Content Warning: This piece discusses domestic violence
Warning: spoilers for Midsommar!
It’s official – flower crowns are over. Unless you’re into invoking pagan cults. In that case, go for it! Thanks to Ari Aster’s new, brightly-colored summer horror Midsommar, the once-popular summer accessory now carries a dark connotation. Cute!
Midsommar follows a group of friends who embark on a trip to Sweden for a pagan festival that takes place every 90 years in lush, secluded hills. Dani (Florence Pugh) tags along with her boyfriend, Christian (Jack Reynor). There, the friends find a dreamlike, flower-covered community that performs rituals that shock and disturb the visiting group.
In this unusual setting, Aster finds horror. His previous film, Hereditary (2018) fits the bill of a classic horror film with dark lighting, a black and red color palette and scary scenes taking place at night. Midsommar is the visual inversion of Hereditary. Midsommar is set in the summer in Sweden, so the sun never fully sets. Part of the comfort of traditional horror is that often the scariest things are heavily shadowed, making it difficult to see them clearly. With this film, though, the most gory scenes are fully lit and Aster’s camera does not shy away. The goriest scene in film which involves a person’s face being smashed is filmed up close. The visual is referenced later in the film, so not only is the initial shot unsettling, but Aster does not let the audience forget.
The film’s brightness adds to the scare factor because Aster takes away the comfort of light. The supposed safety of daylight is rendered meaningless. This takes advantage of people’s natural trust of lighter scenes in horror films, turning the moments when they would normally release their breath into moments when someone might get killed on screen. Because of this, Aster does not need to rely on jump scares. Midsommar produces a sense of dread rather than a fear of ghosts popping out.
Rather than a building sense of dread, Aster begins the film with a traumatic event in Dani’s life: the murder-suicide of her immediate family by her bipolar sister. The shocking sequence is just one of the things plaguing Dani’s life. On top of losing her family, her boyfriend sucks and she’s stuck in Sweden with a pagan cult while she grieves. She tries to leave, but ends up becoming a bit too involved in the festival. She wins the role of May Queen, an important ceremonial position that gives her power in deciding who will be sacrificed. In a very literal but still cathartic scene, Dani selects Christian to burn to death. She lights Christian on fire after he gaslit her for their entire relationship. The moment is gruesome yet satisfying because Dani finally has control over something in her life after feeling powerless and lost after the death of her family.
Killing Christian doesn’t solve Dani’s problems, but it is an important step in her grieving process. It raises questions about why people turn to religion — or a pagan cult in this case — in troubled times. It’s unsettling to see Dani give in to the cult as it begins to work in her favor. Even though she gets to take control of her life, it comes with a cost. In addition to Christian, eight other people must die. The horror of this is not visual, it lies in the accidental and happenstance nature in which Dani’s reality changes. When she arrived in Sweden, she was horrified by the cult’s actions, but by the end, she was an integral part of their occurrence. Dani’s state of grief and her emotionally abusive boyfriend affected her to the point of accidentally joining a cult that murders people in their rituals.
Despite its innovative visuals and nuanced handling of grief, Midsommar does not escape two of the most problematic horror tropes: killing the people of color first and misrepresenting disabled folks. Members of the cult murder two men of color, Josh (William Jackson Harper) and Simon (Archie Madekwe), early on in the festival, playing into the classic horror trope that the person of color dies fast, a trope discussed extensively in the documentary Horror Noire. Another problematic trope comes into play with disabled characters, one of whom is considered an oracle and whose disability resulted from deliberate inbreeding between cult members. The other disabled character is Dani’s sister, Terri (Klaudia Csanyi), who has bipolar disorder. All we know about Terri is that she has a mental illness that is used as an explanation for her murdering her parents. The mistreatment of disabled characters is common in horror and Midsommar does nothing to change the pattern. Instead, the disabled characters are treated as a different species, as something closer to a higher power or something completely evil. The oracle’s god-like association may seem nice on the surface, but it only serves to dehumanize disabled folks, distancing them from abled people. It’s disappointing to see these harmful representations again and again, so it’s necessary that they are acknowledged in order to avoid repeating these troubled tropes.
Unlike most horror flicks, Midsommar is bathed in light and centers a woman’s experience of grief. The result is a fresh horror film with memorable visuals and lingering emotional tension, but it does not come without some tired tropes.