“Bring Your Daughter to the Slaughter: witchcraft, women, and domesticity in Horror Hotel”

My latest essay for Network Awesome Magazine where I discuss the role of women in relation to historical witchcraft and domesticity in the 1960 Christopher Lee-starring “classic” Horror Hotel. Appropriately, the title is derived from the Iron Maiden song in which the video featured clips from the film.

Witchcraft is alive and thriving in the small town of Whitewood in which the atmospheric 1960 film Horror Hotel or City of the Dead (John Llewellyn Moxey) is set. From prosecuting women as witches to exploiting traditional gender roles prescribed to women in the early 1960s (sister, girlfriend, caretaker), Horror Hotel begins in the 17th century with the rather gruesome burning of condemned head-witch Elizabeth Selwyn. This opening scenic depiction of a witch and her relationship with the devil is strikingly similar to Mario Bava’s Mask of Satan/Black Sunday (1960), however this story is deeply rooted within the Puritanical history of the United States and, in particular, the terrifying witch trials that targeted young women in Salem, Massachusetts in 1692. Like Black Sunday but unlike the Salem witch trails, the witches in Horror Hotel are all too real and their devotion to Satan means trouble that spans the centuries.

Obsessed with researching the history of witchcraft in New England for her term paper, college student Nan Barlow (Venetia Stephenson) ventures off to Whitewood per the suggestion of her stoic professor Alan Driscoll (played by the scene-stealing Christopher Lee). Stubborn and strong willed, Nan dismiss the concerns of both her boyfriend and brother on the quest to discover something about Satanic worship that has never been known before. Combined with her somewhat condescending approach to the small town, this pretentious ambition to be a scholarly researcher is the core of her naiveté. Nan’s lack of common sense and the inability to gauge her surroundings ultimately leads her to a bloody sacrificial demise on the infamous Candlemas Eve.

Nan’s journey within Horror Hotel parallels, in some ways, that of Marion Crane (Janet Lee) in Alfred Hitchcock’s seminal thriller, Psycho, that was also released in the 1960. Both narratives exploit gender roles and feature a determined blonde who thinks she knows better than everyone else, striking out on her own, and who ultimately winds up paying for this bull-headedness with her life. Similarly, the audience main identification is with Nan for half of the film – her journey is our journey – as it is with Marion Crane. When each character is brutally killed (both young women are stabbed), the directors make it clear that anyone is fair game for the slaughter.

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How to Explain Pictures to a Dead Hare

How to Explain Pictures to a Dead Hare is a collaboration with Darren Banks’ for his current solo exhibition Backwater in Northhampton. My accompanying text is a part of Banks’ film installation of the 1972 classic The Wicker Man in his show at Fishmarket Gallery (on view through 25 June). I’ve written for and about Banks (a fellow horror aficionado) before: read Get on the Band-wagon: Darren Banks’ Mobile Cinema and an interview for LUX.

How to Explain Pictures to a Dead Hare

Robin Hardy’s bizarre film The Wicker Man (1973) situates horror at the boundaries of sanity and puts varying degrees of morality up for grabs. Emerging at the death rattle of the utopian ideal that was widely envisioned in the 1960s, it is situated amongst American shockers The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) and Last House on the Left (1972) which grappled with the disillusionment of societal stability in the wake of the Vietnam War, the assassinations of Martin Luther King Junior and Robert F. Kennedy, the 1969 riots, and emerging fragile economies. The Wicker Man is a decisively British interpretation of this failure by hippie culture and reactively calls those in authority into question. At the same time, it challenges a reluctance to return to nature and the generation’s abandonment of community in favor of new individualism. It’s a unique film that both embraces and discards community, nature, sex, religion, capital, and the value of life.

As a post-modern horror film, The Wicker Man positions its horror within the everyday. The ‘normalcy’ of the Summerisle community (ritual sex, belief in reincarnation, blood sacrifice) is juxtaposed with the ‘logical’ reasoning and Christian beliefs of outsider Sergeant Neal Howie who has come from the mainland to investigate the disappearance of a young girl named Rowan Morrison. So relentless in his struggle to find Rowan, Howie becomes increasingly embedded into what only he considers to be an insane world; a community in which people willing lie to authority, women are sexually empowered, and young girls are potentially sacrificed to the gods. The Wicker Man paints an eerie portrait of a town where people initially appear to be just like us but who slowly reveal the altered reality in which they live.

Importantly The Wicker Man coincides with the development of performance art from the 1960s into the 1970s. Increasingly about the body and in non-capitalist forms contemporary performance art was, like horror cinema, moving into a reflexive direction. Eight years before The Wicker Man was released, Joseph Beuys staged his eponymous performance How to Explain Pictures to a Dead Hare in which he shut out gallery-goers from his exhibition while he explained the artwork to the dead hare he carried in his arms. After he was done people were allowed into the gallery space but he turned his back to them. Thus the audience became the outsiders, just like Sergeant Howie, while the hare and the artist, like Summerisle, became privileged.

This dichotomy between inclusion and exclusion is the core of The Wicker Man. Despite being from the same country, Sergeant Howie is a foreigner from a different time and culture; an urban representative in a rural town rooted in its own pagan tradition. He is not a stand in for the audience (who is relegated to voyeur status) but instead functions as an opposing representative force that continuously inflicts his personal beliefs on others and views their way of life as a personal attack on him and to his God. He thus enacts a clash of belief systems involving a battle between spirituality, opposing lifestyles, and life/death. Ulmiately the actions of Howie and the tribe of Summerisle crystallize an overarching and universal insanity – does anyone really have the answers, access to the one true god, conduct for the moral way to live and who has the right to impose these belief structure on to others?

The Wicker Man is a bizarre translation of the early 1970s shift in culture that still startles in a contemporary context. Full of symbolic representations and potent imagery it incorporates performance (the periodic bursts of song alone make it musical ready) as a ritualistic rite, however sexually perverse or deadly. In fact nearly every gesture is performative; sex in the graveyard, young women jumping over a fertility fire, boys dancing around the Maypole. All these acts lead up to Mayday when what was once depicted as a slightly kooky community is now full-fledged creepy. Donning animal masks, community members are seen spying on Sergeant Howie as he makes one last attempt to save Rowan. Merging in and out of the frame, they preface the dramatic processional towards the sacrificial grounds where Lord Summerisle (Christopher Lee) leads the parade dressed as a manly apparition of a woman. The entire narrative is one big performance enacted by patriarchal figure Lord Summerisle to coherence Sergeant Howie into being the human sacrifice for next year’s fruitful harvest. The virginal, righteous, and Christian Howie becomes the lead character in the performance of a lifetime.

But phallic inferences abound as a way to express that this story is one of regeneration, growth, and fertilization and not resurrection. Until we discover Rowman is still alive, the image of the hare acts as her stand-in thereby referencing the hare’s historical meaning: love (Greek), fertility (Roman and Germanic tribes), and the resurrection (Christianity). The most shocking representational image is simultaneously the one true moment of horror within the film: the appearance of the Wicker Man. Large and looming, this sculpture of death is profoundly terrifying. It’s where Howie’s fears are ultimately realized and its affect palpably reaches the audience via the film’s final performance where Howie frantically prays loudly to his God as the Summerisle community sings in harmony, smiling and satisfied. Unlike hippie culture, their tribe has prevailed over the outside world.

Though rife with problems in the production, editing, and distribution The Wicker Man has since been dubbed the “Citizen Kane of horror movies”. A bold name to be bestowed upon such a strange film but its enduring fascination and horror is undeniable. Perhaps it resonates with us now precisely because it represents something with which we are familiar – ourselves. As a haunting figure, The Wicker Man is a reminder of the inherent survivalistic qualities of human nature and the recognition that society, whether we acknowledge it or not, has the capacity to revert back to more animalistic tendencies when confronted with immediate extinction.