MythBlast | Flowers, Death, and the Mythology of Horror Films: A Midsommar Night’s Dream
An immense billboard looms over Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles. On it, a woman appears to be consumed with deep sorrow, hot tears streaming down her cheeks. A crown of flowers rests ironically upon her head, suggesting she should be filled with joy and celebration. Folklorists would quickly recognize the image as that of a May Queen – a personification of May Day and perhaps more generally of springtime. The billboard is an advertisement for a new horror film called Midsommar. The film’s narrative explores the journey of an American woman who travels to Sweden with friends and experiences the country’s Midsommar festival. The twist is that the celebration is hosted by a small rural community that maintains the ancient pagan rituals associated with the festival. Gruesome displays of human sacrifice, sexual rites, and dark ritual make the film far more than many of even the most strong-stomached can endure. However, the film has found a faithful audience, deeply interested in exploring the more profound mysteries that surround the motifs, themes, and mythologies in the film. It has been celebrated as perhaps the first horror film to take place completely in the light and some have suggested that the film feels like a surreal dream in the vein of Alejandro Jodorowsky. Its popularity is a reminder of the enduring power and mystery of myth, as well as the transcendent and complex relationship between the dark and the light.
In The Masks of God: Creative Mythology, Campbell contrasts the attitudes of modernist authors James Joyce and Thomas Mann towards what he terms the “night world” and the light. He describes this “night world” as the abyss into which all pairs of opposites disappear and the light as where these pairs of opposites subsist (Creative Mythology, 658). He goes on to discuss what he sees as the disintegration of the waking consciousness into dream found in the work of both of these literary masters, remarking specifically about the presence of supernatural elements like the ones found in horror films such as Midsommar—seances, occult powers, and orgies. Early film theorists Jean Epstein and Ricciotto Canudo both suggested that films have a certain dream-like quality to them. Roland Barthes took the idea even further, stating that, when a film ended, filmgoers experienced a type of drowsiness as though they had just woken up, referring to the state as “para-oneiric.” Horror is a genre specifically engineered to move the audience between the “day world” of consciousness to the “night world” of the unconscious with subtle movements in and out of the liminal space between them. A group of campers within a horror narrative may enjoy a normal day of hiking, eating, and conversation only to happen upon witches, ghosts, or other symbols of the supernatural, within the blink of an eye. Resurrection motifs abound within the genre where a “monster” is thought to have been slain but strangely reanimates. The play between death and resurrection, conscious and unconscious, vacillates constantly in horror films.
The mythic relationship between death, resurrection, flowers, and even human sacrifice is particularly central to the image of the May Queen. Her flowered crown, symbolizing the planted seed that has pierced through the soil to express a flower is primal. Campbell discusses in Goddesses: Mysteries of the Feminine Divine the ancient pedagogical experience of the plant world that originated such patterns, stating, “[T]here you have the planting of the seed in the Earth, the rebirth, and the coming of the new plant. Here the dominant motif is death and resurrection, and it’s in that sphere that human sacrifice predominates. You don’t get human sacrifice in a major way in the realm of the hunters, as they’re doing enough killing and their experiences of the guilt of killing involves them in rites of penance and of compensation to the animal world.” (Goddesses, 183)
Western sensibilities around death, sacrifice, and beauty are sometimes sanitized, though we still associate flowers and funerals in a perhaps subconscious nod to the ancient relationship between the two. Films like Midsommar can be hard to watch, but they remind us that some aspects of myth and ritual are not clean, family-friendly, or for the faint of heart. They may not be for every person at every moment. They may be for a season. They may be disturbing. But they change those that experience them and who are in need of what they provide.