Ari Aster has become one of the most successful and celebrated horror writer-directors in the twenty-first century. His debut feature film Hereditary (2018) received both critical and commercial success. The ‘breakup opera’ Midsommar (2019) solidified his writing and directorial achievements, exhibiting his profoundly distinct cinematic voice and prodigious creativity in constructing cult communities. Aster, alongside Jordan Peele and Robert Eggers, is leading a horror renaissance that is generating a critical resurgence in the genre.
With the tangible existence of cults globally, our curiosity is appeased when Aster provides us with an insight into their traditions and rituals
Hereditary (2018) follows Annie and her family after her mother, Ellen, dies and the disturbing and demonic events that unravel subsequently. Whilst the film centres around the Graham family, we encounter a demon-worshiping cult as they attempt to physically and mentally exhaust the son, Peter, in order to permit paimon, the demon, to enter his body.
Aster’s latest film Midsommar (2019) is the story of Dani, who after losing her family, attends a Midsummer festival in Sweden in an attempt to rectify her frail relationship with her boyfriend, Christian. The events that follow see Dani absorbed into the Paganist cult as her bereavement and isolation amplify her vulnerability to their pursuits.
What makes the cult an object of obsession for Aster that enables his films to be so successful? Perhaps it’s the grounding of his work in realism, with the tangible existence of cults globally, our curiosity is appeased when Aster provides us with an insight into their traditions and rituals. The films are effective in depicting the techniques deployed by cults to ascertain members and even demonstrate how malleable the audience is to their charisma and charm.
The blinding beauty of the cult interferes with the characters’ abilities to recognise the darkness of their actions
Dani’s slow surrender of individual identity to the crushing embrace of the collective in Midsommar, accurately depicts the recruitment tactics of cults. The role of structure, targeting, isolation and love bombing prove how a vulnerable but rational person can be coaxed into a cult. Despite this, Aster claims that he doesn’t see the Hårga as a cult – more as a cultural collective. The community is based on a combination of Swedish folklore and Norse mythology. The meticulous nature with which Aster builds this cinematic world is unprecedented and immerses both the characters and audience. A memorable quality of the film is its lightness – brightly lit scenes such as that of the Ättestupa ceremony juxtapose our preconceptions of typical lighting decisions with daylight horror. This choice of lighting is crucial in supplementing the plot, as the blinding beauty of the cult interferes with the characters’ abilities to recognise the darkness of their actions.
Aster declares it was a deliberate choice for deaths to occur off-screen to not draw our gaze away from the Hårga and their rituals. He is directing our attention away from the disappearances and deaths in favour of depicting the cult’s lifestyle, which is synonymously happening to the characters in the film. Therefore, the careful consideration of screen-time means that the Hårga are all the more memorable.
By creating niche details and rituals, Aster is efficacious in creating cult communities with depth and integrity
One of the most distressing aspects of Midsommar, is the empathetic and cathartic experience we encounter at the end of the film. Aster has compelled the audience to resonate with Dani, and the same techniques the Hårga use on her have been used on us, the audience. This is evidence of Aster’s ability to not only integrate cults into his narratives, but to also create a distressing viewer experience that makes us doubt our own conscience.
Unlike Midsommar, the cult depicted in Hereditary has a much more peripheral presence. There are various signs that allude to their existence, such as the sigil that appears on the necklaces of Ellen and Annie, as well as on the pole that decapitates Charlie. Joan, as the primary antagonist provides the audience with insight into the private life of deceased Ellen and implies the existence of a collective of people attached to the strange occurrences the family are experiencing. The alarming effectiveness of utilizing the cult, as a peripheral plot device that is carefully overshadowed by the hideous violence that occurs to the family, instils a sense of uncertain dread into the viewer.
The lack of exposition is what makes the film so sinister – we are unsure of what exactly is happening but we are aware of the evils at play
Aster asserts that the film is ‘a tale of conspiracy from the point of those being conspired against’. The use of this perspective is crucial for keeping the audience in the dark as much as the Graham family. The allusions to a cult throughout the film are constantly misconceived because we see it through the eyes of the family, who, are unaware of the cult but whose existence is implied through the events that unfold. The lack of exposition is what makes the film so sinister – we are unsure of what exactly is happening but we are aware of the evils at play.
Aster’s phenomenal attention to detail has amassed a cult following, as audiences attempt to dissect and analyse every inch of his films. These details are important plot devices, especially in regard to the cults portrayed. By creating niche details and rituals, Aster is efficacious in creating cult communities with depth and integrity. Through this depth the cults are able to present their own fallible reasoning for the atrocities they commit, making them all the more ominous.
Family is something every viewer can resonate with and as Aster demonstrates the destructive and sinister power of family ties he elevates his horror to new heights
The use of shock factor through the gory events on screen are another reason the films are so memorable. The intense brutality of the scenes stays with your long after the final credits. However, unlike many other horror films, these are not mindless killings – Aster deliberately integrates character deaths into plot progression. Each death is carefully orchestrated to reveal insight into the rituals of the cults. The often-brutal nature of these killings appeals to our morbid fascination, and their resulting from cult behaviour further amplifies this, because we feel like we should not be bearing witness to these secretive practices.
Despite Hereditary and Midsommar having prevalent cult elements they also have attachments to family. Both reference destroying and escaping your family. Ultimately, this is where Aster’s success lies, by delicately interlacing cults and family he makes it difficult to distinguish between the two. For Dani in Midsommar, the cult is now her family and in Hereditary we observe the creation and destruction of a family for cultish purposes. Family is something every viewer can resonate with and as Aster demonstrates the destructive and sinister power of family ties he elevates his horror to new heights.
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