From the creeping paranoia of Rosemary’s Baby to the gory births of the Alien franchise, imagery of pregnancy and birth has proved a fertile ground for horror directors to explore and exploit. Midsommar, Ari Aster’s 2019 folk horror outing, is preoccupied with themes of seasonality and rebirth, so it’s no surprise that the film is saturated with imagery that evokes the reproductive cycle. Protagonist Dani’s journey from traumatised onlooker to embittered cultist is coded as a journey from conception to birth, and from infantilism to hard won maturity. In the process, Midsommar reveals a deep ambivalence, both towards the physical act of childbirth and the emotional reawakening Dani experiences.
Robert Eggers’ new horror The Lighthouse exhibits a close familial bond with the themes and ideas explored by its older sibling, The Witch (2015). Having watched the film, it makes sense to personify the Lighthouse. It’s not simply a structure or setting, like the Witch’s lair in the woods; the lantern room represents the fleshy heart of the film, its relentless rotations setting the pace for the plot’s quiet development like a steady heartbeat (sometimes uncomfortably noticeable; most times a silent, immutable truth).
From the moment I heard the vampire’s name, I associated him with forbidden desires. After all, I was only seven-years-old when the R-rated Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992) was released to theatres and very much forbidden from seeing it. Despite the begging, my parents decided it “…just wasn’t for kids.” Unacceptable! We were a family of horror fans (seriously, my dad had me convinced he was an actual werewolf) and vampires were definitely my thing. Perhaps as a consolation, my mother went out and bought me a high-collared black cape from our local K-Mart. That Halloween, an elementary-aged but very convincing Count Dracula stalked the streets of Bay St. Louis, Mississippi in white face paint and plastic fangs.
In an undergraduate classroom, even one full of English majors, it can be hard for nineteenth-century literature to turn heads. “Achingly dull” or “overly wordy” are typical responses to the Victorians. Despite its place in our cultural imagination, Dracula doesn’t incite average readers to clamour for Bram Stoker’s foundational novel. But by the time Dracula’s three sultry vamp ladies crawl suggestively down Jonathan Harker in bed, who is insensate with fear and “languorous ecstasy,” students realise this isn’t some stuffy sermon on middle-class morality they’re dealing with. The assumed Victorian prudishness doesn’t fly, but catapults out the nearest window. This isn’t what they were expecting. Certainly not from 1897. But why not?
Last summer, alone, I decided to watch The Ritual on Netflix. I’ll admit, despite being a horror fan and generally desensitised, I was spooked. The tension of the first half and the eerie imagery of the second half got me, but I enjoyed myself. I was clearly in a particular type of mood because the next night I saw The Forest come up on my suggestions. Always down for a horror movie rooted in mythology and folklore, feeling like I wanted to watch more people get lost in the woods for some reason, I decided to give it ago.
I was sorely disappointed.
Stephen King. Even as a kid, I knew that that name attached to a film title meant that I was going to be freaked out. Both of my parents were avid horror fans, so I became acquainted with cinematic monstrosity at a rather early age. I cut my teeth on It, A Nightmare on Elm Street, Pet Sematary, and Halloween. As a result, it isn’t very often that a scary movie really gets me. However, if someone were to ask which movie scared me the most, my answer wouldn’t be a major title. Nor is it one that seems to get a lot of attention. It is, however, a Stephen King film; one that left a mark, or rather, a scratch on my psyche that I’ve only truly begun to understand as an adult: Sleepwalkers.
The Devils is Ken Russell’s notorious 1971 historical drama telling the extraordinary story of a case of possession in 17th century France, in the city of Loudun. I start with possession because, were this any other story, that would be the most extraordinary part. But this isn’t a film about possession; it is a film about the dangers of religion and politics colliding, and it’s message is as resonant today as it was on release (and on publication of the Aldous Huxley book, The Devils of Loudun from 1952, on which the film is partly based).
The nightmare was real. Sitting in Ava Chitwood’s course on Greek civilization, my phone starts going off. Loudly. Dr. Chitwood was the kind of professor who inspired both fear and fascination. No doubt, those of us majoring in classics adored her but nobody, and I mean nobody, wanted to get on her bad side. I remember once advising a friend of mine, “if you’re late, just don’t go.” Truth be told, she just didn’t have time for any college-age bullshit. This was the kind of professor (icon) that would throw you out for yawning too loudly. So, you can imagine the fear, the panic, and utter desperation I felt as my phone starts ringing. There I am, tearing through my bag, praying she doesn’t kick me out, when my hand finally finds the phone. I silence it, drop it back in the bag, and pick up my pen. Dr. Chitwood is just standing there silently, eyes locked on me. “In 44 CE,” she continued, “…there was a sudden outburst of music.” She winked at me and, I swear to God, it felt like a wink from Fate, herself!
“Science fiction plucks from within us our deepest fears and hopes, then shows them to us in rough disguise: the monster and the rocket” – W.H. Auden
You may believe that Alien is a science fiction film. After all it’s set in space with all the hypersleep pods and computer terminals and rumbling star-drives you might want. The story happens in some distant (but not too distant) future where humanity feels at home travelling the gulfs between stars. It is, perhaps most pressingly, called Alien.
You may believe that Alien is a science fiction film and it’s not an absurd position to hold. It’s just wrong.
Editor’s note: as this is an analysis of the film Midsommar, there be spoilers ahead.
Midsommar is Ari Aster’s latest horror offering following 2018’s Hereditary, and sees a group of friends who travel to Sweden for a festival that only occurs every 90 years, only to find themselves amongst a pagan cult.