I’m not rewatching too many movies as part of my 31 Days, 31 Scares marathon, mainly because there’s so much new and new-to-me stuff out there that I have an existential dread of perishing before I consume all the good films.
Despite my entertainment FOMO, there are a couple reasons I’ve been wanting to revisit this duo of Ari Aster masterpieces.
For one thing, in my other life as a writer of non-blog-content I’ve been working on my own horror script and I’m pretty sure HEREDITARY (2018) is a structural influence. I like to make sure to turn all my fun hobbies into labor, so giving myself writer homework on top of my blog homework works out perfectly!
For another thing, I listened to this great podcast, THE SCAREDY CATS HORROR SHOW, and the Aster episode reminded me how GOOD both these films are. I remember liking MIDSOMMAR (2019) more out of the two, but I also watched it first, so I wanted a chance to experience both films again in their release order to see if that feeling holds true. (It does. More on this later.)
The biggest reason I wanted to watch this duo again, though, is that ever since I watched them the first time there’s been something about them that bugged me, which I struggled to articulate. It all has something to do with both films’ proliferation of keening women:
In both HEREDITARY and MIDSOMMAR, we spend a good deal of time watching (and listening to) distraught women make unearthly sounds of despair. Ari Aster clearly has a thing for the throat-rending sob, and uses it to good effect: both Dani and Annie make sounds of grief so unnerving and full-voiced that it’s hard not to enter into a sort of sympathetic physical tension. Their sorrow feels otherworldly in its magnitude – who actually cries like that? Only someone experiencing a pain so unimaginably brutal, it belongs in a horror film.
So the keening works really well as a device that sets the stage for theme and tone: these are stories about grief, and about the experience of an all-out, full-bodied horror at the stark realities of the world.
Of course, when you watch them back-to-back, its easy to notice how similar these scenes are. In the images above, we see two prostrate women being physically supported by stoic men in half-lit rooms that ought to be safe spaces, but aren’t. In both stories, the stoic man performs a comfort action more than once, yet fails to provide the emotional support needed by the sad woman.
It feels like a “men suck” thesis, but when you look closer I think there’s more to it.
In HEREDITARY, Annie has lost a daughter but so has Steve. But where is his sadness? It’s not difficult to imagine he’s hiding it; the world is rife with emotionally repressed cis het dudes, and he certainly seems like one of them. Still, I’d expect some kind of reaction to the brutal death of his daughter, and the only thing that really seems to get to him is when harm comes to his son. The only time he raises his voice is when he says he “has a son to protect”; the only time he cries is after nearly running a red light with an unconscious Peter in the back seat. The film spends no time on Steve’s presumed grief after Charlie (Millie Shapiro) dies, focusing instead on the way Annie’s grief seems to inconvenience him. Of course it’s possible that her grief takes up so much space, he feels like there’s no room in the house for his…but it’s conspicuous to me that in both films, this is the dynamic. Why is the gender breakdown so stark? Why is it that only women (and teens, if you count Peter) have debilitating emotional responses to traumatic events?
There’s a clear implication that men are obligated to perform strength in support of women, regardless of what they themselves might be going through. In MIDSOMMAR, Christian isn’t really “going through” any trauma of his own…but it’s also clear that he would’ve broken up with Dani if things had timed out differently. He spends months playing boyfriend to a girl he doesn’t love out of a sense of obligation – an obligation that seems to stem from the fact that she’s in palpable emotional need. If her sadness were smaller, less explosive – would he have stayed?
In other words, Dani and Annie’s grief are harmful to others. In one scene, Annie’s grief manifests as lashing out in anger at Peter, and she says truly terrible things to him. In her scene of prostrate weeping, we pan into the hallway, where Peter listens, horrified. In her grief she seeks answers outside her home, and it’s her mistaken interpretation of the supernatural events around her that lead to the family’s doom. It feels like the movie is saying, maybe it’s fate, or maybe it’s all her fault.
As a thesis, I’m not super into it. Is the real problem that her grief is itself harmful? Or is the reason it harms because no one around her is capable of grieving at her pace?
This is why, in addition to the whole idyllic horror thing, I like MIDSOMMAR better. Dani journeys from being alone and alienated in her grief to being embraced by the Harga, who literally perform grief in sync with her breath. The most powerful scene in either movie is the one in which Dani, reeling from the discovery of Christian’s infidelity (which, ok, is for sure rape, and could totally be a topic for a whole other post about how he’s actually the victim here…a post I’m definitely never going to write, because I hate him.)
OK, we got off track there. ANYWAY:
Dani, reeling from the discovery of Christian’s infidelity, is bodily carried to a secluded spot and embraced in the throes of her panic attack by like ten Harga women who all breathe and keen in sync with her.
It’s an act of profound empathy in which the Harga literally and figuratively hold her, keeping pace with her pain and thereby transforming it into a manageable thing. It’s a ritual. It’s fucking weird, but it’s also mesmerizing, and 100% made me want to hop on a plane and join a Swedish cult. If you or someone you know is a member of the Harga: call me.
The moral of MIDSOMMAR seems to be: fuck the guy, get yourself a community.
After the first viewing, I thought of this film as the ultimate revenge fantasy. I thought: this movie has a happy ending.
And while I still love this film, further reflection and a second viewing have me back to thinking about how Dani’s grief causes harm. Because, while it’s true that I hate Christian, it’s also true that he was drugged and coerced into his “infidelity” and the worst thing he probably did intentionally in the film was just be overall mediocre as a boyfriend…which doesn’t seem like something he deserves to die for. By contrast, the Harga man Dani could’ve chosen to die instead was there of his own free will. Christian’s death is murder; the death of the Harga would be ritual suicide. These are not the same magnitude of terrible.
The reason that Christian dies at all is because, in Dani’s grief, she chooses that for him. And in the end, Dani is happy with her choice. Floating on psychedelics as the Harga scream in sympathy for two of their brethren who are burning to death, she smiles. Which to me, was one of the things that made this a happy ending. She’s found a community, a family – she’s finally being held.
But the community is framed as perverse. It’s a beautiful place full of beautiful people who regularly engage in ritual acts of coercion and violence.
What does it say about Dani that the only place she can find a home for her outsized emotional life is within a town of murderous pro-sex Quakers? What does it say about her that her grief is so big that it takes an entire community to carry it?
This is a horror movie. It has a clear moral. It has a ton of brutal violence. The Final Girl lives at the explicit expense of other people. And the thing that sets most of the pivotal events of this film – both films – into motion, is uncontrolled grief perpetrated by women against the men around them.
On first glance, Dani’s journey feels like one of empowerment. On reflection however, she might be just as disempowered as Annie. It is her grief–augmented by some hallucinatory outside forces–that is really in control.