Midsommar: A Cautionary Tale
Blog post by: Jessica
Ari Aster’s folk horror film Midsommar (2019) tends to garner a variety of reactions from people -- it is a film that is either loved instantly upon first viewing or hated. People either praise the film for its eerie beauty and compelling storyline OR people find it to be a film lacking any true horror and is too drawn out and boring. After a second viewing of Midsommar, I find myself straddling between either loving or hating this film.
When I first watched Midsommar, I was compelled by the pagan storyline wrapping itself around Dani’s journey towards healing and self-empowerment. I connected with her and the toxic relationship with Christian and how loveless and overburdened it felt because it shared similarities with my own marriage. The scene where Dani is trying to calm Christian down after she confronts him about not telling her about his trip to Sweden reminds me of the arguments I used to get into with my own ex-husband. Like when I would bring up something that he had done without talking to me first, I would instantly back down and apologize for my own feelings as he felt attacked by me. I did this to keep the fragile pieces of our marriage together. I could see the discomfort Dani had with Christian and that she felt like an unwanted stranger among her own travel companions. As Pelle even points out to her in the film “Do you feel held by Christian?” I often asked that question myself, “did I feel held in my marriage?” knowing that my partner felt that our life together and myself as an individual was a burden to him. Knowing how he spoke about me to his friends, family and co-workers, I would feel the sting of their disapproval whenever I was around them. They supported him and his tales about me, without knowing my own experience and the struggle it was to be with someone who was so fickle about his own life, and how easily he was persuaded to follow the newest thoughts around enlightenment and self-discovery. It caused a lot of hardship between us and helped to develop the constant self-doubt that existed in my mind -- that I was really the problem for everything that went wrong in our marriage and that I was a bad person.
This is where I come to dislike Midsommar because Dani’s initiation into the pagan Swedish village and their community reminds me of the dangers of the cult-hive mind and how all-encompassing and dangerous it can be. Don’t get me wrong, I was with Dani all throughout her journey in the film. I initially cheered Dani on when she made the decision to break away from her toxic relationship and watched as Christian and her ‘friends’ burned in the sacrificial fire. She found a new family to love and to ‘hold’ her replacing the one that she had so tragically lost. Dani found sisters to share her joy and anguish with, something she more than likely did not have with her own sister who had committed suicide. She was her sister’s caretaker, whereas, in the frightening idyllic Swedish village, she was now the one being taken care of.
The traumatic sudden loss of her family and living in an emotionally manipulative relationship left Dani in a vulnerable state, and this allowed her to become easy prey for the liberated mind of Pelle and his ‘family’ of the Swedish commune. This is where I become uncomfortable with the film because it reminded me so much of my own experience of falling deep into that ‘light and love’, New Age, ‘new family’ mindset that caused many years of self-doubt and anxiety in me.
Now, there wasn’t anyone jumping off cliffs, performing fertility ceremonies or ritualistic murders to create symbols for the 90-year sacrifice, but it is not necessarily these outright acts of cult activity that disturbed me, but the language and the words used towards new initiates. Pelle and other young folks from the village are sent out into the world to find new members to join their community via the May Queen dance or literally providing the genetic materials to help repopulate, and diversify, their community. They use words and small actions of care to manipulate their new friends so that they can see the ways of their people - as either something that is accepted, studied, or rejected. Pelle uses words of academic opportunity and splendour or beautiful women and drugs to get Christian, Josh, and Marc to travel to Sweden. And when it is discovered that Dani will also join them, he uses the right language of grief and love to have Dani trust him, along with the acts of the women including her in their activities, fostering sistership. This reminds me of the language that my ex-husband and I would hear when we first met each other among a group of New Age thinkers and it would be the same language I would overhear him listen to as he moved from one new group to another.
Like Dani, I had gotten involved in the more New Age - light and love - aspect of life when I had been through a breakup along with dealing with self-injury/PTSD from sexual trauma and a dysfunctional family. So, I was a bit of a mess and was looking for anything that would embrace me and help me move through the pain. I became involved with a group of New Age thinkers through meditation and I was introduced to Reiki, Quantum Touch, The Bubble, The Law of Attraction, Channelling and so much more --- all tools and beliefs that were supposed to help me heal from my past and move confidently into my future. Or so I was told. I also met my ex-husband during this time. He had just come back from an enlightenment retreat with a bunch of these people and had created a shared experience that everyone was protective of. Because I was young and in love, I wanted to emulate the kind of New Age spiritual wife that my husband was looking for (he would later tell me that he had felt I deceived him because I never turned out that way). So I worked hard to be accepted by the group, turned away from what they called my ‘dark’ side and, of course, spent tons of money in the hopes of making my life better.
At the time my parents had said that I had joined a cult -- however, it was never like that - but I was able to identify how the type of thinking that was being shared could turn that way. I never truly felt comfortable in that life I had chosen and the ‘darker’ aspects of myself would peek through - especially when I would question what was being told to us or why I needed to pay another $200 dollars to have an imaginary bubble revitalized. Whenever I questioned anything, my ex would have people telling him to leave me and that I was a negative influence on him. Eventually drama surfaced around this group and we both left on terms we felt were appropriate for our own wellbeing. Unfortunately, the fear that people were telling my husband to leave me and that I was a negative or dark influence on his life never really went away. To try and work on our marriage, I was like Dani and subdued to his requests, his searches in life and whatever he needed of me to support his journey to find his life purpose.
Years after this first experience in our marriage, this cultish New Age mentality would return to our household. Two years before we divorced my ex found a new group and way of thinking that was supposed to help him find his life’s purpose and elevate him from all his self-doubt and feelings of despair he had about the world. He wanted me to become a part of it, as well as everyone who came into contact with us. He would talk nonstop about it, give people literature without consent and set up meditation groups. I know now that that behaviour was violating a lot of people’s spiritual boundaries, particularly my own. At that time, I had already begun my own journey of self-discovery as I had been unhappy for so long and battling constant depression. I decided that despite what anyone wanted of me, especially my husband, I was going to live a more authentic life. I was going to embrace the so-called ‘darkness’ within me despite how this new group my husband was associated with thought of me. I began to engage again in my love of metal music, horror, follow my passions and find my own spiritual identity. But the group that my husband was now associated with saw me as the embodiment of dark negative energy prohibiting him from moving forward in his new path. Then when I came out as a witch I was accused of performing spells on him in the night. His constant befriending of these people saw him turning against me and fights between us grew bigger and more aggressive. This new group of his wanted me out of his life and despite everything we had been through together as husband and wife, he was ready to end it.
The reason why I share this story and why I think about this when I watch Midsommar, is because it reminds me of how dangerous trying to find a new family and peace or enlightenment can be. How alienating and damaging it can be to friends and family. How the right words or emotional connection that is made with strangers can lead to people making decisions that are hurtful while they believe they are doing what is best for them. I enjoy folk horror a great deal and while Midsommar is lauded as a folk horror film, it reminds me more of the cult subgenre and I find those terrifying. I was never involved in a cult but I can see where ideas that are fostered as revolutionary and life-changing in the New Age community can be cultish. My experience was that if in any way I challenged the ideas or was perceived as a threat to the group, I became an outcast. I either went all in without question, or was left in the “dark”. I fear that while Dani may have found a new family with Pelle and his village, that the cost might have been too great, and she might not realize this until it’s too late.