Terror is the feeling of dread and apprehension at the possibility of something frightening, while horror is the shock and repulsion of seeing the frightening thing. – Lincoln Michel
Ari Aster’s film Midsommar was a polarising film, much like its predecessor, Hereditary. Mr Aster seems to have a knack for creating horrors that make people either truly hate it or gawk at its ingenuity.
The reason for that may be a good topic for another essay another day, but for now, let’s talk about the white, sunlit hell that was Midsommar. Amongst many questions, this movie poses; Was this actually a horror?
You see, audiences have been trained through decades of film languages, to know what to expect with genres, particularly horror. Gore and blood with most, and with others, psychological.
But, with Midosmmar, it would seem a little off either of these categories.
For one, it was slower paced than anyone was expecting. In the first ten minutes, however, the tone was set with the murder/suicide of our protagonist’s family by her sister’s hand. Then it takes nearly an hour to give us our next terrifying scene – at the cliff.
This is a long break in between scenes. Even Hereditary had far more to offer with the gore and terror-inducing moments.
Another issue one might have with Midsommar is that the antagonist wasn’t clearly depicted. On one hand, it seemed the boyfriend played by Jack Reynor, was the true villain. But then, you have this obvious cult that was about to kill the protagonist’s friends and everyone else who had been brought along.
This lack of definition translated well for some, but not for most. Audiences like clear lines: this is who’s bad and this is who’s good. It may seem like a boring option, but it is one of the popularized ways of storytelling – because it works.
Also, the visual aesthetic for Midsommar was a bold choice: white, colourful, full of light, rarely playing in the shadows. All of this played a hand in giving it a certain tone, look and mood that do not jump at you as classic horrors do.
So, was Midsommar really a horror movie?
Alfred Hitchcock had a theory he called the Bomb Theory:
“let’s say you and I are talking mundanely, for five minutes. Suddenly a bomb goes off, and the audience has a ten-second terrible shock. Now, let’s take the same situation and tell the audience in the beginning that under the table there is a bomb and it’s going to go off in five minutes. Show them. So now for the next five minutes, the characters will be talking mundanely, but the audience. The audience will be freaking out: “don’t talk about cricket, get rid of that damn bomb!” but they are helpless. They are not in the scene themselves. “
Terror and horror go hand in hand when making a memorable film. You want to shock the audience, however, you also want to keep them on the edge of their seats at all times.
This, Midsommar does well.
Yes, it takes over an hour for the second moment of horror to occur; But it was an hour-long of the audience submerged in terror for what’s to come, doing so through world-building, character development and plot devices.
The thing that makes Midsommar different is, it’s not a loud sense of terror, but a quiet one, almost gentle.
Many people would walk out of the cinema and say that if anything, the film was disturbing.
A low, creeping sense of dread that never felt as violent as other psychological horror films, but was there regardless.
This type of terror may seem mundane when explained like this but remember: this film tricked many of its audience into thinking the ending was a happy one.
See, the true power of Midsommar lies in being able to not only brainwash the protagonist but to also brainwash the audience.
The ending is beyond tragic: a young woman going through so much with barely any support system and then, taken advantaged of by a murderous cult to kill her boyfriend (and others.)
But the way it was filmed? A depressed young woman finds her support system within a unique community that allows her to express herself and helps her let go of her emotionally-unavailable boyfriend.
The horror is watching her smile as her boyfriend and friends burn. The terror is hearing audience members sympathizing with the community and protagonist long after the credits have rolled. See why the antagonist wasn’t clearly defined?
We, like the protagonist, were given a choice at the end of the film: who was the most deserving to burn? And many of us made a truly terrifying decision.
Midsommar was a horror that seeped through the screen, and into our reality, in a way, many of us haven’t noticed it as. It showed us how easily one could be brainwashed by a cult, and that we [the audience] aren’t all as aware of these tactics as we like to think we are.