“Do you like horror films?”
That’s how a friend introduced me to director Ari Aster.
My answer to her was a bit ambiguous. I do savor horror films, even if they are not at the top of my to-watch list. I mean, I do like the suspense and the tension, and well, who doesn’t like guessing how everything will be solved in the end? However, I feel like once you’ve seen a couple of horror movies, you’ve probably learned all there is to know. I was very, very wrong.
With the horror film formula wearing out (since like three decades ago), it was very refreshing to see how Midsommar, Aster’s second full-length film, released in 2019, made me rethink what horror actually is.
What Is Midsommar
Midsommar is an old tradition through which many civilizations celebrate the arrival of summer. Vikings were one of the oldest of these civilizations. In Sweden, the heirs of the Vikings and where the movie takes place, the festival revolves around nature, traditional clothes, and lots of singing.
An important element of the celebration, portrayed in the movie, is the traditional blessing of the seasonal crops by the may queen, the mother that grants life. Probably one of the hardest parts to forget from the film is the people dancing around a huge pole which probably represents a phallus. After all, fertility and abundant harvests are what this festivity is all about.
One of the central elements in the festivity is flowers, which many participants believe have magical powers during the days of the celebration. Not surprising if one considers that Vikings used psychedelics found in nature. This kind of explains the ‘magical’ aspect of the festival. And luckily for us, this is where things start to get weird in the movie.
The Worst Trip Ever
Aster’s film takes an unexpected turn that you wouldn’t imagine from a centuries-old nature adoring celebration. The movie takes place in a hidden commune somewhere in Sweden. A group of friends, anthropology students, decide to go to the Midsommar celebration with one of their classmates who happens to belong to the commune. Only by going with him can they enter this secret and sacred communal celebration. After an unfortunate series of events, Dani, interpreted by Florence Pugh, who is the girlfriend of one of the anthropologists, joins the gang on their trip.
For our main characters this is like going to Disneyland. To them, this is the perfect opportunity to do some research on an interesting topic for their academic investigations. Little did they know that they were heading to the worst ‘trip’ of their lives.
If there’s one thing that can make a traditional festival go wrong, at least to outsiders, it is definitely psychedelics. Many ancient civilizations used different forms of psychedelics to enter an altered state of consciousness that would allow them to connect with the divine. This helps explain why many of these cultures had a very different view on life and morality.
We often think of civilizations like ancient Greece as the founding fathers of our western world. Up to a certain extent, this is true. What we fail to acknowledge is that their view of the universe and life was totally different from ours. The same happens with the founders of Midsommar.
Many rituals transform themselves through time. Sometimes this makes certain things seem less foreign to us. However, this can hide certain foundational aspects. As a result, the essence of a celebration ends up lying somewhere we can’t locate. If it were easy to find, it would probably scare the hell out of us.
Midsommar happens to capture this evolving nature of the festival, while at the same time showing us how the power of ritual practices can expand our views on the ordinary and mundane.
Redefining What Horror Means
The great thing about Midsommar is that, even though it uses some traditional elements of horror films, it moves beyond the usual narrative. At first, although I loved it, I didn’t seem to find it very frightening. Now, a few weeks have passed since I saw it.
I’ve started to connect some really bizarre things with the pandemic reality that we face and the fact that we are all now ascetics. That is, we abstain ourselves from pleasures. In particular, we restrain from those of social life.
One way or another, we are all now pleasureless, to say the least. We’ve had to redefine what having fun means as a consequence of the world we knew being torn to pieces by a thing so small we can’t even comprehend. And what does this have to do with the movie?
Midsommar is more than just unexpected and frightening things happening. In reality, its horror lies in the fact that we are scared of our worldview being shattered into pieces. We cannot accept that a different understanding is imposed upon us. As both individuals and society, we refuse to believe that this is possible, and yet, this is what is happening. The world we knew is gone, and it is probably not coming back.
The same could be said to occur to the characters of the movie. In their innocence, and probably due to their anthropology background, they were unable to grasp the true mystical feeling of the festivity. There was a total inability on their behalf to embrace the magical. They were too busy being led by their preconceptions of the modern world to fully embrace the pleasures of life and nature.
A New Type of Hedonism
Midsommar teaches us one thing: we need a new form of hedonism. One that does not go against, but with the flow of nature. One where there is room for erotism and beauty in the form of women dancing while a virgin is deflowered. A view on life where getting old is no longer the goal, but living life to the fullest is. A world where engaging in festivities through psychedelics can get us closer to the divine. To do these, we will need to leave our fears behind.
Maybe it is time to shatter our old worldviews and make something good out of being stuck at home. The real horror would be not to do so. Like the Midsommar celebration, we should be able to think about a new harvest for humanity. After all, things weren’t so great before.