Written by Richard P. Serin
Some films really seem to divide opinion, not just in a ‘is it good/ is it bad’ kind of way, but in the very experience they create. Midsommar is one such film, one Guardian reviewer described it as “dread-free horror”, while others describe it as the obligatory “scariest film of the year”. Most people I know didn’t find it scary in the least, and there are debates about whether it’s even a horror film (the answer, by the way, is that it is. If the Wicker Man is a horror, then so is this). Personally, I found it terrifying; not in a fun, hardcore ghost train kind of way, more in a ‘fucking hell this is stressful, I think I might have to turn it off’ kind of way.
All art affects people differently, but there seems to be something unique about the experience of fear. The primal reflexes, common to most of us, which have evolved over millions of years to help us respond to threats of all kinds, become entwined with our individual beliefs, assumptions and past experiences. Something that one person finds a thrilling delight can be unbearably horrifying to another.
Some horror fans are rarely scared by the films they see – but still spend years looking for that film, the one which will finally scare the living shit out of them. Others always find it terrifying but revel in that fear. And, of course, there are those who refuse to watch horror at all, baffled as to why anybody would seek out things in the hope of being terrified. Individual films or specific genres can also have similarly distinct effects.
Two films that often get cited by seasoned horror fans as being terrifying are Lake Mungo and The Autopsy of Jane Doe. However, both of these films had almost no effect on me whatsoever and I am genuinely baffled by what people found scary in either of those films. There aren’t many films that have really scared me (although I love it when they do), but there are lots that kind of creep me out, and neither of these films even did that. Sadly, because my expectations were so high, watching each of them was a disappointing experience.
On the other hand, Midsommar, as I’ve already mentioned, really got to me. It’s a great example of how the experiences you bring to a film determine what you take away from it, and what I brought to Midsommar was a history of narcotic use, paranoia, psychosis, and strange fields populated with outwardly friendly hippy-types who seep with manipulative ill intent. The late nineties early noughties alternative rave scene was one of dingy clubs, abandoned warehouses, welsh mountains and farmers’ fields; a far cry from the world of the super clubs, with their extortionate ticket prices and idiotic dress-codes. Most of my memories of that time (admittedly, they are few and far between) are positive, but for me it ended badly.
The first act of Midsommar, with the gaslighting of the ‘hero’ Dani, by her boyfriend Christian, and the depictions of suicide and grief are disturbing, and the sense that things are not going to turn out too well is palpable, but I didn’t find it frightening.
Then they take the mushrooms.
Now, I’ve watched a lot of films with depictions of psychedelic drug use and have often been impressed at the inventive ways that film makers achieve their effects. Each ‘trip’ is unique, and given that it is almost impossible to put these experiences into words, anything that comes close to portraying it is a triumph. However, there was something about the way Christian declares ‘oh fuck, it’s a new person’ (to which their friend Mark replies ‘I don’t want a new person right now’) that caught me off guard. It felt more authentic than anything I’d seen before. I can even remember saying those exact words myself, I remember other people saying them too, and I remember what effect this new person can have. Suddenly, what has felt like a carefully balanced, shared, psychedelic experience becomes something threatening. I’ve seen people run away in terror after the arrival of the ‘new person’. These are not experiences I’ve ever discussed, and it has been nearly two decades since I left that life behind, but hearing those words again, being uttered by a character in a film took me right back. It was deeply disconcerting, but also strangely legitimising. It was as if the film had turned its attention towards me, clawing into my very being.
I was startled. My mind had been primed, so that as the film progressed, the sense of unease mutated into dread and anxiety. It stayed with me long after the movie had ended.
My psychosis was based around a belief that things that were happening around me had been orchestrated. I was the focus of some sort of mass occult ritual, designed to strip away my sense of identity and manipulate me for the amusement of those involved, or perhaps the subject of an intricate psychological experiment, whereby I would be steered into certain situations in which I would be forced to question my own reality, my own sanity. My tormentors wanted me to know that something was going on too. They would say as much to my face, when it was just me and them, only to behave like nothing had happened when someone else came into the room.
At its height I believed that my whole world was a fabrication, that I was the unwitting star in some kind of Truman Show, except more sinister and deadly – I even believed that my own family, who I love very much, were preparing to kill me and then cook me on a sacrificial barbeque. I still can’t watch The Truman Show.
I don’t know (and nor does the scientific consensus) if I was pre-disposed to this kind of thing, or if taking large amounts of drugs was the sole cause, but they certainly didn’t help; especially after continuing to do so even when I knew my paranoid was getting worse. Either way my psychosis continued, to varying degrees, for several months after I’d stopped taking any drugs at all. I do think there were other factors. I still believe that some people were ‘fucking’ with me, getting a kick out of my responses, although I can never be sure. It’s also transpired recently that I am autistic. I’m the kind of autistic that, not so long ago, would have been diagnosed as Asperger’s. Taking drugs made me feel more ‘normal’, so that I could interact with other people more easily. But of course, my tendency to misunderstand people and the risk of me being gullably manipulated was probably made worse. Thankfully, with the help of a supportive family, medication, and a course of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy I have largely recovered, although I am still haunted.
When Midsommar descended so skilfully into its world of malicious psychedelia, barely concealed conspiracy and extreme gaslighting, I descended with it. When Christian is sat at the table during the feast, tripping his face off, scared and confused, he says to the man sat next to him ‘excuse me, what’s going on’, the old man responds by clapping his hands in Christian’s face, sending him further into his waking nightmare; it felt more like a horrific memory than a work of fiction. That sense of helplessness. The realisation that the people around you mean you harm, that they are playing with you, and there’s nothing you can do to escape. I’ve been there. All you can do is wait, hoping that you’re wrong, hoping they don’t kill you before the night is out. Even the scene where he is placed into the bear skin and set alight felt sickeningly close to home – it’s much like the kind of thing I believed my own family were planning.
I didn’t enjoy watching Midsommar, but I did cherish the experience. It brought a lot of stuff back that I’d rather it didn’t, but sometimes it’s better to face our demons than to let them rot and fester in our subconscious. I can’t say it was cathartic, that honour goes to Climax, which I’d watched a few weeks before, but it was validating.
I’ve heard people say that Midsommar is a kind of extreme break-up movie, and I must confess to not getting that at all. Sure, Christian is a dick, who misleads and deceives his girlfriend, but by the end I thought they were both victims. I didn’t see someone breaking free of a toxic relationship, because she doesn’t really have any agency in the process. She lets go, and embraces it, and apparently ‘chooses’ Christian for sacrifice, but only after days of relentless manipulation and exploitation. It wasn’t pathos, it was tragedy.
But what do I know? It’s just another example of my experiences colouring my interpretations.
I understand why some people don’t find Midsommar scary, it’s so expertly crafted to reflect a very specific set of fears. It is also deliberately comedic, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t a horror (in fact I thought those elements only made it worse). If you’d seen the things I’ve seen, and believed what I have believed, then you’d agree: Midsommar is horror of the highest order.