Midsommar uses real cult indoctrination tactics not only on its characters, but on its viewers, too. If you made it through to the end of this grisly blockbuster, you’ve likely been manipulated without even realizing it.
Though it’s only been on the movie market for a short two years, Midsommar (2019) is already considered a cult classic – quite literally, in fact. The film follows its protagonist, Dani, as she takes a trip to Sweden for a communal midsummer celebration, that occurs only once every ninety years. What Dani doesn’t realize, however, is that the seemingly pleasant – if somewhat out-of-touch – commune is actually a full-blown cult. By the end of Midsommar, Dani is the sole survivor of her original visiting group, and she is manipulated into joining the commune. Though the film itself is already genius enough, there is real psychological manipulation going on behind the scenes; it’s all designed to brainwash the audience alongside Dani. When the credits start rolling, indoctrination is complete; and it’s worked on millions of audience members since its release.
There’s one easy “tell” in Midsommar that demonstrates how effective its manipulation is along the spectrum. At the end of the movie, Dani, who has just condemned her (now ex) boyfriend to be paralyzed and burned alive, along with eight other sacrifices, is seen watching her former friends burned to death. Though she appears upset at first, the longer she watches, the less bothered she seems to be; the final shot of Midsommar is Dani smiling cheerfully at the burning sacrificial building.
This key moment in Midsommar makes audiences react in a particular way, too; they smile along with Dani. They’re happy for her. She seems to have found peace.
So – why does the audience smile along with Dani? Why are so many viewers exclaiming their pride and happiness for Dani at the end of the film? After all, we’ve seen even more behind-the-scenes shots of what the cult does in their free time (like kill four of Dani’s friends behind her back). The cult’s psychology still works on us, even after everything we’ve been exposed to over the course of the film.
The most interesting part of Midsommar is the way that the cult works as both the villain and the hero. It’s the instigator of every negative event that happens, but it’s also the positive resolution that comes afterwards. Everything bad that happens to Dani happens mostly because of the cult – but every solution she finds also comes from the cult. It’s a common tactic used to trap victims; if you can be the solution to all of their problems, they won’t ever want to leave you. But if your victim is isolated, then you also have to cause the problems.
Let’s take Dani’s boyfriend in Midsommar, Christian, as an example. He’s not a super great guy; he’s been wanting to break up with Dani since before the trip to Sweden, but he felt as though he couldn’t do so. This is actually because of the singular negative event that occurs outside of the cult – Dani’s parents and sister die in a murder-suicide – which causes some issues leading up to the group’s departure. During the trip, Dani and Christian argue frequently and grow apart from one another. This culminates in Christian cheating on Dani in a strange, secretive ritual. Dani discovers this infidelity – which was caused, in large part, by the cult’s drugging and manipulation of Christian – and begins to have an anxiety attack. Naturally, women from the cult appear out of nowhere to help ease Dani’s attack; they surround her and cry with her, supporting her until Dani calms down. It forms a bond between the group and makes the audience react kindly to the cult; it’s much, much easier to place the blame entirely on Christian (which, to be fair, a large part of it is) and see the cult as the solution to Dani’s problem (helping her feel better) rather than the instigator (drugging and manipulating her and Christian).
These odd little bonds that Dani forms with members of the cult in the movie Midsommar – with her friend that helps her realize she shouldn’t need to be with Christian to feel complete, with the group members that cry with her, with the women she sleeps next to, the people that comfort her and explain their rituals to her – are all serving to plant small images of kindness in the audience’s heads. It creates a tie to the cult; yes, they cause problems, but their solutions are so good.
More than anything, though, we want to see Dani succeed. We’ve never actually seen her as a happy person at any point in the film; she has constant anxiety attacks, doesn’t enjoy any of the rituals the cult puts her through (to be fair, who would?), even has trouble sleeping and fitting in with the cult members she meets. She loses her friends (also to the cult, though she doesn’t know that) and eventually her boyfriend – she’s isolated, scared, and anxious. Not only does this make her the perfect target for the cult to sweep her up – isolation, after all, is key to indoctrinating new members – but it also makes her the perfect main character with which the audience can sympathize. We like Dani. We want her to succeed! And for her, success comes at the end of the movie, Midsommar. The one time we see her happy is after she’s chosen to sacrifice her boyfriend for the good of the cult. We feel powerful; as though we, too, have achieved some revenge against her boyfriend’s infidelity and are now seeing Dani at her greatest. We no longer feel the need to see her escape from the cult; she’s happy where she is now.
So – even unconsciously, even just for a second – we smile with her.
Check out the official trailer for “Midsommar!”