Among the witches who raised me, the three pillars of “Pagan cinema” were The Wicker Man (1973), The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975), and The Wizard of Oz (1939). These were the films we played at parties, the films whose characters we dressed as for Halloween, the films whose lines we quoted to one another ad nauseum once the rituals and feasts were through for the evening. “Are you a good witch, or a bad witch?” I could not tell you who the voice saying the line in my head belongs to – Margaret Hamilton’s Wicked Witch of the West, or my own mother.These were strange films for us to adore. I recall a Wicker Man viewing at one of our festivals. I believe I was on the cusp of adulthood at the time, 16 or 17, watching my Pagan family while they watched the film’s finale, where a ring of Summerisle denizens cheer and sing while the dour Christian, Sergeant Howie, is burned alive inside of the titular wicker man. My family sang along, the words to the Middle English round “Sumer is Icumen In” springing lightly from their lips:
Sumer is Icumen in,
Loudly sing, cuckoo!
Grows the seed and blows the mead,
And springs the wood anew;
When the film was over, I, all-knowing teenager that I was, began to berate them. “How can you sit there, singing? It’s a horror film, for gods’ sakes. They burned that man alive.”
They rolled their eyes at me, wondering how I could defend such a sexless Puritan killjoy like Sgt. Howie. And besides, they said, if we can’t cheer for the bad guys in movies like this, we won’t have anybody to cheer for at all.
I didn’t understand it then, but I came to, later on: in The Wicker Man, and even in Rocky Horror and The Wizard of Oz, the characters we identified ourselves with – Lord Summerisle and his villagers, Dr. Frank N. Furter, the Wicked Witch – were the villains of the piece, but they were closest we could find to representation in film. As members of the counterculture we were not cut out to serve as protagonists, but sometimes a film would come along with an antagonist who reminded us of ourselves.
To the rest of the world we were objects – of curiosity, of contempt, of lust, of fear – and that was reflected in the available cinema; but we learned to take that objective gaze and reorient it until the objects became the subjects, until Howie became the villain and the Summerisle Pagans the heroes.
I will admit, this never really sat well with me. I still can’t watch The Wicker Man with those eyes, and when I finally saw Rosemary’s Baby (1968) in my 20s, the presence of all those Wiccan signifiers – the esbats and the pentagrams – unnerved more than thrilled me. I blame it on being a second-generation Pagan: being brought up in the Pagan world from the beginning, I never quite learned my elders’ survival techniques.
I have made my peace with my parents and their embrace of Summerisle. One of the reasons we watch horror films is the pleasure of transgression, and watching Howie burn remains one of the few places in film where a Pagan audience can confidently say “our people” got one over on “their people.” Is it horrific? Sure – but it’s also the best we can expect while “they” are the ones making the pictures.One simply can’t watch Ari Aster’s new film, Midsommar, without thinking of Robin Hardy’s classic. The essential shape of the plot is nearly identical between the two films: an outsider is invited into a strange and reclusive Pagan community, where the religious ceremonies of the villagers become over the course of the film more and more befuddling and disturbing, coming to an awful – but inevitable – climax of pain, death, and (spoilers, I suppose) fire. Similarly, they share in the stylistic choice called “daylight horror” – a version of the genre where, rather than relying on the dread of waiting for something to strike from the shadows, all of the grotesquery and violence plays out in bright, vivid color under the light of the sun. But under the surface, the two films diverge, especially for a Pagan audience. I do not expect we will see the same kind of transgressive cheering at the climax of Midsommar in years to come.
The film centers around Dani (Florence Pugh), a graduate student in psychology (“so you know I’m crazy,” as she says, an admission of the film’s comfort with using mental illness as a crutch in its pursuit of horror.) She has a long but loveless relationship with Christian (Jack Reynor), who studies anthropology. Christian is self-absorbed, a narcissist who gaslights Dani into dependency upon him and then resents her for it.
Midsommar begins with a shocking opening sequence in which Dani learns of the murder-suicide of her parents at the hands of her bipolar sister (see above, regarding mental illness), an event that echoes throughout the rest of the film. Christian, who had been on the verge of leaving her prior to the news, remains with her more out of resignation than commitment. When one of his friends, a Swedish student named Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren), offers Christian and his grad school friends a chance to visit the commune where he grew up during a once-in-a-century midsummer festival, Christian agrees without even discussing it with Dani. When she finds out, he invites her along, and to the dismay of himself and his (all-male) cohort, she agrees.
What follows is a trip – in multiple senses of the word – into a world that seems at first to be bucolic and arcadian, especially to my Heathen eyes: the village of Hårga, depicted in the eternal honey-light of the Nordic summer, is gorgeous, resplendent with flowers and maypoles on the outside, murals and runic patterns on the inside. Indeed, runes are everywhere to be found: stitched into clothing, carved into wood and stone, and even found in the arrangement of tables and chairs for the feasts that seem to happen continually in the village. The camerawork is one of the main attractions to the film, and the mixture of natural imagery and Pagan handiwork that often fills the screen is gorgeous and painterly. It also serves to make the unflinching brutality of the violence all the more ghastly.As one expects, over the course of the film, there is death and dismemberment in store for the outsiders, who are picked off one-by-one. Some meet their fates as punishment for their transgressions, in typical horror style, while others seem to meet more arbitrary ends, until only Dani and Christian are left, each of them drawn deep into the web of the midsummer rites. It’s left to Dani to make an awful choice in the film’s final sequence, which serves as an inscrutable statement on misogyny, trauma, or acceptance into a community, depending on how one reads it.
Something seemed off to me as I watched the final images play in the theater, a sequence that extensively quotes The Wicker Man. I did not have the same sense of being unnerved by another tale of strange Pagan cultists entrancing and then devouring naive outsiders here, despite that being the essential plot of both films. I was certainly still bothered, but in a different direction. It took a few hours of consideration before I came to a conclusion about what felt different about this particular “Pagan horror film.”
In The Wicker Man, the central relationship is between Sgt. Howie and Lord Summerisle, the latter so memorably played by Christopher Lee. There is a sense of philosophical debate between the two. Although Lord Summerisle is the film’s antagonist, he is allowed some measure of subjectivity – he is a character that the audience comes to know as a person, someone we can form an opinion about.
There is no equivalent character in Midsommar. Pelle, who brought the graduate students to the commune, occasionally tries to make his motives known, but from the beginning he is cast as a liminal figure, one foot in the outside world and the other in Hårga, and in any case, he mostly drops out of the film once the ceremonies begin to take their final turn. Besides him, the other Swedish villagers are utter ciphers with about as much individuality as a bee in a hive. At meals, they stare straight forward, unspeaking, until given a cue to toast or eat. They take no actions that are not in unison, a truth which extends past their dining practices, into their sexual mores, and sleeping habits.
Even the overall cycle of their lives happens in lockstep: every person in Hårga divides their lives into four 18-year divisions of childhood, pilgrimage, working life, and elderhood. What happens to the person who decides to live according to another rhythm? There is no answer: being a horror film, one expects the bloodiest response, but that seems at odds with how the Hårgans view themselves.
It’s this lack of individuality – of personhood – that I find most disturbing about the film, and it’s the reason that, unlike Wicker Man (and certainly unlike the playful camp of the “villains” in Rocky Horror and Wizard of Oz), I can’t imagine projecting myself onto the villagers in Midsommar. The film regards the villagers as set dressing more than as a community with a logical (if horrific) belief system. Combined with the one-dimensionality of most of the lead characters, the result is a film that, while beautifully shot, ultimately feels hollow. (The exception to this is Florence Pugh’s performance as Dani, a raw, heart-tearing embodiment of grief and isolation.)
As somebody who grew up discomforted with the state of “Pagan cinema,” I entered Midsommar hoping to see a film that took the tropes of the isolated Pagan community in a new direction. Unfortunately, the film ends up feeling like a regression. What is “Pagan” here is entirely object; unlike other films, there is no room for us to find a place for ourselves as subjects. There may be a lot for a Pagan audience to appreciate in Midsommar’s imagery, but it’s another film that only cares about what happens to its token Christian.