How Ari Aster built Midsommar’s gory, nightmarish world
The director explains the occult inspirations behind the year’s creepiest film – with spoilers aplenty.
Midsommar is going to fuck you up – if it hasn’t already – and Ari Aster knows it. When asked how it feels to traumatise audiences worldwide, there’s a note of glee to the horror maestro’s reply. “That’s great!” he says. “That makes me happy. I mean, what’s the point of making a film if it’s not going to stick with people?”
Loosely, Aster’s film is the tale of young, naive Americans on a university trip from hell at a heathen Midsommar celebration. In the milky light of Scandinavia’s bright nights, a white-robed cult’s malevolent purpose is slowly revealed, as odd rituals and maypole larks build to a claustrophobic fever pitch. At the film’s nucleus is a staggering performance from British star-to-be Florence Pugh, who brings desperate depth to her character of Dani, a young woman reeling from unspeakable trauma.
Aster’s pagan nightmare has an unforgiving runtime (it shares that much with his deranged debut Hereditary). But Midsommar is laced with comic absurdities, and can be downright camp. At one point, a love spell is cast by lacing food with freshly trimmed pubes. “I think a film without humour is a film wasted,” Aster says. “I have a very dark, macabre sense of humour.”
Even so, Midsommar’s disturbing power is rooted in Aster’s meticulously created mythology, a combination of Norse traditions, runic symbols, and sly visual cues which are scattered like deadly nightshade in the bucolic mise-en-scène. In the week of the film’s release, the director broke down the inspiration behind the film’s most indelible moments.
Aster commissioned a painting to foreshadow the horrors to come
In a move that recalls the doomy prophecies which open a Greek tragedy, Midsommar’s terrors are signalled at the start by an intricate new painting by Taiwan-born artist Mu Pan. “I wanted to open the film with a storybook mural that announces the movie as a kind of fairytale that was moving on a pre-ordained, almost inevitable trajectory,” says Aster. “The style [Mu Pan is] drawing from is based on centuries-old paintings that you’d find in different barns in northern Sweden. The painting in the main house and in the other house are all based on the style of painting that you would find in those houses, hundreds of years ago.”
…As well as a language of runes and emotional hieroglyphs
Early on in the film, Josh (played by Texan actor William Jackson Harper) is informed that the cult’s carvings are based on the Younger Futhark runic alphabet – but Aster put his own spin on it. “[We used] a combination of actual runes from the Futhark,” he explains, “and then an invented language called the Affekt language, which is drawn from the runic alphabet but then also includes invented hieroglyphs – kind of emotional hieroglyphs.”
Each character has their own signature symbols
“Every item of clothing was marked with different runes or Affekts that were specific to that character,” says Aster. For instance, the inverted Raido (ᚱ) symbol on Dani’s dress in the image (left) means something like “crisis,” as writer Jeva Lange points out in The Week. Aster explains: “They’re small details that, in a wide shot, get lost. But then when the character steps in for a medium shot, you can make out how we’ve decorated them.”
The crew built a real-life village
“We filmed in Hungary, about 20 minutes outside of Budapest,” says Aster. “We had to find an empty field which would allow us to build everything from scratch. Everything you see in that village was put there by us. Like Ruben’s temple – the giant temple where the walls are lined with books – none of that is enhanced in post-production. These were actual buildings built to be safe, and sleep in. It’s very sad, we had to tear it down right after making the film.”
There’s a deeply disturbing play on the symbolism of bears
Distributors A24 are marketing geniuses – remember the “Evil Grandmas” calendar they released for Hereditary? Well, they’re now offering a Bear In A Cage toy to commemorate Midsommar’s deranged ending, where – spoiler alert – Christian is sewn up in a bear carcass and burned alive. Aster says that’s “a reference” to Norse warriors known as Berserks, who were sometimes buried in bear skins. “But the bear is also a very loaded symbol in Norse mythology,” the director goes on enigmatically. “I’m loath to put it into words.”
Aster even created a guide to Midsommar’s mythology
“There was a very clear guide that the art department and costume department had to reference,” says Aster. “Everything was worked out very thoughtfully before anything was applied. I think anybody who takes design seriously, and world building, and character building seriously as a filmmaker, is definitely engaging very actively on that level.”
But the filmmaker won’t be drawn on specifics – for now. “Good luck getting me to tell you exactly what anything means,” Aster says with a laugh. “Who knows: we might release the guide at some point so that people can maybe apply it when they watch the film!”