Faces contort in panic, terror, agony – but a smile is the most horrific expression you can see at the climax of a horror film. It’s a smile that fills the very last frame of Ari Aster’s recent Midsommar (2019). Having lost her sister and parents in one night, Dani (Florence Pugh) and her distant boyfriend Christian (Jack Reynor), find themselves on an anthropological field trip to the white-robed Hårga community in Sweden, whose pagan midsummer ceremonies gradually become more and more disturbing. Rather than in dingy houses or pitch-black woods, the Hårga pursue their dark practices and unwitting victims amid bucolic meadows and a broad daylight which, at this special time of year, lasts well into the night. It culminates in Dani’s anointment as the May Queen and living human sacrifices consigned to the flames. For all the violence she has witnessed, Dani has found power and a new, loving family out here in remote, literally godforsaken Sweden. And she smiles.
Anyone watching Midsommar will immediately recognize the considerable debt that it owes to Robin Hardy’s horror classic The Wicker Man (1973) – its remote, verdant pagan space suffused with sex, the search for a May Queen, and the fiery human sacrifice as the sun god looks on. As such, Midsommar is a clear example of what British writer and entertainer Mark Gatiss has termed ‘folk horror’, whose ‘unholy trinity’ consists of The Wicker Man, Michael Reeves’s Witchfinder General (1968) and Piers Haggard’s Blood on Satan’s Claw (1971). Gatiss introduced the trio in the context of his A History of Horror documentaries (2010), and the term rings true because the films either feature folklore or the stories they tell feel like they could be part of it. Another recent film, Robert Eggers’s The Witch (2015) fits squarely into this mould, too, seeing devout 17th-century New England colonists terrorized by witchcraft in ways closely based on folklore of the era.
All these films have smiles too. The Wicker Man’s murderous islanders beam at Police Sergeant Howie as they frustrate his inquiries and as they finally sacrifice him. The demon-possessed youth of Blood on Satan’s Claw smile and don white robes and flower crowns as they strive to manifest the demon Behemoth. Witchfinder General doesn’t end in a smile exactly, but the protagonist is clearly enjoying his revenge on the eponymous sadist a little too much. And the ending of The Witch most closely resembles that of Midsommar. Having seen her old family meet gruesome ends, Thomasin embraces a new family – a coven of witches encircling the fire at a black sabbath. She grins, then laughs as dark forces lift her into the air.
These smiles are a potent image of what it is that is most disconcerting about these tales. First of all, they represent the breaking of people – the point at which they no longer oppose the terror, they become it. But more than that, these smiles represent people having lost themselves, having given themselves over to unseen powers or to the collective, and finding it not traumatically dehumanizing but desirable, enjoyable, better. These pagans have happily surrendered their egos – and they’ll make you do the same. They have let go of the precarious humanistic dignity on which civilization is supposed to rest, or worse still, proven that its God, laws and mores (represented by the policeman in The Wicker Man or the Puritans in The Witch) are contingent and temporary in their power. More chillingly still, there is no evidence of supernatural forces in The Wicker Man and Midsommar, so the horror moves from the fantastical to the anthropological: the horrifying truth is not that something lurks in the metaphysical dark, but that we are all fleshy creatures temporarily cavorting on the surface of a beautiful rock, unstoppably visiting pleasure and pain on each other as the winds of superstition command. The smiling pagans are the rulers of this land.
In folk horror, music is a key component of this disconcerting peek behind the anthropological curtain. Diegetically (within the world of the film, as opposed to just the soundtrack), the pagans’s ritual chants, choirs and dancing are direct examples of communal cohesion and the dissolution of the self. Midsommar features many different examples of group vocalization, from complex, richly harmonic chorales down to rhythmic yawping and animalistic screams. And it’s no coincidence that the ‘folk’ of folk horror is also a kind of music. The Wicker Man is practically a musical, containing several extended sequences of folk music both outside and inside the world of the film – around the maypole, as part of the education of children, and of course around the burning wicker man itself, whereupon the villagers sing one of the oldest vernacular songs known to the British Isles, ‘Sumer Is Icumen In’ (c. mid-13th century), reharmonized to a sinister and fateful minor key.
There is plenty of folk music since the 1960s that, having drunk deeply from the hallucinogenic wells of countercultural knowledge, could more than just be described as dark. Rob Young writes in his matchless survey of British folk music, Electric Eden (2010), of the ‘strong urge, in the modern folk revival, to zoom in on the creepy and the uncanny, the Gothic, the strange and the magical.’ For a taste of this, try the album First Utterance (1971) by the short-lived group Comus – with its wild abandon and growled voices, it hints at an alternate world in which heavy metal could have developed from a folk root rather than a hard rock one. David Cain’s The Seasons (1969) sets a series of pagan-gothic poems to jarring early electronic sounds, and was released by the BBC, intended for classroom use. Then there’s the post-punk folk turn of hitherto industrial act Current 93, from 1988’s Swastikas for Noddy onwards, sounding as if the Sex Pistols’ Johnny Rotten had become a warlock.
But like the folk horror smile, it’s often the more superficially jolly folk music, leaving the darkness much more implicit, that can be the creepiest. This was the genius of The Wicker Man’s almost constantly joyful soundtrack – the way the otherwise scarcely remarkable bawdy, melodeon-accompanied pub songs gently introduced the viewer to a community that had gleefully abandoned the sexual customs so cherished by Sergeant Howie. The Incredible String Band on their album The Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter (1967) are masters of this pagan glee, too, showing disconcerting conviction as they cheerfully gambol with the metaphysical as if indoctrinating children. A documentary made about them, Be Glad for the Song Has No Ending (1970), features the band in an extended sequence of acid-folk make-believe, a ceremony that features figures in white robes and flower crowns, one of them a mystical apparition with antlers and a skull-topped staff (the most distressing thing about the character, however, is that they’re wearing blackface, which some Morris dancers continue to do to this day). Then there’s the wonderful Mr. Fox, whose self-titled album (1970) opens with the tankard-swinging ‘Join Us in Our Game’:
Come with us into our world and listen as we play
Join us in our game…
Our good songs may beguile you, the hanging man may haunt you,
Join us in our game…
This smiling horror is done brilliantly in the non-diegetic soundtrack to Midsommar by Bobby Krlic, who has released music as The Haxan Cloak (‘häxan’ happens to translate from Swedish to ‘the witch’). With its dreamy tremolandos and rich harmonies, much of the score sounds like a folk-art watercolour of Richard Wagner’s operas, Claude Debussy’s Prélude à l'Après-midi d'un faune (1894) or Maurice Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloé (1912), all of which sought to conjure the world of pagan mythology. Yet Krlic gently sows dissonance throughout – for instance, by continuing to hold notes when switching between otherwise pleasant chords in ‘Blessing’, to accompany a solemn outdoor ceremony. At Midsommar’s ending, filmmaker Ari Aster plays the same trick he did with his previous film Hereditary (2018): presenting a gory tableau of victims accompanied by a soundtrack of overwhelming positivity and finality. In Hereditary, it was experimental saxophonist Colin Stetson’s ‘Reborn’, reminiscent in its rippling major arpeggios and blissful harmonic stasis of the opening of Wagner’s Ring Cycle in Das Rheingold (1869). Krlic’s equivalent is the chillingly magnificent ‘Fire Temple’, which after building for several minutes gives birth to the soundtrack’s only true melody, a proud, stirring anthem with softly screeching strings around its edges. Not just a smile, but a warm and glorious one.
Main image: Ari Aster, Midsommar, 2019, film still. Courtesy: A24