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Midsommar – A Sun-Drenched Nightmare
I never go to the movies. The last movie I saw in theaters was Deadpool. The first one. But, for some reason, I decided to break my fast on the movie theater and go see Midsommar. I’ve heard this movie described as “a horror movie in broad daylight.” And, while it’s not exactly horror, it is intense, thrilling, and psychologically scarring. It probably didn’t help that I sat in the front row and felt like I was staring up at the 50 foot deciders of my mortal fate.
Hereditary director Ari Aster’s “sun-drenched nightmare” Midsommar follows “anxiety-ridden college student” Dani, her emotionally distant boyfriend Christian, and Christian’s friends Mark, Josh, and Pelle as they head to Pelle’s “ancestral commune” in Sweden for two months in the summer. As Aster says about his film, it goes from “a world that [feels] healthy and lush, and then by the end, it becomes overripe.” Midsommar feels like a rich fruit rotting on its vine.
Now, I love The Wicker Man. Not the Nicholas Cage Wicker Man, never the Nicholas Cage Wicker Man (bees anyone?). But the 1973 Christopher Lee masterpiece The Wicker Man. This film follows Detective Howie, a Christian, as he travels to an island of Pagans in search of a missing girl. The Wicker Man feels lush as well, but not in the same way that Midsommar does. The Wicker Man feels desperate, like a handful of dry straw. It’s lush in a way that’s concealing secret barrenness.
A Lesson on Midsummer
Midsummer festivals celebrate the Summer Solstice, the longest day of the year. Celtic midsummer stems from the Pagan holiday Litha, often celebrated in Scotland. Litha means light, as this is a time to celebrate the sun. According to the website The Goddess and the Green Man, Litha is celebrated with a bonfire, tree worship—specifically oak and mistletoe—giving herbs and flowers as gifts, and using honey in food and mead.
The bonfire represents “a reflection of the sun at the peak of its strength…[p]eople danced around the fires and leapt through them.” The oak tree is considered a conduit for the Oak King, who represents “strength, courage, and endurance…[t]he Celtic name for oak is Duir, which means doorway—we are crossing the threshold, entering the doorway into the second, waning part of the year.” When mistletoe grows on oak trees it is considered to be “growing between the worlds of Heaven and Earth.” Honey is important for making mead, which is considered the “divine solar drink, with magical and life-restoring properties.”
Swedish traditional midsummer celebrations also feature bonfires, but most notably the focus is on the Maypole, or Midsummer pole. The Maypole is a large pole in a cross shape with two wreaths hanging from its horizontal pole. It is decorated with greenery and attendees perform folk dances around the pole. According to the website Real Scandinavia, in Sweden, like in Scotland, “anything to do with nature was thought to have special power.” During Swedish midsummer, “[g]athering flowers to weave into wreaths and crowns was a way to harness nature’s magic to ensure good health throughout the year.”
So midsummer is a celebration of nature, all things good and green and growing. While The Wicker Man focuses on the May Day festival—May 1st and the celebration of Spring—there are many similarities between the two festivals that warrant comparison. Most notably, the Maypole; this pole is present in Midsummer and May Day festivities, with the only difference being streamers attached to the May Day Maypole instead of greenery. In Celtic and Gaelic communities, May Day closely resembles the Beltane festival, which is, essentially, May Day itself. Beltane falls on May 1st, and prominently features bonfires in its celebration. Hence, during the fictional May Day celebration, the burning of the wicker man to usher in a bountiful harvest.
“We Carry Death Out of the Village”
The more sinister elements of Midsommar both sneak up on you and are present throughout the narrative. The community explains unsettling things as tradition or ceremony; there’s a veil hanging over everything, obscuring the terror in broad daylight. That veil of silence and misdirection is also prevalent in The Wicker Man; when detective Howie first comes to Summerisle looking for Rowan Morrison, no one knows who she is. They claim she doesn’t exist, even though Howie received a letter stating that Mae Morrison of Summerisle was missing her daughter Rowan.
There are clues all over the island—an empty school desk, a new grave with a rowan tree on it, Rowan in the May Day harvest photo surrounded by sad, wilted crops. But no one will claim to know her in the beginning, and then later no one will say how she died. They are a secluded community, they don’t usually abide outsiders, and yet—barring the fact that he’s a policeman—the residents of Summerisle let this man onto their island and into their homes as he searches for a missing girl who doesn’t exist. Why?
The same can be asked of the commune in Midsommar; why outsiders? Why now, during the most sacred celebration on their calendar?
“Where is Your Priest?”
While not so prevalent in Midsommar, there is still a good amount of religious intolerance brought into the community by the outsiders. In The Wicker Man, Howie brings it all himself, and he doesn’t even try to hide what he thinks of Summerisle’s religion. He outright scorns the residents for being Pagans, calling them heathens, asking “has no one heard of Jesus Christ?”
The fact that the island has no priest outrages him; the church is in shambles; nudity is so prevalent in the community; women jump naked through a bonfire in order to conceive without intercourse. For a policeman, he doesn’t even try to hide the fact that he’s a man of God. In Midsommar, there are moments of intolerance among the outsiders; but, mostly they’re confused. Most of the rituals scare them because they’re not familiar. They’re not on the level of Detective Howie, but they’re getting there.
“Time to Keep Your Appointment with the Wicker Man”
The way both communities approach death is similar; in The Wicker Man, when you die, you’re not really dead, you’re “returned to the life forces in another form.” When Howie exhumes Rowan’s grave and finds a dead hare instead, he confronts Lord Summerisle, who claims the hare is Rowan’s “other form.” It’s closest to reincarnation, and of course, Howie is offended because he believes in the resurrection. In Midsommar, life is treated as seasons; birth to seventeen is spring, eighteen to thirty-two is summer, thirty-two to fifty is fall, and fifty to seventy-five is winter. After that, death. The community believes the dead are not actually dead, but live on in nature and in other members of the community who share their name.
Not everything is the same between these two movies, though; a big difference I found was who the people believe in. In Midsommar, there’s no mention of a deity; instead, the people take turns writing the sacred texts. There’s more importance put into worshiping words and runes than there is on a singular or multiple deities. As for Summerisle, being Pagans, they worship the two most important deities in Pagan religion; the Goddess and the Green Man. There is an emphasis put on a higher power, but there is also an emphasis put on man; Lord Summerisle is the head of the community and everyone defers to him.
As for little details: the emphasis on nature, specifically trees; both films begin with a crime; blessing the crops; sex rituals.
Final Thoughts and One Kind of Spoiler
I definitely recommend The Wicker Man. It’s a Christopher Lee classic, and if you like him as Saruman you’ll love him as Lord Summerisle. And what better way to end a film than to burn the intolerant policeman in the wicker man? As for Midsommar, I recommend it if you like your mind played within unexpected and thrilling ways. If you want a different kind of horror film, something cutting edge and wholeheartedly ahead of the usual blood-and-guts slasher extravaganzas, I recommend Midsommar.
Honestly, if you like Hereditary, you’ll probably like Midsommar. A warning, though, and also kind of a spoiler: if mildly graphic scenes of suicide will freak you out, or if watching someone have panic attacks could launch you into your own panic attack (as it almost did for me), then I would wait for it to come out on DVD so you can fast forward through those parts.