There is a grand trilogy of Folk Horror. First came “The Wicker Man”. Next was “The Witch”. In 2019, a third film moved past the idea of revival and solidified Folk Horror as an enduring and ever present genre of cinema .
“Midsommar” tells the story of a young woman named Dani. After enduring a horrible family tragedy and dealing with an indifferent relationship, she joins her boyfriend and his grad school buddies on a trip to Sweden for a Summer celebration at the invitation of a young man who extolls the calming delights of his small community. Nothing on the trip is what anyone expects, especially for Dani.
“Midsommar ” is the second film from writer/director Ari Aster. Like many other horror film creators, he has had an interest in scary movies since he was a child. His career is very much a product of 21st century life- his initial post film school fame came from a short film going viral on YouTube His directorial debut was with a film called “Hereditary” that was released in January of 2018. That film stands as a very modern take on horror and is worth studying on its own. “Hereditary” and “Midsommar” are clearly the beginnings in a stunning body of work that will likely be admired for decades to come. Aster draws on his own fears to create plot points and repetitive motifs throughout his works which is not particularly new. What is extraordinary, though, is his ability to convey those feelings of dread in incredibly modern real-time feeling settings and frames.
This film contains graphic and realistic depictions of extreme human physical injury and head trauma, animal dissection, non- consensual emotional intimacy, and physical/sexual assault. That is status quo for many horror movies. Aster, however, presents these frights in new ways and with new perspectives that take many audience members by surprise. Like the other films of the trilogy, “Midsommar” takes on the looming issues of the day. “The Wickerman” addressed 1970’s fears over pollution effecting the environment. “The Witch” took on early 21st century fears about religious zealotry and what happens when it backfires. “Midsommar” takes on the fears of what is going on right now- gaslighting, colonialism, and loss of personal autonomy.
It is impossible to share any more information about this film without sharing spoilers.
This film has a different impact on everyone that sees it and a different impact each time it is seen. It is worth revisiting for multiple viewings. A given viewer’s take on the events of the narrative is likely to be entirely based on how they have processed their personal experiences and subsequently, there is a lot of conflict about the meanings and point of the film.
A takeaway that is shared by almost all viewers is that this film takes advantage of the suppositions of European rural life and traditions. The characters of the film who go on the journey assume a level of security in the community that they visit that is not warranted. The sense of security is explicitly because the community is very blonde and white. Scandinavian people in general understand that this generalization is applied as much by outsiders as well as their own people. They readily poke fun at themselves regarding stereotypes of dress, activity, and inebriation at folk festivals. They even use it for marketing.
The visiting characters do poke fun at what they see as soon as they realize they are unable to “read” what is going on. Quickly, upon discovering that the community is more “primitive” ” that originally perceived, the grad student visitors begin to figure out how their summer get-away can be turned into personal profit. Consciously, these characters reject the idea of becoming culturally literate and presume the roles of examiners and positions of judgement. Despite their European status, the community is labelled as “other” by the supposedly more sophisticated intrusive group. The casting for the group is clearly intentional- it sends the message that presumption and underestimation are social constructs that anyone can fall prey to, regardless of ancestral experience.
Like ‘the Witch”, this film was brilliantly marketed. The relatively short promotion blitz before the Summer 2019 release helped to maintain a sense of mystery about the story. After the initial impact, a tremendous amount of commentary and analysis was generated which encouraged people to see the film more than once during its initial run. The amount of research, planning, and networking with international artists to create this film is incredibly impressive. Almost every aspect of the film has been discussed. Here is just a smattering of the interesting information about it.
All of the obvious Folk Horror tropes are here- rural community with strange rituals, outsiders being let in but only if they follow the rules, words and deeds of outsiders deciding their fates in social constructs they can not or will not consider, timeless peasant costumes, agricultural imagery, and feasting.
Adding to this are tropes which may be specific to Aster’s work. Audiences have only seen 2 films so far, but already there has been repetition of triangular structures as the realm of people who are set apart, the use of the color yellow to visually label people/places/things as liminal ( in between states or realities), cottage core aesthetics (Yes! Botanical imagery, organic materials for buildings and décor, folk art inspired motifs and use of contrasting colors, loose fitting dresses and tunics, home as the perceived safest space, etc.), real body nudity (all shapes, sizes, ages, genders, etc.), aggressive cheerfulness and hospitality, and assemblages of animal body parts with human parts and inanimate objects to create otherworldly creatures.
“Midsommar” bludgeons the audience in the head with how very out of context the visitors are to the situation they find themselves in.
Like other Folk Horror films, this one has inspired tons of creative activity. Although audiences find the movie repelling, they are drawn to the ideas of community and otherworldly transformation. One of the most creative ways has been in the on line gaming world.
The feast in particular draws a lot of attention. It is both a unifying and a dividing activity and one that people cannot turn away from.
Luckily, despite 2020 creating distance between us and our people, we can still enjoy what Dani experienced while in our own homes. The internet is full of ideas to make a Midsommar celebration happen wherever you are.