*This article contains spoilers for both Midsommar and Hereditary.
Ari Aster is fast becoming the king of metaphor-laden horror movies involving cults and massive head injuries, but another, overarching theme has emerged from his first two features – that of unattended-to emotional trauma and the real-life everyday horrors it leaves in its wake.
The writer/director has called his newest feature, Midsommar, a “companion piece” to his first, Hereditary (2018). One is about a family haunted by a demon, the other, about a couple whose already tenuous relationship is tested to its limits when they travel to Sweden to participate in an obscure folk festival. The common thread between the two films is that of familial trauma, grief and dysfunction, and how the after-effects of such stressors manifest in awful ways in the relationships of those who have experienced them.
Whereas Hereditary explores how the residual effects of familial trauma can be passed down from generation to generation – in this case from grandmother to mother to children – Midsommar focuses more on the ways in which such traumas affect our relationships outside of our immediate families – the main relationship here being that of Dani (Florence Pugh) and her boyfriend, Christian (Jack Reynor).
While both films elicit shock, discomfort, nightmarish visuals and a sense of dread, they do so in a way that keeps them grounded in everyday realness. Hereditary is a family-drama-as-horror film, while most of Midsommar takes place in a vibrant setting in bright, broad daylight. Each serves as an allegory, using heavy symbolism throughout to confront topics that might normally only be faced in a psychologist’s office – a sort of horror.film as psycho-therapy.
In Midsommar, codependency plays a big role in the horrors to come. Dani is someone who has leaned on Christian for emotional support in coping with the instability and turbulence of her sister’s bipolar disorder. But soon after the story begins, Dani experiences a horrific tragedy in which she loses her family altogether, which causes her to lean even further into Christian. Unbeknownst to her, Christian – who is never quite as emotionally available as she wants or needs him to be – has been considering breaking up with her for some time, but has thus far lacked the conviction to do so. When Dani’s big tragedy strikes, Christian feels guilty and invites her to join him and his friends on their upcoming boys’ trip-cum-post-grad anthropology thesis trip to Sweden, and she accepts, much to their dismay. Theirs is a codependent relationship, and it’s bound to end badly.
Dani meanwhile locks her trauma away, putting on a brave face despite her unfathomable loss. She, like Christian, is emotionally unavailable in her own way. Early on, the guys’ most bro-ish friend, Mark (Will Poulter) laments on Christian’s behalf that Dani doesn’t like sex. Christian’s Swedish pal, Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren) – whose name is suspiciously similar to Pele, the Hawaiian deity of Volcanoes and Fire – and whose tiny village of Hårga is the one they are going to visit, tries to connect with Dani by explaining that he lost both of his parents as well, but she pulls away and hides in a bathroom where she unleashes some of her pent-up grief alone.
In Hereditary, Annie (Toni Collette), too, keeps her trauma internalized. At a grief counseling session after her mother’s death she finds herself rattling off a laundry list of traumatic events and mental illnesses in her families’ past – her mother had dissociative identity disorder, her father suffered from psychotic depression and died of starvation, her brother was schizophrenic and committed suicide, blaming their mother for it. Yet Annie is very clear to refer to all of that as her mother’s life – as if those things somehow didn’t also affect her. She doesn’t want to stress her family out, she says, preferring to control her emotions through her carefully crafted dioramas. Later in the film, she, like Dani, must contend with a fresh trauma, and it’s then that the demon that’s been haunting her family comes into the foreground and eventually takes full control.
For Dani and her companions in Midsommar, it’s not long before their idealistic vacation turns into a pagan nightmare. Upon arrival at the Swedish village, the group consumes mind-altering magic mushrooms and a long strange trip begins. As the festivities kick off with dancing, backwards-flower-picking and seemingly harmless games like “skim the fool” (or is it skin the fool?), the clan (cult) of villagers initially seem benign enough. It’s clear that the Hårgans are big on nature, strivers after its balance and harmony, and very into the idea of rebirth and renewal. But we soon learn that their esteemed 9-day festival is comprised of some rather bizarre ceremonies that the outsiders find horrifying, including the ritual suicide / killing off of the village elders in favor of newborn babies (who are created with the assistance of love spells involving pubic hair and menstrual blood). Dani’s aforementioned lack of interest in sex lies in contrast to the wanton advances of the women of Hårga, who are very into the idea having babies – one particular redhead, Maja (Isabelle Grill) casts one of the love spells on Christian because she wants him to help her bear one.
And speaking of bears, there’s a rather large one just kind of hanging out in a cage on the edge of the village, and the group run into it during an early look-around. It’s a seemingly random novelty that passes by in a blip, called out briefly by one of the group as they walk past. “So, are we just gonna ignore the bear then?” The bear, as with Dani’s un-addressed trauma, is a beast in their midst, locked up for now but omnipresent even though no one’s talking about it.
In Hereditary, the omnipresent lurking beast is the demon, Paimon, whose symbol appears throughout the film. Grandma was a worshipper of his, we learn, and she means to put him inside Peter (Alex Wolff) with some assistance from her fellow cult members.
As far as the Midsommar festival, the main attractions are yet to come, but not before Christian decides to poach his classmate Josh’s (William Jackson Harper) thesis by deciding that he wants to use the Hårgan festival as his own thesis – which he knows Josh was planning to do. It’s an extension of his own codependency – Christian is repeatedly shown to be someone who doesn’t have original ideas of his own. As the members of the outsiders’ group begin to disappear under mysterious circumstances, Dani gets recruited to a dance competition with the young women in order to determine this year’s May Queen, and Christian gets recruited to have sex with Maja while a circle of older female villagers watch and cheer them on encouragingly.
Dani is the last woman standing in the endurance test and is crowned this season’s May Queen. But when she discovers Christian and Maja having sex, she is devastated to the point of throwing up. Christian gets incapacitated by a cult member blowing an unknown powder in his face, and then we learn about the cult’s next big ceremony, which is to sacrifice a number of their own members and outsiders in a fire – but not before the May Queen chooses one final victim. Given the choice to sacrifice one of the Hårgans or Christian, Dani chooses Christian. The bear from earlier is killed and gutted, and Christian gets sewn inside of it. Then he, the missing outsiders, and a few Hårgans both dead and alive are all set on fire inside a special barn. As their pyre burns, killing the sacrifices, the cultists scream and yell cathartically.
For the Hårgans, the burning ritual is a purging, a fire that, as in nature, is necessary for renewal. For Dani, it’s a release of the codependent relationship she had with Christian and of the pain, trauma and grief she’s been carrying and repressing. She’s now the May Queen, a symbol of hope and new beginnings, covered in flowers and surrounded by a new family, a network of brothers and sisters who have bonded in their shared grief and developed their own bizarre rituals to manage their pain.
Dark as it is, Midsommar is perhaps the slightly more optimistic of Aster’s two films, wherein at least in the end, Dani becomes the May Queen and finds catharsis amongst her newly adopted family (albeit by wrapping Christian in a bear skin and burning him alive). Despite the fact that, as Aster has described it, Dani is “moving from one co-dependent relationship to another,” and she’s now presumably part of a sacrificial cult – we can imagine she went on to have babies with Pelle and live a somewhat satisfying life – at least until her turn to jump off the cliff, or to perhaps become kindling for the next fire ceremony.
In Hereditary, Annie’s husband Steve (Gabriel Byrne) is also burned alive, but there is no catharsis to be found there, instead Annie gets possessed by Paimon and cuts off her own head. Likewise, not much hope is offered to poor Peter (Alex Wolff) as the new King / inheritor of his families demon, doomed to worship at the altar of Paimon while his sister Charlie’s (Milly Shapiro) head and a smiling photo of Grandma looks on.
And of course, in Midsommar, it’s certainly not a happy ending for Christian or any of the other outsiders who’ve come into the Hårgan’s midst, or for some of the Hårgan’s for that matter. As in nature, fire has brought about a rebirth of sorts, but at a devastating cost to some who strayed too close.
In both Midsommar and Hereditary, the protagonists’ unaddressed trauma leads to a fairly horrific outcome. And so it goes in real life. If you’ve not addressed your demon in the attic, or your bear in a cage, you may not literally cut off your own head, or wrap your boyfriend/girlfriend in a bear skin and set them on fire before joining a bloodthirsty cult, but perhaps figuratively you might. And that’s something worth being scared of.