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How Real Is The Cult From 'Midsommar'?
What kinds of historical research did Ari Aster do for the sunny horror film "Midsommar"?
Ari Aster has followed up his nightmarish film "Hereditary" with yet another disturbing thriller — the seasonally appropriate "Midsommar." Taking place almost entirely in broad daylight, "Midsommar" has defied the conventions of the horror genre and garnered almost universal critical approval along the way. Far from supernatural, the most frightening element of the movie is the human drama, meaning that it's not too far-fetched to imagine at least some of the events in the movie are based on reality. How much of "Midsommar" was inspired by real life, and how much of it was entirely made up?
Warning: Spoilers Ahead
"Midsommar" tells the story of Dani Ardor, who, in the first moments of the movie, loses her sister and parents to a murder-suicide. Along with her boyfriend, Christian, and his two buddies from grad school, she decides to visit a small commune in Sweden for an obscure and rejuvenating solstice ritual. The denizens of Hårga have something special planned for the foursome, however, and instead target the outsiders as potential human sacrifices to their ancient gods. Dani alone survives the slaughter, having ascended to the role of May Queen.
The short answer is that the cult depicted in "Midsommar" is not based on one exact group, but is more a combination of elements from several different pagan and pre-monotheistic factions.
“It’s a stew,” Aster said during a talk after a screening of the film at the Brooklyn Alamo Drafthouse, according to Polygon. “We’re drawing from actual Swedish traditions, we’re drawing from Swedish folklore, we’re drawing from Norse mythology.”
Firstly, the film's location is, in fact, a real rural area of Sweden. It's existence as an agrarian commune, however, is not based on reality: By all accounts, the town is regular old farmland. The specific pagan sect depicted occupying Hårga appears to be an amalgamation of various polytheistic cults throughout history, only some of which were even located in Sweden.
Hårga is located in Hälsingland, a region known for its lush culture of intricate and often frighteningly violent wall paintings, the aesthetics of which are seen throughout the movie, explained the film's production designer, Henrik Svensson.
"[The iconography of the region] is very weird," Svensson tells Thrillist, "in a biblical, scary way from the beginning, and very easy to offset just a tiny bit to suddenly contain lots of creepy sex, blood, magic and the history of violence,"
In the real Hårga, there is indeed a traditional maypole song and dance as depicted in the film: Usually, an older woman narrates the story of the Devil appearing as a fiddler and forcing the villagers to dance until death — a scene re-dramatized each year with the last woman standing becoming queen, as per the movie. Although the actual song wasn't used for the film, this was one of the starting points for how Hårga was chosen as the movie's setting, said Aster.
"It's always more fun to tether it to something tangible," Aster told Thrillist. "But then, you know, you do run the risk of the real thing being confused for whatever you've done."
Svensson further explained the dance, known as Hälsingehambon.
"They start with the staging of the myth on the Hårga meadow, and then follows several segments of the dance, to finally be ended in the nearby city of Kilafors," Svensson told Thrillist.
Although the Hälsingehambon dance does not end in a killing, there were indeed extensive practices of human sacrifice throughout ancient Sweden, traceable to the 11th century. The rituals existed primarily for the magical purposes of bringing about a better harvest, as shown in historical texts like "Gesta Hammaburgensis ecclesiae pontificum" and the "Gesta Danorum."
King Domalde, an 11th century ruler, was offered as his subjects' ultimate sacrifice after lesser sacrifices did not help the land prosper. The ordeal was described by Snorri Sturluson in the Ynglinga saga.
"The first autumn they sacrificed oxen, but the succeeding season was not improved thereby. The following autumn they sacrificed men, but the succeeding year was rather worse. The third autumn, when the offer of sacrifices should begin, a great multitude of Swedes came to Upsalir; and now the chiefs held consultations with each other, and all agreed that the times of scarcity were on account of their king Domald, and they resolved to offer him for good seasons, and to assault and kill him, and sprinkle the stalle of the gods with his blood. And they did so," wrote Sturluson in 1225.
Despite the historical prevalence of human sacrifice throughout Swedish history, actual Swedish midsummer rituals celebrated fertility, not death. Midsummer rituals in Germany, however, have a darker past, and sometimes did involve sacrifices to sun gods.
Po Tidholm, a Swedish author who has written extensively about Swedish folklore and traditions, confirmed that the very notion of a midsummer ritual is — in fact — still in practice throughout the country to this day.
"Midsummer is one of those holidays where Swedes reconnect with the more agrarian heritage. Many Swedes start their summer vacation around midsummer and leave town to spend time in cottages, summer houses or with country-dwelling relatives," Tidholm told Esquire. "Midsummer is all about celebrating summer, eating herring, drinking aquavit and staying up late. It is a light and happy tradition."
However, Tidholm emphasized that, "to my knowledge there [have] never been any sacrifices on midsummer. Not even in ancient times."
The usage of hallucinogens in these ceremonies, Tidholm said, were largely ahistorical fabrications added for dramatic effect.
The runic alphabets seen throughout the film were also not based on the history of Sweden, Tidholm added. However, Aster's team did significant research and interviewed several historians in order to create a sort of spin-off of actual magical languages.
"We kind of co-created this language called the Affekt language, which is with a K," Aster told Thrillist. "It really is a melange of folklore, historical fact, tradition and invention."
However, the bizarre love spell cast by a cultist in Midsommar does have some historical basis, perhaps stemming from Italian witchcraft, according to the book "Crime and Justice in Late Medieval Italy" by Trevor Dean. Dean found at least one record of a maiden baking her pubic hair and menstrual blood into a pastry in order to magically attract a potential suitor.
The film concludes with the burning of a scared temple containing human sacrifices — which, again, is a bit of an amalgamation of various traditions. Although flammable effigies were burned by Celts to celebrate the harvest, as reported in several ancient Greco-Roman attestations, archaeological evidence suggests that human sacrifices were not regularly used in these proceedings, according to historian Peter S. Wells' book "The Barbarians Speak: How the Conquered Peoples Shaped Roman Europe." Although some viewers saw this sequence as a plot hole, these effigies would be re-built the next season and then set ablaze yet again each year. This tradition has been carried on in contemporary times — in far a more secular fashion — with festivals like Burning Man.
Ultimately, Aster prefers that viewers understand his film as an allegory or fable with its own mythical structure as opposed to pattern matching which parts are derived from specific cultures.
"I’ve always seen 'Midsommar' a fairy tale," Aster told Vox. "Orphaning your main character is the oldest fairy tale move in the book, and that was important for where the film goes, ... I keep telling people I want it to be confusing. ... It’s a movie that is adhering to the laws of a certain subgenre, folk-horror, but with the logic of a different genre, a fairy tale."