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How ‘Midsommar’ Turned Tradition and Folklore Into Nightmare Fuel

Part of the dark magic of Ari Aster’s latest film is its richly detailed world, created by infusing Nordic culture with terrifying imagination

A24/Ringer illustration
Spoiler alert

I left my screening of Ari Aster’s new film Midsommar with two big questions: Where could I get my paws on an elaborate flower crown? And exactly how concerned should I be about getting murdered in an inventive way at a real midsummer festival?

In Midsommar, Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren) invites his American friends to celebrate an extra-special midsummer festival in his home, the secretive village of Hårga in northern Sweden. The outsiders witness ceremonies that oscillate wildly between idyllic and ghastly. A vision of Scandinavian paradise—neverending summertime sunshine, beautiful women in daintily embroidered smocks, dining al fresco in large groups, live music, dancing, easy access to psychedelics—boils into horror and mayhem. But—and this is important—it’s never generic scary-movie chaos. While the film’s visuals are trippy and surreal, the village of Hårga has a specific sense of place that makes its body count all the more harrowing. Even though the filming actually took place in Hungary, Midsommar derives atmospheric intensity from how lived-in, expansive, and distinctive Hårga’s history and tradition feels.

Early on in the film, the crew spots a runestone, a large rock carved with an ancient text. “Looks like the Elder Futhark!” Josh (William Jackson Harper), the most eager scholar, exclaims. He is gently corrected: The carvings are letters from Younger Futhark, a newer variation of the runic alphabet. But Elder and Younger Futhark are the real names of old writing systems, and their inclusion in Midsommar is one of many examples of Aster mixing the real into the hellish. The next time we see a runestone, it is being smeared in blood by a willing human sacrifice. In this way, the world conjured in Midsommar feels at once meticulously Nordic and from another, extremely fucked-up planet.

“Obviously we took great liberties with the things we were drawing from,” Aster tells me when I ask what he pulled from his imagination and what he’d based on actual traditions and folklore. The writer/director had never been to Sweden before the company B-Reel commissioned him to write a horror movie set during midsummer festivities. “I was just a big fan of Swedish cinema,” he says.

To prepare for the film, he visited Sweden to experience midsummer three times, and began studying intensely. “I learned the runic alphabet,” Aster says. “I also went up with my production designer Henrik Svensson to northern Sweden and looked at a bunch of centuries-old farms. A lot of the houses that we saw were painted from floor to ceiling in every room, and those paintings were important inspiration to the world we were creating.” The famous 19th-century anthropological study into religions, James George Frazer’s The Golden Bough, was another major touchstone for Aster, who plucked rituals like the May Queen’s crop-blessing from the book.

The dormitory-style barn Dani (Florence Pugh), Christian (Jack Reynor), and the other visitors stay in is covered with intricate artwork based on what Aster had really seen, but all of the film’s art and Swedish architecture is original, created specifically for the project. “Everything in that village was created strictly for that film, and the mural that opens the film was painted by a great contemporary artist named Mu Pan,” Aster says. The music, too, was invented and not sourced from tradition, and the fertility ceremony involving a female chorus toward the end of the film is also completely fictional. “That was my creation,” Aster says, noting that the sequence was a collaboration with vocal artist Jessika Kenny, who made up all of the Hårga’s choral songs. While they do include some Swedish words, the songs are in an invented language. “It’s akin to singing in tongues,” Aster says. In the film, the Hårga communicate in an “Affect language” in addition to speaking Swedish and in written runes, and Aster said all of the costumes in the film were specially made rather than sourced, so that they could imbue them with extra meaning using these symbols. “On every item of clothing that you’ll see members of the community wearing, there are runic symbols and different hieroglyphs from this invented language which we call the Affect language, that are specifically tailored to that character,” he said. “We have a giant map of which character associates with which rune—we went deep with all of that stuff.”

For example, as he prepares for his fertility ritual, Christian wears a robe with the symbol known as “Tiwaz.” “Aster’s use of the symbol here is pretty on the nose; Tiwaz is associated with the god Týr, and also with masculine power and energy,” writer Jeva Lange explains in a piece on the runes in Midsommar for The Week. “Seeing as Christian dons the outfit right before a sex ritual, the evocation of male energy is appropriate.”

A number of rituals from the film are more obviously tethered to tradition than the costumes and music. Dancing around a maypole is a popular tradition in many different European cultures, and the maypole in the film closely resembles those still used today. “It’s believed that the concept of maypoles came to Scandinavia from Germany specifically because, though the style of maypoles varies a lot through Europe, in Germany they’re often decorated with plants,” Lori Fredrickson of Scandinavia House, a Nordic cultural center in New York, tells The Ringer. “In the Scandinavian countries, maypoles are instead raised to celebrate Midsommar, and one of the reasons for this is that spring comes much later to Scandinavia.” Fredrickson emphasized that the dances Swedish people do around the maypole are not sinister as they are in the film. “Everyone pretends to be a frog and hops around,” she says. “It’s not at all a creepy thing.”

Perhaps most memorably, in Midsommar’s grisly closing sequence, Christian gets stuffed into the carcass of a freshly killed bear and burned alive, alongside other human sacrifices, both willing and not. While human sacrifices are not a traditional part of midsummer festivities, Aster notes that the bear thing wasn’t completely random. “The bear holds certain significance in Norse mythology, and I was sort of drawing from that,” he says. Indeed, there are myths involving Viking men donning bearskins to enter battle in a trance-like state; these warriors, known as “berserkers” were sometimes thought to be immune to fire. Medievalist scholar Eduardo Ramos’s paper “The Dreams of a Bear: Animal Traditions in the Old Norse-Icelandic Context” details some of the region’s mythology surrounding bears and bear cults. “The etymology for berserkr that is most accepted is that it comes from ‘bear-shirt’ or ‘bear coat,’ implying that these warriors wore the pelts of bears,” Ramos writes. So while Christian’s death was weird and shocking, the choice of the bear was grounded in Nordic myth.

Fredrickson stresses that the midsummer festivities depicted in the film are not realistic—“It’s nothing like that”—but she did note that Aster had clearly done his homework with some of the non-murdery elements. “One thing I noticed in the movie, which is sort of true, is the fact that on midsummer there’s a tradition for girls to go out and collect seven different kinds of flowers and put them under their pillow,” she said. “It is said that if they do that, they will dream about the person that they will marry.” The flower-picking is just one of several different love-focused rituals depicted in the film. The other, far more outré ritual involves a woman serving specially augmented (and very unsanitary) food and drink to the object of her affection as an aphrodisiac. “Dropping menstrual blood into his coffee and putting your pubic hair into his food is also drawn from actual Swedish folklore,” Aster insists on this note.

The film weaves mythology directly into its plotline, as Midsommar takes its first big swerve into horror during what is known as an Ättestupan ceremony. After an elaborate dinner honoring two of the village elders, Pelle brings his American friends to a gathering where most of the community members are standing under the sun, faces upturned expectedly at a rock wall. The elders reappear from above, looking grim but resolute as they solemnly cut their hands with a knife and smear the blood on a runestone. Tension builds as what they are about to do becomes apparent and yet still impossible to believe. They leap to their deaths, as tradition dictates for people in the commune who reach the age of 72.

The outsiders are aghast, especially since one elder’s suicide requires further assistance, but the grisly ritual is based on local mythology; in Sweden, there are precipes known as Ättestupa, rumored sites of ritualistic senicide in prehistoric times. “We hear that on this hill there is an ‘Ättestupa,’ or artificial round composed or large stones, a place from which, legend says, old and infirm people used to throw themselves in ancient times to avoid the ignominy of dying in their beds,” writer Violet Crompton-Roberts wrote in her 1888 travel book, A Jubilee Jaunt to Norway, repeating the popular legend. However, there’s no hard evidence that this ever took place: “Historians today agree Ättestupa never existed in real life but it is a myth inspired by a story in the medieval Icelandic saga ‘Gautreks saga’ set in Sweden,” Sweden’s Consul General Annika Rembe says in an email.

Rembe stresses that the real midsummer is about family—not murder. “It is an intergenerational celebration focused on community,” she says. “There is absolutely nothing sinister about midsummer, on the contrary, it is a very happy celebration!” Fredrickson, too, calls the celebration “very happy,” and hopes that it will drum up interest in the actual holiday. “This is a major, major holiday in Scandinavia,” she says. “So it’s kind of funny that this is the first way people are hearing about it.”