False Panaceas: Midsommar, Emotional Devastation, and the Danger of the Occult's "Easy Answers"

Warning: The following article contains major spoiler alerts and disturbing content.

Many years ago, when I was entering my final year of college, I volunteered on an organic farm outside Harper’s Ferry in Virginia. The Worldwide Organization of Organic Farmers (WOOF) provided the opportunity, and I stayed with a group of people for a month. It was very much a case of temporary, voluntary, serfdom. They provided all the room and board, and I assisted them with all their agricultural responsibilities. The experience was very eye-opening. Farming is difficult, laborious, and time-intensive…all the planting, hoeing, grafting, and auxiliary work (milking goats, e.g.).

They were also a very spiritual group. The group prayed in the morning, aired disagreements, and professed their gratitude to “Abba” (“God” in Aramaic). They sang and danced and played music at night, and we all ate the freshest food you could ever find! The inevitable question(s) that arose when I told people where I was volunteering— “Is the place a cult?” “Will they attempt to brainwash you?” “Are you joining some modern Manson family?” The group itself was aware of this outside suspicion, but just to clarify, no, they were not a cult. They didn’t perform human sacrifices or confine anyone or make them swear preposterous oaths or anything of that sort.

This leads me to a horror film that I watched a few years ago that does prey on that fear. I thought the film was rather mediocre and not-too-scary as a horror film, but it did have great potential as a psychological thriller! The film in question—Midsommar (2019)

Midsommar falls under a category of what Hollywood would call “folk horror” films. The classic example of this is The Wicker Man…the 1973 version with Christopher Lee, not the unintentionally hilarious 2006 remake with Nicholas Cage (“No! No! Not the bees!”). Hollywood would also classify Midsommar as a “daylight horror” film. Famous “daylight horror” films include (but are certainly not limited to) Jaws, The Birds, A Quiet Place, and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (and The Wicker Man as well).

Ari Aster, who had released Heredity (2018) a year earlier, returned with an atmospheric tale of a young, American psychology student, Dani Ardor (Florence Pugh), who finds herself on her last legs with her boyfriend of 3 ½ years, Christian (Jack Reynor). That isn’t her only problem, though. One cold, dark, winter night, Dani’s mentally ill sister emails her an ominous message. Moments later, Dani calls Christian, sobbing uncontrollably. Her sister just committed a double murder-suicide by filling her home with carbon monoxide, killing herself and her parents. Dani, understandably, is inconsolably traumatized! The very dreary opening act then leaps forward four-five months.

Christian and his friends, Mark (Will Poulter) and Josh (William Jackson Harper), have received an invitation from Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren) to visit his ancestral commune, the Harga, in Hälsingland, Sweden. Christian, who had planned to break up with Dani before her family tragedy, didn’t tell her about the invitation to Sweden. The two argue, and, reluctantly, he invites her along. When they arrive in Sweden, the group meets Simon and Connie (Archie Madekwe and Ellora Torchia, respectively), a London couple whom Pelle’s communal brother, Ingemar, invited. The occasion is the Swedish Midsummer festival.

Christian and his friends are hoping to write a cultural anthropology thesis based on their experience(s). While the stay is initially joyful and intoxicating (the group takes psychedelic mushrooms as soon as they arrive), it soon becomes clear that something very sinister is going on! The day arrives for the ättestupa ceremony. The visitors and the villagers all attend the event. What then transpires signals to Christian, Mark, Josh, Connie, Simon, and Dani the truly nightmarish situation they’re really in.

Just to reassure all readers, sinister, violent, and macabre elements don’t pervade your average real-life Midsummer festival! Midsummer (St. John’s Day) will occur June 24 of this year. The festival/tradition has evidentially been around since Neolithic times. Ancient monuments across Europe, Middle East, Asia, and Africa align with the sunrise/sunset that occurs with the summer solstice. According to Ancient Roman, Marcus Terentius Varro (1st century B.C.E.), Romans saw June 23-24 as the middle of the summer1. People honored the goddess Fors Fortuna in the city of Rome and thronged the Tiber River, rowing to the temple of Fortuna.

In the 4th century, June 24 became the feast day of St. John the Baptist. This is significant in the Judeo-Christian tradition as the Gospel of Luke places St. John the Baptist’s birthday six months before Jesus’s birth. Various Midsummer participants incorporated fires into their ceremonies with the hope of repelling witches, evil spirits, and dragons3. On St. John’s Day 1333, Renaissance-era poet Petrarch observed women rinsing their arms and hands in the Rhine River “so that the threatening calamities of the coming year might be washed away by bathing in the river.”4

Midsummer takes place in various countries across the world. In Sweden (where the film takes place), participants raise and dance around a maypole (majstång or midsommarstång). They place greenery over their houses and barns (hoping to bring good fortune/health for themselves and their livestock). The practice used to be known as att maja (“to may”). Midsummer is a de facto holiday in Sweden2. Many offices and shops close. Like Norwegian and Finnish traditions, girls may pick 7 different flowers in silence and then place them underneath their pillows (the belief is that they’ll dream of their future husbands). Some Swedish Midsummer events end with skinny dipping at night.

Then there is the Ättestupa. The Ättestupa is a name people gave to several precipices in Sweden. During the ritual that Dani and the other visitors attend, a couple (both of whom have turned age 72) throw themselves off a cliff to their deaths. According to legend, this ritual historically took place in real-life when older people in a small community were unable to support themselves or assist in a household. Several sources mention this senicidal ritual, including the Ligurians in Paradoxographus Vaticanus and late Greek scholar Procopius in his description of the 6th century C.E. Heruli5,6.

The villages watch the Ättestupa. Image courtesy of A24 Films.

The old Icelandic saga Gautreks saga (partially set in the Swedish region of Götaland) also allegedly inspired the term, which came into use in the 17th century. In Aster’s film, the ritual takes place in gruesome detail. Christian, Simon, Connie, and the rest of the visitors immediately react with horror and protestation. Dani is the only exception. The grisly scene mortifies her but leaves her silently transfixed.

A very bad romantic break-up allegedly inspired Ari Aster to produce Midsommar, which he described as a “break-up horror film.” But don’t expect to see your run-of-the-mill Taylor Swift song translated to celluloid. Aster reaches towards a feeling of catastrophic, world-ending despair, ratcheting up the “break-up” dial to eleven and interweaving various other themes. Midsommar is a break-up film, but it’s also a film about family loss and grief, suicide, murder, human sacrifice, betrayal, mental illness, loneliness, and the occult.

The sudden double murder-suicide that begins the film and the overwhelming grief that wracks Dani mirrors her slow and painful separation from Christian. Dani is isolated, broken, unhappy, and needy. Her family is gone and the people in the world she came from are hollow and emotionally unavailable, and yet she feels like she must cling on to something! If she doesn’t, nothing but perennial hopelessness and sorrow will consume her…the very hopelessness that Dani’s sister conveyed to her when she sent her an email lamenting that “everything is blackness”!

This is where the theme of the occult comes into play. Who are the easiest targets for cults and cult leaders? People who are lost and people who are emotionally damaged. Not every group that welcomes the lost, traumatized, and broken is sinister, but predatory groups certainly have much greater ease attracting those types of people. These can of course include people who’ve been abused, neglected, disowned, those who are mentally unstable, or those who have no self-esteem/confidence. Cults prey on these types of people. Serial killers prey on these types of people. Sexual predators, human traffickers, and child molesters prey on these types of people.

Perhaps the most infamous cases involving cults are Charles Manson, Jim Jones, and David Koresh. Charles Manson was the infamous leader of the “Manson Family” whose unquestioning followers carried out several gruesome murders. Manson, born in Cincinnati, Ohio in 1934, saw his mother imprisoned for armed robbery when he was young and never knew his father7.

Starting at age nine, he spent much of his life in jails and juvenile centers for crimes such as petty larceny, armed robbery, burglary, and auto theft7. After his release from prison in 1967, Manson moved to San Francisco and pounced upon the city’s bohemian youth culture, in turn attracting a crowd of followers7. He became the leader of this “Family” in 1968 and indoctrinated them with teachings that ranged from science fiction to fringe psychology and the occult7. Manson believed an apocalyptic race war would devastate the United States7.

The spell that Manson held over his followers became crystal clear in 1969 when they brutally killed actress Sharon Tate (film director Roman Polanski’s wife) and several other people7. The 1970 trial attracted national attention and dark fascination7. Manson was sentenced to life in prison for his role in the crimes. In 2019, Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood presented an alternate version of history where the Tate murders were averted.

Jim Jones, born in May 1931 near Lynn, Indiana, began his life as a regular churchgoer8. He graduated from Butler University and decided to enter the ministry8. Over the course of the 1950s and 1960s, he gained a reputation as a charismatic churchman8. Many claimed he had psychic powers such as the ability to miraculously heal the sick and foretell the future8. Jones, though, was the furthest thing from a benevolent messianic figure. He established the Wings of Deliverance, a Pentecostal church that later became the Peoples Church, in 1955. Fearing a nuclear war, relocated his church to northern California (1965) and then San Francisco (1971)8.

Jones, who adopted the name “the Prophet,” became obsessed with his level of power and control and emigrated with hundreds of followers to Guyana8. There he established Jonestown, an agricultural commune, where he confiscated people’s passports, millions of dollars, and engaged in blackmail and physical abuse8. On November 18, 1974, Jones, fearing legal repercussions for his various crimes, ordered his followers to drink cyanide-adulterated punch8. Jones died from an allegedly self-inflicted gunshot wound8. When Guyanese troops reached Jonestown the next day, the death toll was somewhere in the range of 900 people who had committed mass suicide8.

David Koresh, born in 1959 in Houston, Texas, never knew his father (his grandparents raised him)9. Koresh alleged in later interviews that he was a lonely young boy whom others teased9. Koresh suffered from dyslexia, received poor grades, and dropped out of high school9. He was musically inclined and had a strong interest in the Bible (which he, by the age of 12, had memorized large tracts of)9. At age 20, he turned to the Church of the Seventh Day Adventists (his mother’s church)9. The church thought he was a bad influence, and so they expelled him9. Koresh traveled to Hollywood to become a rock star (to no avail)9. In 1981, he moved to Waco, Texas where he joined the Branch Davidians9.

He pursued an affair with then-prophetess, Lois Roden (who was in her late 60s)9. The two traveled to Israel together, but, when she died, a power clash occurred between Koresh and Roden’s son, George9. In 1987, Koresh returned to Mount Carmel in camouflage with seven male followers9. Koresh carried with him five .223 caliber semiautomatic assault rifles, two .22 caliber rifles, two 12-gauge shotguns, and nearly 400 rounds of ammunition9.

The U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (ATF) believed Koresh and his crew were illegally stockpiling weapons, and so they obtained an arrest warrant for his compound10. On February 28, 1993, more than 70 ATF agents raided his complex10. Gunfire erupted. During the two-hour battle, dozens of people were injured, and four federal agents were killed10. Six Davidians also reportedly died10. The siege lasted 51 days10. 80 people in total were killed and the compound was destroyed in a fire10.

The occult certainly has a very eerie, folkloric atmosphere to it. Aster goes for that. He also claims that he incorporated fairy-tale elements and allusions to The Wizard of Oz into his film. The three male travelers Dani arrives in Sweden with carry with them many of the same traits as the Tin Man, Scarecrow, and Lion (heartlessness, stupidity, and cowardliness, respectively). Dani’s relationship with these three young men, though, is far less warm and amiable as Dorothy’s relationship with the three famous characters from Oz.

Christian, Mark, and Josh all either patronize and disrespect the villagers whom they stay with (one character urinates on a sacred tree and gets defensive when the village elders scold him for that) or dismiss Dani’s various emotional concerns. Christian commits the ultimate relationship sin. He forgets Dani’s birthday…and then his eyes begin to wander towards Maja (Isabelle Grill). After the villagers drug him, he publicly, ritualistically consummates his “relationship” with Maja.   

The strangest and most evocative sequence occurs when Dani joins the Maypole dancers. All the young women put on white dresses and garlanded flowers in their hair. They consume psychedelic drugs, and then they all begin dancing as simple instrumentalists perform. The women lock arms and circle past one another, blissfully gamboling in a spirited movement of basic human connection. Dani “loses” herself in the intoxication and the crowd of her fellow dancers, experiencing a rare moment of actual joy and belonging. She even begins to “speak” with one of the fellow dancers (despite the English/Swedish language barrier). The sequence is uniquely tragic, joyful, and terrifying when we consider the nefarious nature of the commune.

Dani Ardor (Florence Pugh, right) prepares for the famous Midsummer Maypole Dance. Image courtesy of A24 Films.

In closing, I wouldn’t recommend Midsommar as a superb horror film. Most of it is rather forgettable. But as a psychological allegory on grief, heartbreak, and the parallel nature between the two, it was very thought-provoking…as was the message that cults and other sinister-minded groups prey upon the emotionally fragile and vulnerable. If you ever find yourself at complete emotional rock bottom, watch out for anyone who provides a simple, too-good-to-be-true solution or panacea.

SOURCES

[1] Forsythe, Gary (2012). Time in Roman Religion: One Thousand Years of Religious History. Routledge. pp. 123, 182. Varro places the equinoxes and solstices at the midpoints of the seasons … His dating for the beginnings of the four seasons are as follows: February 7 for spring, May 9 for summer, August 11 for autumn, and November 10 for winter.

[2] “Midsummer”. sweden.se. 28 May 2013

[3] Dahlig, Piotr (2009). Traditional Musical Cultures in Central-Eastern Europe: Ecclesiastical and Folk Transmission. Dahlig. p. 68. ISBN 9788389101860. The dangers posed to humans by demons require specific rituals, aimed at identifying witches and putting them to death. A key element of May Day or St John’s rituals is the burning of witches or the repelling and burning-out with fire of evil forces, which might deviously conceal themselves among people, for instance in the form of animals.

[4] Petrarch, Epistolae familiares, Aachen,21 June 1333, noted by Simon Schama, Landscape and Memory 1995:265.

[5] Parkin, Tim G. (2003). Old Age in the Roman World: A Cultural and Social History. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press. p. 261, with n. 109 on p. 431. When their parents are no longer useful because of their old age, the Ligurians throw them off a cliff. Λίγυες τοὺς γονεῖς, ὅταν μηκέτι ὦσι διὰ γῆρας χρήσιμοι, κατακρημνίζουσιν.

[6] Procopius, History of the Wars, Book VI, chapter XIV. Wikisource

[7] https://www.britannica.com/biography/Charles-Manson

[8] https://www.britannica.com/biography/Jim-Jones

[9] https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/waco/davidkoresh.html

[10] https://www.britannica.com/event/Waco-siege

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