Divided by Eight

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.

Homemade Halloween

Halloween is a holiday that brings together many origins.  One of the more recent is the tradition of watching horror movies in October.  I don’t know if anyone has addressed when horror films became associated with the holiday, but Halloween hasn’t always been about startles and scares.  Histories usually trace it to the Celtic festival of Samhain.  Samhain was one of the four “cross-quarter days.”  Along with Beltane (May Day), its other post equinox cousin, it was considered a time of year when death and life could intermingle.  Spooky, yes.  Horror, not necessarily.  Many cultures have had a better relationship with their dead than we do.  We live in a death-denying culture and consequently lead lives of futile anxiety as if death can somehow be avoided.

As a holiday Halloween only became what it is now when it was transported from Celtic regions to North America.  Other seasonal traditions—some of English origin such as Beggars’ Night and Guy Fawkes Night—which fell around the same time added to the growth of trick-or-treating and wearing masks.  At its heart Halloween was the day before All Saints Day, which the Catholic Church transferred to November 1 in order to curb enthusiasm for Samhain.  As is usual in such circumstances, the holy days blended with the holidays and a hybrid—call it a monster—emerged.   When merchants learned that people would spend money to capture that spooky feeling, Halloween became a commercial enterprise.  Despite All Saints being a “day of obligation,” nobody gets off school just because it’s Halloween.

My October has been particularly busy this year.  One of the reasons is that Holy Horror, as a book dealing with scary movies, is seasonally themed.  As I was pondering this, weak and weary, upon the eve of a bleak November, I realized that home viewing of horror—which is now a big part of the holiday—is a fairly recent phenomenon.  Many of us still alive remember when VHS players became affordable and you could actually rent movies to watch whenever you wanted to!  Doesn’t that seem like ancient history now, like something maybe the Sumerians invented?  People watch movies on their wristwatches, for crying out loud.  I suspect that John Carpenter’s Halloween had a good deal to do with making the holiday and the horror franchise connection.  Horror films can be set in any season (Wicker Man, for instance, is about Beltane, and three guesses what season Midsommar references).  We’re so busy that we relegate them to this time of year, forgetting that we still have something of the wisdom of the Celts from which we might learn.