What Makes Midsommar So Unsettling?

Ari Aster made one of the scariest films of the 2010s without a single jump scare. Instead, he subtly turned the audience’s own vulnerability and morality against them.

Warning

The following may contains spoilers for Midsommar!

Throughout the 2010s, horror films became increasingly lazy. They abandoned the intricately built tension and unsettling nature, used by some of the genre’s greats to terrify audiences long after the film finished, in favour of cheap jump scares. There were some diamonds in the rough, Jordan Peele’s Get Out infused and subverted racial stereotypes prevalent in the genre to produce an eerie masterpiece, while John Krasinski’s A Quiet Place toyed with our senses, and used its unique auditory concept to instil dread. However, 2019’s Midsommar, directed by Ari Aster, not only disobeys the modern conventions of the genre but uses them against the audience to create one of the most subtly terrifying horror films in recent memory.

At its core, Midsommar is about indoctrination, focusing on Florence Pugh’s ‘Dani’ as she slowly acclimatises and unwillingly begins to accept the rituals and culture of the ‘Hårga’. The film is not ‘traditionally’ scary, there is no flesh-eating monster or bloodthirsty stalker waiting to jump out at the audience. What makes Midsommar so terrifying is how it brainwashes its audience to accept and support the surreal violence that unfolds, creating an uneasy sense of second-hand guilt once the credits roll. While our brains know that we are watching a film, Ari utilises clever composition and editing, along with manipulative characters to make the audience feel as much a part of the cult as Dani does.

Showing Everything & Nothing

Midsommar (2019). A24

The first thing audiences may notice about Midsommar is that it’s uncharacteristically bright for a horror film. The opening scenes set in the US are shot to look like typical horror films, using foreboding lighting, and medium and close-up shots to get the audience’s guard up. Aster then juxtaposes this with Sweden’s long, bright Summer days to slowly ease the audience into a false sense of calm and openness towards the uncomfortable events of the film. Horror films typically use dark colour palettes and overwhelming shadows to suggest that there is something evil lurking in the dark. However, Midsommar‘s shockingly bright tone and palette have the opposite effect. While the serenity of the images calms the audience, it also uses viewers’ pre-existing programming to horror films to suggest that the evil must be right in front of them, hiding in plain sight.

Aster also makes extensive use of full and wide shots to incorporate as much detail in each frame as possible. As well as the main characters being presented in the foreground, Aster includes various Hårga members in the backdrop. While almost every film in existence uses background actors to create a sense of reality and life in each setting, Midsommar goes one step further by telling multiple, smaller stories in the background of each scene, which then links to the film’s finale. Not only does the busyness of each scene uncomfortably overwhelm the viewer, but it cleverly utilises our universal fear of the unknown. The background actors do not stand idly at the back of the frame, they are constantly moving in and out of the picture. By combining this with the pre-existing sense of unease the audience feels around the cult members, the film is subconsciously suggesting to the audience that the Hårga are plotting something out of the frame.

This technique of simultaneously showing a lot and very little at the same time is incredibly hard to pull off. As well as the wide compositions, Aster also continuously uses long takes to play on our pre-programmed expectations of horror films. The majority of films in the genre are shot like dramas, composing and editing their dialogue scenes with medium and close-up shots, cutting back and forth between the characters talking. They will only hold a shot to build tension, often leading to a jump scare. Audiences have become subconsciously conditioned to this, elevating the viewers’ stress levels whenever a shot is held for longer than expected. Midsommar almost exclusively uses long takes, creating a constant sense of stress amongst the audience. This leads viewers to excruciate over every character and detail in the scene, provoking a sense of dread when a Hårga member enters or exits the frame.

The Vulnerability of Isolation

Midsommar (2019). A24

As stated, Midsommar is about indoctrination. While the audience only feels like they are watching Dani lower her defences as she begins to partake in the cult’s rituals, in actuality, it is the viewers that are being manipulated and brainwashed into supporting the Hårga. Cults often target people who feel isolated and lonely, like Dani. For the film’s opening 25 minutes, every shot of Dani is composed to isolate her in some way. When she is talking to her boyfriend Christian, Aster often conveys the two as being emotionally distant by cleverly utilising mirrors to frame the actors, or by placing objects in the foreground to subtly block parts of their faces. The audience is visually told to empathise with Dani, sharing her sense of isolation following the sudden loss of her parents, and the resentment we feel towards her manipulative boyfriend.

Dani’s first positive interaction in the film is with Pelle, the metaphorical Pied Piper (subtly teased in the film’s opening tapestry). From there, Pelle becomes the only supporting character in Christian’s group who the audience feels positively about. We grow to trust him and believe that his concern and support for Dani are genuine. Pelle is Dani’s, and the viewer’s, source of comfort and ease amidst the violence and overt manipulation that occurs.

Midsommar (2019). A24

After the film has established Dani’s isolation and relationship with Pelle, it begins to combine the elements mentioned above to indoctrinate Dani and the audience into the cult. According to video essayist Nathan Wellman (Acolytes of Horror):

“Brainwashing is really just a matter of mental exhaustion. You can’t brainwash somebody with kindness alone. That’s why cults constantly keep their members stressed and tired… We can’t make healthy decisions for ourselves when we’re scared and confused all the time. The brain literally can’t handle it.”

-Nathan Wellman

Midsommar (2019). A24

Midsommar uses this concept to begin its manipulation of the audience. The isolation comes from sympathy towards Dani’s circumstances. The constant wide shots and long takes keep the viewers stressed until it becomes exhausting. And, all the while, Pelle is the audience’s sense of comfort. Like many real-life cults, Pelle exploits Dani’s sense of isolation and extends his feelings of safety and community within the Hårga with Dani. Despite the ritualistic violence and altogether strangeness of the cult, Dani’s new feelings of collectiveness and community begin to outweigh her moral rationality as she partakes in the Hårga’s festivities. As viewers support and sympathise with Dani, her feelings of ease and community begin to bleed through the screen and influence the audience. The film’s sensational final shot shows Dani smiling at the burning building containing her old ‘friends’ and boyfriend. What makes Midsommar so scary, is that we the audience smile with her, despite the horrifying reality of the situation. The film then hard cuts to black and pauses for a while, letting the viewers confront their fractured morality, before the credits roll.

The Realm of Possibility

The audience’s moral dilemma stems from dramatic irony. Going into the film, viewers are well aware that the Hårga are a cult, however, they are still manipulated into supporting Dani’s fiery revenge and indoctrination. Midsommar doesn’t need jump scares or horrifying monsters to be scary, because all it has to do is expose the viewers’ own moral vulnerability to the events of the film in order to leave an uncomfortably long-lasting impression.

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