Wednesday 5 August 2020

Cult Cinema #30: On the Pagan Village Conspiracy

The Wicker Man (1973); Kill List (2011); Midsommar (2019)

(There will be spoilers, as ever.)

Before I even define what one is, I need to say this: outside of works of fiction, there is no such thing as a Pagan Village Conspiracy. Hold that thought.

As a fictional concept, a Pagan Village Conspiracy film has some or all of the following: an outsider protagonist goes to a rural area where they come into contact with a community who turn out to be engaged in pagan or occult practices. Every significant character in this community is part of the conspiracy, which is not usually centred around the pagan/occult practices themselves, but in how they relate to the status of the protagonist. “It was you they wanted all along” is by far the most common twist in the Pagan Village Conspiracy Movie.
The best known Pagan Village Conspiracies on the screen are of course The Wicker Man (1973) and, recently Midsommar (2019). But there a quite a few films that follow the tropes. John Bowen’s BBC Play for Today Robin Redbreast (1970) more or less invented the subgenre, and it has occasionally returned to British TV, most recently with the 2018 miniseries Requiem. Films like Let’s Scare Jessica to Death (1971), Kill List (2011), and Wake Wood (2009) all admit several of the tropes, and you could make a decent case for The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974) as another strong American example. While I wouldn’t exactly call them Pagan Village Conspiracies proper, The Stepford Wives (1975) and Get Out (2017) draw on the same fears, even if they bring other issues to the forefront. It’s incredibly tempting to call Rosemary’s Baby (1968) a Pagan West Village Conspiracy, but disappointingly it’s set in the Upper West Side instead, so that joke’s floating dead in the Hudson.

Regardless of the fictional representations, though, in the real world, there is no such thing as a pagan village conspiracy. That’s vitally important to bear in mind. This is not to say that paganism doesn’t lend itself as much as any other faith ideology to abuse and cultic behaviour; there are far too many cases of that. But the idea that you might have a community that engages in religious practices in secret in order to perform terrible acts doesn’t really hold a while lot of water. Why look at it then? Why should we look at the Pagan Village Conspiracy Movie – a quintessential folk horror subset, a subgenre within a subgenre – in this study, when Ive made a point of avoiding things in film like witch cults and fictional Satanists?

One answer to that lies in the odd, strained relationship between these things and real life.

In February 1945, a Warwickshire farm labourer named Charles Walton was murdered in a memorably horrible fashion. His death was never solved, but about 25 years later, a detective writing a memoir of the case shared the opinion that witchcraft was involved, and the almost pagan nature of the man's death – slashed with sickles, pinned to the ground with a pitchfork – caught imaginations. The Walton murder was the starting point for John Bowen’s original Pagan Village Conspiracy script, Robin Redbreast. But even aside from that TV play, there are a number of cultural conditions that came about that fed on each other at about that time. So you have this unsolved murder, described long after the fact as pagan. And you have a rise in popular paganism and in witchcraft as a pastime and even a religion in the UK.

The 1951 Fraudulent Mediums Act actually decriminalised witchcraft, as long as it was not performed to bilk money out of people, and the work of Gerald Gardner and the consequent birth of Wicca as a legitimate new religion had gained enough traction by the mid-60s that it was more or less certain to explode at the precise moment that the youth of the Baby Boom came of age and tuned in, turned on and so very temporarily dropped out.

Documentary films presented an enticing if sensational view of Wicca. The BBC broadcast The Power of the Witch: Real or Imaginary? in 1971, which included significant pagan leader Doreen Valiente performing a ritual on camera. The mondo(ish) documentary films Secret Rites (1970) and Legend of the Witches (also 1970) gave prominence to consummate self-marketer and self-styled “King of the Witches” Alex Sanders. Although actually pretty suburban and very straight and middle-class, Sanders' presentation of the religion as exciting, subversive and sexy was hugely attractive and his frankly fanciful claims to historical continuity gave it an extra weight for those people who felt that you need historical continuity to be legitimate.
A lot of those historical claims revolved around Christians performing historical witch hunts. The established Christian churches obviously have loads to answer for anyway, and so the inflation of thousands of innocents killed as witches into millions of members of an ancient religious community wasn’t at all hard for a lot of people to swallow. Although the Christian churches in Britain had been in a fairly steady, graceful decline since the end of the Great War, before the awakening of the Pagan and New Age religions in the second half of the twentieth century, they hadn’t really had to face competition from anyone who wasn’t another sort of Christian for well over a thousand years. The simple fact that by the early 70s charismatic “signs and wonders” (or, more pejoratively but more generally, “happy clappy”) evangelicalism – which was founded on a desire for miracles, supernatural spiritual gifts, and entertaining church services previously confined to the edges of Pentecostalism – had taken off at roughly the same time as paganism, witchcraft and the New Age is not entirely unrelated to this. In fact it was a talking point among more conservative evangelicals for decades to lump the charismatics in with the pagans and witches, and indeed literature of that sort passed under my eyes several times in the mid- and late-1990s when I was moving in evangelical circles.

This is relevant because in the context of the 1960s and 70s these New Churches were aggressive, both in how they related to proselytising and in how they were so very keen to get up in pagan and New Age faces. The occult press of the 70s is full of stories about Mind Body Spirit fairs disrupted by groups of placard-waving Christians. I know for instance that my own parents’ occult practices remained on the downlow largely because of bad experiences of Christian hostility in their local community. That Christian hostility, that suspicion of the new religions, was a vital factor in the ambivalent way neopagans and witches were presented in the media. That, in turn, fed into how Christians, especially the charismatic evangelicals who from very early on imagined themselves to be engaged in a constant campaign of “spiritual warfare”, viewed pagans and witches in society. By the 80s, this would lead to evangelical Christians working in the social services to spread in all sincerity accounts of satanic ritual abuse in parts of England, where witches, pagans and (inevitably) “satan-worshippers” were engaged in grooming children for ritual sex.
(Daily Telegraph, 1991)
The effect of this in real terms was that innocent families were split apart and actual abusers were enabled to get away with their abuse with impunity, just because well-meaning Christian social workers had convinced themselves and their authorities that the plot of The Wicker Man was happening in real life.

And here’s the thing. The Wicker Man is basically a conservative’s idea of what a pagan cult looks like. There are hints at institutional child abuse that are obvious to anyone with a baseline level of child safeguarding training (I’ve only little bit of training myself, a month or so maybe, and it hit me like a hammer). There is a sense that things are hidden. A conspiracy. Murder. But it’s not real.

Except that actually it is real, only it's not real in the way that you think it’s real. Obviously I have to unpack that. So. One peculiarity of human interaction that is especially obvious on the internet is that it is normal and natural to assume that most everyone else operates on the same ethical level you do. If you're honourable and truthful, and follow rules, you naturally assume that most people are inclined to be honourable and truthful, and follow rules. This is the reason why Utah, which has the largest number of nice, well-bred and polite Mormons in the world, is also the Western capital for affinity fraud. Because when a nice person from church says, I've got this great investment, you trust them. The world's most prolific affinity fraudster, Bernie Madoff, preyed on his own Jewish community, hollowing out the bank accounts of, among other things, a Holocaust survivor charity. It goes the other way too. Racists and sexists and homophobes and transphobes work on the assumption that everyone else who's “normal” is a little bit racist/sexist/homophobic/transphobic too. So you get things for example like the popular right-wing dogwhistle “virtue signalling”, which expresses the assumption that if someone is making a statement in support of other people’s rights, they're really pretending to care in order to look good. And OK, that’s a thing, people do actually do that sometimes (see Bernie Madoff, above), but that’s not why the statement is popular. No, it’s generally used by people who don't comprehend altruism, who don't understand how anyone might not be a bigot. 

The point of this is that the presentation of how pagans behave in The Wicker Man – in its abuse of children, and its disregard for the life of the outsider in favour of economic realities – is in fact representative of the hard right. It’s how a lot of right wingers imagine a pagan community would run, because it's how they'd run a community given the chance. If that’s a provocative statement, do look at the news from the last calendar year, and interpret what I’m saying in the light of that.
The Wicker Man
is one of the quintessential folk horror texts, and folk horror is predicated on the everyday horror of folk. Summerisle, as ruled by the paternalistic and plummy Lord Summerisle (Christopher Lee) is a hard-right idyll, a showcase example of libertarian neofeudalism, where class mobility is impossible, since a hereditary gentry controls the ideology of the people without interference from the traditional morality of wider society. And that traditional morality is symbolised in the film by Sergeant Howie, both devoutly Christian (and hence a symbol of traditional religious oppression) and a policeman (and hence a symbol of modern technocratic oppression).

Summerisle as a cult isn’t representative of any real world paganism, so much as it is a sort of Temporary Autonomous Zone, a “pirate state” of the kind theorised by Hakim Bey (Peter Lamborn Wilson) in the essay of the same name. The most troubling undercurrent of Wilson’s essay is that it suggests in the only slightly oblique language common to paedophile apologists that its anarchist utopia could be a place where you could get away with fucking children. You see it on Summerisle in The Wicker Man. The school lessons that cross the line between healthy sex ed and something else. The approving way that Lord Summerisle gazes on naked little girls dancing in a circle on his grounds. It's even more explicit in the 1999 Director's Cut of the film, which restores a scene that has Lord Summerisle delivering up a clearly underaged boy to Willow McGregor (Britt Ekland) for ritual deflowering.

Obviously Lord Summerisle’s antagonist is a policeman, and in 2020 that carries a loaded meaning, but the conflict in The Wicker Man is not between authoritarianism and freedom, it’s between a romanticised authoritarianism and an equally romanticised neoreactionary death cult.
From the moment I started writing about this stuff, I have made a point of kicking hard against the lazy and misanthropic take that the pagans on Summerisle might be the real goodies. The people of Summerisle are insular. They affect a cheerful politeness, but separate themselves from outside influences. They espouse a sort of libertarian freedom while following a feudal leader who is part of the establishment and who influences them on a religious, cultic level. They espouse an ideology that is relatively new but which claims continuity with the past. And they exploit their children, and are happy to make excuses for sacrificing human life if they think it will bring them economic security. Pagan groups can go as toxic as any other religious community can, and sure, many of these things appear in both pagan and religious communities. But the people of Summerisle don't present paganism as such, so much as they are a perfect, if thinly veiled, presentation of fascism, and not fascism as it is in the popular imagination, but fascism as it really expresses itself in daily life.

In the present day – where in one powerful Western nation a significant number of people follow a feudal leader who appeals to them on a religious level, espouse a sort of hard right Christianity that doesn't really exist in continuity with historical orthodoxy, have no issue with detaining pre-school children in concentration camps or torturing gay children to suicide in conversion programmes, and are openly willing to sacrifice lives for the sake of economic security – this takes on a disturbing tenor.

Much has been written about how Donald Trump’s MAGA movement functionally behaves like a cult; and no cult in fiction so closely corresponds with its behaviours as the pagan community of Summerisle.
Of the several Pagan Village Conspiracy movies since Robin Redbreast and The Wicker Man, most of them don’t really fall into the remit of cult studies. But it’s worth mentioning Ben Wheatley and Amy Jump’s Kill List. The film has a murderous cult that navigates the various corridors of power – media, the church, politics, the law, the corporate realm – which manipulates the hapless protagonist into becoming its tool. But its presentation of how someone lost and prone to emotional dysregulation might be lured into becoming a member of a cult like this is perhaps a little lacking. In the film, Jay (Neil Maskell), through actions that were clearly his fault, did something terrible and final on a job in the Ukraine, and he can’t live with the guilt of that, to the extent that he’s been unable to work for some time. His simmering rage leads him to make errors in the killer’s craft, and to act out to unnecessary degrees. The cult manipulates him into a constant state of fear and confusion, and in the end drives him to do something that is utterly monstrous, that destroys everything he has in his life that is worth having. And then he’s theirs. But there are steps missing, absent emotional beats that make the transformation of a man who, although violent and guilt ridden, loves his wife and son much less believable in terms of how a person emotionally travels from one place to another.

But Kill List’s cult, with its well-connected paedophiles and human sacrifices in secluded clearings, draws on a number of classic conspiracy theories and refines them; watching it now, it’s sort of shocking how closely its shadowy cabal corresponds to the conspiracy theories of QAnon, which itself, like the MAGA movement it grew from, recruits and internally polices behaviour much like any number of new religious movements. Again, the cult in Kill List isn’t strictly real, but it serves as a dramatisation of the sincere beliefs of real, growing cults whose cultic doctrines, such as they are, centre around positioning themselves against other cults they've made up as an excuse for their own existence.
Which brings us to Midsommar. The community of Hårga in Ari Aster’s 2019 hit has a lot of signifiers of fascism, but while Summerisle is only really fascist in that it’s a conservative’s idea of what pagans would do if they were in the place of conservatives, the people of Hårga operate on a more direct level. In a choice between a Black candidate for May Queen and a white candidate, they kill the Black woman and keep the white woman. They engage in directed inbreeding to produce developmentally disabled offspring that they can exploit for religious purposes. They engage in a sex-ritual that becomes – and this is in the most sympathetic possible reading – a colossal, audience-participation date-rape, in order to expand their gene pool. They systematically condition their people to commit suicide once they hit a certain age. Eugenics talk is casual, matter-of-fact. And the beautiful, sun-drenched pastoral setting with its white-clad, fair-skinned people in pristine traditional costume looks like nothing more than a Nazi propaganda poster.

But Midsommar – although its Hårga cult is a queasy fiction – does some very interesting things with the way its cult works to groom and indoctrinate both the protagonist and the viewer. At the start of the film, Dani (Florence Pugh) experiences a horrendous family tragedy and gains no support from her no-good boyfriend Christian (Jack Reynor). He’s about to leave her, he doesn’t have the guts to do so now she’s emotionally fragile, and because he’s a straight-up coward he winds up lying to cover his tracks, and because he’s a liar, he starts to make Dani doubt her own memories and her own perceptions, which is what is generally called gaslighting, and which is abusive, although he’s got no idea even that he’s doing it, because he’s a liar and a coward.
And because Christian is the piece of human waste he is, over the course of the film the Hårga cult manipulate Dani into becoming one of them, mainly through the simple expedient of appearing to be better than Christian. And that’s a classic cult tactic. Proselytising religions do it all the time without even realising what they’re doing. The evangelical Christians I was involved with in the 90s made a point of targeting people who were “broken” and “hurting”, and rationalised it as these people “needing Jesus”. And of course it is how they got me. But it essentially deceives people into thinking that this set of relationships should replace their current relationships, even if it’s a different sort of relationship and even if it's also abusive, and that this new relationship, even if it is also abusive, will be better than the old one. The Hårgalanders, especially Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren) do this deliberately and systematically (in the way that the Moonies do, in fact). They take time to present Pelle as a significantly better person – as a friend and even a potential lover – than Christian, for example remembering her birthday when Christian doesn't (and not reminding Christian until it's too late, and not therefore giving him an opportunity to look better). And they take time to turn Dani against Christian, engineering it so that she sees Christian in the middle of that weird date-rape procreation ritual, and he's drugged out of his mind and way past any point of informed consent, but Dani isn't allowed to know that. By the time she's given the choice as to whether her rubbish boyfriend lives or dies, there's no choice at all. Pelle asking her, pointedly, “Do you feel held?” serves both purposes. She does not feel held with her rubbish, lying, cowardly boyfriend. The entire attraction of being in any religion, especially a cult, is the security, the relational dynamic that allows you to feel held.
Of course Midsommar still works as a revenge fantasy (because the thing about revenge fantasies is that you don't have to follow through on them, because they're fantasies, and – let's say nearly – no one really wants to ritually murder their dishonest boyfriends) but one of the reasons it works is precisely because this community of eugenics-advocating murderers with the exact sort of glamour that Nazis always wished to emulate has its claws in Dani. It's the saddest and truest thing in the world that for some, being a cult is still absolutely better than being in a relationship with a gaslighting, cowardly rat of a boyfriend. Sometimes our choices are so restricted that the best we can do is choose between our abusers.

I said that there is no such thing as a Pagan Village Conspiracy. But in The Wicker Man and Midsommar we're not seeing what pagans specifically do, we're seeing what cults do in a more general sense: the grooming, the abuse, the deception of self and others. And most of all, we can see the insidious, duplicitous glamour of the cult. Through seeing these films and finding ourselves implicitly supporting murder conspiracies, we ourselves experience the process of grooming in the way that fiction always grooms us. We become targets for proselytisation.