Students Uncover Origins and Motifs of Horror in Ari Aster’s Midsommar

By Cassie Mayer

At the second annual celebration of Women in Horror Month’s Student Panel event, two students presented historical-cultural inspirations and  motifs in Midsommar, which follows a dysfunctional relationship’s trip to a remote commune in Sweden to celebrate a midsummer festival.

Theo Mitterando ‘24 presented his paper “Reflections: Unification & Division” which focuses on the symbolism of mirrors as “physical mirrors are used alongside different camerawork techniques to visually display more than just one ‘angle’ of a scene.”

Student panelists for the Women in Horror presentation.

Mitterando explains in depth throughout his essay specific examples in chronological order of the scenes which utilize mirror shots and how they contribute to the viewer’s interpretation of the character’s experience. Early on in the film when the trip to Sweden is announced, Mitterando highlights how “from the mirror, the viewer can see her boyfriend Christian sitting in a relaxed, unbothered position, contrasting from Dani’s visible distress… The framing of this scene focuses our emotional understanding on Dani and her discomfort, while distancing or othering Christian in the mirror.”

While the mirror shots initially act to other certain characters, while emphasizing the importance of the experience of others, as the film progresses, these shots instead portray the phenomenon of groupthink which Mitterando explains as “the empathetic uncanny that is feeling others pain; members of Harga undergo casual conforming which leads to learned helplessness through being immersed in collaborative efforts until their autonomy is almost completely diminished.”

The Harga members mirroring each other’s emotions demonstrate a submission to and celebration of this loss of autonomy as Dani is only truly considered a member when her emotions are mirrored in a shared, visceral group catharsis sparked by her seeing Christian being intimate with someone else. This intimacy of course, was also forced upon him by the group as they participate and facilitate shared sensations of pleasure which anticipate the pain they share with Dani. Thus, Mitterando labels Harga as an “echo-chamber of emotional connection.”

Marz Glennon ‘25 shared their essay, “The influence of real-world religious cultures on that of Harga,” which discusses how human sacrifice throughout history has served as a powerful source of inspiration among the horror genre in general, but especially in the cult-like group which the characters of Midsommar find themselves rapidly immersed in. In their essay, they identify sacrificial rituals performed among the ancient Aztec, Greek, and Norse beliefs, as well as how these practices are interpreted in the depiction of “Harga.”

Despite only vague explanation and allusions to their actual beliefs, Glennon underscores how “as the facts and beliefs of the religion fall by the wayside, the ritualistic, ceremonial human sacrifices are brought to the forefront of the movie.”

Their ritual’s focus on nature, fertility, song and dance with the freedom granted by Mesoamerican isolation which are translated into the world of Harga signal that “it is very likely that Aztec sacrifice was highly influential in the design of the sacrifices of Midsommar.

Glennon emphasizes that isolation“likewise contributed to the number of people sacrificed in the annual festivals.”

Thus, people from outside of the group were secured for the Gods, like how the unsuspecting entourage of Pelle and Ingmar, acting “as representatives of Harga venturing out to retrieve people who will be held prisoner and eventually be used as part of the ‘Midsummer’ sacrificial rituals.”

Thesomorphia, Glennon identifies a Greek ritual “celebrated annually, in what would be modern-day November, was dedicated to Demeter, goddess of harvest and agriculture, and her daughter Persephone, goddess of the seasons and crops.” This ritual, which combines the remains of sacrificed piglets with earth in order to “bless and protect the crops,” may be compared to the characters in Midsommar who are combined with elements of nature.

“Christian was clothed in the skin of the bear, Simon’s body was mutilated using a Viking torture technique called “the blood eagle,” tearing the ribcage and the muscle which once covered the scapula flayed in a way akin to the spreading of an eagle’s wings, and Josh and Connie’s bodies was only ever seen protruding from the earth, or covered in seaweed respectively.”

Lastly, Glennon focuses on Asatro, the worship of Norse gods largely practiced by the Vikings as a dominant influence in the film. Sacrifice, including torture, among Asatro was called “Blót,” which Glennon explains was “derived from the Old Norse word ‘blóta,’ which means ‘to worship through sacrifice.’” Asatro associations are subtly integrated into the plot. “In Midsommar, Christian, the final sacrifice, is sewn into the skin of a brown bear in preparation for the burning of the sacrificial building, a final battle from which he does not escape but happens as the first true spark of Dani’s strength and healing.”

At the end of the panel, a student asked Mitterando and Glennon how they believed their topics could be compared or connected, considering that “the distortion in the film is all rooted in reality, like psycho-active substances, history, or psychology.” Mitterando responded that both topics demonstrate personal and social sacrifice as reflections and projections of the past.” Glennon added that “the emotional past is reflected in the resurgence of archaic rituals.”

Students interested in exploring topics such as those presented by the panelists, as well as the genre as a whole, should consider taking IDND022- “Writing: Horror & Serial Killers” with Jackie Morrill, which is run in both the fall and spring semesters.

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