Cults and new religious movements have infiltrated pop culture and media for the last century and counting, fascinating audiences everywhere. While many films have covered plenty of the 20th-century religious movements, films that spawn from folklore belong to another subcategory of cult-films all together. Gaining popularity in the 1960s and 1970s in the UK, the folk horror genre became home for many of the cult-inspired films of the era. The subgenre varies in display but essentially draws from folklore within its narrative or alludes to folkloric aesthetic through its costuming, production design, and location. Among some of the pioneering films of folk horror is Robin Hardy’s The Wicker Man (1973) which has set a global standard for films that have followed in its footsteps.
Released almost 50 years into the legacy of The Wicker Man, Ari Aster’s Midsommar (2019) has been inducted as a new member of folk horror, adopting similar tropes within the narrative and aesthetic overall portraying a contemporary take on the subgenre. Both The Wicker Man and Midsommar share in their folkloric foundation from the isolated locations, culty rituals, and outsiders coming in, but each comment on the predetermination of the roles each character plays as a pawn for the cult they encounter.
The protagonists of each film are initially presented in the roles they assume to maintain throughout the narrative. The Wicker Man’s Sergeant Howie (Edward Woodward) enters the story as an epitome of an authority figure. As a sergeant, he is responsible for upholding the law. A devout Christian, he sees himself as a vessel of God’s goodness. Together, the two major symbols of both legal and moral authority present Sergeant Howie as a character embodying a superiority complex towards the residents of the island of Summerisle as they exhibit their garish paganism. The audience is made to believe that the Sergeant comes to the island on his own account, following leads in an investigation for a missing girl. However, by the film’s conclusion, both the audience and our protagonist find out together that his presence on the island was entirely predetermined in selecting Sergeant Howie as “the virgin fool” to be sacrificed to save the island’s failing crops.
While The Wicker Man focuses on one central outsider to provide this contrast of ideologies, Midsommar offers four. The story follows a group of anthropology masters students, Mark (Will Poulter), Josh (William Jackson Harper), Christian (Jack Reynor), and Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren), who travel to Pelle’s home village in Hagar, Sweden. After dealing with the loss of her parents and sister, Christian’s girlfriend Dani (Florence Pugh) decides to tag along on the trip. Each of these protagonists has their own reasons for going to Sweden and the intentions they bring along with them ultimately play cause and effect with their fates.
Here’s a quick breakdown of each of these characters:
Mark is established as hyper-American with his unapologetically bro-ish voice and lingo. Unlike his peers, he’s not particularly interested in the rites and rituals of Hagar. He skips out on the elderly self-sacrifice and gets easily distracted by the pretty girls. He is disrespectful to the people of Hagar, vaping on their relatively virgin land and peeing on a sacred ancestral tree with no remorse upon being stopped and scolded. He is last seen chasing a girl presumably to engage in sexual activity although he had not been approved to mate with her by the village matriarch. He ultimately is killed because of his careless ignorance and exertion of some internalized superiority complex.
Among the anthropology masters students, Josh appears to be the most interested in the practices of the community since he is focusing on communities like Hagar for his thesis project. However, over the course of his stay, he appears to exhibit a sense of cronyism, picking up on Pelle’s terms for certain rituals and suppressing his shock during the self-sacrifice. He presents a sense of exclusive entitlement in his thesis project when Christian approaches him to work on the same subject and spends the rest of his stay competing with Christian rather than collaborating with him as they had agreed. Josh’s true colors are displayed upon his betrayal of the elders by sneaking out to take photos of the Oracle’s sacred book which he was sternly told not to do. This betrayal too, however, gets him killed by the Oracle himself.
Christian presents a frustrating sense of aloofness throughout most of the film. He doesn’t take much initiative in his relationship with Dani and seems to be unmoved by his friends’ opinions about her either. He’s relatively quiet and appears to lack much agency which maintains his stagnant character for most of the narrative. He comes off as lazy, especially when he decides to do his thesis on the same subject as Josh rather than coming up with something more intentional. This aloofness slowly begins to shift after Christian is approved to mate with young Maja (Isabelle Grill) to which he doesn’t protest. After his approval, however, he begins to present himself as vulnerable and uncomfortable about the mating event. Once the mating ritual is performed, he exhibits agency for the first time. He races out of the room in search of an escape as he is disturbed with his own participation and appears to feel violated. However, this exertion of agency eventually costs him his life as he is found and attacked, landing him paralyzed and up for sacrifice.
Dani is the most open of all the protagonists. She is respectful towards the customs of the people of Hagar even after being shocked by the self-sacrifice. When she attempts to leave, she is groomed by Pelle to stay by his empathizing with the disturbing loss of her parents and sister. She goes with the flow with discretion towards the people of the community ultimately resulting in her participating in the May Queen festivities and winning the honorable title which she politely accepts. Upon her acceptance, she is met with the authority over the lives of two men, including the life of her boyfriend, Christian, essentially playing God in determining who lives and who dies. When she chooses Christian as the final sacrifice, her fantasy is fulfilled and she smiles, relishing in her power and happiness in acknowledgement of his lackluster participation in their relationship.
Like the ending of The Wicker Man, the fates of the characters of Midsommar appear to be predetermined. As he is from Hagar, Pelle was responsible for facilitating the incoming of these outsiders that were to be sacrificed, to be mated with, and to become May Queen. He is the ultimate charismatic lurer to help Dani find that sense of agency, authority, and power that she did not have in her personal life. The Wicker Man takes a different approach in having the audience empathize solely with Sergeant Howie and taking on the role of the pawn with him as the characters all conspire against him. By the end of The Wicker Man, we too become the virgin fool, while in Midsommar we relish with Dani now that she is liberated from the insecurity of her relationship.