I watched Midsommar finally. I feel so elated, and I know that sounds weird because it has a genuinely unpleasant ending. This film will stick with me for some time. But Dani’s (Florence Pugh) smile in that final scene made me realise that she had broken through her agonising grief.
Ari Aster has reportedly called his film a ‘break-up movie’ and more a Fairy Tale than a Horror, and I absolutely agree. If you think of some of the greatest known children’s stories; Alice in Wonderland, The Wizard of Oz, The Hobbit, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, anything by the Brothers Grimm (that were taken from German folktales in most cases) all of these are pretty trippy in their own way, and have some truly scary moments. Some of Grimm’s Fairytales are sadistic, but they have been watered down somewhat over time.
First of all, I want to say that this is the story of Dani, no-one else. Other characters play their part, but ultimately this is Dani’s journey through grief and to finding peace. That journey is never easy, there are many horrors to face along the way, but there is also much beauty to be discovered.
The tale begins with Dani and Christian. A couple who have been dating for four years, but Christian is emotionally distant with her and appears to be getting cold feet. This is something Dani is worried about, she speaks to her friend about it on the phone, just before she is struck by tragedy.
Dani had intuitively known that something was very wrong when she received an email from her sister, Terri, who had bipolar disorder. The email was a goodbye, and it mentioned that she was taking their parents with her, wherever she was going. Christian brushed off his girlfriend’s concerns, but Dani was right to be worried. Terri had flooded the family home with carbon monoxide by trailing two hoses from their car engines, one into her parents’ bedroom, the other she taped to her own mouth. In just minutes, all of Dani’s family were dead.
The grief that Dani felt was totally overwhelming. She spent hours crying and wailing, with only Christian there to console her. He did very little to help; he held her while she cried, but mostly left her alone while he planned a trip away with his mates, without her, to Sweden. During this rough time, Dani spent most of her time in a deep depression, lying in bed and sleeping a lot. Above her bed there was a painting of a little blonde-haired princess, kissing the nose of a big brown bear in a cave. The little girl in the picture was not afraid of the bear that could consume her. She embraced it.
Christian, out of moral obligation rather than love, invites Dani to join him and his friends Josh, Mark and Pelle at a midsummer celebration at Pelle’s ancestral commune, the Hårga, in Hälsingland. Pelle explains that this iteration of the celebration only occurs every ninety years. As Josh and Christian are anthropology students, this is a chance for them to study a different way of life that cannot be missed.
The gang fly to Sweden and take a long drive to Hälsingland. Tensions are already brewing between Dani and Christian. And then there’s Mark. You know the type of friend. The one who wants to keep your partner to themself. The one who can’t understand why your partner would rather hang out with you than them. He is a toxic energy, the class jester that has no respect for where he is or the people around him. Josh is fine. Unlike Mark, he’s not bothered about Dani being there; he just wanted to work. Success is his driving force; his intelligence outweighs his morality. Pelle is very different. He’s originally from the Hårga, but from the beginning, it’s pretty clear that he has a fondness for Dani. He is the only friend of Christian’s who really tries to talk to Dani about her grief and treats her like a human, without tip-toeing around her and avoiding eye contact.
While I do believe this is a love story of sorts—and I’ll refer you to this excellent article, ‘‘Pelle the Conquerer: Framing Midsommar as a Love Story”—this is not the path I am going to take with this article. Yes, I believe that Pelle brought Dani to the Hårga because he wanted to be with her, and while his intentions are apparently extremely sinister by the end, I am not so sure that is the truth. My feeling is that Pelle recognised that Dani was not going to recover from her grief by staying where she was, in a strained relationship with an unloving partner. She would most likely have resorted to antidepressants and expensive therapy for the rest of her life. But what if he could save her from all that?
Before they enter the commune, each of the party takes psilocybin (magic mushrooms), given to them by Pelle’s communal brother, Ingemar. Dani was apprehensive at first; wanting to be settled into the camp before taking the trip, but the others wanted to do it now and she didn’t want to be a burden or a party pooper, so she joined in. Of course, it’s easy to know why the lads wanted to take it. For them it was a bit of fun, but for Pelle and Ingemar it was a way of life. Their use of psychedelic drugs was not for partying or having a laugh; it was about finding your connection to the earth and opening yourself up to pain and the fear of death.
One of the effects psychedelics are known for is revealing is how profoundly connected we are with the natural world. But nature is not just the sum of all living things—it is the dynamic process of life, death, and rebirth. The kingdom of Fungi, which contains the psychedelic mushrooms such as Psilocybe cubensis, happens to play a critical role in the decomposition process, turning dead plants, animals, and even humans into fertile, nutrient-rich soil which gives rise to new life. Is it a coincidence that these master decomposers may have something incredibly valuable to teach us about death, not just in ecosystems but also in the minds of the curious humans who consume them?
As soon as the mushrooms begin to take effect, Dani notices the grass between her toes curling around her feet, making her at one with the earth. Immediately we can imagine how she’s feeling; like she’s just one of a billion blades of grass on that hill. That is precisely what she is without ego. Every single one of us is part of nature and every single one of us will die, and of course that is sad because we make emotional connections with people and animals but its inevitability should give us some comfort.
I feel this is the beginning of Dani’s recovery with the assistance of psychedelic drugs. Now, let me be very clear that I am not advocating the use of LSD, MDMA or magic mushrooms to treat mental illness or mood disorders, and I am definitely not suggesting anyone should stop taking their prescribed medications and go score some microdots. Not at all. Yet, there have been some major advances in biomedicinal testing when it comes to the use of psychedelic drugs.
In particular, giving prescribed doses in safe conditions to people with a terminal illness, those who are reaching the end of their life, and those with severe depression, has had a profound effect on their fear of what’s coming in their future or at the end. It has to be one of the most terrifying prospects; waiting for death. Never knowing how or when exactly it will happen, will there be anything after? Or will it just be the end? For the Hårga, it’s pretty clear that death was not something to be feared, but something to embrace and celebrate as you return your body to the earth. Is that a healthier way to feel about death than fear?
Incidentally, it’s no coincidence that Christian is named Christian. His whole demeanour may portray Christianity. On the surface, it appears that he cares but he doesn’t really. He makes the right moves and says the right things, but in reality, he is cold and self-important. Now I know that is a sweeping generalisation, and I am certainly not here to argue about religion. Still, it was clear for me to see in Midsommar ‘s more shocking moments—for example when the gang witness an ättestupa where two commune elders commit senicide by leaping from a clifftop—that it is only shocking because those of us brought up in predominantly Christian cultures (whether we follow religion or not) just cannot get our heads around how this sort of ritualistic behaviour could be okay. But you know, it’s a bit weird that people wear crosses with the depiction of their saviour being crucified to death around their necks. One man’s religion is another man’s cult.
Let’s face it; we don’t deal with death well, not our own or other peoples. We just don’t. For a physician to say their patient has died is to say that they failed, and that’s not always true. Sometimes the most merciful thing is to let a person die with dignity. Nobody lives forever, and eventually, medicine is going to fail. We also tend to keep our mourning covered up. We want to be alone; we don’t want to talk about it, weep or wail in front of other people. So instead we bottle it all up, never facing the devastation, not really. Not with other people who feel it too. Grief is a very lonely place.
For Dani, whose sister has just taken her own life, and took her parents along with her, watching the elders leap to their deaths was especially disturbing. However, it could well have been a first step to her coming to terms with her families’ deaths. The elders drink an intoxicating psychedelic concoction before they jump. The female jumps first and dies immediately. The male jumps, but does not die when he hits the ground. His leg is snapped in two and he will definitely not survive, but would likely die a slow and painful death. The Hårga mimic his wails, then watch as the elders bash his head in with a mallet. It is brutal, but they are putting him out of his misery like we might an injured animal.
There is no excuse for what Terri did to her and Dani’s parents, but their deaths are not too dissimilar to the elders. Terri, the younger generation who wanted to die killed them, the older generation, in a ritualistic manner, having them laying in bed asleep, taping up any gaps that the poisonous gas could have escaped through, then waited for death to come.
The core of depression is being out of alignment with our true nature, not following our calling, making too many compromises, and feeling trapped in our current life situation. Antidepressant drugs only temporarily numb this pain and do nothing to address the cause. Psychedelic treatment, on the other hand, has some big advantages over traditional treatment methods. In the vast majority of cases, psychedelic therapy is done with just one or two doses of the substance, rather than a regiment of continued use. Psychedelic journeys are so powerful that people report lifelong positive effects from just a single experience, with lasting benefits to their mood and sense of wellbeing. Scientists are still trying to define exactly how psychedelics are able to accomplish this, but the immediacy and uniqueness of a psychedelic experience is hard to quantify. What they do know from decades of research and clinical trials is that they do work, even if we don’t know exactly how. It makes you wonder if Terri had access to this kind of treatment, would she even have considered taking her and her parents lives?
Again, I’m not trying to sound like an advert for acid here, but Dani’s trip may have helped her work through all the problematic areas of her life, and helped her face and express her grief. She had visions of her sister long before her time in Sweden. These images were dark, and she shut them out as quickly as she could. But when under the influence of the hallucinogens, these images lingered longer, she allowed her subconscious to keep them there, Terri’s deathly face surrounding her in the trees, her parents meeting her face to face in the crowds.
One by one, the people who have no real meaning in Dani’s life, those that are toxic to her, are bumped off. After Mark unwittingly urinates on an ancestral tree and incites the fury of the cult, he is led away by a girl that he finds attractive, hoping for some sexual healing. And so, as it always happens with ‘those friends’ that don’t want you to have a partner, they soon disappear when they find their own. Of course, in this case, Mark is murdered and skinned alive—his face worn as a mask by Ulf. Ruben, The Oracle—a deformed member of the clan, conceived through incest—lies sleeping in his bed while Josh is killed by a blow to the head; his punishment for sneaking into the temple and taking photos of the cult’s sacred runic text. Metaphorically speaking though, being willing to let go of those mutual friends you share in relationships is one of the first steps to surviving a break-up. You have to give up every part of the life you had before. Now Dani just had the non-attentive and selfish Christian, and Pelle, the adoring and empathetic friend left.
And she was making new friends—girlfriends. Women of around the same age that she was beginning to enjoy spending time with.
With the sun shining for 22 hours a day, it’s almost impossible to know what time it is in Hälsingland. In a less ambitious movie, the story could have played out in the dark of night. Dani would have been taken out clubbing by her girlfriends who show her emotional support by reminding her there is fun to be had without her douche boyfriend. They’d all get drunk/high, feel weak with laughter and dance until they drop, literally. Dani would be the last girl standing, and she would feel like a queen—strong and free. The cute guy she’d been secretly eyeing sees her and kisses her passionately. This sounds like the perfect night out, right?
Swap the dancefloor for a Maypole and that’s what you’ve got. After the dancing, she’s carried home by her friends who are celebrating her being crowned May Queen. But while she’s been out enjoying herself, Christian has been embroiled in a sex ritual with Maja, while several women from the commune stand around them watching, imitating the pleasure between them. Empathy doesn’t just have to be about pain after all. Dani walks in on this scene and is distraught.
Whether the events took place in Sweden or back in the US, over just a few days or a few months, it doesn’t really matter. Christian would probably always have forgotten his girlfriend of four years birthday, and Pelle would always have attentively remembered. Christian would always have cheated on Dani—some girl would still have caught his eye if not Maja, and he might have tried not to give in to temptation but barely put up a fight. He may have blamed it on alcohol or drugs that he let his guard down. He may have got this girl pregnant. Whatever the case, how and whenever it happened, Dani would suffer the consequences.
Yes, the psychedelics likely made seeing this all the more intense, but it would also have helped her express how she really felt about it. She vomits, and she wails and cries, and her girlfriends gather around her, wail along with her, finding her rhythm. They show total empathy and understanding— truly feel her pain and sorrow. And she gets through it, with her new family.
Adorned with hundreds of flowers, Dani sits on an outdoor stage. The flowers weigh so heavy she can barely move. A mountain of glorious, vivid bouquets that represent the sympathy bestowed upon her. Christian has been captured and dosed with a drug that has paralysed him. He has discovered what has happened to his friends, found their bodies or parts of them. Unable to scream or move, for once, he can’t talk his way out of this mess. He can’t gaslight Dani into thinking what he’s done wrong is all in her head. She has total power. And when she is given the choice of who to sacrifice to ward off evil from the commune, she chooses Christian.
She has to choose Christian to be able to move on with her life. He is put inside a disembowelled bear, paralysed but alive and totally aware of what is happening to him. The yellow temple with the bodies of all her former friends, plus Ingemar and Ulf from the Hårga who give their lives voluntarily, is set alight. Ulf screams out in agony as he begins to burn. The yew tree sap he was given turned out not to be an analgesic after all. The rest of the commune writhe around and scream in empathy with Ulf. Dani sobs at first, then her horror turns to a smile.
You can interpret the smile in many ways. Yes, I think she smiled because she was free, but it’s more than that. Our minds develop patterns as we navigate the world. These patterns harden as you get older. After a while, you stop realising how conditioned you’ve become—you’re just responding to stimuli in predictable ways. Eventually, your brain becomes an uncertainty-reducing machine, obsessed with securing the ego and locked in uncontrollable loops that reinforce self-destructive habits. Taking psychedelics is like shaking the snow globe. It disrupts these patterns and explodes cognitive barriers. It also interacts with what’s called the default mode network (DMN), the part of the brain associated with mental chatter, self-absorption, memories, and emotions. Anytime you’re anxious about the future or fretting over the past, or engaged in compulsive self-reflection, this part of the brain lights up. When researchers looked at images of brains on psychedelics, they discovered that the DMN shuts down almost entirely.
Shutting that part of Dani’s brain down temporarily allowed her to see herself from the outside. All the things that had happened to her were gone. Think of it this way: You spend your whole life in this body, and because you’re always at the centre of your experience, you become trapped in your own drama, your own narrative. But if you pay close attention, say, in deep meditation practice, you’ll discover that the experience of self is an illusion. Yet the sensation that there’s a “you” separate and apart from the world is very hard to shake; it’s as though we’re wired to see the world this way.
Dani was able to cut through this ego structure when under the influence of psychedelics. She was able to see herself from outside her self, to see the world from the perspective of nowhere and everywhere all at once, and suddenly the horror show of self-regard stopped. Of course, she will still feel the pain that her family are gone and that her heart was broken but I also believe she learned something about the world, and love, and death that she could not have learned any other way, something that altered how she thought about, well, everything. There is life after death. And she smiled because she was no longer afraid of her own.
All images courtesy of A24 Films