Midsommar (2019, R) is a dark fairy tale (horror) film, my mind felt like a riot of themes and thoughts. But three figures refused to let me go, the May Queen, the Oracle, and the Bear. The movie is filled with overriding themes of trauma-bonding, cult over community, and flaccid masculinity.
The more I reflect on this movie the more I’m in awe of it. It’s dark, and violent, and extremely mature. But so is life at times. And so is the central theme of powerful, fearful, raging feminine angst and betrayal.
So I went and googled pages and pages of articles and reviews. I couldn’t find anyone is making some of these points here. So yes, spoilers ahead.
I see the May Queen, the Oracle, and the Bear as the key stakes in this story: dominant Kali, shattered Quasimodo, and a Caged Brute saved for stuffing.
Pelle may be the new oracle, but he is emasculated and manipulative. ‘Unclouded’ means fundamentalist, easily able to repress his doubts. He’s manipulative in that he’s leading his ‘friends’ to a reality none of them want or understand. He knows they are lambs for the slaughter, but he’s such a good little cult member that nothing troubles him. And that’s why bears are caged and burnt: masculinity is a problem to be dealt with. Pelle sits in the audience, crowned like the May Queen, but spineless.
So check my site disclaimer if you disagree. In time, I may disagree too. 🙂 But after one viewing of this movie, here are some toothy thinklings that prodded me to look under the surface.
Here’s what this post is not: its not a review of the feels, or how shocking it was, or a paean to the daylight terror. And its not about fan theories. I don’t know much about the director and his vision, and I read that Swedish audiences laughed at this show like a comedy.
For me, I confess the horror elements felt pretty rote. The movie is about as jarring as the ‘Vikings’ series, or ‘Game of Thrones’. As of this post, I had literally just finished reading ‘DMT: The Spirit Molecule’, so the trip elements stood out to me.
So I’m going to take the story on its own merits. I get the strong sense that it is a cultural commentary, where the director is using a terror-based cult to point out bad answers to real problems.
And with that, here’s praise for the incredible Florence Pugh, who’s continuing to blow me away with her delivery.
Ok: here’s a list of reflections:
Normal vs New
The movie begins in the ‘normal’ world. It is dark, filmed at night, and filled with flat, faceless homes. Bored teens drinking together, feeling aimless about their life and their sexuality.
This age in life is a midsummer time, when youth is all about competition and energy, lusty with weddings and food and young families. These teens can’t decide on their future. Dani is deeply codependent, wanting to leave her flaccid boyfriend, but fearful of her own power.
Her sister’s bipolar struggles ignites the action. I’m pretty sure that’s meant to be a thematic nod to the day and light poles of life, and as we’ll see, foreshadows my theme of traumatized women taking charge to normalize death.
Halsingland, the isolated, retro-pagan, anachronistic cult village is bright and logical. It has clear rules, is filled with smiles and laughter and children. It seems like a place where youth can come alive again. Where being human makes sense.
The flipped camera and the first mushroom trips indicate a gateway, a transition between worlds. They seem to be entering into greater contact, a more wholistic contact, with reality. Several times, Dani seems herself becoming the earth itself.
Haunted by two figures
Two figures haunt the micro life of Dani (her sister), and the macro life of the commune (the inbred oracle).
Her sister was bipolar, and suicidal. The deep trauma of losing her family in a single night forced her to seek help and compassion. Her boyfriend, Christian, can’t decide if he’s dumping her or not. They are codependent, and both aware that it’s a problem. Dani is deeply attentive and caring for her sister. She feels that listening to Christian is the cause of all the death- when it’s obvious he’s simply managing her on the phone, and she’s gaslighting her own intuition. He doesn’t care, and wants her to hang up. This contrasts to the deep breathing-bonding with the cluster later on, that helps her face what she’s been avoiding.
The inbred oracle is forever celebrated and pedestalled, and yet held at arm’s length. Everyone recognizes that inbreeding causes problems, so this oracle figure means something important. Especially since his visions and writing are the code, the template that drives the commune. Effectively, the reins of power are repeatedly handed to a traumatized male outcast. Why? How is that ever going to generate healthy direction?
In both cases, these 2 figures are deep in trauma and abandonment, and are yanking the strings of the lives around them.
I imagine the oracle is always on the fringe of life, and so enjoys being vindictive, watching the sex ceremonies, orchestrating the deaths, dreaming up god-visions and ceremonies that harm and terrorize the people in his life.
It reminds me of Shyamalan’s ‘Village’, where the monster is central.
Fear of Abandonment
Around the centerpoint, Dani has a dream where her friends drive off and leave her. She is abandoned in a daylight hell on earth.
What’s telling about this is what happens next. Her fear of abandonment becomes exhaled car exhaust against the world. She seems to be discovering her own rage, her own ability to respond. And she’s ready to smother and kill.
She feels abandoned by her family, out in the cold. And in the first half of the movie, she constantly gaslights her own desires, because she can’t risk being ‘the bad guy’. She cant risk rejection, even when its by a clique that doesn’t want her. And she knows it. But they all pretend.
This fear of abandonment is deeply, primally human. In our early years we derive our identity and self worth from group belonging.
In Midsommar, she has no one but a gelded group of aimless dorks. For some reason she feels she can’t listen to the strong advice of her girl friend on the phone. She’s in the prime of her young beauty. Perhaps she’s the kind of woman who wants a man, and wants the bonding.
There are no men in her life to affirm her, support her, and empower her. No healthy examples of mature masculinity. And that’s a critical point.
She’s terrified that her unmet needs will drive everyone away. She’s desperate to be heard. I’m assuming that she’s left a home where she was very codependent with her parents. Their unhealthy relationship prompted her to find a soft, non-aggressive man? Perhaps her parents were authoritarian, pressing her into the shadows, quite possibly giving all the attention to her sister. Looking at the decor in their rooms, Dani’s room felt simple and chaotic. Her sister’s room was dense with detail and elements.
She’s entering the college and working world, but she’s emotionally handicapped, and begging for the safety of authority. Which is why Christian’s half-hearted dismissal is enough for her to repress her own fears in an instant.
She just left the cult of her family, and is sensitive and floundering.
This takes us to the Midsommar cult. I think the founder of this commune had a similar origin story, 30 years before. And its out of this welter of pain that a plan was born.
This brilliant overview by Leo really helps us understand the power of cult dynamics – not to shame us. But to realize that cults are tribes that become ideologies. We can’t help it, until we start paying attention.
A digression on Masculine & Feminine
First, I need to outline my clumsy take on masculine, feminine, and the social structures that emerge too often from them. Because I believe our modern world, and Christian living, is rife with sodden frustration at sexuality. For far too long, the discussion on human living has been driven by the wobbling dyad of patriarchies and matriarchies – both wanting to honor the physical realities of sexuality. And both ignoring the reality of a spectrum of human interior being.
These thoughts come from a recent reading of Fr Daniel Horan’s book, ‘Catholicity and Emerging Personhood.’ In a nutshell, he holds up that it’s time to move beyond the dimorphism of Platonic thought on human sexuality – the ancient idea that women are weaker, incomplete men. We need to move beyond that, and take up the call of Duns Scotus, a medieval Franciscan scholar, who outlined some of these thoughts here.
Yes, there is a duality of sexual being. That’s physically undeniable. But humans add a layer of conscious life to this dynamism. And the thing about conscious life is that it is ‘like the angels, neither giving nor taking in marriage.’ Each persons humanity is a synthesis of both masculine and feminine. The Theology of the Body is a deep need, but only half the picture. Because men and women both express human existence. The language of lesser, greater, does not apply. Each individual is a human. Sexuality is a fragmenting into physics, an emergence into embodiment. It is a gift unasked for, as a starting point on a spectrum. And it can’t be denied, repressed, or stereotyped. Not forever, anyway.
In extremely broad terms, the feminine impulse and genius is about life, coherence, community, growing, receptivity.
The masculine impulse and genius is about death, ending, division, separation, individuality, action.
Both are brilliant and good. Both emerge from the holy mystery of God. Every human is meant to integrate both for full human living. God fully integrates all of it. Both mother and father.
But each sexuality has a dark downside when they are separated. The feminine impulse needs to integrate the masculine.
Without death, life become cancer. Without individuals, community becomes cult. Without freedom, pain becomes trauma bonding.
And the reverse is true. The masculine must integrate the feminine. Otherwise individuality collapses into individualism, death-work becomes nihilism and power plays. Pain becomes a tool to terrify instead of prompting healing for free living.
Its critical that we don’t flatten these points into stereotypes of merely ‘men’ and ‘women’. Manhood and womanhood both participate in the masculine and feminine impulses. Its a matter of starting points.
Women embody the feminine impulses in their biology, and the point of being alive is to discover and become intentional about integrating the masculine impulse. And its the same for all men. Men must discover the feminine impulse, to balance our ability to segment and ideate with compassion and life-nurturing.
This doesn’t make for androgynous humans, because that means being balded or gelded of any sexuality. No, it’s the other way.
The human fully lived embodies all the values and virtues of a complete sexuality. A complete interior sexual life is both active and receptive. This spectrum is lived out in a way that honors the biological expression. Our bodies are celebrations of these patterns, as starting points.
We are more than organs to be paired for the survival of the species. Humans include conscious living in our sexuality, and that makes everything complex and delightful and dark and messy. Women and men must discover whole human living within themselves, and not look for ‘cooperation’ or ‘completion’ in someone else’s biology. That’s a form of normalized codependency.
It’s only in full integration as a human being that we become free, free in ourselves to understand our own impulses, our own genius, and our contribution. Most of us sleepwalk through life. And some of us begin to awake to dark repressions that we’ve internalised, and our very biology rebels. As it should. Humans don’t exist for stereotyping. Patterns of human living provide structure for identity, a scaffolding that we must intentionally make our own.
That’s why Midsommar is so visceral and powerful. Because I believe the director ‘gets’ our failed patriarchical system, and is showing us the dark underbelly of a Matriarchy, as bright as it seems, and leaves us in the last shot with a sense of smiling, grim horror.
Cultures become stuck in stereotypes when we flatten sexuality to mere organs and ‘traditional’ gender roles.
And that’s how we get Patriarchy and Matriarchy, the conflicts of this movie. Both systems are deeply flawed, because they are stereotypes. I fully understand the call and the pull, because both responses are a human bi-polarity. Bit neither is able to integrate the other. Patriarchy, of its name and nature, assumes the ascendancy of male impulses. Matriarchy pedestals the female impulses. Stereotypes like this are dangerous – which I contend is the whole point of Midsommar.
The Midsommar problem
Who is in confident charge in the cult? Women are free to demand sex (Maya and Christian), women host the ceremonies, and are constantly affirming and holding each other (the lighting the candle scene).
The May Queen is also a deity-like figure who decides who lives and dies, and presides over the May sacrifices.
Our world needs more women to feel empowered and free. Our world is desperate for more of it – on their terms. Many women feel like Dani at the opening of the movie. Entering a commune like this, filled with Amazonian confidence, calls to her. She hungers for the normalized nurturing and sharing of feminine living she sees around her – even as the events terrify her.
Women are constantly faced with many, deeply felt experiences – blood, pain, emotion, birth, loss, cycles. It’s tragic to me that we live in a culture where these things have no place. Where daytime masculinity doesn’t integrate any of the needed impulses of womanhood. Where women feel like second-class citizens, and their needs don’t feel normalized in ways that matter to them.
In this cult, men seem to have no effect. They are used, and ignored. Do manual labor, and male babies. After Christian lies with Maya, the women close around their new impregnate and ignore him. Deep moments of meaning are shared with other women. There is no individuality. Even the private sexual dance between man and woman is a collaboration with others, and friends throw flowered paths while the whole village watches.
Early on, we see Dani resting under a painting of a girl touching the nose of a great bear. It foreshadows the strange role of a bear in the movie. I don’t agree that bears are a symbol of evil. They definitely are a symbol of danger, especially male bears.
Vikings would trip before battle and go ‘berserk’, wearing bear belts and trophies to channel their strength. Viking gods would appear in bear form.
I suggest bears, in this movie, are the patriarchy. The dark side of un-integrated masculinity. It represents the dangerous side of life, wildness, death, animal urges, fear in the night.
That’s why we see it caged. A matriarchy has no place for uncontrolled danger. Technically, neither does a patriarchy. Patriarchy handles danger like ‘Spartacus: Blood and Sand.’ Puts it in an arena and goes Conan the Barbarian over it.
Midsommar is about cult that tries to incorporate death and pain while wide awake, in the daylight, to control it, like caging a bear to be killed.
This is a problem, because many aspects of being alive can’t like be caged and controlled. We must live in respect, honor, and collaboration with them – such as the natural world, sickness, aging, death. We need to incorporate their reality into our lives, not build lives where we try to control all outcomes.
“Reality is greater than ideas.” – Pope Francis
But we just can’t help ourselves. We love making systems that fit our personality types and fears, instead of integrating everything.
Notice how in the final sacrifice men are killed and skinned and stuffed with flowers and burnt.
By the end, Dani, the finalist of the Maypole gauntlet, has become a flower-strewn monster, so decked out and weighed down she can’t walk. She struggles from right to left (perhaps from right brain toward left brain?) realizing there’s nowhere to go, because the left brain is going up in flames. She looks like a joke, like a hill, or a huge tumor. She herself has almost disappeared.
The obsession to control life and control experiences turns us into beasts, and turns a daylight lovelife commune into a predating monster. All the white and happy colors is a mask, all the makeup is a dissonance.
The absent solution
Weak men are the hallmark problem in this movie. The ones in Dani’s we meet are spineless, and unwilling to stand. The boldest boy, Mark, early on turns into comic relief when faced with bugs and flowers. It’s probable that her dad was authoritarian.
Modern culture is shown as sick with acedia and men dismissing or gaslighting women. The commune is managed by gentled men. There are no Aragorns in sight.
The key thing missing in the movie is the bear, and masculinity, a force to balance broken womanhood, to modulate life and keep cancer at bay. The men are emasculated, gentled, and dorks. Women have been so burned by bad masculinity that new ‘gods’ are introduced, or restored.
The world is ruled by the May Queen, a flower-clouded Kali of death and life. She is partnered with a silent Quasimodo, who’s choked human needs sour into violence. Together, they wield violence and trauma to create a culture where everything pretends to be done in daylight, with a sunny logic that ignores all the dissonance just under the surface.
Everyone is regularly taking psychedelics to dull their human responses. The cult dynamics of de-personalizing and group trauma bonding are intense. Everyone is lightly high, and expressing their emotions together. Laughing and screaming creates a riot of internal rewiring and attachment. Individuality sinks back into pre-human, communal living of the animal world
The rules all make the world seem safe and predictable, with the regular injection of outsiders to replenish and sacrifice.
But even that injection causes dissonance and self reflection within the cult. So its important that things are done publicly to gaslight objections. Things are dealt with quickly and violently to break down responses.
And primal violence trauma-bonds each generation, every 90 yrs. Dani’s dream is a summary of the movie, how her fear of abandonment prompts an exhaust of her shadow on the world. And she steps into a terrible role, leaving one cult for another.
I’m not here to say that what this movie needs is a man. No.
What Dani needed was to find the help she craved to detach, to allow her friends to ‘die’ to her, and to strike out into a new life on her own terms. But that inner strength was never modelled, never empowered, or encouraged.
And so she falls from frying pan into the fire.