From The Wicker Man to Midsommar: Tracing the folk horror tradition and its recent renaissance in cinema
It is impossible to talk about Midsommar without discussing its precedents, which pioneered the rich traditions and iconography of folk horror.
In the last decade, folk horror has certainly enjoyed a renaissance. Films like Black Death, A Field in England, The Witch, Hagazussa, and (more recently) Midsommar, have all drawn from the traditions of this sub-genre, which originated in the late 1960s. Perhaps, it's a nostalgic homage from the new generation of auteur talent, the advent of A24, or just a reflection of the times we live in, but we're currently in the midst of a new wave of folk horror. These films have also helped the horror genre gain considerable critical attention in recent years. Of course, the critics who previously dismissed horror movies as "low-art" now use patronising labels like "elevated horror", "prestige horror", or "post horror". But at least there's a positive response to this resurgence.
The newest addition to this cinematic canon comes from Hereditary director Ari Aster. But it is impossible to talk about Midsommar without discussing its precedents, which pioneered the rich traditions and iconography of folk horror. From its intrusive outsider to its isolated rural commune and all its daylight horrors, Midsommar owes a clear debt to Robin Hardy's The Wicker Man. The 1973 folk horror forebear continues to tower over the sub-genre because it more or less established its essential tenets, which can be boiled down to 5 Ps: Pastoral, Paganism, Pageantry, Portent and Promiscuity.
Midsommar follows these five Ps to a T — and Aster also embeds a relationship drama at its heart. Dani (Florence Pugh) is deeply wracked by grief after a horrific family tragedy and feels isolated in her suffering as her distant boyfriend, Christian (Jack Reynor), offers little to no solace. In an effort to salvage their relationship, they travel to Sweden with their friends to attend a celebration of the summer solstice in a tucked-away commune. Over the course of the festival, they get drawn deeper and deeper into the summertime hijinks and horrors of the commune and their macabre rituals. In The Wicker Man, Sergeant Howie (Edward Woodward) travels to Summerisle to investigate the case of a missing girl and gets unwittingly lured into an olde worlde ritual.
The pastoral element is emphasised in these quaint rural settings. In Midsommar, the idyllic landscape is played up in the bright midnight sun with lush foliage, colourful flowers and white embroidered dresses — and this offers a striking visual contrast to the blood-soaked ritualistic violence. As tension in these films is mostly built through atmosphere, these scenic landscapes have long provided an effective backdrop for sinister events to unfold in folk horror films. So, it is hard not to be unsettled by the vast expanses in Midsommar or the dense forest in The Witch. For a city-dwelling protagonist, it is especially hard to tell which way is which — and this further aggravates their feelings of isolation.
While the operative word 'folk' implies these stories stem from folklore, the 'horror' may stem from occult, witchcraft or a clash between ancient and modern belief systems. This clash between the old ways and the new has worked as a catalyst for many a folk horror film. Films like The Witches (1966), The Blood on Satan's Claw (1971) and The Wicker Man were a reaction to the hippie counterculture's embrace of neopaganism. So, these films reinforced problematic stereotypes of non-Christian belief systems with stories that pitted God-fearing Christians against Satan worshippers and sinister cultists. Midsommar, however, doesn't exactly vilify the cultists but the naive outsiders who disregard or disrespect their traditions. So, the way each character responds to the cult's rituals dictates their fate. The drama comes from these characters trying to reconcile, if not resist, the cult's antiquated worldview with their own modern conscience.
Folk horror appropriates existing pagan traditions and also makes up provocative new ones. Most of the disturbing rituals you see in Midsommar have existed since Benjamin Christensen's 1922 silent horror classic Haxan, which depicted all sorts of medieval taboo-shattering practices, including boiling babies, robbing graves, burning witches and worshipping Satan. The pageantry became more elaborate with the 'unholy trinity' of Witchfinder General, The Blood on Satan's Claw and The Wicker Man, which added phallic symbols like the maypole, naked dances, white robes, floral wreaths, and human sacrifices. Midsommar suggests that death leads to renewal, and that sacrifice will ensure the continued existence of the commune.
The Christian moral propaganda also extends to the way promiscuity is observed in horror films (be it slasher or folk) as characters are routinely punished for engaging in any sexual activity. But sex is also treated as a fertility and virility rite in folk horror. Like Vanessa Redgrave in The Devils, Linda Hayden in The Blood on Satan’s Claw, Britt Ekland in The Wicker Man, Isabelle Grill plays the pretty promiscuous woman who seduces the susceptible outsider in Midsommar — and we see Christian eventually give in to temptation.
Folk horror filmmakers love a bit of foreshadowing to raise intrigue in the story. In The Wicker Man, Howie sneaks into the May Day procession by stealing a Punch the Fool costume but realises later he's just fulfilled one of four requirements ("willing, king-like, virgin fool") for the sacrifice. The ballad 'The Highland Widow’s Lament', which plays early in the film, also foreshadows his tragic fate. In Kill List (2011), we see Jay playing with his son on his wife's back with plastic swords and shields in the backyard. This foreshadows the climactic duel where Jay kills a hunchback, who turns out to be his wife with Sam strapped to her back, and is crowned as king of the Pagan cult. Midsommar's various murals and paintings also foreshadow the events in the film. The painting on a sheet earlier in the film depicts a love spell involving pubic hair baked into a pie and menstrual blood added to a drink. We also see one which directly alludes to the movie's ending: Dani being crowned as May Queen as Christian, placed in a bear carcass, burns in flames.
Martin Scorsese had recently praised Hereditary, noting how the film works even if you take the horror out of it. The same can be said of Aster's sophomore feature. Midsommar is not only steeped in the folk horror tradition, but also builds on it. In fact, it is most thrilling when it focuses on the real horror of co-dependency and toxic masculinity. Even as the mood turns from suspense to outright horror, any ambiguity in its conclusion is resolved when the anguish on Dani's face curls into a smile of sadistic joy with the realisation that she has gained a family even if she has lost a boyfriend. The smile mirrors your own as you realise folk horror is here to stay.
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