Despite its unpopularity among many Christian audiences, the horror genre is rife with theological suggestion. Typically, the horror films I enjoy cleverly twist our presumptions about reality against us. They upset our settled metaphysical frameworks by which we too-often render the world mute and docile. Impossible monsters defy physics; death is no boundary against the will of vengeful spirits; protagonists must trust their uneasy intuitions against the logical assurances of family and friends. Horror reawakens enchantment, the potential inbreaking of the spiritual into the material, and a visceral sensitivity to good and evil.
Yet, against the backdrop of such horror tropes, Ari Aster’s Midsommar remains a crucial counterpoint for the intersection of theology and horror. While his debut film Hereditary engages directly with the potential of spiritual powers to unravel and subvert human intentions, Midsommar resists removing the thrust of its terror to a spiritual otherworld. The theological message of Aster’s film arises, instead, from a concerted examination of spiritual loss.
Midsommar’s plot can be described as a prolonged romantic break-up between its protagonists, Dani and Christian – university students conjoined in a relationship of codependence. Dani’s character is introduced in the context of deep emotional trauma. The film begins with Dani reeling from the tragic, disturbing death of her immediate family. In contrast, Christian is introduced as a figure of numbness and detachment. He enjoys slumming in the dorms with his university friends under the influence of various drugs. As Dani seeks emotional intimacy and healing in her relationship with Christian, he responds halfheartedly with impersonal yet obligatory platitudes. Their interactions are awkward and forced. Christian, meanwhile, seeks sexual connection, which Dani in her state is unable to provide. To forestall the relationship’s deterioration, the couple chooses to join their friend Pelle on a visit to his rural home village of Hårga for their summer solstice festival. They are joined by two of Christian’s other male friends, all of whom study anthropology and are intellectually piqued by the remote Swedish community’s pagan traditions. Motivated by relational obligation rather than compassion, Christian invites Dani on the visit, though he would be just as happy to escape Dani and her trauma.
The couple’s journey leads into an engagement between two starkly different cultures: the critically detached individualism typically associated with the modern West, and the empathic, community-oriented sensibilities of the pagan Swedes. Upon first encounter, Hårga offers an ideal mix of the libertine and communal. The community robes itself in traditional white dress, neutralizing stark gender distinction; they uphold millennia-old religious rituals filled with dancing, feasting, and respectful environmental sacrament; they encourage safe hallucinogenic drug use, sexual freedom, and communal child-rearing. The village considers itself a single family. Hårga’s ubiquitous intimacy contrasts sharply with the fracturing relationships and consumerism of the American tourists. Even the film’s vivid aesthetic relies on the enduring brightness of Sweden’s summer sun suffusing the agricultural haven. The imagery bleeds light and whiteness, purity and simplicity, intimacy and authenticity. The setting at once lures our affections and conceals the hidden darkness underlying the community’s persistence.
The film progresses through an escalation of moral struggles and relational ruptures, three of which I will examine. The first severe ethical conflict occurs during a brutal ritual suicide, for which the visiting onlookers are frightfully unprepared. An elderly couple leaps off a cliffside to meet a bloody death on the rocks below as the village stands in witness. Dani, Christian, and their tour group are disgusted by the event and immediately wish to leave. Nevertheless, they are convinced to stay in Hårga against their initial instincts. As students of anthropology, they can eventually justify the ritual: to the villagers of Hårga, the suicidal ritual represents a sacred end to a natural life. Comparatively, the greater evil is to force the elderly to waste away in retirement homes with a diminishing capacity to flourish. At least in Hårga, the elderly find meaning in their suicide – tying them to their ancestors, environment, and community.
In contrast to the integral intimacy of the villagers, Christian’s friend group gradually dissolves throughout the remainder of the film. Each separates himself in pursuit of his own self-interests. Unbeknownst to the couple, each is lured away to his death at the hands of the villagers, tempted by promises of sexual gratification or intellectual discovery, respectively. As we learn, their invitation to join the festival was never purely beneficent – Hårga’s pagan traditions require human sacrifices from those outside its community. Despite the unexpected disappearances, Christian remains ultimately unconcerned with his friends’ whereabouts as he focuses more intensely on his own research.
This sets the context for the film’s penultimate moral struggle and relational failure. Both Dani and Christian are offered a special tea which numbs their inhibitions and opens them to suggestion. While Dani is pulled away in festive dancing by the village women, Christian is seduced into performing a communal sex rite. As we discover, Christian is a necessary component in strengthening the village’s genetic pool. He previously refused similar passes, but drugged and separated from his friends, Christian lacks the capacity to resist. The sexual rite is, perhaps, the most jarring scene in the film. It is both communal and transcendent in form. The women of Hårga are intimately involved – nude, gyrating, and moaning as they surround the couple. Rather than finding sexual fulfillment, Christian finds himself ironically objectified and used. Despite acting on his own desires, he is never in control. The sexual rite is filled with ‘meaning’ but absent of love. He runs away naked only to encounter the disfigured body of his friend hung on display. The reality of his situation dawns on him far too late.
Predictably, Dani catches Christian in the act and emotionally shatters. First in the joys of festivity and then in the sorrow of her betrayal, Dani is comforted not by Christian, but by the empathic overtures of the village women. The film culminates shortly thereafter with the third and final conflict. It is revealed that the festival demands a final ritual sacrifice to conclude. Throughout, the American visitors were systematically murdered and fed into an ongoing sacrificial count. Having recently been crowned the “May Queen,” Dani must choose between Christian and a villager to be the final sacrifice. Her decision is unsurprising following her partner’s infidelity. Christian, in a state of drug-induced paralysis, burns away in a temple surrounded by the inert bodies of his friends. He is unable to move, speak, or scream. It is not difficult to connect the manner of his death to the manner of his life. Dani looks down upon the conflagration first in tears, then with a smile.
It is fitting that the protagonists are anthropologists, as Midsommar is a cinematic reflection on anthropological concerns that haunt the modern condition. Specifically, Aster attends the spiritual loss of the modern self. In his seminal work, Sources of the Self, Charles Taylor argues that selfhood is constituted by a moral orientation – we cannot understand ourselves apart from our relation to the good, which characterizes not only our ethical decision-making, but also our sense of meaning and identity in the world.1 Further, we do not create this moral landscape, but the very questions by which we form our identities arise from pre-existing webs of social relationships.2 To be a self is to understand where I stand in social space upon questions that matter – questions of morality and meaning. From his perspective, these are the ‘transcendent’ or inescapable premises upon which selfhood is constituted. Following Taylor, questions of identity, moral orientation, and meaning are interwoven in his broad notion of the ‘spiritual’, which requires the capacity to discriminate between better and worse modes of life.3 This ‘spiritual’ sense is not simply an extension of our desires, but rather it arises from criteria independent of ourselves, a good beyond ourselves.4
In this reading, orientation toward ‘the good’ and the formative communities in which such questions arise implicitly subsist in our notions of selfhood. Indeed, Aster weaves into his film themes which draw attention to these facets of selfhood at tension with a more individualistic conception of the self. The university students are characterized as autonomous individuals. Their pursuits reside in sexual satisfaction, drug-induced numbness, and intellectual achievement. Their sense of goodness lies in the hedonistic pursuit of their own desires, even in the neglect of others. At end, this notion of freedom unhinges them from their fraying relations and ethical mores, rendering them easy prey for the sacrificial intent of the Hårga villagers.
In contrast, Hårga represents the communal idyl. The purpose of each villager is interwoven into the needs of the collective. Sexual relations are oriented toward communal aims; hallucinogens do not entail escapism but environmental embrace; the world is not an inert object to be studied, but rather bound up with meaningful connection to their ancestors and gods. The goods that become available only in the context of such deep communion represent at once the fulfilment and downfall of the protagonists. While the Americans act as if they can detach from the world, their desires at once betray their longing for meaningful relation. Hårga makes possible the deeper union underlying the pursuits of Christian and his friends, but only at the cost of their very selves (indeed, literally so).
Hårga presents a spiritual gravity that overwhelms the main characters in their spiritual dearth. The ritual suicide reveals their moral instability – the protagonists react with intense moral disgust but lack any formative conception with which to make sense of their gut response. Their remnant of community is slowly murdered as a consequence of each individual’s self-seeking. Their critical intellectual distance blinded them to the real, existential threat of the pagan culture they studied. Finally, Dani sacrifices Christian, a barbaric act by our standards, but understandable given her continual betrayal by past relationships and her eventual embrace of the new pagan community.
Intriguingly, Aster here subverts our common notions of agency which we attach to selfhood. The manipulative will of Hårga puppeteers the protagonists, even as they believe they follow their whims without restriction. Even Dani’s ‘choice’ to sacrifice Christian is problematized by a deeper rupture of identity. The very moral framework by which she can hold Christian accountable is rejected in the manner of her revenge. In this sense, the village at once fulfills her by consuming her. Christian’s loss of life is also Dani’s loss of self. The modern conception of the detached self is undone, indeed shown incoherent. It is subsumed by the draw of the pagan alternative.
Midsommar is a slow, inevitable slog detailing not only a romantic break-up, but also the withering spirituality of the modern West. The film reveals that our identities rely heavily on our relationships, the ethical obligations they entail, and ultimately a spiritual depth that connects the self to something beyond itself. Modern Western culture denies the possibility of a transcendent good realized in any prescribed cultural form, preferring the consumerism of individual preference in all things. Midsommar opines this state is unsustainable. The ancient pagan traditions of Hårga seduce and pervert the critically minded university students not despite, but because of their mode of life, in which autonomy is detachment, and freedom is formlessness. Their presumed pursuit of personal fulfillment enables their unwitting sacrifice.
No spiritual powers present themselves in any enchanted or supernatural sense in Midsommar. In fact, Aster grants us sparse information about the spiritual cosmology of the villagers, which they hold secret even within the film. We only gain fuller hints of their spiritual sensibilities gradually, implicit in their activities, rather than their declarations. Similarly, Christianity is conspicuously absent from the movie, an interesting choice given its critical stance on Western culture. The primary allusion to Christ is in the protagonist’s name – Christian. Christian fails in his love for Dani and his friends. He lacks virtue, depth, and meaningful relations. He falls back on cold reasoning and heartless duty when pressed. He is at best reactive and usually passive. And he is fittingly rendered impotent when finally sacrificed to the pagan gods, sacrificed by the very one he should have loved. I would submit that Christian portrays his namesake, bearing a name which too easily forgets the lived reality to which it points. His sacrifice is an ironic inversion of true Christian sacrifice, the consequences of choosing his own self over both love of God and the Other. He never sacrificed himself for Dani, and thus he is sacrificed by her. Christian’s is a failure of identity.
In Midsommar, true horror arises not from the unexpected, but from the inevitable. Not from enchantment, but from the manifest outcome of spiritual loss. Aster’s picture of the modern self, characterized by its presumed autonomy and self-sufficiency, is bleak. We cannot escape the spiritual questions at the heart of our identities. From the Christian perspective, we cannot escape God. Ultimately, Midsommar reveals to us the fragile instability of this modern concept of identity, incapable of loving anything beyond itself. Aster’s horror does not depend on the presence of malign spirits. Rather it reveals to us how hollow and vulnerable we are when the spiritual is absent.