Eugene “Joey” Albin and Julie A. Ward
With a shortage of new releases in 2020 due to the global pandemic, many horror fans will be streaming last year’s hit for their annual Halloween fright-fests. Ari Aster’s Midsommar (2019), rife with parallels to today’s political landscape, may also terrify those anticipating the US presidential elections, as it juxtaposes Sweden’s bright-white prosperity and order with an underbelly of cruel violence.
Aster’s portrayal of idealized traditions of violence against an idyllic backdrop in this folk horror film points to an unsettling conclusion: horror isn’t a monster in the dark, a stranger waiting in the basement, but what happens every day with people’s own consent and participation. There is nowhere to hide from the violence of modern capitalist society—not even in the empty, tarnished halls of a mythologized golden age.
Dubbed, perhaps facetiously, a “breakup movie” by the director, the plot follows Dani (Florence Pugh), a bereaved university student, on a group research trip to a Swedish commune. While the commune initially appears to be a mere anthropological curiosity, the visitors will ultimately face horrific treatment by the commune members.
Along with Hereditary, Aster’s first feature film, Midsommar seems to have achieved cult status only a year after its production. Indeed, a drive-in screening of Midsommar was opening night for the Nordic International Film Festival earlier this month. As proof of its continued popularity, a collector’s edition was released this year with a book including a foreword by Martin Scorsese.
With a titular focus on temporality and its depiction of a society ordered around four, neat eighteen-year life cycles, the film may hold particular allure in 2020, a year in which many have lamented the meaninglessness of the calendar or measuring time in general. Watching the movie today, amid international protests over systemic racism and police violence against BIPOC, one finds striking parallels between the United States, where many still celebrate or defend the Confederacy and its associated symbols, and the Sweden portrayed in the film, with its own mythic, pseudo-Norse history. The rites performed in Midsommar reveal the danger and vacuity of such nationalist delusions.
While the movie begins darkly, with a family murder-suicide, as soon as the characters arrive in Sweden, they are shrouded in high-key lighting more akin to a perfume commercial than a typical horror movie. Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren), the group’s Swedish informant/classmate, drives his friends to Hårga, the commune where he grew up. The visitors arrive just in time for the summer solstice and find their hosts dressed in white tunics “as a tribute in respect of Ymir” and to celebrate nature’s “hermaphrodite [. . .] qualities.” The fact that this information is only accessible when the speakers address the visitors in English or when Pelle offers a translation gives a sense of cultural practices bound up in, and old as, the Swedish language itself.
Soon, however, the viewer begins to suspect that, despite the pagan references and inscrutable speeches, the commune may not be as old as its members make it out to be. (Indeed, the visitors’ arrival in Hårga is reminiscent of the beginning of Jordan Peele’s 2017 horror film, Get Out, with its eerily cheery whiteness.) In a dormitory modeled after a traditional Viking Långhus, Dani examines a gallery of photographs of past May Queens, winners of an annual dance competition. There are only thirty photographs on the wall. If the gallery includes every queen, then the tradition can’t have started much earlier than the late 1980s, just after modern Heathenry was developed and reached its peak in Sweden.
Noor Al-Sibai notes that the film “enters full-on white supremacist territory, however, when it comes to the basis of the Hårga’s strange breath-language and the markings around their village—Nordic runes.” Writer Joule Zelman also notices a book entitled The Secret Nazi Language of the Uthark in Christian’s apartment early in the film. The evidence suggests that the commune’s elders may also be its founders, disguising their religious inventions as age-old tradition.
Pelle’s commune seems to have collected myths of ritualized violence and enshrined them in tradition, connecting to a past that exists only in legends. This shift in temporality to claim a long-ago past is not unlike the way that Confederate statues toppled by protesters and municipalities in recent years (and those still standing) were mostly erected long after the Civil War, during the Jim Crow era and the civil rights movement.
Though proponents have argued that the statues are historically important, the implication that the memorials are a part of Civil War history is simply untrue. Just as the commune in Midsommar has adopted and retrofitted horrific nationalist myths of an imagined Viking past to support its social project, so do neo-Confederates in the United States glorify a revised history to prop up racist, nationalist ideologies.
In both cases, the glorified “Nation” does not exist: both the defeated Confederate States of America and the mythic Norse nation are being ahistorically projected onto the contemporary US and Sweden. Confederate symbols represent racist injustice, while the fictional commune’s installation of Nordic ritual has real, deadly effects. However, these effects are not only borne of projecting a mythic past onto a problematic present; they are also crucial to these societies’ modern-day structures and dynamics.
Josh, the most serious student in the film, is Pelle’s only Black friend. As suits the genre trope, he and the other two non-white visitors are the first outsiders to fall victim to the bloodthirsty Swedes. The blondest protagonists are the last left standing. Aster observes that Josh’s death is a direct result of racism: “[. . . A]ll of the ‘outsiders’ or ‘new blood’ recruited for mating are purposely white. ‘[Josh is] thrown away in a way that the other members of the main cast are not. [. . .] And that is because these people have no further use for him.’”
Kim Newman points out that Josh’s anthropological attitude inverts the usual racial politics of ethnography: “The African-American student anthropologist [. . .] who is studying the midsummer rituals of white Northern Europeans is as clueless about straying into danger as pith-helmeted explorers are in films about Haitian or African Voodoo.” The deaths of the only characters of color, nevertheless, point to the white supremacy often embedded in notions of “Nordic culture” and Heathenism. Josh’s murder is supposedly the commune’s recreation of an apocryphal Viking execution practice.
In response to celebrations of Midsommar as a film of female empowerment, Xine Yao points out that Dani escapes the fate of her companions by “join[ing] the Aryan commune. To rejoice in this finale is to accept that Black and brown people must be sacrificed as offerings for a white feminist reclamation of self and belonging.” This sacrifice to white feminist empowerment has its parallels in the global system of extractive capitalism that undergirds the Nordic countries’ idyllic way of life.
The visitors’ deaths reflect the first world’s dependency on the extraction of resources and labor to maintain its vitality. The Nordic welfare state is often lauded as an example of a nation-state successfully prioritizing its populace’s well-being. And yet, this “success” relies on proximity to imperial powers, and comes at the expense of environmental destruction and violence around the world. Sweden’s “neutrality” over the past century has allowed it to benefit economically from indiscriminate global weapons sales and mining operations both at home and in former European colonies. Sweden even participated directly in the trans-Atlantic slave trade via its slave trading posts in Africa and its colonies such as Saint Barthélemy in the Caribbean.
The film’s production, alas, provides a contemporary example of these uneven power dynamics: To avoid Swedish labor laws that stipulate a maximum eight-hour workday in the Scandinavian country, Aster chose to film Midsommar in Hungary where the crew could legally work longer days. Even the fictional recreation of Sweden depends on workers in other countries facing fewer protections than workers in Sweden. A link could be made here to Confederate nostalgia, whose popularity is centered on the idyllic plantation populated by genteel residents and noble enslaved people. The contemporary “plantation wedding” remains a lucrative industry, while recent high school textbooks refer to enslaved people as “workers,” ignoring how the South’s culture of housekeeping, agriculture, and hospitality (which, after compounding over decades, now forms the basis of billions of dollars of wealth) was possible due to brutal chattel slavery.
Jordan Peele has described Midsommar as portraying “some of the most atrociously disturbing imagery I’ve ever seen on film, and yet I experienced it with this open-mouthed, wild-eyed gape. I think that part of how we get there is never reducing the villains to any kind of snarling monsters with an evil agenda.” Aster shows that the horror of modern capitalism lies precisely in its allure. Attempts to create a sense of belonging, whether by reviving apocryphal traditions or rallying to make a nation “great again,” will always result in horror if the price of that belonging is the exploitation of others.