Cruel Nations: Horror and Human Sacrifice in the Time of COVID
In the summer of 2019 I, like many other excited horror fans, ventured out into public and braved a crowded theater to view Ari Aster’s new film Midsommar.
The film introduced us to Hårga, an isolated community in rural Sweden, which is home to an annual Midsommar festival. As is tradition with folk horror, the idyllic community quickly reveals its violent nature midway into the film. The turning point in Midsommar is the now-infamous ättestupa scene, where two elderly members of the community willingly fall from a cliff to their demise. The scene is expertly crafted as the camera focuses on Dani’s reaction to the events before we see for ourselves the first volunteer fall.
Earlier in the film, Pelle explains that Hårga views life in four seasons ending at age 72. When Dani questions Pelle what happens after 72, Pelle jokingly mimics a throat cut. The ättestupa scene is so unnerving not just because of its brutality but because of the westerners’ reactions. Dani’s gasp, Simon (an English tourist) pleading with members of Hårga. Even Josh, who knew what to expect, covers his mouth in shock as the events transpire. We wonder in terror as to how a community could have such little value for the life of the elderly.
Less than a year later, those crowded movie theaters closed their doors as the world sank into a pandemic. The Coronavirus spread throughout the world in the matter of months decimating the population. Early rhetoric suggested that most healthy, abled body people could fight off the virus but the elderly and immunocompromised were at high risks for major complications and death. Seemingly, overnight the world shut down.
With the world on the brink of an economic catastrophe, the Lieutenant Governor of Texas Dan Patrick argued that the country needed to open back up or risk its own destruction. “There are more important things than living. And that’s saving this country for my children and my grandchildren and saving this country for all of us.” Talking heads, conservative pundits, and President Trump himself followed suite. Trump said in May, “Will some people be affected badly? Yes. But we have to get our country open and we have to get it open soon.” America, shocked by Midsommar less than a year prior, was now embracing its own ättestupa. We were to sacrifice our loved ones so that the community could prevail.
Ättestupa and Nadia Bulkin’s Intertropical Convergence Zone
This theme appears in Nadia Bulkin’s “Intertropical Convergence Zone” (which you can totally read for free). In the story, a Lieutenant is ordered to sacrifice his own daughter so that his President could eat her heart and gain magical powers. The Lieutenant begs his commander to change his mind but ultimately he leads his daughter to the slaughter. He loves his country and the President is getting rid of the commies.
Bulkin’s story is reminiscent of the biblical story of Jepthah’s daughter in Judges 11. Jepthah is a military leader in ancient Israel who leads an army against the neighboring Ammonites. Before the battle begins, Jepthah prays to God and vows that if God delivers Jepthah the victory then he will sacrifice the first person he sees when he returns home. This is predictably a terrible idea. After Jepthah’s victory, he returns home and the first person to come and greet him is his only daughter. Jepthah falls to the ground, tears his clothes and confesses his vow to his daughter. His daughter tells her father to fulfill his vow and he sacrifices her.
When we pay the tithes to our cruel gods, we are the ones left to clean up the ashes of those we have sacrificed. Standing at the precipice of the apocalypse, we must decide if a world that can only be saved by cruelty is a world worth saving.LELAND MERRITT
In both stories, the men are willing to do whatever their community requires of them. Bulkin’s Lieutenant travels the country slaughtering anyone and anything that stands in the way of him collecting magical objects for his leader. Yet when it came time to give a human sacrifice, the Lieutenant pleads to no avail. He is rebuked by his commander. “Aren’t you willing to sacrifice just this one thing of yours for the good of your people? Selfish selfish, Lieutenant. Men like you are the reason this country is going to shit.” Jepthah’s victory secured Israel’s borders and crowned him as a ruler over the tribal land of Gibeah. Both men are left with a price that should have been too heavy to pay, yet they pay it.
The Ättestupa in Paul Tremblay’s The Cabin at the End of the World
Eric and Andrew face a similar dilemma in Paul Tremblay’s The Cabin at the End of the World. The couple are told that they must sacrifice one of their family in order to stave off the apocalypse. In the final pages of the novel, Eric implores Andrew to not kill himself. Andrew asks, “What if it’s all real?” “If it is. Then it is. We’re still not going to hurt each other.” Eric and Andrew choose love even in the prospect of destruction of everything they know. They cannot bring themselves to give into cruelty; they cannot pull the trigger.
Is it not cruelty for which this all boils down? Dan Patrick and Donald Trump implored us to sacrifice our loved ones in order to save our country. Out of some faux sense of patriotism, we were to allow the slow, horrific death of our country’s most vulnerable. In these stories, the innocent have to pay with their blood. The elite are the first to receive the vaccine and billionaires continue to get richer. The rest of us mourn the death of our loved ones and ponder the sacrifices that we have made.
Bulkin’s Lieutenant admits at the closing of the story, “Every day I ask her to forgive me, and every day I pray she doesn’t.”
Leland Merritt is a PhD student at Claremont School of Theology studying the intersections between Horror and the Hebrew Bible. When he is not studying he is reading, watching, playing, or listening to anything that might scare him. He currently lives in Southern California with his spouse and a ghoul masquerading as a toddler.