In his first two films, Hereditary (2018) and Midsommar (2019), insidious cults with insidious plots are to Ari Aster as disease is to David Cronenberg and differently horny monsters are to Clive Barker: a mechanic to pry under conventional assumptions and morality to prepare the way for something weirder. Both films center on a grief-stricken heroine — Toni Collette’s Annie in Hereditary and Florence Pugh’s Dani in Midsommar, both Oscar-deserving Queens — desperately trying to clutch their lives and relationships together after truly mind-bending losses. Insidious secret forces then take advantage of the opening Annie and Dani’s grief gives them, and we are off to some gleefully creepy races. There’s plenty of censor-tweaking moments full of creative gore and blunt, unsexy frontal nudity, footnoted with filicide, suicide, incest, human sacrifice, and more, but truthfully none of that is as disturbing as the unanswerable, common sorrows that suffuse both stories. This is pain Pinhead could not get off on. But the most striking philosophical aspect of Aster’s first two films is their meticulous inevitability. His characters, all relatable folk you’ve known and been and like (even Christian; search your heart, you know it to be true), are chained to events. Fate is written in the stars and on the walls, but with Aster, all that foreshadowing isn’t a warning; it’s a prophecy. It might be best to approach Hereditary and Midsommar like Annie’s daughter Charlie or our Hårga tour guide Pelle, observing and recording everything in your personal sketchbook, because everything is important. Not that you will be able to do anything about any of it.
I’ll say there are spoilers here for both films, but I will also say I’m not sure you’ve really watched one of them until you’ve already watched it once.
Hereditary begins with the apparent haunting of miniature artist Annie Graham by her manipulative mother, who finally died in hospice after battling dementia, but takes a hard handbrake turn when her son Peter (Alex Wolff) accidentally vehicular manslaughters his younger sister Charlie (Milly Shapiro) in a Final Destination-worthy sequence that will leave no mouth uncovered, no eye unbulged. Annie wrestles every negative emotion a human being has ever been host to while confronted with her husband Steve’s (Gabriel Byrne) exhaustion as her caretaker and protective instincts for their son and Peter’s rapid liquefaction into his own horror and guilt. Compulsively recording her life in her miniature art, but simultaneously pressured by an upcoming gallery show, Annie finds a little relief by sneaking out to a grief recovery group, eventually meeting with sweet, understanding group member Joan (Ann Dowd). Joan is a constructive, even motherly presence, who shares her own bereavement and introduces skeptic Annie to a seance technique that would make even James Randi wet himself.
At this point, the film decapitates its occult Ordinary People (1980) track and tops it with The Omen’s (1976) head, with a conspiracy of demon worshipers who have had their eyes on not Annie, not even poor Charlie, but Peter, and for his entire life, so that he can become a vessel for the demon Paimon. It’s a conspiracy that Annie realizes included her late mother and, you guessed it, Joan, first using Charlie as an unsuccessful female host for the demon, then killing her so it could lay its inexorable claim on Peter. What seemed a conventional spookhouse thriller at the beginning quickly proves anything but. This movie isn’t about Annie or Peter racing away from an implacable spirit up and down Freytag’s model; it’s the entire Graham family rolling down a jagged mountainside towards gruesome individual fates and Paimon’s inevitable homecoming to Peter’s body.
It’s natural to immediately contrast the luxurious, chilly, blue-shadowed world of Hereditary with the rustic, white linen, and sun-blinking brightness of Midsommar, but they’re far from night and day. Midsommar is really Hereditary’s mirror image, just upside-down. (Or merkstaved if you like.) While the Grahams spend their movie being pitched into the furthest, blackest depths for Paimon to better reach Peter, Dani Ardor begins her film in something like the hole Peter ends up in, bereaved and guilty after her bipolar sister kills herself and their parents, clutching to a skeletal relationship with fickle boyfriend Christian (Jack Reynor), and from there, she ascends. While there’s no explicit supernatural in Midsommar like there is in Hereditary, you could fairly look at it as Dani being possessed by her destiny at this point.
When she gets invited along on Christian’s trip with his grad school friends Mark, Josh, and Pelle to Pelle’s family’s midsummer festival in Sweden, it seems like she’s the odd one out, a psych student among anthropologists, as much of an unwanted hanger-on in the group as in her relationship. Except the sweet way Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren) treats her tracks a little like the open-hearted way Joan reaches out to Annie, and quelle surprise there’s an ulterior motive behind his Erl-King eyes.* Festival events spray acid on the fraying cords of Dani and Christian’s relationship, and Christian, Josh, and Mark are each undone by his own self-servingness. But through it all, Pelle’s extended pagan family embraces Dani in a way that suggests she was never meant to be the Sgt. Howie in this Wicker Man, and the more isolated she is from her boyfriend, the more at home she finds herself.**
Of course, the Hälsingland commune of the Hårga is Pelle’s home first, and he and his family are part of why Midsommar lands less like Hereditary’s final gut punch and more… ambiguously, while doing pretty much the same business as the Paimon cult. (Assuming you don’t identify with Christian. Sorry if you do. Now get back in your bear.) Low-key Loki Pelle is like the bass line in a Duran Duran song: keeps things moving, lurks beneath brighter notes without demanding a lot of attention, but unfailingly masterful and clever. Also like many a Duran Duran song, he grooms Dani for a strange kind of love, although if you ever wanted Sarah to stay with the Goblin King in Labyrinth, you’ll probably ship it. His ultimate function is the same as Hereditary’s Joan, even using his own grief to connect with Dani exactly as Joan does with Annie. So even though he/they are generally much nicer about it than the Paimon cult, Pelle and the Hårga really go to work on Dani and Christian in particular, just like the Grahams had to be broken down for Paimon. I mean, Aster takes care to blur what Pelle knows when in Midsommar, but if he knows nothing else, he damn well knows Dani shouldn’t watch the Attestupa. I’m so sorry your sister committed suicide and murdered your parents. Would you like to watch a ritual senicide the way my people do it though? If they miss the rock, we have a big mallet to ritually smash their heads. But he is held blameless and is otherwise emotionally validating for Dani, the boyfriend/confidante Dani needs just like Joan is the mother/confidante Annie needs, whereas his victims — for the sake of argument not counting Dani — are all bastards in their own ways and dismissive of Dani at best. And strangely, but not really strangely, the more deliberate you know he is, the more oblique the threat he represents becomes, as that deliberation comes with convincing concern for Dani. The Hårga are indeed wonderfully understanding and supportive, even when they’re plotting to sacrifice you — see also Christian and Josh’s theses and the implication that Mark at least got to have sex with a Swedish girl before he was skinned — and in spite of everything, you can see them as genuinely good for Dani in the warped context of the film’s world.*** It’s worth noting that Aster describes the film variously as a dark fantasy, a dark comedy, and Dani’s wish fulfillment. This is borne out by the tonal contrast between Hereditary and Midsommar, with the feeling of descent and death versus ascent and rebirth when the end result is really quite comparable in both.
Because there is an obvious difference in Dani’s and Annie’s or Dani’s and Peter’s destinies, but I am not sure there is much of a difference between Dani’s and Paimon’s. When Paimon finally takes possession of Peter and appears before his worshipers, Joan very tenderly addresses him first as Charlie, explaining what has happened and why as if to a child, not an all-powerful demon. She is deferential, of course, but still very motherly as she crowns the cult’s deity, caring for him as the Hårga have their newblood May Queen. In this way, we know there was never really a Charlie in the film; she was always Paimon, and Joan is sensitive to the fact this demon has to get used to not being in his previous female host body. There is no way to look at Hereditary that doesn’t suck for Peter (and Steve and Annie and the actual spirit of Charlie that never got to even be a baby, I suppose), but if you think of it as Paimon’s story, its ending lines up pretty well with the horrible-beautiful triumph of Dani’s smile as her terrible boyfriend and his self-absorbed friends’ bodies burn in Midsommar. Something has come home, and depending on your point of view, it may be something unholy. But hey, no one ever said a happy ending had to be a healthy one, or who the ending had to please to count as happy. The secret cults are pretty happy and two for two in Ari’s Aster’s oeuvre.
That brings me to the fatalist philosophy that prevails with the cults in the end. Art is destiny in both of the homecoming arcs that terminate Aster’s worlds, where foreshadowing is its own department at Bed, Bath, and Beyond. Dani’s wall art knows just like Christian and Mark’s apartment bric a brac knows just like Annie’s miniatures and Charlie’s crude Paimon altar know what is going to happen. They are what is going to happen. Midsommar begins with a tapestry that depicts all the major plot points of the movie. Hereditary begins by touring the fabulous, intricate miniature house in Annie’s studio, eventually gliding into a seamless transition of her artwork into her son Peter’s real bedroom. It’s an upfront signal that the Grahams are never any more in charge of their lives than Annie’s models of their lives are, and the film is bookended with a shot that pulls back on the newly incarnate Paimon and his worshipers as though they, too, are models. And Hereditary might not have Midsommar’s spoiler tapestry, but Joan’s apartment does have its own diorama that parallels exactly what the ending scene will be. Similarly, we see the structure where all the younger Hårga sleep is covered with renderings of spells, rites, and prophecies,**** prompting Christian to admire, “It’s like living Scripture.” And then he beds down under a painting of the very same fertility ritual that will be his undoing. When Pelle is talking Dani out of fleeing later, you see crowns on the wall over each of their heads, prefiguring their crowns in the final scene. And Charlie and Pelle are constantly sketching what they see, but what they see is not always present-tense. Pelle marks his first sketch of Dani, adorned with a flower crown she hasn’t worn yet, with runes that will later appear on the dress she wears while competing in the May Queen dance competition. The runes might be a prophecy or a spell, but their meaning at least forecasts a confrontation with, possibly an end, to her grief. When Annie is conned by Joan into performing a seance to contact Charlie, “Charlie” will magically fill her sketchbook up with images of her brother’s requisite suffering. From mysterious Latin scratched above Charlie’s bed to Dani’s smiling portrait on her dead parents’ bedside being topped by a very evocative bouquet to not one, but two Scarecrow art pieces in Christian and Mark’s apartment prefiguring Mark’s straw-stuffed fate, the plot is literally written all over the walls and the floors and the ceilings of both of these films. And while it’s always fun to crack open a few Easter eggs, particularly when woven with the gallows humor of many, many multivalent bits of dialogue, ***** the overall effect is that art and design becomes a Greek chorus onstage, its constant commentary one of inevitability.
Peter’s English class in Hereditary, like most horror movie English classes, provides meta commentary as they discuss Sophocles’ oracle (oh, hey, the Hårga have an oracle, too, funny that) and fate. The teacher asks, “Is it more tragic or less tragic that Heracles never really had a choice?” The question goes to Peter, who, like so much Heracles, has been ignoring this valuable bit of context and fails to answer. Then a classmate pipes up, “I think it’s more tragic because if it’s all just inevitable, that means the characters have no hope and that they never had hope, because they’re just like pawns in this horrible, hopeless machine.” Seemingly coincidental things do happen in both films and pivotal choices do seem to be made, but we’re also shown, subtly, but constantly, it’s just seeming. What if Christian hadn’t invited Dani out of guilt or had broken up with her before she found out about the trip? (What was your plan, Christian? Break up with her and disappear to Sweden? God, I hate you.) What if Joan hadn’t gotten Annie to perform the seance? At least in Hereditary, we know the cult tries and fails to get Annie to perform the seance before Joan succeeds, and Pelle’s face when he finds out Dani is coming to Sweden — I don’t know, guys. He smothers a few emotions in that scene, but I don’t think a single one of them is surprise. But then his first attempt to bond with Dani over orphanhood fails spectacularly. The point is however the crucial things didn’t happen once, they do still happen. Allowing us to infer the cults fail sometimes actually supports that. Because the writing on the wall is always eventually correct. Because the oracle(s) said so. Because they are dolls in a machine we are constantly invited to admire. Because Ari Aster has a plan for their lives.
*Unlike the Paimon cult’s very clear, if sometimes hastily improvised, agenda for Peter, it’s hard to know when Pelle lights on Dani’s May Queen destiny, or if it’s his “unclouded intuition”/supernatural or some devious contrivance. Either way, by the time they arrive at the festival, it’s clear the Hårga have already adopted her, does she but know it.
There is a popular internet theory that he might have actually arranged Terri’s murder-suicide, but Aster straight-up says that is wrong. It does seem like an awful lot of wasted death considering Hårga beliefs; as they take, they give. It totally sounds like something the Paimon cult in Hereditary would do though.
**There’s so much to notice in Midsommar at all times, from actual hidden images to significant art to runes to clothing to an undulating landscape to Pelle’s tiny giveaways to prophetic dialogue, but also notice how Dani mirrors her hosts. By the time she’s easily repeating Swedish vocals, it doesn’t even seem that weird.
***Stressing IN THE CONTEXT OF THE FILM. An equivalent would be looking at Hellraiser from the perspective of a Cenobite. Cenobites are always delighted post-evisceration, you know? I mean, outside the context of the film, the Hårga don’t appear to have wi-fi, and assuming her psychotic break resolves somewhere north of gibbering forever, I really hope Dani likes farm chores, drugs, and being pregnant. Oh, who am I kidding? Go have lots of pagan babies, you crazy kids. Name one Ingemar.
****There’s a cult of Paimon symbol on there at the very summit of the structure, too. Crossover!
*****Vulgar creature that I am, I think my personal favorite is a line from the Midsommar Director’s Cut where Christian says he’s considering rooting his thesis in something Scandinavian.
Hereditary and Midsommar are both currently streaming on Amazon Prime. The Midsommar director’s cut is available exclusively (in the U.S. anyway) on Apple TV. Angela does not have Apple TV and this makes her very bitter.
Angela is just going to ignore that bear over there. It’s a bear.