What Does The Movie Midsommar Have to Say About Cults and Their Victims?

Written by: Matthew Sabatine

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The following post/article represents only the views of the author and not everyone at Common Issues.

Introduction: Ari Aster’s 2019 movie Midsommar tells an ingenious tale of how a religion or cult takes advantage of a person’s state of vulnerability. It appears charming and harmless while luring you in, but once you realize that you are in danger, it’s too late. Under the guise of having a new family and home, you are there to be servile to some ideal not chosen by you. It reminds me of how we, today, coax and bribe others into joining our elaborate schemes and rituals to satisfy some higher power or purpose, meanwhile ignoring how we are stealing the innocence of others.  

Midsommar is about a Swedish Pagan cult, called Harga, located in what appears to be a faraway bucolic area, reportedly filmed in Hungary. Although, this is meant to represent the Northern part of Sweden above the Arctic Circle where they have a midnight sun that can be observed 24 hours a day. They have a Nine-Day event taking place every 90 years, screaming incantations to banish spirits back to the dead and using the runic alphabet. Maybe many chronically exhausted American parents would be a bit attracted to the idea that this community takes care of their babies instead of the two parents exclusively. Or maybe many American parents could never bear to be separated from their biological responsibility like that. Who knows? [1]

Honestly, I spent most of the time wondering when I would finally see a gravely shocking and scary scene. Maybe I’ve been desensitized to a lot of on-screen horrors? To what I’m not desensitized is how the film serves as a great reminder of the kind of pestiferous cult-living that occurred centuries ago and probably still occurs today due to a lack of 21st Century scientific thinking on how the natural world works. The deviance and luridness of this cult might seem overblown, but Swedish midsummer revelries and festivities are certainly real.

Not too far into the movie does Dani, the protagonist played by Florence Pugh, become informed that her bipolar sister, Terri, has killed herself and her parents. It’s a scene that has Dani uncontrollably weeping in the arms of her boyfriend, Christian, played by Jack Reynor, after he expressed disbelief that anything serious was indicated in Terri’s ominous email to Dani. A scene like this makes you think rather deeply about the consequences of ignoring the signs of imminent tragedy, all due to wanting to be blithe and unbothered. Despite Christian’s ignorance being a realistic portrayal of our fecklessness toward mental health awareness in the 21st Century, the film still perhaps romanticizes mental illness, perhaps giving us the image that most or all bipolar sufferers are capable of the worst kind of suicide-homicide scenarios.

Christian decides he wants to visit his college roommate’s Swedish hometown community. Pelle (played by Carl Vilhelm John Blomgren) is his name. The other two college friends, Mark (played by Chronicles of Narnia’s Will Poulter) and Josh (played by William Jackson Harper) plan to go along because Josh is writing his anthropology college thesis on European Midsummer traditions. Unbeknownst to Josh, this would be the last vacation of his life and he would never see the day when he completes his Ph.D. Dani is suddenly invited after not knowing about the trip until 2 weeks prior to departure.

The cult’s properties are garlanded with flowered wreaths and their bunkhouse walls are covered with variegated, medieval-looking murals depicting macabre images once you take a closer look.

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If you are in the least bit acquainted with the history of cults and religions, you won’t be surprised to see that this one enjoys hallucinogens, which the newcomers partake with Pelle as soon as they arrive on the land. We are perhaps clued in as to what kind of hallucinogen it might be when Dani has a spell of paranoia, rushing away from her group, stammering, and heading toward another group she thinks is laughing at her before she ventures off into what looks like an outhouse. Inside, she sees the reflection of a person in the mirror. She turns to face it before it vanishes, and then she turns back to see her disfigured reflection.

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The cult also is obsessed with blood, most noticeably women’s vaginal blood. On a tapestry is an image of a female clipping her vaginal hair and dripping vaginal blood into a cup prepared as a libation or offering. This is unsurprising. A lot of cults and religions appear to be aberrantly fixated on genitalia and bodily emissions. Take for instance the fact that many myths and traditions around the world have mandated that women’s menstruation be synchronized with the moon cycle. [4] Men of North and South America were inspired by their indigenous myths to believe that the universe could spiral out of control for failure to monitor and harmonize women’s menstruation with nature.

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Leviticus 15:19-30 has inspired stringent followers of the Torah to believe that menstruating females are ritually unclean and are proscribed from sexual intercourse with their husbands. Orthodox Judaism even forbids you to touch the same objects as a menstruating woman. As a man, you could then become ritually unclean yourself. In Orthodox Christianity, a woman is mandated to avoid Holy Communion during her menstrual period, though she is not considered sinful for this involuntary bodily emission. [5] Although these laws of Judaism and Christianity don’t compare to the strangeness happening in the film, not even close.

Seeing the tapestry has you constantly and nervously anticipating when the real ritualistic occurrence will take place. It is this same tapestry that appears to foreshadow some of the key post-climactic stages of Dani being sort of non-consensually inducted into the society by being crowned as queen.

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The tapestry shows a long, brown-haired male and a blonde female with heart-shaped objects in her eyes. She is staring upon the brown-haired fellow, as she picks flowers and a white robe. The female pubic hair is seen being put in a bowl and then served to the brown-haired male with swirl-shaped eyes, foreshadowing what would later happen to Christian when he eats a pie and finds a hair that his friends say is a pubic hair. The tapestry shows the brown-haired male and female kissing, as a way of foreshadowing Christian being seduced, a bit forcibly, into a mating ritual with Maja.

I got the suspicion that there was a predatory focus on Dani, when, upon meeting the newcomers, an elder named Father Odd (such a coincidental name) shook the hands of all the males but unhesitatingly and affectionately hugged Dani and was extra enthusiastic toward her when welcoming them. To go even further, Pelle makes a hand-drawn portrait of her and gives it to her in honor of her birthday, and when she carelessly confesses that Christian forgot about her birthday, we get the uneasy feeling that emotional infidelity might be brewing. The strange bonding is finally unveiled when Pelle tries to soothe Dani during her emotional upheaval. In the sleeping barn, he discusses with her the loss of her parents, and relates to her by discussing the loss of his parents and being orphaned as a child, to emotionally groom her for ordainment. He rests his hand on hers and asks about Christian, “Dani, do you feel held by him? Does he feel like home to you?”

Maja, played by Isabelle grill, is the redhead who lightly kicked Christian and gave him a flirtatious look during a dancing ritual. During his sleep one night, she put a runic object underneath his bed to cast a love spell.

The relationship of Dani and Christian has a stealth breakdown that is slowly revealed throughout the movie. But it becomes outstandingly clear when Christian asks one of the members about the community’s rules on incest, and it is then stated that the community allows some cousins to mate, but for pure preservation of the bloodlines to be respected, outsiders must be recruited.

Dani gives Christian a haunting look to signify awareness that they have been ensnared in something evil with no turning back. That one member’s explanation about the preservation of the community’s bloodlines would appear to be rather contradicted later when we learn about Rubin, a facially grotesque male, deliberately inbred purposely to serve as the community’s oracle and conveying messages from the gods via colorful hand paintings.

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At one point in the sleeping barn, Pelle is explaining to Christian the different stages of life each member must achieve. Those who are under 36 stay in the gigantic colorful barn until 54, when they enter the working phase, at which they move to the “laborers barn.” Overhearing the conversation, Dani asks, “What happens at 72?” to which Pelle jocosely clarifies that is the end of the community member’s life. However, later, we realize that he wasn’t joking when the whole community congregates on what looks like a beach area with an enormous cliff towering above them. Their eldest male and female members voluntarily jump to their deaths as participation in Ättestupa [2], the name given to Swedish precipices where ritual senicide is believed to have occurred during pre-Christian and post-Christian societies because the elderly’s infirmities and uselessness had been too burdensome for their families. Although, the practice is scholarly reported to be mythical because sparse evidence is said to exist in the archaeological record. [3]

The outsiders to the events are choking at the sight of the carnage as the male member survived the fall and several others had to finish him off by clobbering his head, twice. The corpses are burned, and their ashes preserved.

Connie (played by Ellora Torchia) and her boyfriend, Simon (played Archie Madekwe), felt so scandalized that Simon grabs her by the hands and demands for their departure. The offended elder leading the ritual beseeches them to stay so she can explain that this tradition has lasted for centuries and these members are honored to die like this. According to the Harga society, it is a more humane way to end life rather than wait to die by disease and old age.

At this point, the outsiders seem to calm down. Being an audience member, you can’t help but think you should have an empathetic open mind, too. Maybe voluntary death at a ripe old age, before you get too sick and infirm, is a peaceful way to go? There is less physical and mental pain for you and less emotional pain that your loved ones must endure while watching you. Even Christian says to Dani hours later when she is still downcast, “That was really, really shocking. I’m trying to keep an open mind, though. That’s cultural, you know? We stick our elders in nursing homes. I’m sure they find that disturbing. I think we really need to at least try to acclimate.”

Still, who would want to watch their grandfather, grandmother, or friend willingly fall to their death? Right? And then to be the one to deal the final blow to prevent any unnecessary, long-lasting suffering? Yea, not me. No thanks.

After you can sort of make sense of their ritualized voluntary death, you then start wondering and waiting for when you will finally see something that doesn’t make sense as a way to scare you.

Perhaps the climax is finally reached when Josh sneaks into a barn house full of sacred texts late at night, where he was emphatically told by one of the elders that he is prohibited from taking pictures. When not looking, he is bashed in the back of the head by someone I couldn’t identify, though it was reported that the assailant was Ulf, the same man who got incensed by Mark’s urinating on their sacred tree. We see someone, apparently wearing Mark’s dismembered face, and making  grunting noises, approach Josh’s prostrated body.

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Before an important dance takes place, in which the ladies are encouraged to dance until they fall over, the ladies partake of an orange liquid which has been mixed with what is apparently female pubic hair, alluding to the tapestry I mentioned earlier. The dance includes a winner: whoever can outlast all the others is crowned May Queen. But if there were many images and signs to presage that Dani would be queened, according to the tapestry, that would mean the community had plotted and machinated for Dani’s crown from the very beginning. Christian is given a drink with “special properties that break down your defenses and opens you for the influence.”

The pressure is building after Dani wins the dance and Christian is helplessly and anxiously standing by, waiting for his love to return to him…and we’re waiting for the too. But our hopes are sinking fast at this point as the crowd felicitates her, dons her with flowers, Pelle gives her a prolonged kiss, they elevate her on a piece of wood, and carry her away, singing.

Sitting at a large table with the whole crowd, Dani is forced to eat a whole herring as Christian is nauseated and unbalanced, but with his eyes fixed on Maja and her flirtatious walk and stare. Dani is demanded to be transported away in a human-driven carriage, not allowed to bring Christian with her. To her horror, Dani goes to the house where Christian was led into a mating ritual. She investigates through the keyhole and finds him doing the dirty deed. But did he do this based on his own volition after ingesting the special juice or was it the community’s plan to have the juice be his irresistible aphrodisiac that would distort his senses?

Vomiting, sobbing, and retching after seeing the sight, Dani is taken away into the sleeping barn where the carriage attendants yowl with her. Completely naked, Christian runs out of the mating barn and to a different part of the land where he finds Josh’s foot sticking out of the ground. The evil unfolds even more! He runs into a henhouse to find Simon’s body sprawled out and hanging from the ceiling, with his back flayed open and his lungs exposed and pulsating to indicate that he is still alive.

Knocked unconscious and incapacitated, Christian awakes in a chair, unable to move and unable to speak. The elder is announcing the 9 lives they must sacrifice, and that 4 of them had to be outsiders, forced against their will, of course. 4 had to be their own, 2 of which are volunteers, implying that perhaps the other 2 were not. Believing they will be “joined in harmony with everything,” Ingmar (Pelle’s brother) and Ulf (the one who killed Mark), step up to the front of the group, volunteering. Dani, as crowned May Queen, is asked to decide which one of the last two will die in the burning of their sacred temple. Should it be Turbeyon, a community member, or Christian?

At any moment now we are waiting for Christian to burst out of his incapacitated state to defend himself or for Dani to stop the whole show and demand for Christian’s release. We’re waiting for a heroic turn of the tide. Alas! It never happens.

We see that the 4 made to burn were the outsiders: Josh, Simon, Mark, and Christian who is shoved in a bear carcass, which we observe being disemboweled. Though we don’t see Christian disemboweled, we are made to think that perhaps he was. He apparently couldn’t feel anything.

As it is with any cult who misunderstands the workings of the natural world, they sacrifice a human and an animal to expel their unholiness and sins. How does human and animal sacrifice have any connection with morality? Well, little do they and did the ancient cultists know that such an act of cruelty that invites pain could only invite immorality rather than absolve anyone of it. The elder who gave Ulf a swap of substance from the yew tree, thinking that it would anesthetize him, demonstrates ignorance of its highly poisonous properties. It’s no accident that it came from a coniferous tree, linked to folklore and superstition. Only an uninformed cultish mentality could make such an unforgivable mistake, one that couldn’t be more emphasized than when Ulf shrieks in pain and terror as the fires covered him.

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The cult has odd expressions of empathy: when one is aggrieved or hurt, they all partake in the pain. This is shown when all of Dani’s female carriage attendants mourn with her when she is devastated by the sight of Christian’s mating ritual. All the cult adherents mewl and convulse at the sight of the burning temple in which they lost some of their members. It’s strange that their brains couldn’t foresee this pain and therefore reason that this kind of self-affliction to their group would be senseless. But they did as most cults like to do: enforce unnecessary self-affliction.

For the last 30 seconds, we see Dani gasping, coughing, and crying loudly before we then see a shining, sickening grin on her face that obviously caused a lot of controversy on the internet.

Dani is obviously a great candidate for brainwashing, grooming, and inducting into a new society/family to serve their purposes, quarantined away from mainstream society and sensible laws that would never allow this kind of thing. Hence, their insistence on not allowing Josh to take pictures of what he saw nor to allow Connie and Simon to leave so immediately like they would, to probably reveal to the outside world about the death ritual they had just been traumatized by.

Dani’s circumstances had apparently just fated her for this new cult/family. As she was bereft of her parents and sister, where else could she turn to? Being traumatized, how could she turn to Christian who is apparently insensitive and indifferent to any concerns she ever has? Ready for a new, exciting prince charming to come to sweep her up, it was the opportune time for someone like Pelle, whose plan isn’t revealed until the end, to lure her in like any ingenious predator with a schmaltzy, sappy, blue-eyed, meek-looking face would.

About the author: Matthew is interested in discussing social psychology, neuroscience, anthropology, sociology, human biology and anatomy, mental health disorders, philosophy, the psychology of religion, and the history of religion. Matthew loves his friends, his family, and his dog named Sampson. You can contact Matthew at commonissues.contactus@gmail.com.

Disclosure statement: I am not a licensed therapist nor doctor. My intention is to not pretend to be either. The information contained in this article is not meant to be accepted instead of a doctor or licensed therapist’s advice. All information contained herein is based on my interpretation of the books and articles I read. My hope and desire is that any troubled person reading this would feel encouraged to get help from a licensed practitioner.

References:

[1] https://www.vanityfair.com/hollywood/2019/07/midsommar-folklore-sweden

[2] https://www.businessinsider.com/midsommar-ending-explained-hidden-meanings-symbols-clues-2019-7

[3] http://www.diva-portal.org/smash/get/diva2:1325178/FULLTEXT01.pdf

[4] Knight, Chris (1988). “Menstrual Synchrony and the Australian Rainbow Snake”. In Buckley, Thomas C. T.; Gottlieb, Alma (eds.). Blood Magic: The Anthropology of Menstruation. Berkeley: University of California Press. pp. 232–55. ISBN 978-0-520-06350-1.

[5] http://orthodoxinfo.com/praxis/menses.aspx

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