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, Mid­som­mars 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 Mid­som­mars 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 Mid­som­mars 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!” 

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