classic with widespread pop cultural significance is also probably a factor in why this film is one that many Pagans are at least familiar with. What I think makes it especially enduring is how the horror in The Wicker Man depends heavily on how you feel about the actions of police officer Sergeant Howie and, by extension, the kind of society and religious attitudes that he represents. One of the clearest examples of the film's enduring quality is how, for any kind of Pagan and possibly many modern viewers, you can’t shake the feeling that Sergeant Howie had it coming.
Some might argue this is my bias showing and that I am “siding” with the people of Summerisle because they look sort of Pagan and they get a huge boost through their leader, Lord Summerisle, being masterfully portrayed by the late Christopher Lee. Now I won’t argue that it isn’t thoroughly enjoyable to see Christopher Lee do his thing but there is a lot more behind my take than simple sympathy and love of a great actor. To put it simply, Sergeant Howie’s actions simply do not hold up under scrutiny and it is hard not to question if he is truly seeking justice for Rowan Morrison or delivering Christian judgment, with all that implies, to Summerisle. I think on review many modern viewers will come away agreeing that Sergeant Howie fucked around and found out.
The place I want to start with is the portrayals of spirituality in The Wicker Man and Folk Horror generally. One key element of The Wicker Man is its treatment of the clearly non-Christian, Pagan in all but name inhabitants of Summerisle. Age-old nature-based cults are common staple in the genre of folk horror, of which the Wicker Man is a famous example alongside more recent works like Midsommar. Most depictions lean heavily into the weird otherness of these people and their spiritual practices, making them into a strange, exotic group who are clearly set apart from “normal” society. Films like Midsommar milk often this for cheap shock value and use the otherness as the foundation of the horror.
This might make it rather surprising for newer viewers to see that Wicker Man, which built a lot of the core tropes of folk horror, very conspicuously does not do this. A lot of time is spent during the first act showing the people of Summerisle in school, hanging out in the pub, and engaging in their particular customs and traditions. Even though what is shown is clearly very different from mainstream society and world embodied by Howie’s church service, none of this is portrayed as inherently bad or strange.
In fact, much of what is shown of life on Summerisle is it is rather idyllic and the practices of the inhabitants mostly seem to be making them happy. Nothing better shows their confidence and ease than when Howie confronts the local schoolteacher with, “Haven’t they heard about Jesus” to which she replies coolly, “In Comparative Religions.” There is no fear, doubt, or any sense of hatred or scorn for Christianity in her reply. For the teacher, her students, and the other inhabitants of Summerisle their Old Gods are just as real as anything else and can stand toe to toe with Christian beliefs. This is further echoed by Lord Summerisle’s admonition of Sergeant Howie that, “any child can easily grasp reincarnation”, a view on life and death that shocks the reticent police sergeant.
Sergeant Howie’s Christianity stands in very stark contrast to their relative open-ness and security. Howie is established as deeply devout right at the outset of the film, as shown by him delivering a sermon in a Scottish Protestant, possibly Presbyterian, Church. This choice by the film-makers was deliberate, as Scottish Protestantism is known within British Christianity for its highly judgmental, Calvinist attitudes. Howie is not just a Christian but a member of a particular Christian sect that was known in British society at the time for being especially moralistic, puritanical, and conservative. He is not just a Christian authority figure, he is a product of a particularly intolerant, righteous brand of Christianity that has been seriously challenged since the Reformation.
It’s safe to say the positive portrayal of these worshipers of the Old Gods set in contrast to Sergeant Howie's arch-Christianity is likely intended as a drawn-out, elaborate bait & switch for the audience. The ending becomes much more shocking when you’re used to seeing the Summerisle inhabitants as people with lives and genuine beliefs that are beneficial to them. From a horror movie perspective, the result is an elaborate fake-out that makes you genuinely ask yourself whose side you’re on. For Pagans today, this means The Wicker Man is, entirely unintentionally, one of the more sympathetic portrayals of something like Paganism in popular media and one of the few has the Pagan-like people mostly come across as more reasonable, intelligent, and compassionate than the lone Christian police officer.
Sympathy and framing does go a long way to setting Howie up as a jerk but does being unpleasant justify throwing him on the sacrificial fire? Part of Wicker Man’s genius, as many commentators have noted, is how you see the ostensible protagonist falling one step at a time into a string of obvious, avoidable traps, some of which are entirely his own doing. More to the point, I think there’s enough grounds for asserting Sergeant Howie wasn’t just a bit of a party pooper who didn’t go along with Pagan shenanigans, he was a power-abusing, dangerously righteous, and arrogant individual who had no business being on Summerisle in the first place.
Sergeant Howie’s abuses of power are hard to miss. From the moment he arrives on Summerisle he immediately begins issuing demands and orders to every person in sight, expecting them to immediately cooperate because he’s a cop. It doesn’t take long before he is informed that unless he has a warrant he’s going to need Lord Summerisle’s permission to go poking around. This suggests that Sergeant Howie only has enough information to start asking questions and doesn’t have much of a firm basis for being here beyond a picture, a tip given to the police, and a hunch.
His lack of clear authority is further reinforced in the schoolroom scene. In it, he demands to see the teacher’s attendance records to prove the existence of little Rowan. The schoolteacher responds by demanding to see a warrant. Howie ignores this and brushes her aside to rifle through the attendance records where he finds Rowan’s name.
There’s a lot of potential suspicion running around but precious little proof of, well, anything.
All Sergeant Howie has to go on, even after exhuming what he thought was Rowan’s body, is his clear disdain for the islanders’ beliefs, and the impression the locals are not cooperating with him. The last of these three is hardly surprising when Sergeant Howie has, so far, been openly dismissive of their beliefs and ordering people about as if they were his subordinates. It is only after he’s gotten himself in too deep that his plane is sabotaged, leaving him trapped on the island and taking matters into his own hands with catastrophic results.
Sergeant Howie also really sets himself up for a bad time with how he approaches the investigation. His most conspicuous mistake is going in without a partner, a decision that was reinforced by flying in solo. Going it alone is easily the most egregious of Howie’s screwups. He is, after all, a police officer operating in the country that invented modern policing. It’s probably safe to say that by the 1970s British cops were not just going it alone on kidnapping & murder investigations in the most remote parts of the United Kingdom. Taking a plane only upped the ante here because this meant there would be no witnesses to Howie’s presence other than the locals. Even chartering a boat would’ve at least guaranteed some random sailors would recall him getting off in Summerisle, setting the stage for any follow-up investigation.
This could be chalked up to plot contrivance but I have an alternate theory that’s grounded in what we know of Sergeant Howie. He is established and shown throughout the film to be an especially judgmental, holier-than-thou Scottish Protestant. Howie has also only gotten engaged after making police sergeant, as indicated by the presence of his new fiancé in the opening scene of the film. This suggests he is a somewhat prudish workaholic who is more emotionally invested in his job than his personal relationships. His willingness to ignore procedure with regards to the school records also suggests that he is willing to ignore the rules if he has a good enough moral justification to do so.
Based on this, it isn’t unreasonable to conclude Sergeant Howie on the beat was probably the embodiment of why the slogan, “All Cops Are Bastards” started in the UK during this same period. He was also probably not the most pleasant guy to work with. It is, therefore, possible Howie getting this case was his colleagues’ way of eliminating him Hot Fuzz style with a wild goose chase in the remotest part of Scotland that they could find. It could have also been passed on to Sergeant Howie by his colleagues so the righteous workaholic might take something vaguely resembling a vacation for once in his life. Regardless, it’s not hard to imagine his solo pursuit is because no one else in his department wanted to go snipe hunting with him.
All these reasons why Sergeant Howie is easily viewed as a highly unsympathetic target rather than a helpless victim. He represents a very different kind of horror from the terrors of cultish human sacrifice, one that is much closer to home than a remote Scottish island ruled by Christopher Lee. Sergeant Howie, through his escalating hatred and disdain for the locals, shows the looming power of men that proclaim, “this is a CHRISTIAN country”, as Howie does in rebuttal to Lord Summerisle, and their desire to exercise that power freely. Even though Sergeant Howie is the one who winds up on the fire, it’s not hard to recall authority figures who have invoked Christianity to justify genuinely burning far more or the ones who lust for bringing that back.