Friday 13 September 2019

WDGB Midsommar Special #2: Dymphna

The last time Dymphna wrote a guest post for me, it became the single most read piece on this site for nearly two years by several thousand views. Dymphna is a fierecely intelligent writer and an excellent game designer (fans of role-playing and folk horror should definitely take a look at her game Dreaming the Devil), and when she offered me a short piece on Midsommar, I jumped at it like a puppy offered an especially tasty treat. Dymphna's piece is a rare thing on this site, a piece that you can read before  you see the movie. 


We don’t see yellow very often in horror films. We’re used to eerie desatuatred blues; rusty, septic browns; vivid, horrorshow reds. When the camera pans over the walls of the protagonist Dani’s parents’ home, showing a bright yellow floral wallpaper, we pay attention.

Something is wrong in the house. We know this, despite the mundanity of the scene. Dani leaves a message on a charmingly old-fashioned answering machine as we pan over wood panelling and shag carpet. We listen to Dani express her concerns while simultaneously insisting that she’s probably worried about nothing. As she speaks aloud about how she’s almost certainly overreacting, we see a bright yellow tube snaking through the silent home. The camera follows the yellow tube until we that it has a car’s exhaust tube at one end, and three corpses at the other.

Yellow is a bright colour. It’s hard to miss, even in a colourful film. Every time yellow shows up in the frame it demands our attention and tells us that something bad is happening. When we see the protagonists walking down a path lined with yellow flowers towards the village where most of the film takes place, we know that they are going to a place of death. Later, when we see the bright yellow building on the outskirts of the village, we know that people will die in that building.
Throughout the film there are beautifully illustrated pictures that show you, in bright storybook colours, that terrible things are going to happen.

Why am I talking about yellow? I’m talking about it because Midsommar is a film that shows you right from the beginning exactly how the movie is going to end. It shows you as plainly as if it were written for you in bright yellow text on the screen. Despite that, the film is tense and suspenseful for its entire 147 minute runtime.

Every decision in Midsommar makes sense. There is no sudden dump of exposition that changes the tone of the film (excepting, perhaps, the scenes with the town's oracle. Frankly, these scenes felt so out of place to me that I can't help but wonder if some Hollywood suit added them in at the last minute. "We need a disfigured person with a developmental disability! Let's throw in some ableist horseshit, it'll be extra spooky!") In a worse movie, the villagers would have an overwrought, menacing cheer that would abruptly shift into violence after a protagonist discovers A Dark Secret. After discovery of the Dark Secret, the film would turn into an extended chase sequence, where the protagonists try to escape the Scary Village.

That never happens in Midsommar. No one even runs in Midsommar (at least, not on screen). The villagers move in slow, dreamlike movements when they’re not simply standing in curious tableaux. There’s no overt menace. There are no monsters in Midsommar. There’s just a mild-mannered, friendly stranger offering you a drink, and you’d feel like you were being rude if you turned them down. You want to have a drink with your friends, don’t you?

Folk horror’s power comes from dread, from tension, from a sense of the inevitable. We already know that something terrible will happen; it’s shown in the film’s frontispiece. But the dread is not just sourced from the external horror of the scary village; it comes from the protagonists’ continual inability to cope with their circumstances responsibly. We know that these people will die because we can see the fault lines in their souls. We see exactly when and how they will break, and then they do.

We don’t see any contrived circumstances forcing the protagonists to stay in the village. We see a weak, selfish man take the path of least resistance over and over again. We see a woman who has learned to ignore her own instincts out of a fear of abandonment continue to overlook her own best judgement. These people are familiar. We’ve watched our friends do this to themselves. We’ve seen them in ourselves in weak moments.

In most horror films, we find ourselves wondering, “Why don’t these stupid people just leave the haunted house?” In Midsommar, you know exactly why these people don’t leave the village. They don’t leave the village for the same reason that people don’t leave bad relationships.

If they knew how to leave, they would.

But they don’t.

So they stay.