The Real Places, People, and Art That Inspired the Horrifying Village in 'Midsommar'
You can find Hårga, Sweden, the setting of Ari Aster's nightmarish fairy tale Midsommar, on a map. Seriously, plug it into Google and you'll find satellite images of the locale, seemingly rural, but not overtly occupied by a cheerily sinister community with a penchant for psychedelics. Hårga is indeed real, but the Hårga people, insofar as Aster conceived of them for his movie, are not. There is no direct analog to this quasi-cult with discomforting rituals around death and bearskins. Midsommar is inspired by a variety of traditions, some of which Aster is loathe to cite given the film doesn't exactly paint them in the best light.
In Midsommar, a group of American grad students travel to Sweden on the recommendation of their friend Pelle, who sells them on a vacation of summer solstice festivities with his family. It's initially a buddy trip with his three dude friends -- among them, the dickish Mark (Will Poulter) and serious academic Josh (William Jackson Harper) -- but Dani (Florence Pugh) tags along in an effort to sustain her doomed relationship with the less-than-enthusiastic Christian (Jack Reynor). It's almost immediately evident that something is wrong in Hårga. Their cultural customs involve love spells with pubic hairs baked into pies, ritual deaths at the age of 72, and pre-approved sexual encounters based on astrological charts. Every 90 years they gather for a special ceremony, for which these newcomers are present.
While the world of Midsommar is an amalgamation of many influences, let's break down some of the biggest:
The Hårgalåten, aka the big May Queen dance
Even before Midsommar came along, Hårga had an association with evil, one on which the film ends up riffing. "The Hårga Song," or "Hårgalåten," tells the story of how the devil, disguised as a fiddler, comes to Hårga and forces the villagers to dance until they die. In Midsommar, an older woman tells a version of this story before the May Queen competition, wherein the women of the community drink a fortifying substance and gather around the maypole and dance until they fall down. The last one left standing is the May Queen, affixed with a beautifully elaborate flower crown. Aster tells Thrillist that the real song, even though it's not used in the film, was part of the reason the location was chosen. The other part: "It's always more fun to tether it to something tangible," Aster explains. "But then, you know, you do run the risk of the real thing being confused for whatever you've done." Midsommar's production designer Henrik Svensson told Thrillist via email that the legend of Hårgalåten is still very present in Swedish society as part of the dance competition known as Hälsingehambon. "They start with the staging of the myth on the Hårga meadow and then follows several segments of the dance to finally be ended in the nearby city of Kilafors," just shy of three miles away, Svensson wrote.
Hälsingland and its art
Before reaching Hårga, the fivesome pass a sign welcoming them to Hälsingland, the region of Sweden in which the majority of Midsommar takes place. Per Svensson, the folk art that pervades almost every shot of the film -- from the opening tableau to the ornately painted cabin where the characters sleep -- is indebted to the history of the region, including notions of the type of people who live there. "The story, at least in Hälsingland, is that the county of Hälsingland is the home of the original ubermensch: wealthy, strong, tall, and blonde," Svensson explained. According to further research of the art in the area, there are seven farmhouses in Hälsingland that constitute a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the area is known for its bright wall paintings originating in the 18th and 19th Centuries. Meanwhile, if you go back even farther, Hälsingland was home to work like the Skog Tapestry, likely dating from the 13th Century, the subject of which is up for debate but is probably religious in nature. "[The iconography of the region] is very weird, in a biblical, scary way from the beginning, and very easy to offset just a tiny bit to suddenly contain lots of creepy sex, blood, magic, and the history of violence," Svensson explained. But whereas the historical works might use flowers as ornaments, Svensson added "in our version, mainly genitals." Look closely: Nearly the entire script appears in painting form on screen as artistic premonitions.
Svensson also cited other artists and movements outside of the region as influences. Among them: The Pre-Raphaelites; Hilma af Klint, subject of a recent major retrospective at the Guggenheim; the Belgian symbolist Léon Frédéric; and Swedes Carl Larsson, a painter predominantly active in the 1900s, and Elsa Beskow, a children's book illustrator working before and around the turn of the 20th century.
The runic alphabet pervades Hårga, but it's as foreign to (most) audiences' eyes as it is to the Midsommar travelers. Aster learned the ancient manner of writing in the process of working on the film with help from a consultant. The runes in the film are meant to be read in the Uthark style of translation, which is popular among occult circles, and runs in opposition to what is known as the Futhark interpretation, seen as the prevailing set of runes to learn. Svensson described them thusly: "The Uthark and the Futhark are the same runes," -- or characters or letters -- "but in different order. The Uthark seems to be more of a go-to alphabet in the company of contemporary mystics, among them a Swedish writer we interviewed on our very first research trip. They say the Futhark was a cipher to hide the magical Uthark." In the Uthark, the "F" rune goes last instead of first to unlock the true meaning of the rune row. But Aster also fiddled around to create something totally new along with consultant Martin Karlqvist for Midsommar's runic letters. "We kind of co-created this language called the Affekt language, which is with a K," he says. "It really is a melange of folklore, historical fact, tradition and invention."
The Midsommar runes can be found even in the architecture of the village. "We have a rune for 'cultivation of art, soul, and craft' that is very prominent in the film; the entire village is built in that shape, including all the houses, fields and gardens, but I’m pretty sure that doesn’t shine through," Svensson wrote. "Our rune for 'healing and cure' was also a big one."
The racial homogeny of Hårga
Aside from a hilariously random allusion to Austin Powers, Midsommar very rarely explicitly references any pop culture or (relatively) current events. But both Aster and Svensson have said there is a political allegory at play. "There are a lot of parallels to the history of Europe over the last hundred years," Aster says. "They're not the most diverse community." Indeed, the creepiness of the Hårga is augmented by their Aryan-ness and the fact that they dispose of anyone who comes to their community who doesn't physically fit in. Aster notes: "It's there to be seen in the corners of the movie, but hopefully it's only there if you're looking and it's not a distraction because I'm not looking to make a polemic either." In his message to me, Svensson drew parallels to the rise of far-right extremism in Sweden, notably the recent disturbing success of the historically white nationalist Sweden Democrats.
The incredibly fucked-up sequence where elderly Hårgans jump to their deaths and explode into gory piles of flesh upon landing is rooted in a practice that is definitely mythological and possibly actually happened. The simple idea was that during the Ättestupa elderly members of society would commit suicide off of high peaks, thus giving themselves over to Odin. (In the world of Midsommar, the Hårga people kill themselves at age 72 and their names transfer to younger members of the community.) The Gautreks saga is frequently cited as the origin of the notion of Ättestupa, and in historian Anders Fryxell's The History of Sweden, translated to English in 1844, he described the practice as such: "Close by this farm there was a very high perpendicular rock, such that it was certain whoever should cast himself from the top would never reach the bottom alive. Here Skapnartunger's ancestors had always put an end to their own lives, as soon as they became very old, that their children might be saved from maintaining them, and that they themselves come to Odin and be freed from the pains and sufferings which accompany old age and a straw-death."
The iconography doesn't just start once Dani, Christian, and the rest reach Sweden. Dani's apartment is decorated with a number of paintings that hint at the destruction to come, including two by artist Mu Pan, who is also behind the mural that serves as the opening card of the film. But perhaps the most eye-catching piece of decoration is from the haunting catalogue of Swedish painter John Bauer. Svensson was reluctant to say more for fear of revealing too many of the movie's secrets, but described Bauer as a "Swedish national icon." Before dying in a boat accident in 1918, he illustrated the country's trove of fairy tales. The image that's significant is of a young girl with a crown kissing a bear on the nose, called Stackars lilla basse!, which translates to "poor little bear," a crucial foreshadowing to the end of Midsommar that also involves a woman, a crown, and a bear.