What is Midsommar Even About?

A deep dive into the Scandinavian folk tradition that inspired Ari Aster’s eerie follow-up to Hereditary.

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As the saying goes, “The brightest light casts the darkest shadow,” and that certainly appears to ring true with the second full trailer for Midsommar, the latest addition to the A24 slate of contemporary horror films.

The director, Ari Aster, has kept most details about the film under wraps, but has given a few interviews to tease some elements of the plot. Whereas his feature directorial debut, Hereditary, can be unpacked as a “family tragedy,” the director implied that this one is a “breakup movie,” per a conversation with Vulture. He also admitted that Midsommar is “less overtly a horror movie, but it’s still working in that same space.” Still, just because the film is helmed by the same director and falls under the horror genre umbrella does not mean we should go about trying to compare it to his previous work. “It’s very macabre. But people shouldn’t go in expecting Hereditary,” Aster said, seemingly determined to avoid the sophomore slump.

A young American couple, played by Florence Pugh and Jack Reynor, fly to a rural town in Sweden for a once-in-a-lifetime midsummer festival after experiencing a death in the family. Not long after the couple’s arrival, their trip unfolds into a hallucinogenic nightmare when the visitors are invited to drink some sort of concoction that seemingly screws with their perception of time (at 9 P.M. everything is somehow still bathed in light in this part of the world), and are targeted by the sinister leaders of a pagan cult. Levitation, wild bear organ harvesting, flower crowns, and facial mutilation appear to be par for the course when it comes to celebrating the traditional fete.

The film doubles as a showcase for popular Swedish talent, including established stars Liv Mjönes, Henrik Norlén, and Anna Åström, and a Swedish up-and-comer named Vilhelm Blomgren (who will also make his television debut as the protagonist in HBO Nordic’s Gösta, a series about a child psychologist who moves to the suburbs).

William Jackson Harper, who is most recognizable for his role as the risk-averse philosophy professor Chidi Anagonye on The Good Place, Bandersnatch‘s Will Poulter, and Archie Madekwe, who has appeared in the 2018 BBC adaptation of Les Misérables as Courfeyrac and the Elle Fanning pop star vehicle Teen Spirit, should also be ones to watch closely in the film.

The film appears to be stylistically quite different from Hereditary (though Aster did hire his longtime collaborator Pawel Pogorzelski to be the cinematographer again for Midsommar), which was purposefully dark. With its aggressively bright constitution, it seems that Midsommar will bring the most horrifying elements of a traditional summer festival gone wrong to light.

As the trailer and A24’s social accounts have been teasing, the festival that occurs within the world of the film only happens once every 90 years. It’s described in the trailer as a “crazy festival” with “special ceremonies and dressing up.” In reality, there is a Midsummer festival celebrated each summer. Many European countries have annual traditions for celebrating the summer solstice, but in Sweden, celebrating Midsummer is almost more popular or important than celebrating Christmas. Cult content is trending right now, and with Midsommar, Aster appears to be on a cinematic campaign to make the tradition appear as sinister and creepy as possible, but the real Swedish Midsummer is not associated with cults, and actually does sound like a lot of fun (which is also what makes the film all the more eerie).

Traditional Midsummer festivities include majstång or midsommarstång (which involves dancing around a maypole), and decorating homes and barns with shrubbery and wreathes of flowers. During the Middle Ages and the Viking era, pagans participated in rituals celebrating fertility and harvest, inspired by Freyja, a Norse goddess who represented war, death, love, fertility, beauty, and sex, and her twin brother Freyr, a god who represented kingship, virility, sunshine, and phallic fertility.

Today, Sweden holds its annual celebrations on Midsummer’s Eve, which lands on a Friday between June 19 and June 25 (Midsummer’s day occurs on the following Saturday). Major cities empty out, stores shut down, and everyone heads to the Swedish countryside, where, in the north, the sun doesn’t set, and in the southern regions, it only goes down for a maximum of two hours. It’s a celebration dedicated to eating, drinking, and dancing, but legend also has it that if a girl picks seven different flowers and places them under her pillow overnight, her future husband will be revealed to her in her dreams. Aster’s insistence that his film is a relationship drama actually makes sense when you consider the traditional holiday’s association with fertility.

There’s also already merch to commemorate what Aster calls “Scandinavian folk horror.” The psychedelic streetwear brand Online Ceramics has collaborated with A24 on some cult-inspired shirts, complete with the traditional Swedish maypole insignia of a large equilateral triangle with two small circles resting at the base. (They previously worked with A24 to create merch for the distributor’s first big horror splash, The Witch.)

Hereditary unsettled audiences so much that they either walked out or fainted during early screenings, and even caused its stars to go a little crazy while filming it, but critics couldn’t get enough of it and praised it endlessly. Midsommar may seem like lighter fare, but it also might end up being just as chilling. We’ll have to wait until it’s released on July 3 to find out.

Related: Alex Wolff Lost “A Little Bit” of His Sanity While Filming Hereditary