Midsommar (2019) – the representation of mental illness through horror, the psychological susceptibility to cult narratives, & the power of empathy

Midsommar (2019) is a dark-themed cinematic fairytale described by its director and writer Ari Aster as a “horror movie about codependency”. The film encompasses a portrayal of mental illness- bipolar disorder, anxiety, and mood disorders, the pattern and dynamics of a dysfunctional codependent relationship, the exploitation of trauma and vulnerability that is part of the cult indoctrination process, the disillusionment with reality, cognitive dissonance, the uplifting power and importance of empathy and reciprocity, and the psychological susceptibility of a fragmented psyche.

The overall atmosphere created and the feelings evoked in Midsommar are quite different compared to other horror films. Everything happens during daytime, which facilitates the beautiful contrast between the macabre aspect and the idyllic, nostalgic setting filled with enchanted fun, laughter, and dance- all wrapped in a shroud of dreamlike ambiguity (and tinged with a perpetual sense of ominousness). The bizarre light-heartedness of the inhabitants in the face of sinister macabre events adds another layer of ominousness as the spectator is held spellbound by the diaphanous fabric of reality within this strange peaceful community, whilst perpetually feeling like something horrifying could take place at any moment.

Initially shocked by the horrific, gruesome ritualistic events she witnesses within the cult, Dani is gradually lured into the peculiar, nightmarish world because of all its promises of bliss and belonging. The place she finds herself in is like a strange crystal ball, an escapist fantasy gone wrong, sheltering her from a reality that failed her expectations. The process of recruitment within cults often involves an exploitation of trauma, as they prey upon the vulnerable aspects of the human psyche, on powerlessness and feelings of isolation, of being misunderstood, disappointed or mistreated by fate or the external world, in order to sell an alternative, superior, rescuing narrative. For cult members, reality is either too much or not enough. Dani is the archetypal vulnerable person with a psychological susceptibility to being brainwashed and sucked into the ghastly, yet rewarding cult because of the suffering she has experienced in the “real world”. After the tragic demise of her family, she feels alienated from the world and can’t find comfort in her unsatisfying relationship with her boyfriend, Christian, who has emotionally checked out and is unable to fulfil or share her emotional needs.

Taking into account Dani’s backstory is essential in order to understand her gradual conversion to the religion and strange ways of the cult. The relationship dynamic between Christian and Dani is a typical codependent-avoidant dynamic. There is a particular scene in which this dynamic is emphasised very clearly: the more she pushes, both physically and emotionally, the more he withdraws and feels suffocated, and she feels even more rejected and pushes further- this type of dynamic is a vicious cycle. Early on, we find out Dani’s sister is bipolar, and Dani takes anxiety medication, whilst Christian and his friends see her mental struggles as a burden. Although his male friends encourage him to part ways with her in an insensitive conversation at the bar, he feels guilty for his thoughts after the tragedy that has struck, hence inviting her to the Swedish summer solstice festival. Throughout the film, Dani constantly condemns his attitude and perceived uncaring nature, sometimes in a controlling way, other times in a passive-aggressive way. Christian’s friends display no empathy towards her and, whilst he does not have enough energy to deal with her emotionally demanding nature and to reciprocate her emotional investment in the way she wants, he is also not inconsiderate. His friends put up a flimsy facade of niceness around her, which collapses whenever she walks out of the picture. The tension can be felt, and her instinct can tell something is wrong. Her good instinct is constantly denied by those around her, hence the dangerous gaslighting effect leading to a mistrust of her own instinct.

It is generally impossible to pinpoint the one to blame in such relational settings, as both the codependent and the avoidant contribute to a toxic relational pattern, sometimes as a result of emotional trauma or mental disorders, even if they have no bad intentions. It fluctuates. In his discussions with his friends, they sound selfish and unfair towards her and we pity or empathise with her and condemn him, especially after the lack of respect shown towards her in absentia. However, there are moments when Dani is the one seemingly unreasonable and overly pushy and controlling, with a needy attitude, and we almost empathise with his response of feeling cornered. The film manages to make the spectator understand both points of view, but ultimately condemns Christian. Their attachment styles render the relationship doomed to unhappiness due to incompatibilities on the levels of emotional needs and support.

Dani is not seen, her feelings are not acknowledged or validated, and there is an element of gaslighting. This is important because it is why she is attracted to and ensnared by the sinister world of the cult. It feels like the cult community fully accepts her, with her intense emotional makeup. In a bizarre and particularly powerful and cathartic key scene, her emotional reactions are validated and encouraged by the community- it is like she transfers her emotions onto them, and they directly empathise with her by sharing her energy and screaming with her. Crowned as the May Queen, Dani feels embraced, understood, more than seen: she feels celebrated as she is held up in the air and worshipped, she escapes from being sucked into a vortex of mental despair and unhappiness following the tragic events. The May Queen is the personification of spring, and spring is a time of rebirth, symbolically marking Dani’s personal spiritual rebirth and new, happier life. After the shocking imagery and events at the end, at first she is sad and distressed, but then, we can see how her sadness and despair are loudly echoed by the community, whilst Dani’s sorrow is superseded by a strong, gratifying feeling of belonging, of being part of a whole. Remember when her boyfriend’s friend, Pelle, significantly asks her “Does he feel like home to you?”. Her boyfriend never felt like home, nothing felt like home to her in the external world post-tragedy, since her actual family situation was so abnormal. A healthy approach would have been finding home within herself through self-love. However, after the surreal events, Dani’s mind is too unstable to represent the safe concept of home for herself and she needs external support, so the cult-like community becomes her home. After that realisation of unity, gradually, her facial expression transitions and she starts smiling. Her smile suggests a new beginning. The ending is quite powerful and touching: As she smiles, we smile with her and we feel happy for her because she has found happiness, even if her solace was found within such a grim environment and despite the human sacrifices and prior grotesque events unfolding on screen. 

Florence Pugh manages to convey the fragmentation and transition of her character’s psyche admirably. Dani experiences a state of cognitive dissonance when her emotional cravings for being loved and understood override her ability to reason and to process the gravity of the horror and the evil side of the cult. Her profound disillusionment with reality makes her idealise the cult community because it offers her what she lacks and craves the most. The disappointing, misery-inducing events in her life contribute to her future shift towards what feels good- namely empathy, regardless of the the fact that it is provided in an unpredictable, deadly environment. The director, Ari Aster, mentions that she transitions from one codependent relationship to another, so, from her unsatisfying codependent relationship with her boyfriend to a more satisfying one with the loving, empathetic, murderously dark community.

As a spectator, you might find Midsommar to be a strange dream you are deeply immersed in and captivated by, leaving you in a state of blissful confusion even after you walk out of the cinema. The celestial beauty and holy aura of the film setting masking the disturbingly dark characteristics of the cult contribute to a state of confusion, which is amplified by hallucinogenic moments. Aside from Dani’s inner turmoil and emotional metamorphosis compellingly conveyed externally, another ingredient to this cocktail of emotions is a general tinge of existential dread. Ultimately, though, you might empathise with Dani and feel happy and confused by your own happiness in such a gruesome context.

Wuthering Heights (2011) and the uncanny connection with nature

The following film stills represent a collection of brief moments providing a glimpse of the haunting, alluringly grim aesthetic of Wuthering Heights (2011), directed by Andrea Arnold. The film is a moody, visceral, atmospheric cinematic version of the story featuring the natural beauty and intensity of Kaya Scodelario as Cathy and her ineffable connection with Heathcliff, both of them sharing a deep bond with the gloomy, bleak, foggy surroundings.

The scenery is dark and as chaotic and turbulent as the compelling cinematography of the film. The atmospheric sounds are intense and loud. From the very beginning, the sound makes us anticipate the eerie human-nature connection. A grown-up Heathcliff wanders around thoughtfully in an empty room, in what appears to be an abandoned house. We can hear the loud wind from outside, as well as the cracking sounds of the doors and the floor. There is something eerie about the location and the unfolding of this initial scene. It looks and sounds as if it could be a house from a horror film. When the branches of a tree hit the window, it reminds us of the scene from the book in which Mr. Lockwood breaks the window to make the tapping stop. In the film, Heathcliff runs against the wall and ends up collapsing on the floor. After he starts crying, we hear four blows on the window, followed by Heathcliff’s matching response: hitting the floor four times while crying in despair. Then, we hear the impetuous rain and the powerful wind followed by the loud bark of the dogs. The wuthering sound remains constant. Heathcliff remains behind and is barked at by a dog, to which he responds with a savage snarl that implies his wild nature.

The chemistry between young Heathcliff and Cathy seems to be quite unusual: it is not represented through words, but mainly through looks, gestures, and, symbolically, through the agitation of the natural elements on the moors. Their bond is closely intertwined with the human-nature bond. The point-of-view shots showing Cathy’s wild hair blown in the wind are followed by shots of the wild, high grass and weeds, suggesting a correlation between the aspect of her messy hair and the chaotic movement of the plants. Even though Heathcliff showed he was capable of speaking (despite being mostly uneducated), the two children rarely talk: it seems that there is an unspoken understanding between them or a sense of telepathy whilst they listen to the whistling of the wind and admire the haunting beauty of the landscape. The actors’ performances are very instinctive and have a visceral quality.

The environment provides refuge for Cathy and Heathcliff from the rest of the world. After their escape from the baptising moment, they start running on the windy, misty moors, happy and carefree. When they get back home, they are slapped by her father for their little rebellion. The film highlights metaphors for the conflict between culture and nature, culture trying to dominate nature, but failing, as nature does not succumb so easily.

During the playful yet tension-imbued mud fight scene, the two children bond with each other and with the earth at the same time. The playful exploration of childhood is essential in the film. Everything between them seems pure, simple, and physical when they are little. The moors become a symbol for their love affair that becomes more complicated as they grow up. What for the spectator might look like a bleak dystopian or threatening landscape, was actually Heathcliff’s Arcadia. When a grown-up Heathcliff returns after a long absence, it’s not only for his love, Cathy, but also for the place and time when he experienced that pure bliss. An idyllic image of unattainable splendour is engraved in his mind. Childhood often seems to reside in the realm of Arcadia in our minds, offering a unique way of feeling and experiencing things, which cannot be brought back or re-adopted.

The moors can also be associated with the dark brooding character of a lonely soul (Heathcliff): the moors are infertile, arid, wild, and even threatening. They are not supposed to be cultivated. They are untouched, uninfluenced by culture. Healthcliff is wild in the traditional way which implies unfitness for civil society, yet he is also wild in the modern use of the word, in that he signifies an antidote to hypercivilisation. The concept of wildness denotes something that is shared between humans and nonhuman entities. There are various examples of how this refers to Heathcliff: consider any scene where young Heathcliff resonates with the natural elements.

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