Community and Family: The Cult Indoctrination Techniques of ‘Midsommar’

By James Reinhardt

Ari Aster’s folk horror film Midsommar became an instant horror classic after its release in the summer of 2019. Centered on Dani (Florence Pugh), a woman still dealing with the trauma of the murder/suicide of her sister and parents, she travels to Sweden along with her emotionally distant boyfriend Christian (Jack Reynor) and several of his friends to take part in a once-in-a-lifetime midsummer celebration.

Since this is a folk horror story, there’s a sinister reason why this group of outsiders has been invited to this event thrown by a commune known as the Hårga. It is the ending though of this film that has generated much of the conversation surrounding it, and what cemented Midsommar’s place in horror history, where Dani chooses to allow the Hårga to sacrifice Christian by sewing him up in a bearskin and burning him alive. Soon after the release of Midsommar, quite a few people celebrated Dani’s actions and the film gained a reputation as a sort of twisted “girl power” movie about a woman getting back at her awful, cheating boyfriend and finding a new support system through the Hårga.

Though Midsommar is indeed about a woman dealing with grief and trauma, and yes, Christian is an awful boyfriend and downright horrible human being, it’s not a film about how Dani finds a support system or breaks free of a toxic relationship. There have been several pieces written by authors who relate to Dani in some way or another and laud her actions in the film, and I would argue that Midsommar, or any film for that matter, wouldn’t be very good if the main character wasn’t relatable in some way. We as an audience are meant to feel for Dani, and filmmaking is, by nature, manipulative as an art form. If done well, it’s meant to make an audience think or feel a certain way. Midsommar walks a very fine tight rope because it puts the audience in Dani’s shoes as she becomes a pawn in a game she doesn’t even know is being played. In the end, there is a sense of catharsis because Dani believes that she has achieved just that, but like the audience, she has been manipulated into feeling this way. In fact, much of the horror of Midsommar stems from Dani having very little agency at all despite what she may think. Midsommar is really a film about how certain people and groups will exploit your grief and pain for their own benefit and how Dani only trades one toxic support system for another by unknowingly being indoctrinated into a cult.

Cults prey on people when they are at their most vulnerable, and Dani, still dealing with the aftermath of a crisis, fits this exact profile. Though it’s not perfect, Midsommar is a fairly accurate depiction of how cults target, recruit, isolate, and indoctrinate new members. In fact, it seems that Midsommar does such a good job at showing the cult indoctrination process that most audience members didn’t even seem to understand that this is what the film is about, and it may be a testament to how effective these methods really are and also how easily susceptible people can be to them. At this point, it has been talked about at length on how Midsommar’s “uplifting” ending is anything but, while not many have actually gone on to break down how exactly the Hårga manipulates Dani — and by extension the audience — so effectively.

Most often cults will lure in new recruits by offering them what they want, and in the case of Dani, what she wanted was someone to share her grief with. At first, Dani’s main source of cult manipulation is Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren), a “friend” of Christian’s who grew up with the Hårga. When Dani reveals that she’s coming to Sweden with the others, Pelle is the only one who seems happy about it and makes sure Dani knows it. Pelle spends most of the film showing Dani the attention and warmth that Christian never gave her, and during one scene, reveals to her that he too lost his family and that the Hårga were there to support him. This is a classic recruiting technique because not only is he using the cult’s sense of community as a selling point, but he’s subtly manipulating Dani into thinking that the Hårga can be the support system that Christian isn’t. As the film goes on, Pelle and the rest of the Hårga engage in a practice called “love bombing”, a form of psychological manipulation where the recruit is subjected to almost overwhelming affection, which is especially seen in the film after Dani is crowned the May Queen and is adorned with praise.

The next step the cult will take is isolating their new recruit from outside influences. Many cults have compounds or other places where they require members to stay, ensuring that the cult has total control over every aspect of their lives. Obviously, this is seen in Midsommar with how the Hårga commune is completely isolated and non-dependent on the outside world, but also by how the Hårga isolates Dani from her friends. Murder is an extreme example of isolation, but that’s one way Dani is isolated from outside influence in Midsommar as the people she came with are all killed off one by one, but other techniques are shown in the film as well. Not only does Pelle take every opportunity to make Christian look bad to Dani (admittedly, not a hard thing to do), but Christian himself is also drugged and manipulated into having sex with one of the cult members, driving the final wedge between him and Dani. This leads to the key moment of manipulation, and perhaps an extreme example of love bombing, where the women of the Hårga surround Dani after she discovers Christian’s infidelity and mimics her cries of pain and betrayal. At this moment, the Hårga is finally giving Dani what she wanted the entire film: someone with whom she can share her pain, in this case, the literal sense.

Dani’s final moment of indoctrination comes when the cult presents her with a choice: she must choose who gets sacrificed, one of the members of Harga, or Christian whom she has just witnessed cheating on her. Previously the film showed how not only was Dani physically and mentally exhausted from competing for the title of May Queen, but that she was also under the influence of hallucinogenic drugs. Though this is only one scene in a two-and-a-half-hour movie, real cults often steadily supply their members with drugs while also using constant physical exertion and sleep deprivation techniques in order to keep them susceptible and open to suggestion. As Dani reels from all of these physical effects, the psychological and emotional trauma of having just witnessed her boyfriend cheating on her, as well as being bombarded with constant affection from the Hårga, it’s no coincidence why they publicly force Dani to make this choice. It’s basically the murderous equivalent of a public marriage proposal. The Hårga puts pressure on Dani to choose them, the large group that outnumbers her and has shown her unwavering attention, or Christian, who has just betrayed her. Given all that she has just endured, it isn’t surprising that she chooses Christian as the one to be sacrificed. But the real insidious part of all this is that by forcing Dani to make this decision, the Hårga has also ensured that she has nowhere to go. Not only does Dani have no remaining friends or family, but she is now an accessory to murder and staying with the Hårga is the only recourse she has.

Everyone who applauds Dani’s actions, and the actions of the Hårga, also overlook a key part of the ending. Part of the ritual sacrifice seen in the film requires two willing cult members to give their lives, and two volunteers from the Hårga eagerly go along to their deaths. Just before they give their lives for the cult, they are given a tonic that they are told will allow them to “feel no pain or fear.” At first, this seems to work, as they are positively euphoric as the barn that contains them and the other sacrifices go up in flames, but then the flames start to lick their bodies. The very image of calm, cool, and serene disappears while these cult members scream in pain and horror as they are burned alive, realizing all too late that they’d been had. Like everything else in the film, the tonic that was supposed to help them face a horrible death without any suffering was nothing more than a lie. Everything that the film shows about the Hårga is all theatrics, and Dani fell for it, the two men burning alive fell for it, and seemingly a good portion of the audience fell for it as well. Even though the final shot is of Dani’s joyous smile, she was vomiting and screaming just moments before as she realized the implications of her actions before finally getting caught up in the moment. The Hårga, who were previously mimicking the cries of pain from their members who were burning alive are now celebrating their deaths because those shared, mimicked feelings are all superficial, much like Dani’s smile at the end.

About

James Reinhardt is a screenwriter and podcaster with nine years of experience in the film industry and four years of experience scaring people professionally in the haunted house industry. Follow him on Twitter @JamesReinhardt.

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