Movies

What is Ari Aster’s Midsommar? Pagan Rituals and Strange Holidays

 Courtesy of A24

Ari Aster is back, seeking to capitalize on his wild success with the dark and disturbing Hereditary.  That film was dark both in subject matter, but also lighting.  Every well-placed lamp meant something and created more shadows than illumination.  His newest foray into moody horror Midsommar is a complete departure.  It is bright and cheerful…until it isn’t.  If drugged-up, hippy pagans chased you through the pastoral Swedish countryside at midday, you might get the idea.  The resemblance to 1973’s The Wicker Man(lets not even mention the Nic Cage debacle) is undeniable.  That film is really creepy, and it wouldn’t be a bad idea to use that as a jumping off place.  That is exactly what it is, a reference point to jet off into uncharted territory.  An adult cautionary tale that is as much dark fairy tale as it is horror, Midsommar looks different on screen but has subtle similarities to Hereditary.  According to Bloody Disgusting Aster has said,

“There’s nothing as explicit as [worshipping King Paimon],” Aster said of this year’s film. “There’s no Paimon involved.  But I would say that the film is something of a companion to ‘Hereditary,’ although the similarities didn’t really occur to me until we were on set.”

Aster is adept at shining a harsh light on relationships in all their vulnerable dysfunction.  Internal horror is often far more disturbing than demons, ax murderers, or monsters.  Hereditary had both.  As polarizing as the ending was, it was discussed.  What Zazas, Satony, and Liftoach Pandemonium meant were researched and debated for months after.  Midsommar has that same DNA running through it.  A couple who is falling apart Christian(Jack Reynor) and Dani (Florence Pugh) travels with friends to Sweden to celebrate the holiday following the deaths of Dani’s parents.  Aster is checking all the boxes that made Hereditary so compelling.  Grief-check, relationship drama-check, ritualistic worship-check, interesting visual imagery-check.  It is all there.

Midsommar or the more Americanized spelling of Midsummer is an important holiday in Sweden celebrated on June 22nd this year.   It has many alternative names including Feast of Saint John the Baptist, Litha, and Ivan Kupala Day, to name just a few.  It coincides with the Summer Solstice which arrives typically between June 19th and June 25th each year depending on the culture.  The Summer Solstice marks the end of Spring and the official beginning of Summer.  Unlike the trailer for Aster’s technicolor hippy nightmare, it is a lovely holiday with plenty of alcohol, fish, and potatoes.  Flowers are worn in the hair, park settings are frequently visited, and large poles are erected for dancing around.  The poles are decorated with flowers and birch leaves.  The flowers used must be blue, yellow, and white and costumes worn by all participants are walking Facebook pages detailing marital status and family lineage.  For example, if one wears a bonnet, it means they are married.  It is a holiday rich in symbolism and tradition.  Charming folk stories are shared like the legend about placing seven different flowers under your pillow and seeing your future husband in your dreams.  That beauty rest is definitely needed as the holiday begins for most coordinators promptly at 9:00 am and, the day long drunken lunch extends into the evening where games, dancing, and singing are enjoyed.  It is basically one long excuse to day drink.  What could be better?

Unfortunately, for the friends who travel for the festival, this version of the pagan holiday is not the kind of party you can boot and rally from.  The event they are attending only occurs every 90 years and includes violent acts and mind-altering substances.  All who attend must participate.  From the looks of the trailer, our group is not down with that.

Pagans have held a healthy respect for the seasons throughout history.  Their most essential holidays including Saturnalia(Winter Solstice) a hedonistic free-for-all that reveled in excess of everything.  A week-long party filled with food and drink where taboos were broken and social classes were forgotten.  Lupercalia another festival with excessive food and drink that culminates with men cutting pieces of slaughtered goats to whip random women with is bloody and highly sexualized.  If the whipping wasn’t enough, the evening concludes with a key party of sorts.  Samhain from which modern Halloween is thought to have derived celebrates the Fall harvest. 

Perhaps the most intriguing is the Eleusinian Mysteries.  This secretive holiday found many Grecians making the pilgrimage to Eleusis located 30 miles from Athens.  They occurred twice a year in the Spring and Fall.  The Lesser Mysteries took place in the Spring and the Greater in the Fall.  There they would participate in a festival held by a cult who worshiped Demeter and Persephone.  The festival was centered around a strange drink called Kykeon with psychotropic properties.  The Mysteries centered around the story of Demeter and her daughter Kore, who later became Persephone.  Persephone was kidnapped, and some say raped by Hades.  She was dragged to the underworld and remained there half of the year.  While on Earth with Demeter crops would thrive, but while in the underworld, crops would wither.  An underground theater held the initiation rites.  Very little else is known about the rituals as those who participated were sworn to secrecy.  What we do know is the participants were forever changed and no longer feared death.  Might this be the festival our unsuspecting group is headed towards?  Rape, kidnapping, fungus-infused alcohol, death and rebirth, and torture would all make for some pretty terrible things to reenact.  If you survived a horrific gory ordeal, you would be forever changed as well.

We will have to wait until July 3rd, 2019, to find out for sure.  Likely, the fictional festival will be an amalgamation of all the pagan festivals and the real Midsommar.  What we do know is Aster’s brand of dread-filled horror will be heavy on tension and shocking imagery.

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