The Wicker Man, The Wicker Tapes, Drew Mulholland and John Dee’s angels

My childhood aversion to the very idea of “horror” bordered on the phobic; the very word was laden with associations that made me feel uncomfortable: blood, death, gore, and the thought of some unspecified “monster” that may inexplicably take against me during the night. To actually watch a horror film, I believed, would leave me somehow tainted; marked out, even, for special attention by the dark forces depicted therein, who – alerted to my presence – would use me as a conduit to infiltrate and destroy the cosy certainties of my comfortable early life… home, Mum and Dad, Gran’s bungalow, dogs and cats… all swept away by a seething mass of demons, spirits and merciless beasties. Even Carry On Screaming was a risk I wasn’t entirely prepared to take.

Which may explain why I was such a latecomer to The Wicker Man. My phobia had subsided slightly during a BBC2 season of late-night Saturday horror films broadcast throughout 1986; the likes of Zoltan – Hound Of Dracula, To The Devil A Daughter and The Masque of the Red Death proving surprisingly amiable entertainment for my now thirteen-year-old self, reluctantly unplugging my ZX Spectrum to join my Dad, freshly returned from the Cross Keys or the Green Tree, in watching movies that proved to be genial – and arch – enough for me to blot out their more outré moments. Good grief, To The Devil A Daughter even found a cameo role for Last of the Summer Wine‘s inimitable Foggy Dewhurst.

Still, it took a mid-1990s VHS release for me to finally succumb to the allure of The Wicker Man. Although I was a cynical old hand at horror cinema by this stage (I’d even chortled my way drunkenly through a late-night arts centre screening of The Exorcist… unthinkable even five years earlier), Robin Hardy’s 1973 masterpiece came with ready-made, disturbing baggage… rumours abounded of the film being cut, re-edited, banned, or even lost altogether, its negatives surreally encased in the concrete struts of the M4. But there it was, bright and breezy in my local Our Price, and I gallantly took the plunge.

I don’t really need to add to the welter of copy that has been written about The Wicker Man in the last 45 years, but I can at least transcribe my mental processes during the final five moments of the film, of which I had no prior knowledge. They went…

– Bloody hell, this is creepy.
– Oh blimey, yes… he’s a virgin. I get it now.
– This is nasty, but he’ll get out of it.
– Oh for crying out loud, please… not the chickens. Or the pigs. Or the goats. Come on, there’s a reason I’ve turned vegetarian.
– This is really weird, I just can’t see how he is going to get out of this. But he must, he’s Edward Woodward.
– Fuck me.

For this first time, I felt like I had been tainted by a horror film, and – ironically – a horror film with no tangible supernatural element at all. The horror of The Wicker Man is the horror of people, of people manipulated to be brutal. And that really hurt me. And shocked me. And disturbed me. And though I absolutely appreciated the beauty and the artistry of the film-making and the performances, I didn’t watch it again for a very long time.

And the legacy of The Wicker Man didn’t just stay with those of us who watched the film. It even made a profound impression on the production’s primary locations – found not on a remote, windswept Hebridean island, but in the gentle countryside of Dumfries and Galloway. Composer, musician, radiophonic experimentalist and proud ‘sound archaeologist’ Drew Mulholland travelled there in 2002, and discovered that substantial parts of the Wicker Man prop itself still stood, concreted into on a coastal path on the Isle of Whithorn. He took photos and made field recordings, and brought back wooden slivers as keepsakes.

Two decades later, he has turned those field recordings – via some surprisingly physical manipulation – into The Wicker Tapes, two suites of darkly beautiful ambience, peppered with fleeting, percussive, folky motifs that evoke disturbing images of the film’s own climactic and merciless procession. A limited cassette release on The Dark Outside – each supplied with “a tiny fragment of weathered wood taken from the leg stumps of the Wicker Man in Burrowhead” – predictably sold out quickly, but the album is now available for download here:

https://drewmulholland.bandcamp.com/track/the-wicker-tapes

“That these recordings exist at all is remarkable,” admit the sleeve notes. “Although the original sounds are long gone, they have been preserved on magnetic tape and altered not least by saturation in the actual ashes of the Man, and near destruction by looping around the fragments of wickerwood I collected all those years ago…”

(Photo courtesy of the Cavanagh Collection)

I asked Drew about his personal history of appreciating The Wicker Man, and the process of making the album…

Can you remember when you first saw The Wicker Man?

It was at a friends house, late 1977, I think. The BBC had a late night movie series that also included Lindsay Anderson’s If…

And why do you think it’s enjoyed such an enduring appeal, and cultural impact?

I think it’s the unheimlich popping up again… it happened a lot on UK telly in the 1970s. The seemingly everyday landscape and behaviour, but the gradual realisation that there is something wrong… very wrong.

Can you talk us through some of the locations that you visited in order to make these recordings?

The Ellangowan Hotel, Anwoth, Burrowhead, St. Ninian’s Cave… spookily, it all looked exactly as it did in the film.

And how much of the Wicker Man itself was still standing when you visited?

There was still about five foot of each leg, both set into a concrete base with “WM 73” carved into it. All the pieces I collected had already broken off due to natural erosion.

Is there something about being used as a film location that gives a place almost an alternate identity? I went to Aldbourne and East Hagbourne recently, locations for the Doctor Who stories The Daemons and The Android Invasion. I couldn’t look around either village without thinking of the terrible events that occurred there… but, of course, they didn’t. Do they almost become two places, one real and one fictional? 

Absolutely! And the gossamer lines between them shimmer, I remember someone telling me that they had read a novel where the heroine hides a letter in a well-known statue… one day he visited the statue and couldn’t resist slipping his hand around the back of it to see if “the envelope” was there. To his joy he pulled an envelope out, opened it, and read the note… it said, “Great story wasn’t it!”

Can you describe the raw field recordings you made? How did they sound? Were they recorded onto physical magnetic tape?

The raw tapes were simply an audio document of the trip. I wasn’t making records at that time so I had no plans to do anything with them. And yes, magnetic tape…

The sleeve notes mention the tapes being “altered by saturation in the actual ashes of the Man”, and their “near destruction”. Good grief Drew, what did you do to them?

Once I had decided which sections to use, I built a Heath Robinson device that allowed the tape essentially to be destroyed by an actual piece of the Wicker Man. After that I set the wood alight, and – when cooled – crushed it to ash and coated the near-destroyed tape with it.

I like your phrase “sonic archaeology”… can you expand a little on that, and describe the ethos and practice behind it?

I love that term, it comes from when I was lecturing on Hauntology and Microgeography and working on a couple of projects with the Archaeology Department at Glasgow University. The idea that something doesn’t appear to have a material aspect doesn’t negate it from being investigated, like The Wicker Tapes.

On the other hand, going back to your earlier question…  say, for instance, you started digging up the village green in Aldbourne and found a U.N.I.T. button, you would have a material object of events that didn’t actually happen. It is entirely possible that the actors and crew mislaid materials that have found their way into the warp and weft of the village.

The fact it’s been twenty years since you made these recordings adds to that archaeological aspect… was that long gestation period deliberate?

No, not at all I’m afraid, The Wicker Tapes came about very quickly simply because of a chance comment on the internet, and the fantastic job done by Stuart at The Dark Outside.

And your next project seems to be a project inspired by the work of Dr John Dee, the 16th century scientist, philosopher and occultist. Can you tell us a little about it?

I was invited to a do at the Royal College of Physicians that was arranged to celebrate the life and work of the good Dr Dee, and they were planning to exhibit his scrying mirror, wax tablets, crystal balls, etc. Then, about a week before the opening, I received a call from the British Museum. They held Dee’s equipment, and were about to send it over to the Royal College.  “Would you like to have a closer look before we parcel it up and send it across London?”

Back of the net! So I went down and bounced 432Hz & 440Hz from a Tibetan singing bowl off John Dee’s 2000-year-old obsidian mirror. The one he used to converse with angels.

And I’m intrigued by the fact that you seem to have embraced cassette releases with some enthusiasm. Do cassettes have a special place in your heart?

Yes, a very special place. I started making cassette loops when I was 12… and by cracky, I’ll keep making ‘em until the I hit the leader tape.

Thanks to Drew for his time, and contributions, and I recommend further reading on John Dee’s conversation with angels (in the angelic language of Enochian) here. The Dee-themed album is called Angels Speak By The Power of the Holy Ghost, and is scheduled for release in October.

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