This article contains spoilers for Midsommar. Bewarr.
Partway through Midsommar, the stunning new horror film in which young Americans encounter strange traditions in a remote Swedish community, two of the main characters get into a bitter fight over their thesis topics. Three of the four visitors to Harga—whose inhabitants still carry out the same rituals they have been doing for hundreds of years—are anthropology graduate students. Josh, played by William Jackson Harper, is ambitious and intelligent, and has been planning to write a dissertation on surviving European midsummer customs for years. Christian, played by Jack Reynor, has—dazzled by Harga’s violent beauty—just decided to poach Josh’s topic. The scene feels a little bit wooden—the dialogue “sounds a lot like when the hosts in Westworld talk among themselves,” as Alison Willmore wrote in BuzzFeed—and that’s because the academia subplot is more of a gesture than a theme.
I loved Ari Aster’s movie and left it feeling moved and excited and strange. But the day after, with all the dandelion tea flushed out of my system, I found myself thinking that the film’s lack of interest in its anthropologist characters is a huge missed opportunity. The motivations of anthropologists have long been rich ground for novelists and filmmakers. “Anthropologists are among the most popularized academics in fiction,” anthropologist Jeremy MacClancy wrote in a 2005 survey of novelistic representations of his profession. “They are portrayed as either heroic or (much more common) pathetic.” It’s the second kind of anthropologist that Midsommar is interested in. None of these students are going to save the day—or Dani, Christian’s psychology-student girlfriend, who has tagged along in an attempt to put distance between her and a domestic tragedy. When the fictional anthropologists MacClancy surveys aren’t merely ineffectual, cataloging from the sidelines as the real hero takes action, they can be outright evil, letting ambition and curiosity interfere with conscience. At the beginning of Midsommar, Josh is much more awkward than nefarious, trying to make small talk with Harga’s elders about how their customs compare to other groups’. But Christian’s designs on his research topic push Josh to go to a sacred temple at night and take pictures of a forbidden book—a violation of professional ethics that has deadly results.
Curiosity—and lust—are the original sins that bring the group to Harga in the first place. Although this is never expressly stated, it seems likely that Pelle, the friendly Hargan who has enticed the four outsiders to his village to serve as human sacrifices (and infusions of new DNA), may have targeted anthropologists on purpose; what student of human cultures could resist such an invitation? When Christian sees Josh’s dismembered leg poking up out of a garden bed, the rune for “knowledge” is inscribed on his foot, making the connection between his curiosity, transgression, and downfall clear—well, “clear” if you happen to Google around to find out what rune that was, anyway.
MacClancy argues that one reason why novelists may gravitate to anthropology is that the experience of fieldwork, in which anthropologists spend a long time with a group of people they’re studying, makes for rich situations for character development. “Fieldworkers are exposed to a variety of forces—some powerful, compelling, and mysterious—and their effect on the visitor’s personality can be radical and permanent,” he writes. “Fieldwork is emotionally intense, psychologically enriching, potentially traumatic, possibly dangerous.” But Josh seems barely emotionally affected by what he sees in Harga. The grad students in Midsommar are doing half-assed fieldwork at best—it’s implied that this visit is just meant to build a foundation for future stays. But the film is focused on Dani’s point of view, to the extent that we often don’t know how the other characters are reacting to what they’ve seen. When two village elders commit ritual suicide by jumping off a cliff, the film shows their mangled corpses in gory detail, which is enough to prompt two other outside visitors, the Brits Simon and Connie, to freak out and leave. But Christian and Josh’s anthropological training prompts them to reserve judgment.
In fact, the radical nature of the Attestupa ceremony only makes them more curious about the Hargan way of life. As Jack furiously types notes on his laptop and Christian announces he’s decided to make Harga his thesis, it becomes clear that both of them are far more fascinated by the ceremony than they are upset by it. The trauma of the Attestupa scene, and the bloody ceremonies that follow it, challenge Dani the most, but she’s the one who ends up staying for what’s implied will be a complete and lifelong immersion into Harga’s culture. The anthropologists are just there to gather information; she’s the one who’s truly changed.
Dani’s growing affinity for the Hargan way of life evokes another decades-old trope of movies about outsiders visiting isolated groups. In a 2015 study of 53 films featuring anthropologists, Gavin Weston, Jamie F. Lawson, Mwenza Blell, and John Hayton found that 26 of the movies they watched could be categorized as horror films. In many of those films, anthropologists undertake journeys that enable filmmakers to echo the structure of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, telling a story “in which the supposed savagery of ‘the other’ is used to critique the savagery of Western capitalist modernity.” In the three extremely violent early-’80s Italian films these authors dub “The Anthropology Cannibal Trilogy”—Zombie Holocaust (1980), Cannibal Holocaust (1980), and Cannibal Ferox (1981)—tribal “barbarity” turns out to be much less terrible than the murders and rapes perpetrated by the white visitors. At the end of Cannibal Holocaust, the movie’s anthropologist figure says the quiet part out loud: “I wonder who the real cannibals are?”
Midsommar’s visitors commit no such violent acts, although they are annoying as hell. But the movie does suggest an unfavorable contrast between the dark, wintery world of the United States—where Dani is so physically removed from her parents and sister that she can’t prevent a tragedy from happening, and so underserved by her American “community” that she must lean on the horrid Christian for support—and the summery communal space of the Harga, where Dani finds all the empathy she needs. As Willmore argues, Midsommar is “a horror movie about a hunger for belonging, a desire that stretches beyond the scope of its central toxic romance to include the idea of a more authentic, close-knit way of life.”
But wait. Rather than finding community, does Dani just move from one co-dependency to another? Aster seems to think so, which might mean that, as hard as I’ve tried to suss out how Midsommar uses its characters’ interest in anthropology to explore themes of cross-cultural encounter, the movie itself doesn’t know what it’s doing with the theme. Reviewing the film for the New Yorker, Richard Brody wrote that Aster “uses the anthropological framework—likely unintentionally—as the basis for a smug and narrow-minded pathologizing of social science.” Looking at the detached Josh and muddling Christian, I think this may be right.
Still, if you’re looking for a story about young people searching fruitlessly for purpose in life, you could do worse than to set that story in grad school. There’s a scene at the beginning of Midsommar where the four male friends sit around eating pizza and drinking beer. Some of them (Josh) are committed, driven, and in love with their field of study; others (Christian and the underdeveloped character Mark, who studies anthropology yet doesn’t understand why the Hargans might become angry at him for peeing on their sacred tree) are just kind of dicking around. The invested ones try, unsuccessfully, to convince the uninvested ones that they really need to set an exam date and get started on their prospectus. Who’s paying for the next pitcher? I got serious Ph.D. flashbacks.
Grad school, for all its glories, can be painfully infantilizing. Locked into its socially sanctioned holding pattern, you can take seven to 10 years of your 20s and 30s and fritter them away in suspended animation. A halfhearted grad student’s relationship to school is a lot like Dani and Christian’s terrible couplehood—a great way to mark time while looking committed. That’s why it’s so perfect that grad student Christian is the time waster, the topic poacher, the coaster. Terrifying as a village full of murderous pagans might be, it’s not nearly as scary as looking back on an entire decade of your life and wondering where the hell it went.