Ari Aster, the writer/director of Midsommar, knows you might’ve watched 70s British horror classic The Wicker Man. He hasn’t cribbed from it, though, so much as anticipated your familiarity with the subgenre of ‘the creepy rural cult’ and its conventions. One such convention is foreshadowing, which is essential to sustain the note of dread. In response to our genre savvy, Midsommar leans into its foreshadowing, to the point of being knowing, tongue-in-cheek. When the mysterious Pelle tells bereaved American student Dani how glad he is she’ll be joining the midsummer festivities among his Hargå people in the remote Swedish countryside, we’re meant to think: Uh-oh!
Thirty minutes into the film is a college dorm-room, where on a table in medium shot is a book called ‘The Secret Nazi Language of the Uthark’. ‘Uthark’ is the kooky theory that Scandinavian runes aren’t a script but a code with hidden meanings. Granted, seeing Nazis everywhere is its own kooky subgenre of film criticism, but this single overt Nazi reference primes you to look out for more covert ones, and to put the horror in context: between a familiar past and potential future.
In contrast to the foreshadowing later, the film starts with a mystery: why Dani one night can’t get through to her sister on the phone: she’s killed herself and her parents with car exhaust. But tagging along to see the Hargå won’t be the escape from this catastrophe Dani hopes. The first most dramatic thing she sees is how the Hargå control their population at one end: through ättestupa, an ancient Scandinavian ritual in which the two oldest in the tribe jump off a cliff. If we want to find a culture of senicide we only have to go back to Nazi Germany. The Hargå priestess explains to her shocked guests that ättestupa is healthier than letting an old person age and grow bitter – “poisoning their spirit.” This recalls Dani’s sister, who poisoned her parents – more specifically, she gassed them to death (the Hargå commune is sometimes referred to as “a camp”). The film ends with the Hargå purging unhealthy spirits in a burnt sacrificial offering: the literal meaning of ‘holocaust’.
Is the film, then, simply exploiting another generation’s horror? Aster has described himself as working through his neurotic Jewish fears, so maybe Midsommar is ancestrally afraid like David Kessler in American Werewolf in London, who has a nightmare where Nazi pig-demons slaughter his family. Fascism as a subtext in horror is hardly unprecedented: the Overlook Hotel’s spiritual birthday of 1921 bridges the New World genocides gone and the Old World ones to come.
But look at when and where Midsommar is set. Sweden is a clever dialectical choice: Scandinavian social democracy is, in the liberal imagination, the enviable end of history, making Sweden all the more ironic homeland for the violent Hargå. At the same time, Sweden is entirely appropriate: the possible location of Aryan ‘Thule’ in the Nazi occult and a current cause celebre for fascists, who’ve already denounced the film as ‘anti-white’. But lushly forested Sweden also provides Aster with the other plank of meaning for his film. Just before they reach the commune, Pelle and his brother Ingemar offer Dani and guests some magic mushrooms, after which Pelle rhapsodies about flowing with nature while they hallucinate the grass reclaiming their feet. He’d billed his community as “hippy”, and they do seem to be at the green end of the spectrum: garlanded, robed, with a thing for flowers and runes.
But though they look like hippies, they’re also fairly blond, blue-eyed and otherwise conspicuously all-white. To introduce their maypole dance, an elder tells a fairy tale about how their young maidens were threatened by a ‘Dark One’. This sinister underside was present in the late 19th and early 20th century Völkisch movement in Northern Europe, which merged Romanticism’s love of the great outdoors with the era’s nationalist politics, and soon graded into racism and anti-Semitism: back-to-nature meets blood and soil. The Völkisch movement went on to inspire the Third Reich with its own supposed preservation of the countryside and celebration of rural traditions – call it ‘The Nationalsozialistische Trust.’
As for timing: the Hargå priestess and Pelle tell us their special midsummer ritual takes place every 90 years. Assuming Midsommar is set the year it was made or released, what happened in 1928-29? The Wall Street Crash and resulting first electoral breakthroughs of the Nazi party. So what’s the catalyst in 2019? The priestess reminds us how this summer has been “our hottest on record” – said not with the usual climate scientist alarm, but with earnest gratitude. And, trying to explain to the guests the ättestupa deaths of the old people, she weirdly but explicitly speaks of it in terms of “recycling.”
What if a hotter planet will be a boon for something like the Hargå, a taste of cultures to come? Cults that teach a kitsch ecology of ‘harmonious life cycles’ to justify killing, manage breeding from the top-down, and violently control their borders. In his book Four Futures Peter Frase predicts ‘exterminism’ as one of the possibilities in the age of climate change: a world of exclusivist elite communes. (For early evidence, see Marine Le Pen and her concern-trolling contrast between prudent settlers and careless nomads.) Considering their long and cyclic history, the Hargå are both post-Nazi and proto-Nazi. Midsommar expresses an ongoing and plausible worry: the fascism next time, when the catalyst won’t be economical so much as ecological.
Not everyone is worried in the same way; not everyone is even worried. Mixed-raced Simon and brown Connie might not know what they saw at the brutal ättestupa ritual, but they recognise it, and want to get out. The film smartly exploits here the horror cliché of the dispensable ethnic redshirts: though they’re the first to die, they’re also the ones who saw what was coming (complicating this picture is Josh, who is black, and wants to study the Hargå first). Aster, meanwhile, has said that Dani’s boyfriend, the anthropology student Christian, is more the villain of the piece than the Hargå. He didn’t name Christian so by accident. In The Wicker Man, Edward Woodward’s virginal Christianity wilts before the summery power of Christopher Lee and his fire-jumping sex-hippies. But Midsommar takes that film’s culture clash concept further. How much worse are the Hargå really than the cultures our characters come from, how different is their ‘meaningful violence’ to our wars, executions, and borders defended to the point of letting thousands drown?
Though the Hargå might not be outright villains, the film doesn’t valorise them, instead shows the oxymoron of their ‘nature culture’. The Hargå worship nature to such an extent they relax incest taboos to inbreed an Oracle, whose disability an elder explains is a means to bypass cognition towards instinct. This recalls Sweden’s history of rationalist eugenics, while ironising the Hargå’s grand claims. The Oracle’s prophecies are paint scrawls, the interpretation of which is controlled by a community elite. The last time we see the Oracle, before the final sacrifice, he sits in a cloud of wool – literally wooly thinking. Two Hargå men volunteer to be among the nine sacrificed, and their friends give them potions to ease their pain. But these don’t work: the men die screaming. Culture doesn’t overrule nature. Neither is Aster afraid to show the po-faced silliness of the Hargå, with their flute-playing and tra-la-la frolicking and spiking of pies with pubes, and in doing so reverses the hashtag from ‘my culture is not a costume’ to ‘all culture is a costume.’ Pelle described these rituals as “dressing up”, and Dani does so with the Hargå – most of all by being crowned their ‘May Queen’, which leads to her siding with them over the life she knows. As Durkheim wrote, ritual precedes belief.
In the film’s biggest reversal of expectations, Dani is the commune’s beneficiary and not its victim. For who is singled out and drawn to fascism, as Pelle draws Dani? Among others, the isolated, the emotionally broken. Though Christian holds a screaming Dani after she finds out about her family, the camera swoops past his terrified face: he’s as much trapped and out of his depth as sorry for her. All Pelle has to do is empathise with Dani, share his own orphaned status (his parents “died in a fire” – maybe in some earlier ritual burning) for her to excuse herself to the bathroom, where she cries again, but this time not in raw pain, but almost with a sense of ‘finally!’
At the end of the film, Dani chooses Christian and not a Hargå as the ninth and final midsummer sacrifice. She lost one family but gains another, loses one lover but gains another, a sort of mockery of the restoration scene in a comedy play. A warning, though, for anybody who empathises too much and sees a crowd-pleasing ‘dump his ass’ moment when Dani at last shucks off her terrible boyfriend Christian. She’s travelled the romcom arc, swapped a fake relationship for a real one, with her new, fascistic family. Where the film began with shots of winter, it ends in summer. Dani’s story is of a broken person finding with the Hargå the sunny togetherness she couldn’t find in the dead wintry world before. In this culture to come, who’ll be on the inside and who on the outside? Having nowhere you belong is a terrible thing, but belonging might be worse.