‘Midsommar’ And The Rise Of Folk Horror


It must be frustrating for Adam Scovell. Having written a fascinating and insightful volume called ‘Folk Horror: Hours Dreadful and Things Strange’, along has come the mother of all films folk-horrorish.

Folk horror has always existed in some form or another, from spots where runic symbols are carved to rural areas of supposed mystical significance. It was reborn from the writings of MR James, Alan Garner, Nigel Kneale and the like, and jumped into film. The genre classics include ‘Witchfinder General’, ‘The Wicker Man’, ‘Blood on Satan’s Claw’ and ‘A Field In England’ but there are many others combining elements of myth, rural lore and pastoral strangeness. It’s very British, but I would argue for future studies to include rural folk myths of America. Scovell’s book looks at Australian similarities too, in films like ‘Picnic At Hanging Rock’, ‘Walkabout’ and how the landscape magnifies toxic masculinity in ‘Wake In Fright’.

Now comes ‘Midsommar’ from director Ari Aster, whose claustrophobic, dread-filled ‘Hereditary’ channeled ‘Rosemary’s Baby’, yet was its own beast. I had a problem with that film’s pay-off, jumping into full-blown wigged-out supernatural madness, whereas a similarly set up film, ‘Kill List’, brought events to a more organic and natural conclusion.

Well, this time director Aster is paying close homage to ‘The Wicker Man’, with distinct differences. In keeping with today’s self-obsessed times, the film is about a relationship breaking down in extremis rather than the bigger issue of christianity VS paganism. In ‘The Wicker Man’ Lord Summerisle’s crops failed and the lie could not be maintained, but in Hälsingland, where ‘Midsommar’ is set, it’s not about lying to the community – here the community unites to heal and save itself.

Plot-wise there’s not much to work with. Four friends go on an anthropological trip to Sweden. Dani is traumatised by her family’s inexplicable demise and it seems that her nice but wavering boyfriend may soon dump her, encouraged by his good-time mates. In the rural North the awkwardly mismatched quartet arrive at an idyllic commune, part-Amish, part Woodstock, where the butterfly-filled fields are bedecked with flower garlands, maypoles, folk art, singing, open-air dining, white smocks and benign pagan rituals.

A key element of folk horror involves sacrifice for the greater good, and so it proves here. Soon there are disturbing elements that appear unusual to outsiders, to say the least, including an age limit on life-spans and an over-reliance on herbal highs. And what’s in the temple they’ve built? It has to be something bad because it echoes the tree house in ‘Hereditary’, even though it’s painted sunflower yellow. The community’s rules are ultimately intelligent and cohesive, and the film is suffused with a woozy psychedelic slow-burn that’s genuinely disorienting. Flowers pulsate, the landscape shifts and the true meaning of ‘commune’ is learned…

Unlike ‘Hereditary’, ‘Midsommar’ builds to an outcome you’ve seen coming for most of its (very long) running time, but its slow inevitability makes you dread it all the more. After it’s over, you look back and realise that it was not a horror film at all, but something completely different.

Still, there are a couple of plot wrinkles I’d love to discuss with someone!



4 comments on “‘Midsommar’ And The Rise Of Folk Horror”

  1. snowy says:

    “It must be frustrating for Adam Scovell. Having written a fascinating and insightful volume called ‘Folk Horror: Hours Dreadful and Things Strange’, along has come the mother of all films folk-horrorish.”

    Not necessarily, might be quite a sweet gig to be an expert in Folk Horror with a book to sell when the film hits the screen and the afternoon TV circuit is looking to fiil space. [smiley type thing]

    “The genre classics include ‘Witchfinder General’, ‘The Wicker Man’, ‘Blood on Satan’s Claw’ and ‘A Field In England’ but there are many others combining elements of myth, rural lore and pastoral strangeness.”

    At the risk of ‘Ruaridh-ing’ it up all over the place, the film that promotes Sustainably Sourced, Organic Willow Smoked Pork, is slightly different to the others. It was conceived and presented as a ‘present and existential’ source of fear. [Where the others are historical tableaux, from which the audience has a comfortable sense of distance and two: WG and BoSC were certainly more sources of titillation than dread].

    Despite its slightly folksy trimmings TWM fits more closely into the Town vs Country sub-genre like ‘Straw Dogs’, ‘Deliverence’ etc.

    * Proof reads copy *

    Ooops! that went a bit double nerdy, ultra film nerd and then analysis of narrative impact within a contextual framework. [Stop… stop… If symptoms persist – Open beer!]

    Er… Um… What was my point? I’m sure I had one once!

    Oh! If you want to have a ‘spoiler-tastic’ intercourse, about general themes within the film, with a group of people who might mostly have yet to see it. You could put out another post.

    Title “Midsommar Spoilers”
    Image [See link above]

    I’m sure the really brainy types, [ie. not me], round here would happily talk about the folk history of ritual senicide and if a particular form of execution viz: exposing the internal organs was ever really practised.

  2. Ian Luck says:

    There’s a very good article on the continued rise of ‘Folk Horror’ in the current issue of ‘Fortean Times’, a magazine I’ve loved for many, many years, and one, which if anyone would be a subscriber (or ‘borrow’ that month’s copy from their local library), it would be Arthur Bryant.

  3. Ian Luck says:

    I was wondering about ‘Folk Horror’. It seems to stem from the age old fear of ‘The Other’ (no, not the 1970’s euphemism for sex), the fear of being lost, amongst strangers, and possibly hearing: “You’re not from around here, are you?”, which of course, was twisted into various horrid shapes by ‘The League Of Gentlemen’, with the question: “Are you local?” to which every answer you give is wrong… Folk Horror could stem from the land, too – I have met people who have lived in towns and cities all their lives, terrified of just being in the countryside; in horror of the silence at night, and on the top of hills. People afraid of walking into a wood, afraid that they will be lost, or somehow done away with. I’ve experienced it, too, when I lived in Yorkshire. I used to like walking in places I’d never been before, and one day, I went to Studley Royal, the park where Fountains Abbey is possibly the greatest garden ornament of all. But this time, I wasn’t looking at the follies in that bit – I was walking the course of the river Skell, as it wandered under several bridges in a narrow valley. At first, it was beautiful, and interesting, but the further I went… It felt like I was being watched. Of course, there was nobody about, but the feeling got worse and worse as I progressed. It was a bright sunny day, but it seemed to get darker – as it wasn’t yet lunchtime, that wasn’t very possible. As I went round another corner, two R.A.F. jets flew over me at zero feet, so fast that the noise of their engines had to catch up, and when it did, that was the final nail in the coffin. I turned and fled back the way I’d come, and the feeling of unease did not diminish – if anything, it got worse, with the feeling that something behind me was chivvying me away. And then I came out into the park proper, with the waterfall and Abbey on my left, and the path leading to Studley Roger on my right. And people. And noise. It felt fine. Looking back from where I’d come, the gloom reappeared. I went home, as fast as I could. I later told some friends, who said things to the effect of: “You went there on your own?” I never found out anything about the area, but most people I talked to said that they would not go there if you paid them. I did think that as all of Studley Royal was landscaped from moorland, and the valley was part of that, the landscape itself might have been resentful of the interference – teams of workers moved hills from one place to another to create views, for example. Whatever it was, it was palpable, and terrified me. Could that be folk horror? Maybe.

  4. Roger says:

    “… it is one of the curses of a mind with a turn like mine that I must look at everything with reference to my own special subject. You look at these scattered houses, and you are impressed by their beauty. I look at them, and the only thought which comes to me is a feeling of their isolation and of the impunity with which crime may be committed there… They always fill me with a certain horror. It is my belief, Watson, founded upon my experience, that the lowest and vilest alleys in London do not present a more dreadful record of sin than does the smiling and beautiful countryside.”

    – Arthur Conan Doyle: The Adventure of the Copper Beeches.

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