Originally Published in Farrago Edition Five (2022)
Content Warning: death, mentions of murder and suicide, strong language
Whether or not Ari Aster was hovering among stormy clouds while creating Midsommar, the general consensus seems to be that this tale is a modern, dark fairy tale, putting the morbid motifs and symbols of the Brothers Grimm to shame.
Aster describes the fruit of his own twisted mind as a film about a breakup, though the overarching presence of bears, sadistic incels and morbid rituals results in an entanglement of horror. At the centre of this shroom-induced fever dream lies a cult in all its cultish glory. The oddly triangular buildings, the maypole dances, and the seemingly innocent communal gatherings belie the undercurrent of musty darkness permeating the Härga's practices. We can only share in our hapless protagonist's horror as (surprise! surprise!) ritual suicide is added to their repertoire.
It's true that the gore and psychological thrill draws horror junkies to the terror of Midsommar. However, the manner in which we ourselves are indoctrinated into the Hårga's organised madness, along with our protagonist, echoes Aster's profound understanding of the primal madness of human psychology.
From the mind that created a minimalist adaptation of Shakespeare's Hamlet and raised the bar for creepy kids in Hereditary, Midsommar narrates the story of Dani and her inevitable breakup from her #alphamale boyfriend, Christian. After losing her entire family in a triple murder-suicide, Dani joins Christian and his friends on a trip to the Swedish countryside where they are to live and witness the practices of the Hårga community. She is invited by Pelle, one of the members of the Hårga and Christian's colleague, who empathises with her trauma and loss. This trip, Dani hopes, will be an opportunity to acknowledge her grief, reconnect with her god-awful boyfriend and perhaps have a good time along the way.
Let's take stock of Dani's state of mind before their wonderful trip plunges straight down to the bottom of a very tall cliff. She is in a highly vulnerable, unstable, ongoing state of mental decline; her farce of a relationship is becoming much harder to deny; the people she surrounds herself with (with the exception of Pelle) show no consideration for her wellbeing; and she is left a drifting orphan, having had her family and sense of community ripped away in the span of one night.
All is dark, dreary, musty and off-kilter. Imagine her relief when the idyllic, shroom-filled meadows carry the white-clad Hårga's warm welcome; the camaraderie she feels when the Håga join her in wailing her grief and frustration into the ether; how important and valued she must feel when she is crowned May Queen and lauded around by the community.
"Welcome home" is the greeting Dani receives as opposed to the half- hearted "Welcome" bestowed upon the rest of their group
The eagle-eyed viewer realises that the Hårga are subtle in their indoctrination of Dani and the film's audience. They, like the Warren Jeffs and Jim Joneses of the world, provide an attractive solution to the problematic circumstances plaguing their victim; and, in the wake of that solution, all sense of morality dissolves into a blurry mess.
For Dani, it's the opportunity to gain control over the shambles of her life. As she is crowned May Queen, the Hårga hand her a choice: to sacrifice an elderly member of their community, or a drugged Christian who Dani has been tricked into believing has cheated on her; in other words an opportunity for vengeance over his neglect (which is, of course, exaggerated by the Hårga's cunning). In choosing to sacrifice Christian, Dani gains an illusion of control over her life, and feels justified in doing so. We, the audience who sympathise with Dani rather than Christian, shed our morals for a brief moment to smile maniacally with Dani as she watches Christian burn.
It is only later, once the end credits have rolled, that we shake ourselves out of our stupor and realise, "Well, that was fucked up."
There is a level of organised madness to the Hårga's proceedings, observable in the very real cults present in every nook of the world. Those well-versed in the Netflix docuseries Keep Sweet, Pray and Obey can spy some elements of the Hårga's manipulation in Warren Jeffs' polygamist FLDS cult. True crime buffs can hardly encounter the word "cult" without also recalling the Jonestown massacre, wherein an entire community was lost at the whims of one power-hungry individual. For isn't power the driving motivation for maddened stratagems designed to brainwash, break down and remould an individual to one's liking?
The Hårga certainly held the upper hand over Dani, recognising her vulnerability as the ideal method to force her to enact revenge on Christian and her colleagues, instilling the idea of travelling to Sweden in the first place through Pelle, and making Dani believe that she held the proverbial reins all along.
The rules of morality are subverted, and madness and chaos become the new morality in the subjective experience of the victim. One must wonder how the magnitude of brain power used for the purpose of indoctrination, power, and greed may have otherwise been utilised had its bearer been deficit of those vices.