Sacrifice is a central component of the horror narrative. We’re not talking about heroic self-sacrifice here (though that is sometimes on display): rather, horror films dramatize some seemingly primordial need, which runs through stories of the very earliest human cultures, to sacrifice others. Sacrifice is usually about appeasing “gods”—indeed, William Harmon has written that sacrificial killing is “inherent in the religious worldview.” The motif of blood sacrifice, though, has “frequently been disguised or attenuated” in the modern world, Harman continues. [i] And here’s where the horror film comes in, with yet another of its crucially important cultural functions. The horror film represents both the persistence of blood sacrifice and its “attenuation” or “disguise.” Sacrificial violence is indulged in, yet is displaced from the realm of the real to the realm of film (although the line separating those two realms is often much thinner than we might think).
There’s much to be written about sacrifice in the horror film, but here I just want to point out a provocative connection between two exceptional films that are more explicit than most in being about sacrifice: The Wicker Man (Robin Hardy, 1973) and The Cabin in the Woods (Drew Goddard, 2012). I didn’t think about the larger connection between these two films until a specific parallel between two scenes struck me.
In The Wicker Man, Willow (Britt Ekland) famously dances naked in her bedroom, attempting to lure Sergeant Howie (Edward Woodward), into her bed. He is sorely tempted, but resists, engaging in his own (Christian) form of sacrifice: the refusal of sex until he is married (aka repression). Because he withstands Willow, Howie becomes the perfect human sacrifice for the pagan inhabitants of Summerisle, who need a virgin offering to propitiate their gods after a failed harvest.
Willow’s dance seems to me to be clearly echoed in two performances by Jules (Anna Hutchison) in Drew Goddard’s and Joss Wheedon’s Cabin in the Woods. In the first scene, in a game of truth or dare, Jules goes up to a wolf’s head on the wall and makes out with it—evoking shots of Willow’s dance that take in a picture of a highland cow, a statue of an elephant, and some kind of animal hybrid, which she briefly fondles.
In the second scene, Jules is dancing alone by the fireplace with much hip gyrating—just as Willow does by the door and wall.
Both of these provocative dances—Willow’s and Jules’—disclose the importance of sex to blood sacrifice (in the horror film, at least), at the same time that they show how sex can figure in two completely opposed ways.
In The Wicker Man, sex is unashamedly celebrated as part of the life of the pagan inhabitants of Summerisle, part of the natural cycle of all life—animal, vegetable, and human—and thus connected to the harvest (and its failure). Howie’s refusal of sex—his barren virginity—makes him the perfect sacrifice to atone for whatever sins led to the failure of the island’s fruit and vegetable crops. He goes up in flames, praying, because he believes in (what the film presents as) Christianity’s distorted ethic to “sacrifice” (i.e., suppress) a “natural” sexual desire. As Lord Summerisle (Christopher Lee) says to Howie: “You don’t know the real meaning of sacrifice.”
The Wicker Man is unusual, though, in the way it figures sex in relation to sacrifice (that is, in the way it sacrifices those who repress sexuality). The Cabin in the Woods evokes the earlier film only to turn its ethic of blood sacrifice on its head and to return us to the more common relation of sex to sacrifice in the western tradition. As much as she parallels Willow, Jules is not the celebrated source of natural sexuality and fecundity for which one offers sacrifice; she is the “whore” who must herself be sacrificed. Jules’ dance in front of flames (evoking the ritual burning of Howie at the end of The Wicker Man) pre-figures her own death as sacrifice to the “Ancient Ones.” As the “whore,” Jules must die first and most torturously—and this is, of course, the ethic of “sacrifice” that drives the slasher sub-genre of horror. Jules’ blood sacrifice (like that of all her sister “sluts” in the horror film) represents a punishment for sex and a ratification of a social order that violently constrains nature, that sacrifices nature, rather than reveling in it.
It’s no accident, perhaps, that Jules earlier makes out with the head of a gray wolf. Marty (Fran Kranz) erroneously refers to the head as a “moose,” causing the others to look at him incredulously and to ask him if he’s ever even seen a moose. All of which distracts the viewers’ attention from the question of how a wolf’s head got on the wall since wolves were exterminated from the lower forty-eight states by the early 20th century—and from the northeast by the end of the nineteenth century. The very bizarre scene of Jules making out with a wolf’s head makes more sense if we recognize that the wolf, an apex predator and a crucial part of the natural ecology, was violently demonized, hunted, and eradicated—one could well say sacrificed—by humans intent on promulgating their own particular version of “civilization,” one that paid more homage to transcendent “ideals” than to the natural world.
The demonization, hunting, and violent eradication of sexuality (often female sexuality) also seems to be an integral part of that “civilization.” Like the wolf, the “whore” must be sacrificed—a complete inversion of the “pagan” world of The Wicker Man. On Summerisle not only is the sexual woman celebrated, but I’d like to think the wolf would have been too!
[i] William Harman, “Meaningful Violence? Reflections on the Dynamics of Human Sacrifice,” Soundings 83.1 (Spring 2000), 120, 128.