Analogies are useful, but never precise. When Midsommar came out last year, people were saying “It’s like Wicker Man.” It’s a good analogy, but not precise. The plots have quite a bit in common and both are part of the genre that we might call intellectual horror. Midsommar is a slow burn where you know from the beginning that something’s not right, and you can’t quite figure out what. I’ll try not to give away too much, in case, like me, you’re late in seeing it. It involves a group in Sweden, the Hårga, who celebrate a Midsummer ritual every 90 years. A group of five graduate students—and the writers of the movie actually do know what grad school is like—go to study the ritual. In central Sweden, far enough north that it’s never really night, they discover a pleasant group of white-garbed believers who use a combination of drugs, sleep deprivation, and folk magic to get the pawns into place.
What fascinates here is just how a fictional religion, with some basis in reality, becomes the vehicle for horror. The deaths of three of the students are all in the service of a belief system that involves runes, fertility rites, scriptures, and ritual suicide. It’s self-aware enough that one of the students compares it to Waco early on. If there were no exotic religion here, there would be no horror. Tragedy, yes, but horror, no. The entire energy of the genre draws from four of the students (the fifth is from the community in Sweden) not knowing what is going on. The village of the Hårga is isolated, and there is no law to keep them within the bounds of secular behavior. By the end of the film you feel that secular is much safer than religious.
Midsommar foreshadows much of the horror in the illustrations that the community readily supplies. Paintings show what is coming although the viewers, like the students, don’t know what they’re seeing at the time. Some of the horror is based on shock, but the director doesn’t stoop to startle scares. Well, maybe once. This is horror that you can see coming and you’re fully aware that it’s because the white-robed ones truly believe. The ending is similar to Wicker Man and the message is much the same. Religion, when taken too seriously, leads to the sacrifice of those deemed outsiders. And you don’t have to go to Sweden to find it.