Midsommar probably won’t encourage folks to book tickets for a Swedish vacation anytime soon. What Ari Aster‘s new folk-horror film might do, however, is spark some curiosity as to the film’s mythology and just how far it deviates from reality. The story centers on a group of Americans who travel to the Swedish hinterland at the invitation of their university friend in order to participate in a once-in-a-lifetime spring festival. What happens once they’re there is something that’s lost to legend and fiercely protected by the locals, but luckily we get to (safely) share in the festivities as the viewing audience.
Since both Hereditary and Midsommar lean heavily on pagan folklore, I was hoping that Aster either had roots in Nordic countries and culture or at least thoroughly researched it, like his PhD-candidate characters. Originally, B-Reel Films and producer Patrik Andersson brought Aster an idea for a folk horror picture centered on the concept of “Americans going to Sweden and getting killed off.” But Aster was also going through a personal relationship break-up at the time and found a way to make “this big, operatic break-up movie” that “became very personal.” Aster’s take on the people of Hårga is that their culture is deeply rooted in reciprocity, which is an aspect that’s missing in the core romantic relationship at the heart of the story; this is where the focus of Midsommar really lies.
But we’re here to talk about the mythology and to find out just how much fact there is to this fiction. For example, though the movie is supposed to take place in the Swedish wilderness, it was filmed in Hungary; they did, however, have a Swedish costume designer and production designer. Additionally, Vanity Fair reported that, according to the movie’s press notes, Aster brushed up on Swedish culture by collaborating with Stockholm-based set decorator Henrik Svensson on a 100-page reference document. Their research included visits to local folklore museums, tours of centuries-old farms with paintings on the walls similar to those found in the movie, and traditional cultural solstice celebrations, along with studies of British and German folklore. Aster also told the New York Times that the pre-Christian traditions found throughout the film were drawn from Scottish anthropologist James George Frazer‘s 1890 book “The Golden Bough: A Study in Comparative Religion.”
But all of that research was more for aesthetics than accuracy. Swedish actor Vilhelm Blomgren, who plays Pelle, described Midsommar as “coming home” in a way. He confirmed that they eat pickled herring during their spring festivities, but that’s about as far as the similarities go between reality and the movie’s depiction of the pagan holiday. So from runes to ritual sacrifice, and maypoles to May Queens, here’s a look at at what’s real and what’s stretching the truth quite a bit. Spoilers ahead for those of you who haven’t seen Midsommar but still have a passing curiosity in Swedish festival lore.