The Wicker Man (1973), The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974), The Hills Have Eyes (1977), Midsommar (2019)…
These films call to mind images of bloodthirsty cannibals chasing people through the American countryside and pagan cults celebrating human sacrifice. The antagonists in these films are groups of people who have slipped through the cracks of society and the influence of modern life. Though with these movies, the problem lies as much with the company the villains keep as it does with their geographical location. From the Sawyer Family to the people of Summerisle and the Harga cult, these characters commit horrible deeds with casualness, or in some cases, joy, because of the belief system in which they have been brought up. They all exist in a social bubble, and anyone who doesn’t share their values or beliefs is an Other, a non-believer who threatens their way of life and deserves punishment and death.
But there’s a deeper fear that these films prey on: a warning that none of us are far from becoming like the characters in these movies, and it all comes down to the people we surround ourselves with.
In The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and The Hills Have Eyes, cannibalism and hunting humans like cattle is a family norm — it’s all those characters have ever known because they have been raised around it. Our families are probably one of the biggest influences of our behaviors, practices, and beliefs, and by subverting the image of the American nuclear family, these films make us wonder what we’d be like if our family was maybe just a little bit stranger.
It’s Midsommar though which has the biggest warning about social bubbles and how easily these groups can prey and exploit in order to draw them in. Dani is mourning the loss of her family after a murder/suicide while struggling in her relationship with her emotionally distant boyfriend, Christian. Over the course of the film, the Harga cult preys on Dani’s grief and loneliness, manipulating her against Christian. In the end, she’s a fully-fledged cult member, but still believes she has agency over her actions. Midsommar shows us how groups can use our own feelings against us while tricking us into thinking we’re making our own choices. The warning of this film — not everyone who accepts us has our best interest in mind — is often missed though. Maybe it’s a sign that many people like Dani aren’t aware of how easily they can be radicalized when they’re at an emotional low point.
In The Wicker Man, the bubble extends beyond friends and family to the entire community. Summerisle is a whole island of individual people with different personalities, wants, and desires, but they all share a common belief and religion. They say it takes a village to raise a child, and when the entire village teaches the child that human sacrifice is not off the table if the harvest doesn’t go well, then that child is going to grow up with some warped views on human life. There’s an interesting dichotomy in The Wicker Man as well because while the people of Summerisle treat their beliefs as totally normal and act as if Sergeant Howie is the strange one, Howie himself is very vocal about his Christian beliefs and how strange he thinks this pagan society is, showing that he too probably has a social bubble of his own.
Sadly, these films have only become more prescient in these polarized times. We see people behave like the Sawyer Family, or Harga cult, all time. They may not eat other human beings or burn them alive, but thanks to the internet, anyone can fall into a bubble that makes us feel like we’ve finally found where we belong. You no longer have to be physically isolated to curate your own reality because we’re all connected now, which ironically can isolate us more than any physical distance could. In these bubbles, the manufactured reality is unable to hold up to any scrutiny, much like the ancient practices of The Wicker Man or Midsommar, but those in the echo chamber don’t care about things like the truth because they turn to these groups to escape reality. These online groups engage in targeted harassment of anyone who speaks out against them, or can spill over into real life with violent and tragic results because these groups have dehumanized anyone that they deem to be an enemy like the characters do in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre or The Hills Have Eyes. When a group of protestors fueled by online conspiracy theories stormed the Capitol Building, they did it with gleeful, smiling faces much like the people of Summerisle or the Harga Cult rejoicing as another human burn to death. You no longer need to travel to the far reaches of the country to encounter insular groups with strange and sometimes violent behavior — now you can just turn on your TV or log onto your favorite social media app. They could be your neighbors, co-workers, or family members, and when they talk to you about their beliefs, they act as if what they’re saying is perfectly normal because they only exist in a group that shares their beliefs and tells them exactly what they want to hear, much like the characters in The Wicker Man.
Over the past few years, films like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and The Wicker Man have gained a newfound appreciation, while Midsommar became one of the most popular horror films of 2019. It’s because these movies are showing us a reflection of society today and how dangerous social bubbles and echo chambers really can be. The groups that we associate with, friends, family, and community, influence in ways we sometimes aren’t even aware of. Beliefs can be ingrained in us from birth by those that we see every day, or we could be indoctrinated into a new belief system that seemingly offers us something we think we need. Films like these serve as warnings for what happens if we don’t learn new ideas, meet new people, or venture out to see the world. In these films, anyone who is different is an enemy because there’s a comfort in the bubble that protects us from the outside world. Today, the internet can bring the bubble to you, just remember to unplug before your manufactured reality clashes with real life.
James Reinhardt is a screenwriter and podcaster with nine years of experience in the film industry and four years of experience scaring people professionally in the haunted house industry. Follow him on Twitter @JamesReinhardt.
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