*This essay contains spoilers.
For hundreds of years, pagan civilizations in Mesoamerica, most notably the Aztecs, practiced ritual human sacrifice. So did the ancient Chinese and medieval Celts. Today, we look back on these bloody rites with shocked incomprehension. Surely, if we had been there, we would have protested these grotesque ceremonies, or at least avoided them. We’d never have joined the delirious crowds cheering them on.
But what if, instead of being a modern observer, you could get an insider’s view of what these rituals looked and felt like? And what if, stepping away from your iPhone and Zoom chats, you discovered that such societies were, in some ways, more fulfilling than your own?
This question animates the 2019 horror film Midsommar, a literally disorienting work that left most critics baffled. In it, a group of college friends travel to Sweden to observe the picturesque summer rites of a small commune. Over the course of the nine-day festival, the mood darkens, and by the time they fully understand what’s happening, it’s too late.
Writer-director Ari Aster shot to fame with the 2018 arthouse-horror film Hereditary, a terrifying portrayal of demonic forces set loose in a modern American family. Though not religious, Aster has a brilliant artistic feel for primal horror, for evil as a metaphysical reality.
An upside-down fairy tale — its happy ending corresponding to one character’s embrace of evil — is the disturbing story Aster tells in Midsommar.
Two Kinds of Snow
The opening shot is a creepy-charming cartoon panel that depicts scenes from the story we’re about to see. The style evokes Disney classics such as Sleeping Beauty, in which an illustrated book of fairy tales frames the action.
In interviews, Aster has explained that the film’s plot conforms to the subgenre of scary movies known as “folk horror.” Within that structure, however, he aimed to tell the story of one woman’s liberating breakup; or, put another way, a fairy tale about a wronged heroine who claims her true destiny. Midsommar synthesizes these elements to stunning effect.
The cartoon panel parts to reveal a primeval forest covered in snow. We see a series of pristine images of nature: snow-laden fir trees, frozen rivers. Over these scenes, a woman’s voice intones an ancient song. Through her incantation she is participating in winter, sanctifying it, waiting with it for the spring. The effect is hauntingly beautiful, a glimpse of a sacred natural order.
A ringing phone rudely interrupts her song, and the scene cuts to present-day America, where a heavy snow is falling. A pretty young woman named Dani Ardor is alone in her college apartment. For reasons that soon become clear, she is upset. In her mounting anxiety, she reaches out to others by email and phone, her eyes brimming with tears as she paces the empty room.
As things worsen for Dani, the window behind her shows a blinding chaos of snow against a black sky. The camera takes us through the window into the blizzard, but there’s no mystical voice singing. As Dani sobs and shrieks, there is no one out there, only the wind.
Traumatized and alone, Dani clings to her boyfriend Christian, who — unbeknownst to her — is itching to break up. Dani’s gentle, trusting qualities make her an easy mark in college hookup culture, and Christian and his male friends view her with something like contempt.
The young men are planning a senior trip to Sweden, where they’ve been invited to observe the summer festival — described as “pageantry, special ceremonies, dressing up” — of a close-knit village. Because he can’t bring himself to dump her after the trauma she’s suffered, Christian reluctantly invites Dani to join them.
Once in Sweden, the group drives to the remote village. As their car proceeds down a narrow road, past green fields that turn into forests, the scene turns upside down, so they are driving through an eerily inverted landscape.
Effectively, they are traveling back in time, out of flat, postmodern culture and into an ancient pagan world. Though they don’t know it yet, they are not in Kansas anymore.
The Silenced Feminine
As in Hereditary, the viewpoint character in Midsommar is female. Both stories are so steeped in mystery and dread, involving things that cannot be grasped logically but only apprehended through emotional recoil or an intuitive sixth sense, they must be filtered through what John Paul II called “the feminine genius.”
Thus, the protagonist of Hereditary is an artist and mother. And the protagonist of Midsommar is an ingenue with a loving heart (surname Ardor) who, as in a fairy tale, is under a curse: She can’t speak. From the first moment we see her, she is holding back how she feels, trying to sound casual on the phone to Christian even as tears spill down her face.
Dani knows that her pain and need for real love are too much for Christian. While she holds out the hope that he will propose marriage, he views their four years together as a disposable fling. Most of his friends are barely polite to her at this point.
So, in the airplane bathroom, Dani sobs silently, hands clamped over mouth. When she rejoins the boys in the cabin, her expression is bland. Playing the “cool girl” is all she can do, because speaking about how she feels will drive love — or what passes for it in her world — away.
Throughout the film, Dani is haunted by the image of a young woman with something taped over her mouth. Symbolically, she is Dani’s double, and what she embodies is dark: silence, despair, annihilation. Why go on living in a world where you can’t speak?
But in the pagan world, where flower-decked maidens dance around a maypole, no one expects young women to be cool. Fertility is venerated, and no girl is ever abandoned with her pain. They consider themselves a family, Dani learns, and all the women act as mothers, aunts, and sisters to each other.
There, finally, she is encouraged to express all that she feels.
Goodbye, Cruel World
The film shows Dani trading one cruel society (her own) for another, in some ways more cruel, society that meets her emotional needs much better. Physically — and later, fully — she goes from a nihilistic culture (filled with the psychic violence of meaninglessness and isolation) to an old-school pagan culture. There, ritualized acts of cruelty have deep meaning and serve to bind the community to their history and each other.
Though the commune’s deadly traditions horrify Dani at first, she gradually realizes its members are never lonely and feel no existential angst. Rather, the nature-worshipping Swedes see themselves as part of something ancient, powerful, and noble.
The commune embraces Dani and severs her ties to her faithless boyfriend, so her “happy ending” is a fresh start in a new family, a new world. Christian (note the name) failed to meet her real and desperate needs, so her girl-power solution is to go full pre-Christian, anti-Christian. The film ends on a rapturous note of extreme violence.
Seconds before the credits roll, the viewer realizes this is not a “happy” ending, but a nice American girl’s descent into barbarism. It’s Conrad’s Heart of Darkness retooled for the Frozen generation. Though genuinely frightening, it walks the line between a horror film and a black comedy in which the joke’s on you.
So, what should Catholics make of Midsommar?
We, too, believe in a sacred order, but we don’t worship nature, red in tooth and claw. We love our rituals — pageantry! special ceremonies! dressing up! — but the rite of sacrifice enacted in the Mass does not involve luring in victims or disemboweling a bear (I’ll say no more). The Church has always borrowed liberally from pagan cultures, not to make the crops grow, but to point toward a transcendent reality in which the highest truth is love.
But are we (largely secular) postmoderns forgetting all that? If our fractured, confused society can’t meet the human needs of its members, a darker world may take its place, and even good people like Dani may succumb. As R. R. Reno writes and Midsommar shocks us by depicting, one way or another, the strong gods will return.
Maya Sinha writes about pop culture and family life. She was a finalist in the 2020 J.F. Powers Prize for Short Fiction and writes a humor column, Wit’s End, for The Saturday Evening Post.