The Exploitation of Suffering in Midsommar & Hereditary
Blog by Kelly
In 2017 we were introduced to the term “post-horror” by Steven Rose in their article ‘How post-horror movies are taking over cinema’. Then in June 2018, an article by Jane Hu ‘Can Horror Movies be Prestigious?’, set in motion the usage of the term “elevated horror” among journalists and critics alike. The idea behind these two terms was that horror in the 2010s had (suddenly) become intelligent, noteworthy and less “lowbrow” as previous decades. The apparent definition of “elevated horror” is as follows: "Elevated horror" refers to movies that don’t rely heavily on jump-scares or gore, but are so emotionally and psychologically disturbing that they traumatize even the most seasoned of horror buffs. Many of the films also seem to contain allegorical meanings.” However, to actual seasoned horror buffs like myself, this sounds more like the world of Taboo Terrors than the fictional world of “arthouse/prestige” horror in which these critics are referencing.
This irked a lot of dedicated horror fans because to them, horror has always been smart and rebranding aspects of horror felt like a dismissal of a lot of classics. Additionally, it’s suddenly acceptable and trendy to enjoy horror, but only as long as it falls within these haute guidelines. However when you look at the history of horror, with the Otherness of Dracula (1931), and repressed homosexuality of James Whale in his seminal classic Frankenstein (1932), it’s a genre that has always had something to say. Some films textually, or sub-textually, provide commentary, exploring themes of humanity, trauma, gender politics, and so much more. Some films are purely created for entertainment alone, which are welcome as there is room for both in the widely diverse and imaginative genre of horror.
What is particularly bothersome is when these so-called “elevated” films are claimed to be genre changing, and just somehow “different” from all other horror films. But, these films are just another aspect of the horror genre, and have the ability to become just as exploitative as other releases. They exploit the suffering of human beings just like any other “lowbrow” fare in horror. There is a prominent, modern horror filmmaker that immediately comes to mind that falls into this category, and that is Ari Aster with his two feature films Hereditary (2018) and Midsommar (2019).
Ari Aster’s successful and popular debut, Hereditary, was marketed as the “scariest movie since The Exorcist” upon its release. This was an unfair comparison as no horror film can live up to the legacy of such a classic that was a product of its time. Hereditary is two hours and seven minutes, which is a long runtime for any horror film (which would be surpassed with his follow up film, Midsommar). Many critics and fans praise Hereditary for being a fantastic portrayal of a families’ grief, and it deeply affected many watchers. It showcases grief, and the complexities of human emotions and response to said grief, but it also drowns itself in it.
Hereditary opens with our protagonist, Annie’s, Mom’s obituary, so we know from the onset that the film is going to be about death, or at least a death and someone’s grief. Not long after, her mother’s grave is desecrated and the body is found headless in their attic. As a spectator to Annie and her family’s ongoing struggle with her feelings of grief (or lack thereof), we are eventually privy to *that scene*; meaning the absolutely absurd and highly traumatic death of Annie’s daughter, Charlie. Annie finds her headless corpse in the car the day after the accident, left by Charlie’s brother Peter, who is shaken to his core because he was the one driving the car when it happened. How much more trauma does this family deserve? Yet, as a viewer, the blows aren’t over - we are the lucky ones who get to witness Charlie’s rotting, maggot infested head on the side of the road. Who is that scene for?
For the rest of the film, we watch every single family member fall apart, making it an unbearable watch by the one hour 45 minute mark. Grief is complex, messy and uncomfortable, there is no denying this, but there is so much trauma that continues to happen for this family. Mainly for Annie, who many have spoken of and written about, but also for Peter, who abuses drugs and suppresses all of his feelings (as a man “should”). Another significant event that happens around this time is the death of the Father; he catches on fire as Annie throws Charlie’s book in the fireplace thinking it will remove the haunted spirit. Peter finds his Father’s charred body as Annie lurks on the ceiling in the shadows. Peter is 100% traumatized by the end of the movie.
Hereditary shows so much mental anguish and psychological terror for this family, all to allow a ‘satanic’ cult to bring about Paimon, a demonic entity to worship in the flesh. Was it worth it? And it’s debatable whether it is really that original in the first place (witches, Satanists, etc.), and some even found it to be predictable. Tell me again why this movie is so different from other films?
Midsommar was the highly anticipated follow up to Hereditary, and with another extended runtime of two hours and 27 minutes, this sun soaked horror was more divisive amongst horror fans, but generally quite well received. Unfortunately, it follows in the same footprints as Hereditary by being a long, slow burn with punches of horrific imagery and human suffering.
Our first 10 minutes into Midsommar establishes a terrible, noncommunicative relationship between the protagonist, Dani, and her boyfriend, Christian. This will become one of the main plot points in the film. Dani is desperately trying to get in touch with her sister after she leaves a cryptic, and scary, suicidal text that also involves their parents. We then see the murder/suicide of Dani’s entire family: hoses travel into the house from two running cars in the garage, which then leads us to the parents bedroom where they are trapped inside. There is duct tape all around the door to prevent the toxic exhaust fumes from escaping, ensuring their demise. As the camera veers off to the side, we follow more hosing into the sister’s room; she has a hose duct taped directly into her mouth, and there is vomit on her shirt. As we zoom in even closer we see that one eye has turned completely white.
It’s becoming obvious that Aster has turned an even bigger, more horrific corner with his feature films: blatant images of misery and death. The next scene is Dani in the arms of Christian, wailing in sorrow. Dani is spared from witnessing this family death tableaux, and many other scenes, but the viewer is, again, a spectator in this world of pain. This dramatic scene punches the viewer in the face and leaves you wondering why? 23 minutes later, Dani is emotionally falling apart (again) on the plane to Sweden, a place she hopes will encourage recovery and improve her mental state.
After an hour, we see the ritual of Ättestupa where the life cycle of the cult members commences (at the age of 72). This intense scene is considerably one of the more brutal parts of the film, with the Elders leaping to their deaths onto the sacrificial rock below while the community watches. The woman falls front first and smashes her face wide open - bright red blood sprays onto the white sand, and the man lands feet first, breaking his fragile, geriatric legs. Since he (unfortunately) isn’t dead, the cult members smash his face in with a massive wooden hammer until it’s concave. Dani doesn’t see this close up but us viewers do. She has yet to be recovered from the tragic death of her family and she keeps falling apart, crying. This ritual certainly doesn’t help, but begins her spiral into a deep, shattered psychological state.
Aster breaks into taboo territory with the addition of the product of purposeful inbreeding to create a prophet, fetishizing this malformed child. One of the cult members wears a dead skin mask. As we get closer to the ending of the Midsommar, at two hours and eight minutes, Christian finds one of the other visitor’s bodies strung up in the barn - in the Viking Blood Eagle of legend - a guy they thought had left the commune. He sees this, but our protagonist Dani doesn't. As viewers, we also do -- WHY? Over and over we are shown that the cult is not a friendly, appropriate place for anyone to live, but many aspects are hidden from view for Dani, who eventually becomes accepted into their community, and she is proud to be there. She isn’t aware that Christian was in fact drugged in order to be a part of the sex ritual for the village’s virgin, so when she observes it, she is obviously devastated. Frankly, Christian isn’t a great man, but does he truly deserve to be forced into a hollowed out bear carcass and burned alive in the 90 year sacrifice? Dani spirals into the classic “good for her” moment of the film, but is led there by manipulative forces. Her path does a complete 180 and lands on murder, like the opening of the film. For Aster, in order for Dani to recover she needs to see Christian burned alive, and welcomed into her new “family”.
Hereditary and Midsommar are insufferable; they are traumatic, with dramatic, unrealistic deaths that open each film and the characters (mainly women) crumble into complete messes as we watch, titillated. It’s sadistic viewing. We put these women through hell and for what? By the end of the elongated runtimes we are empty shells of human beings, the original deaths a forgotten memory. The deaths that ignited the cascade of events that, like a car crash, we can’t turn away from. It’s grotesque imagery without explanation or need for it in contrast to the overall narrative. In Midsommar, Dani doesn’t even see all of the grotesquerie as it’s not for her, it’s for us, the viewers. But why? What purpose do these outrageous death scenes really serve? This isn’t “elevated horror”, it’s portraying death, suffering, pain and grief without a clear purpose. It’s for shock sakes, and a glorification of the trauma, death and grief of the characters (women) in these stories.
Thankfully, “elevated horror” and “post-horror” don’t seem to be popular terms amongst actual horror fans, just of the elite - journalists, critics, and the like who started these unnecessary trends. Because these are the same people who would immediately dismiss films like A Serbian Film (2010), Slaughtered Vomit Dolls (2006), The Woman (2011) or Aftermath: Genesis (1994). Extreme horror, and films that showcase torture and human suffering like the August Underground series, have explanations (or not, and that’s the point) for their violence, but Hereditary and Midsommar do not. It’s brutality masked in “elevated” horror; it’s just murder set pieces for the refined palate making it digestible and acceptable by the masses. The imagery, though wonderfully hideous and what made me seek out Midsommar in the first place, is really what stands out in these films, not the tired horror tropes. They often don't add much to the story, and are only there to build upon the death spectacle. So let’s just call it what it is - HORROR.