Spoiler warning: this article entirely ruins Midsommar, revealing plot points, twists and what (we think) it all actually means.
“I keep telling people I want it to be confusing,” filmmaker Ari Aster told Vox this week, explaining why many will be leaving his latest film Midsommar scratching their heads. Aster’s follow-up to last year’s devastating gem Hereditary isn’t particularly confusing in terms of story, but it is a film filled with ambiguities, Easter eggs and minor mysteries. And it means that much of the fun of Midsommar occurs in the days after you see it, where all you can truly do is sift over its insights and oddities.
Aster’s film is a nightmarish summer holiday story, starring Florence Pugh as a young woman stricken with grief who, against the wishes of the best friends of her boyfriend Christian (Jack Reynor), tags along on their group trip to a Swedish commune. There, in a makeshift village co-opted by a quasi-religious sect very interested in ritual sacrifice and historic tradition, she experiences profound transformation as well as blinding terror.
Like a number of well-made horror movies released today, Midsommar is a polarising watch, particularly as it clocks in at nearly three hours and features numerous moments of infuriating nothingness that often ends up building to little. But it does get under your skin, primarily because of how obtuse and tricky it is. With that in mind, here’s a handy explainer answering just a couple of questions you may have about it.
Wait a second, what was Midsommar actually about in the end?
Just as Hereditary was promoted as a particularly well-shot “evil little girl” movie but ended up being a far more ambitious and emotionally devastating portrait of grief and family breakdown, it is smart to recognise that the Midsommar that’s been promoted and the Midsommar that actually exists are two very different beasts.
In truth, Midsommar is more a story about toxic relationships than one about cults and odd rituals, with a young woman involved with a distant, non-communicative and increasingly disengaged man and how she finds catharsis and happiness in his gradual demise.
“Hopefully, you go in thinking that the Harga will be the villains,” Aster told Vox, referencing the sect at the centre of the film. “Then you realise that it was Christian all along, because we’re with Dani. For her, he’s the foil. She wants to be close to him. Her dilemma is that she is alone in the world. And he’s the thing preventing that from being resolved, right? Because he is not allowing her in.”
And the film also appears to be a statement on the healing power of shared empathy, with Dani unable to truly move on from the recent demise of her parents and sister because she’s been transformed into a perpetual fifth wheel by Christian and his friends. When, at the very end of the film, the Harga mirror her own wailing and crying, holding her and emulating her own grief, it finally allows her to heal. After all, the film’s very last shot, in which Dani smiles as Christian goes up in flames, is the first time in all of Midsommar where she appears at all joyous.
Explain what the Harga were doing again?
Every 90 years, the Harga participate in an elaborate celebration that involves two elderly members of the commune sacrificing their lives by leaping from a tall mountain. The Harga explain to Dani and her friends that they must rid themselves of the “worst affekts” of their humanity via human sacrifice. Death, as they claim, is a blessing and a gift, with lives requiring to be given in order for the wider community to receive continued life in return. Quite why they embrace death while simultaneously attempting to conceal their decision to murder Dani’s friends is less clear.
But there are also elements of the celebration that they don’t share with the outsiders. Namely that they have determined Christian to be the most sexually compatible male for one of their own. The Harga explain that their bloodlines are deliberately mapped and planned in order to prevent incest, and therefore require occasional outsiders to provide sperm and diversify the gene pool. This isn’t the case for the village’s oracle, a deformed individual glimpsed significantly in the film’s trailers, who is specifically required to be a product of incest in order to draw prophetic illustrations that help guide the community’s future.
Christian is ultimately captured via a love spell and has sex with a village girl to create a child. And because of his infidelity, Christian comes to exemplify the world’s evils, further making him an important part of the Harga’s ritual finale. Dressed up as a bear, he is set alight in a Harga temple.
Dani, meanwhile, finds herself becoming the commune’s May Queen – a de facto leader who earns the deciding vote in the last stages of the festivities.
Does Dani experience a psychotic period prior to the film’s ending?
Dani experiences nightmarish visions and extreme fluctuations in emotion throughout the film, but it is left unclear as to whether she has entered some kind of psychosis by the end. Her early, drug-induced run through the woods does feel like a mental breakdown of a sort, but she also displays a level of rationality throughout the scenes that follow that indicates she is still lucid. At least in comparison to her friends, who don’t at all question the sudden disappearanceof British backpackers Simon and Connie in the same way she does. During the dance that determines the new May Queen, she appears exhausted and almost mesmerised by what she has lived through, but not to an extent where she has lost her mind.
Not helping the matter is that Aster and Pugh both have very different interpretations of the film’s ending. Speaking to USA Today, Pugh explained that she had such empathy for Dani that she didn’t want her to end the film as a genuinely sadistic person, so interpreted the ending as a final mental collapse. Pugh also believed that Dani didn’t actually know that Christian was in the burning building.
“That’s what made the ending possible [for me]” she said. “I don’t think I would’ve supported Dani as much if she knew that he was in there. I don’t think anybody is that sinister. You’re not going to watch your boyfriend cheat and be like, ‘Burn!’ I know Christian was a bit of a [expletive], but I didn’t want her to be evil at the end.” She also claimed that scenes that more vividly depicted Dani’s “psychotic break” were cut from the finished film.
In contrast, Aster said that wasn’t the case. “I wouldn’t agree with there ever being an iteration of the movie where she didn’t know he was burning,” he told USA Today. “But there were a lot of scenes that were cut, and probably a few that helped illustrate she was losing her grip on her sanity, which you hopefully still see.”
What was the significance of the bear?
Midsommarunexpectedly shifts into adark comedy at times, leaning into the absurdity of religious rituals and relationship mores. But the film’s funniest scene is the sudden appearance of a caged bear within the commune grounds, with the Harga refusing to actually speak about it or why it is there. It does, however, factor heavily into the film’s finale, where it is killed, hollowed out and used as a last resting place for the paralysed Christian, who is set on fire while wearing it.
It is believed that the bear therefore symbolises all of humanity’s negative energy and destructive urges, with the individual sporting the bear skin a reflection of that darkness and requiring of banishment.
While the film itself doesn’t explain why the bear is there, its presence does also feed into Midsommar’s fairytale quality, serving as a reference to the Swedish fairytale Oskuldens Vandring (or The Walk of Innocence) by Helena Nyblom. That fairytale, about a young girl venturing through the forest, inspired Swedish artist John Bauer to paint “Stackars lilla Basse!” (or “Poor little bear!”), which depicts a young girl touching noses with an enormous bear. And what can be seen on Dani’s bedroom wall in the opening of Midsommar? Why, a print of “Stackars lilla Basse!” itself…
Did Pelle believe Dani was destined to be May Queen?
While there’s little concrete evidence for this, Reddit sleuths have theorised that Pelle, Christian’s friend with familial ties to the Harga, may have orchestrated the deaths of Dani’s family to fulfil her mystical connection with his own family. There isn’t an enormous amount of evidence for this, however, beyond Pelle’s repeated insistence of the pair’s similarities and their shared status as orphans. Among Christian’s friends, Pelle also expressed the least resistance to having Dani accompany them on the Sweden trip. It should also be noted that Pelle tells Dani that his own parents died “in a fire”, which feels more significant as the filmends.
Despite the lack of concrete evidence, however, there is a growing theory that Dani was always destined to join the Harga. Specifically as she is seen sporting a flower crown in a photograph resting on her parents’ bedside in the film’s opening sequence.
What’s with all the illustrations?
The main barn in which the film’s American characters sleep is decorated in hundreds of illustrations by Swedish artist Ragnar Persson, which discreet nod to the entire plot of the movie. We see only one of Persson’s illustrations in vivid detail, that of the pubic hair love spell that decorates a tapestry and becomes a reality in the late stages of the film, but the set design features numerous prophetic muralsof what would become the rest of the movie.
“I really like burying prophetic details in plain sight and layering the periphery with graphic details that encourage a more active engagement on the viewer’s part,” Aster told CNN. “Everybody knows that this cult is going to be up to no good – that’s just part of the genre. If you don’t go there, in some ways it’s going to be dissatisfying. The hope is that as you get to the final sequence, that the surprise is not necessarily in what happens but how it feels to [get] there.”
Who was the face-carving attacker?
One of the film’s most unsettling moments occurs when Josh (William Jackson Harper) is attacked by a man who appears to be wearing the face of Will Poulter’s Mark, whose death we don’t see occur on-screen. The identity of the attacker in question remains a mystery throughout the rest of the film, but Aster has confirmed that Mark is killed by Ulf, the very angry Harga member appalled over Mark’s decision to urinate on the village’s sacred tree.
As for why the man appears to be wearing nothing from the waist down, it is because he is sporting Mark’s flesh over his legs – in keeping with a macabre tradition in historic battle. “There was a practice... practiced by the vikings,” Aster told IGN, “where they would even skin an enemy’s legs and wear them as pants. And so, what you’re seeing is Ulf wearing Mark’s face, so Will Poulter’s face, and wearing his legs as pants.”
What happened to Simon’s body in that barn?
Viking practice also feeds into another of Midsommar’s most horrifying visuals – that of Simon having apparently been flayed alive, his body kept in a barn that Christian enters while naked and fleeing the Harga. Aster has revealed that this emulates a real Viking practice known as the Blood Eagle, in which “sacrifices” were suspended from the air with their ribs removed and their lungs pulled out of their backs to mimic the appearance of wings. Apologies for the visual.
What was the significance of the number nine?
At the end of Midsommar, the Harga explain that nine individuals must be sacrificed in order to bring the ceremony to a close: four from the community itself, four outsiders and one either selected by the May Queen or via lottery. And the number nine factors significantly into much of the Harga’s event – it’s also a nine-day ceremony and occurs every 90 years.
This is also in keeping with a pagan “Midwinter Sacrifice” of Uppsala, Sweden that occurred around 851 AD. This sacrifice took place every ninth year, and saw the demise of nine men over the course of nine days. The number nine also appears repeatedly in Norse mythology and has been repeatedly linked to themes of magic and mystery throughout history.
Are Hereditary and Midsommar connected?
Because of many of the aesthetic similarities between the rituals of the Hagar and the Paigon rituals depicted in Hereditary, specifically in their mutual full-frontal nudity, religious runes and the graphic desecrations of the dead, some Midsommar viewers have theorised that both films are narratively linked.
This, as cool as it sounds, is not the case. According to Aster, it was a mere coincidence, along with both films being driven by grief and even sharing similar scenes. When Dani breaks down in wailing despair over the death of her family, it is difficult not to be reminded of Toni Collette doing a similar thing in Aster’s last film.
“I became aware of how they are connected while I was making Midsommar but it wasn’t by design,” Aster told Bloody Disgusting. “I realised, ‘Oh, I’m making a film about family and making films that happen to feature cults that are very important to the story.’
“But ultimately [in] Hereditary and with this film there is an attempt to have these things serve as both standing metaphors that don’t cease being metaphors, even as they are revealed to be very literal,” he continued. “And they’re designed to be taken totally literally. So for me, it’s my way of hoping to make a satisfying genre film that works as a genre film and at the same hoping to make something that can hold some allegorical weight without losing that by the end.”
Midsommar is essentially a two and a half hour study of one woman's emotional journey towards emancipation from a toxic relationship. Like director Ari Aster's first film, Hereditary, it's a dark drama disguised as a terror flick. Unlike Hereditary, it has a happy ending.
Dani catches her boyfriend in the act through a hole in the wall and grieves with her new commune sisters with some intensified collective yelling (as you do). After the ritual, Christian runs out of it naked and feeling disoriented.
To feel a little less alone. And while yes, by the Midsommar ending Dani's boyfriend Christian is being burned alive in a ritualistic barn, literally inside the carcass of a bear, alongside the mutilated corpses of their friends, Dani has found a sense of community.
Dani has just seen her boyfriend (Jack Reynor) having sex with another woman from the commune, and it causes all her pent-up rage and grief to come pouring out of her. The other women reflect her emotions back at her by screaming and crying as well.
As a result, when Dani smiles in the last shot, the audience is supposed to feel happy for her that she is now an important member of this group, is free of her boyfriend, and has a new family.
Aster himself appears to be fully aware of Midsommar's use of disability. In a recent interview with Forbes, he says Ruben is “a very important character. He's important more as a symbol, as an idea, than he is even as a character”.
Ari Aster's 2019 folk horror film Midsommar features a plethora of foreshadowing that reveals that Dani was destined to become the May Queen. Ari Aster's 2019 folk horror film Midsommar ends with the crowning of Dani as the May Queen, but throughout its entirety it foreshadowed that she it was her destiny all along.
When Josh sneaks away to photograph pictures of the 'Rubi Radr' holy book, he thinks that he sees Mark standing in the doorway of the temple: it is in fact Ulf (the man who screamed at Mark for urinating on the ancestral tree) wearing Mark's skin. (This is confirmed by the screenplay).
A scorned Dani chooses boyfriend Christian to sacrifice, who's then sewn into the now deceased bear's skin, and burned alive with the other sacrifices. This act is intended to cleanse the Harga, and in this case Dani herself, of their "worst affekts," those being their flaws or sins.
Even though Midsommar takes place in Sweden, this ritual was likely plucked from supposed pagan German practices. During the summer solstice, German pagans allegedly built massive bonfires to honor the Sun Goddess Saules. These bonfires also acted as the means of human sacrifice.
Another key symbolic tool used to represent Christian is the bear. With her new power as the May Queen, Dani chooses to sacrifice Christian by burning him inside of a bear carcass.
Ari Aster's Midsommar is partially based on a real-life Swedish festival, but the customs don't involve the same violence and pagan cult activities on show in the horror movie.
Ari Aster's 2019 film Midsommar includes detailed depictions of Swedish and Pagan symbolism in celebration of the solstice - here is what it means. From the mind of writer and director Ari Aster, Midsommar details the Pagan rituals of a Swedish cult called the Hårga.