Doctoral student Lakkaya Palmer takes a trip to a daylit nightmare with Ari Aster’s hallucinogenic sophomore horror.
When defining folk horror, one can think of it as using landscape to evoke fear in audiences: these films often take place in isolated rural settings and use themes such as religion, paganism, witchcraft and the power of nature to terrify. Traditional folk horror began in the late sixties, flourishing into the seventies with the infamous ‘unholy trinity’ of Witchfinder General (1968), Blood on Satan’s Claw (1971) and The Wicker Man (1973). However in recent years there has been a resurgence in contemporary folk horror films, such as Robert Egger’s The VVitch (2015) and Ben Wheatley’s Kill List (2011). In this context Midsommar (2019) is a modern masterpiece, director Ari Aster invoking folk horror elements in a twisted yet magical way.
The plot follows a young woman called Dani (Florence Pugh) whose mother, father and sister have recently died in tragic circumstances. Dani tries to confide in her dispassionate boyfriend Christian (Jack Reynor), but he is seemingly unbothered. He constantly gaslights Dani and ignores her concerns, such as at the beginning of the film when she tells him her fears about her sister’s cryptic email and he replies that she’s overacting, only for Dani’s sister to commit suicide, killing their parents as well. Furthermore Christian often hints to his friends Mark (Will Poulter), Pelle (Vihelm Blomgren) and Josh (William Jackson Harper) that he wants to end his relationship, yet when the men are invited to Sweden by Pelle to the “Midsommar” festival that takes place every 90 years, Christian nevertheless invites Dani. Once the group arrives, however, it is evident that the Hårga people are not all that they seem.
Paganism & Nature in Midsommar
The theme of paganism reoccurs throughout Midsommar. Paganism refers to pre-Christian belief systems and traditions which often elicit a specific appreciation for nature and the natural world. The Midsommar festival presents as paganistic, with most of the film taking place outside and viewers invited to appreciate the beautiful, light and airy environment. The scenery is captivating, and it seems too picturesque and open for anything horrific to happen. This is partly why Midsommar is so revolutionary: the horror is not hidden, but rather occurs in broad daylight.
The elements of nature in Midsommar are paradoxical, its landscapes being sites of both enchantment and horror. In an extremely gruesome mid-way scene an elderly man and woman commit sacrificial suicide as part of a ritualistic ceremony carried out by the Hårga. Due to the beauty of the landscape, the brutal deaths are all the more shocking: as it is embedded within the human psyche to associate beauty with utopia, the landscape is used to trick audiences into thinking that nothing terrible could occur in such a picture-perfect, fairy-tale setting. Whilst films like Daniel Myrick and Eudardo Sánchez’s Blair Witch Project (1999) rely on natural landscapes such as woodlands to evoke fear, Midsommar makes no effort to hide its horror in the labyrinthine darkness of the forest.
The Hårga and The Nature of Difference
I recently conducted a Twitter poll on what makes folk horror, folk horror. The question seemed to elicit somewhat homogenous responses: ideas about “modern people finding themselves in a hostile world”, “isolation of the protagonist from their normal life” and “the protagonist surviving a dominant culture” were all raised. Folk horror means separating what we know from what we do not, and this is true of Midsommar, as Dani finds herself having to survive the sadistic culture of the Hårga people.
The Hårga themselves are the locus of terror in Midsommar, Aster carefully constructing and communicating the eeriness of their customs. When Dani and the group first meet them they seem angelic, all dressed in white, perhaps to lure the group into a false sense of security. The Hårga appear infantile and child-like, whilst the soundtrack plays what sounds like a lullaby. Their flowers crowns are also almost symbolic relics of innocence and the beautiful “natural” world, ensnaring and fooling not only Dani, but audiences too. In one moment the Hårga stand linearly, constructing a tunnel-like structure to entrap Dani – and the viewers – inside their world.
Although presenting as an image of innocence, the Hårga prove themselves difficult to trust from the outset when they offer Dani and the group a drink laced with drugs to help them “relax” and see the beauty of nature. Indoctrination occurs from the very beginning, as the Hårga inflict their beliefs and customs onto the outsiders.
The Midsommar Festival
The practice of having a “Midsommar” festival that takes place every 90 years is ritualistic in nature. We might therefore envisage the Hårga as a cult, but it is important to question whether they truly are evil occultists or if audiences ostracise them for their difference of culture.
It is difficult however to overlook the suicide-murder ceremony that is so central to their customs. In this sequence when one of the elders jumps off the cliff in an attempt to fulfil his fate, he does not die. There is a gruesome, unnatural positioning of his leg, paired with the equally unnatural congregation behind him. The Hårga then use a hammer to make sure the ritual is fulfilled, ultimately murdering the elder.
The moment is extremely hard to watch and makes one question the Hårga’s true nature. Not only do they commit this brutal act, but they also sacrifice both members of their own group and – later – some of the outsiders (Mark, Josh, Connie, and Simon). For this reason, it is hard to empathise with the Hårga, and all this is before they coerce Dani into being part of their group as she becomes their “May Day Queen”.
In the climatic moments, the Hårga give Dani the choice to burn Christian alive, which she does. This represents a complete change in Dani’s character from earlier scenes, where she appeared to be submissive to Christian, putting his needs before hers. Although he exerts toxic masculinity and gaslighting behaviours, we are left questioning whether his punishment was deserved, or a step too far.
Audiences might also wonder whether there were supernatural influences guiding Dani’s decisions, or if she simply wanted to be rid of an unpleasant boyfriend. Either way, it was a transformation of Dani’s character: the once needy and almost intolerable woman converts into someone capable of ritualistic murder. Perhaps the Hårga had a corrupting influence on Dani due to her vulnerability after the loss of her family. Historically, cults have been known to prey on the vulnerable, and this was no exception for the Hårga with Dani.
Midsommar represents unadulterated modern folk horror, revolutionising the genre entirely. Viewers do not witness events set in historical periods such as the 1600s or 1700s: a terrifying concept, as it is not hard to imagine ourselves being stuck in such a predicament. Dani, Christian, Mark, Josh, Connie, and Simon represent the “norm” who come to find themselves trapped in the cruel yet enchanting world of the Hårga people. There are love spells, blood sacrifices, drugs and naked flower-infested dancing, which are all extremely unsettling. And yet, Midsommar’s ending, when Dani chooses to burn her paralysed boyfriend alive, shows how human beings are easily corrupted. Even more importantly, the ending suggests that it is not paganism, spells or even rituals that are evil, but the flawed individuals who are committing the acts.
Lakkaya is a PhD student at University College London, researching portrayals of Fatherhood in American Horror Cinema.