The Rites of Ari Aster
Last year, Ari Aster’s “Hereditary” hit theaters and absolutely blew me away, and just this week his follow up “Midsommar” was released. Upon my initial viewing, I thought that “Midsommar” was really good, but not great, especially when compared to “Hereditary”, which I consider to be a modern horror classic. However, the more I thought about “Midsommar”, the better it got; not as a standalone, mind you, but as a companion piece to “Hereditary”.
I do not claim to be an expert in pagan rites and rituals, but when a movie or a story sparks my interest, I tend to do a bit of follow up research. After “Hereditary” came out I did a little reading up on demonology and, more specifically, the lore surrounding the demon Paimon (if you’ve seen “Hereditary” you’ll know why). Just this week, after “Midsommar” came out, I found myself reading more and more about neopaganism and Wicca traditions, and as I did, it dawned on me what Aster was doing: he was creating two separate films to represent the primary deities in Wicca tradition, the Oak and Holly Kings, otherwise known as the Horned God and the Mother Goddess or Mother Nature.
Again, I am not an expert on pagan rites. I’ve only spent a few hours reading about this stuff, but in those hours I was able to attribute a lot more symbolism to each of these films… The following article will contain spoilers for both “Hereditary” and “Midsommar”. You’ve been warned.
The Duality of Nature and Man
When people see some things as beautiful,
Other things become ugly.
When people see things as good,
Other things become bad.
Being and non-being create each other.
-Tao Te Ching, Lao Tzu
Before picking these movies apart and figuring out what makes the different, I want to talk about what makes them similar. After all, in order for films to be mirror images of one another, they have to at least contain similar themes and messages.
Both “Hereditary” and “Midsommar” take place in the wake of horrific family tragedies. In “Hereditary” Peter (Alex Wolff, “Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle”) accidentally kills his sister Charlie (Milly Shapiro) while driving home from a party. In “Midsommar”, our protagonist Dani (Florence Pugh, “Fighting with My Family”) must find a way to recover after her bipolar sister commits suicide and murders her parents in the same night.
Both of these films also deal with witchcraft. Where one film deals with summoning a demon for selfish purposes (wealth and fame), the other film deals with rituals performed using both sacrifice and self-sacrifice for the betterment of a society as a whole. Both ceremonies/rituals have horrific aspects to them, but, when viewed from the eyes of the ones performing said rituals, it is all for the betterment of themselves or mankind.
In my brief research on Wiccan rites and rituals, I discovered a few things. One of the first things I learned was that there didn’t seem to be any set rules as to how one performed certain rituals for their gods, but there were things that most practicing wiccan tended to agree on. One of those basic rules was that there was two sides to the world we lived in. Much like we as Christians believe that there are good and evil, represented by God and the devil, those whom believe in Wicca believes in the duality of nature as represented by The Horned God and Mother Goddess (or Mother Nature). I’ve also read that Wicca believe worshiping both deities provide certain benefits (meaning the Horned God isn’t wholly evil); the universe is divided into two energies and only through balance can one find true happiness.
The Horned God
The Horned God leans towards darkness; he is represented by “Hereditary”.
I remember reading an interview where Aster himself commented on how he had seen dozens of films where families go through tragedy and then eventually grow and move past it, and how he thought that was a ridiculously optimistic outlook on life. He argued that while everyone goes through tragedy, not everyone gets over his or her tragedy. “Hereditary” was meant to be a depiction of those who don’t necessarily recover from the suffering they experience after a major loss in their lives.
Everything in “Hereditary” is dark and brooding. The cinematography feels confined to the point of claustrophobia, and the lighting is often barely enough to illuminate the rooms we’re watching. The world here feels hopeless, shadowy, and grim, as if there’s no way of escape.
The Horned God is also supposed to represent the more male elements of life. If you remember, in “Hereditary”, the ritual they performed to summon Paimon originally required a male, but because their Grandmother hadn’t been around to breastfeed him when Peter was born (part of the ritual), the cult was forced to make changes to the ritual in order for it to work correctly. The cult had to kill Charlie in order for her spirit to possess Peter’s body, and only then could Paimon bestow his bounty upon Charlie/Peter.
The Mother Goddess
Both films deal with horrible familial tragedies and the emotional fallout our characters face from it. Dani’s sister kills herself and her parents with carbon monoxide, and that catapults Dani into a world of suffering and grief, much like the world the family in “Hereditary” faces after Peter kills Charlie on accident. Where “Hereditary” depicts someone failing to recover from their grief, “Midsommar” shows someone taking steps in the direction of recovery. Honestly, the most disturbing part of “Midsommar” is Dani’s sister’s suicide (she runs carbon monoxide through a hose and duct-tapes it to her mouth after sending her sister a brief goodbye email).
Where “Hereditary” leans towards darkness, “Midsommar” leans towards light. “Hereditary” is an absolute nightmare, while “Midsommar” is like somnambulant walk through a really messed up version of Wonderland; there’s some disturbing stuff, but there’s also a lot of beauty to balance the darkness out.
The Mother Goddess is supposed to be an embodiment of nature and creation, of the bounty of Earth. “Midsommar” is a film that is filled with light and beauty; even when there is horrible violence, those that dwell in Harga seem to treat it with such nonchalance that it’s hard to get too worked up about it. Yes, there is darkness and violence, but not in the brutal way it was depicted in “Hereditary”; there are no heads being sawn off in darkened attics, instead there are willing leaps from this life to the next in the bright daylight.
I wont try to say that what happens in this film isn’t disturbing; it’s a horror film. But, when you look at it from an anthropological standpoint, it would make sense that some people in some isolated cultures might still practice belief that might seem a bit strange to us. We’ve heard dozens of stories of people committing bizarre acts in the name of their beliefs; drinking cyanide-laced Flavor-Aid; crashing planes into the World Trade Center Buildings… it’s not out of the realm of possibilities to believe that isolated groups might force their weak and elderly to jump off cliffs or murder a few random people in a ritualistic manner once every ninety years.
There are more hints hidden in this film than there are in “Hereditary”, and the most important clue as to what’s going on comes about halfway through the film. The camera slowly pans past a tapestry that depicts the events to come- the ritual that will be performed. Before we get to the ritual we need to remember that the couple that this film revolves around was already in a tumultuous relationship; they were on the point of breaking up. This trip to Harga is almost like one last chance for them to make it work, but even as they arrive at the outskirts of the village it becomes apparent Christian will be exactly the same as he was in the states. Christian pressures Dani into taking drugs even when she isn’t ready to do so, and when she starts to have a bad trip, he completely abandons her.
I think the village of Harga could be looked at as a representation of an abusive or toxic relationship, and that’s why I also think the end result of the ritual actually bodes of good things to come (we’ll get there). Why do I think Harga is a representation of a toxic relationship? Well, from outward appearances things are beautiful and serene, even when there is violence it’s over quick. The place has just enough allure to make one want to stay, so that even when disturbing things do happen, you could almost of brush it off as just a one-time thing; you can lie to yourself that everything is alright.
The ritual itself seems to have a few intended results, and over the course of the film we hear different parts of the ritual are meant to do different things; one of the things they wanted to do was bring bountiful harvest to the village, but towards the end of the ritual, more and more of the participants spoke about how the ritual was meant to cleanse.
1. First, there was an offering of blood: the elderly people jumped from the cliffs and died (more or less).
2. The love spell is performed- the redheaded girl puts her pubic hair into Christian’s (Jack Reynor, “Macbeth (2015)”) food, thus enchanting Christian.
3. As the festivities continue, Dani gets wrapped up in the May Pole dance while Christian is led away to have ritual sex with the redheaded girl (he is now enchanted, remember- he’s not in complete control but he also doesn’t seem completely unwilling). It’s also here that we first see real proof of the magic working- Dani is suddenly able to speak Swedish.
4. Dani is crowned May Queen. Christian completes his ritual sex.
5. Dani sees Christian having ritual sex, and flees, angry, and with a group of woman she cries (the woman actually acknowledge her pain while Christian has more or less been shutting her out).
6. Christian is poisoned and paralyzed, and Dani selects him as the bear- a representation of the village’s strife- and they sew him into the bearskin and burn him in the teepee.
7. As the teepee burns, the camera follows Dani. She’s wreathed in flowers, and for one of the first times in the film, she smiles because she has rid herself of something toxic.
(Quick side bar: I think it’s great that Ari named the Dani’s boyfriend Christian when one of the minor themes of this film is sort of paganism vs Christianity- Dani comes to represent paganism when in the end she becomes May Queen, and condemns Christian to die).
It’s here that the film ends, but it’s not the end goal of the ritual. The overall goal was hinted at back on that tapestry hidden halfway through the film. As the camera dollied past the tapestry, we saw all of these events play out, but the tapestry continued beyond these events. It showed Dani becoming May Queen, and it showed the redheaded girl giving birth to Christian and her child. The final panel depicted Dani and the redheaded girl holding the child together. I don’t know what that child will come to represent, but I believe that it could be something good.
“Midsommar” isn’t just a story of moving past grief (or toxic relationships), it’s also a celebration of womanhood, which is just another reason I think it comes to represent the Mother Goddess, or Mother Earth.
Two Sides of a Whole
So there you have it. As I said above, I am in no way an expert on pagan rites or deities; this is just the symbolism I gleaned from my viewings of these two very excellent films. I think that both of these movies are among the better-crafted horror films of at least the last two decades, and as a pair they’re almost perfect.
The Rites of Ari Aster: