By Danny Anderson
I wonder if any single idea has corroded American Christianity as much as “Family Values.”
If you grew up in Evangelical circles in the past 30-40 years, then the squishy ethos of this concept has permeated most aspects of your life. “Family First” is a mantra that forms our social relations, our consumer habits, our political identities, and our very imaginations. Even though I’ve always been unclear about what we actually mean when we say “Family Values,” as an idea it is powerful because it is both simple and easy. And it is dangerous because it seems so virtuous.
This certainly has something to do with the American Church’s preference for community over Communion. As a people, we have a drive to find safety in numbers, but as individuals, we need to keep those numbers as low as possible. This is community. If one’s interests lie in collecting postage stamps, then the philately community provides a set of common interests and a sense of belonging. The luster of that belonging, however, fades when a non-philatelist walks in the room. The self’s interest is not served when it has to accommodate outlanders. Family Values is something like this. We get to feel like we’re serving others, but only others that are very like ourselves. And what kind of Values are those?
Communion, on the other hand, is the disintegration of the self’s boundaries. Entering into Communion with others is an act of shedding those desires and preferences in a corporate act of worshiping God. Here, serving others breaks down the division between us and them.
Unfortunately, our church communities too often prioritize small-c community. We weave it into the fabric of our institutions. It takes the form of small-group Bible Studies selected solely by age, geographic location, and, let’s be honest, socio-economic status. It becomes visible during “meet-and-greet” time when we drift to the people we already know will make us feel a part of something, leaving the outsiders to awkwardly look around for an extended hand. And of course, there is the predictable after-church gathering of the Lunch Bunch, who come together quietly, inevitably, like tributaries of a river merging along the way to Lake Panera. If someone else noses in, they probably won’t be shunned, but the seating arrangements become terribly awkward.
*Important note: bounded communities are of course important and people need places where they are free to live as themselves. I’m not suggesting otherwise and there are countless essays that explore this necessary feature of community. Here, however, I want to focus on the dark side of that generally good thing.
Which brings me to Ari Aster’s Midsommar.
Midsommar and Community
Recently, Emily Todd VanDerWerff wrote about how several prominent works of popular culture investigated themes of community in the 2010s. Midsommar was one of the films she explored and it sparked my own thinking about how that film might apply to churchgoers like myself. In short, Midsommar is a terrifying cautionary tale for those of us who desperately desire community. We often talk about “finding a church home,” as though this is undoubtedly a good thing. But what happens to those who are not “our people?”
If you have not seen Midsommar, then I must warn you that spoilers are ahead. And like Aster’s first film, Hereditary, much of the pleasure of viewing the film rests in how it unfolds, constantly juking narrative expectations. Also, both films contain an immense shock right in the middle of their respective plots that haunts the remainder of experience. These are not easy films to passively consume, but part of their value lies in their ability to disorient us, giving us the opportunity to see our social relations from new, terrifying perspectives.
As a horror film, Aster’s 2019 surreal frightfest falls in line with what is sometimes called “folk horror,” and thus it shares many superficial similarities with movies like The Wicker Man: “Normies” come into isolated contact with a pagan religious cult, which creates the horror-producing effect of what Mark Fisher calls “The Weird” in his excellent book The Weird and the Eerie. In short, two worlds that do not belong together come into contact with the effect of disturbing the protagonist’s conception of normal.
Dani (Florence Pugh) has recently lost her family in a horrifying murder-suicide event and her boyfriend, Christian (Jack Reynor) is less than comforting as he and his
self-obsessed friends have been talking about how he should break up with her already. Dani’s tragedy interrupts Christian’s plan to dump her, so the whole group goes on an academic vacation to Sweden, for an anthropological research trip to an isolated religious community called the Hårga.
The idyllic, friendly, welcoming community is in the midst of a religious festival and the group is drawn in, first as spectators, then as participants, serving a range of roles, from festival queen to living human sacrifice.
In the film’s climax, Dani finds herself utterly welcomed into the community, which takes her in as one of their own, and she chooses to sacrifice Christian for the culminating event of the festival, which is to appease the gods of this cult. The ending is truly horrifying as Dani, enveloped in a flowery bouquet experiences chilling, ecstatic joy watching Christian, who has been drugged and stuffed, quite alive, into the carcass of a bear and burned to death with several other people in the hideous flames of religious ritual.
Her terrible boyfriend is dead, but she has “found her people,” and we are left to ponder the horrific side of community.
The Horror of Tight-Knit Communities
One thing that makes the movie so unnerving is its extreme pleasantness. Set in an idyllic, flowery paradise, with charming people dressed in quaint, Williamsburg
re-enactor garb, and mostly lit by a full, bright Northern sun, the Hårga have created a pastoral utopia. Yet this luxurious tranquility is punctuated by extreme violence, and the film reveals that the niceness of the place actually depends upon that violence. Human sacrifice is, in fact, the bedrock of this community.
The Western visitors first witness the banal acceptance of this violence in the middle of the film, when the community serenely gathers to witness and celebrate the ritual suicide of an elderly couple, who, having reached the group’s agree-upon age of expiration, willingly leap to their deaths from a cliff – in full view of that bright sun and beautiful people. It’s like Logan’s Run as a horror film.
Dani herself witnessed this shocking ritual so one is left wondering: “why on Earth would she willingly join a group that condones such barbarism?”
The answer partially lies in two parallel scenes in which she mourns personal tragedy.
Near the beginning of the film, upon learning of her family’s monstrous deaths, we see Dani weeping, her head resting on the lap of a present, but distant Christian. First, let me say that Aster makes wonderful use of Florence Pugh’s incredible ability to weep on camera. Her wailing is utterly astonishing and moving and heartbreaking. Yet Christian just silently sits there. Yes he is there for her, but he is not really with her, and she experiences this unspeakable pain all alone.
Near the end of the film, Dani has another occasion to cry. She discovers Christian having sex with a young Hårga girl (the group has selected him for this ritualistic act of procreation, and, spell-bound, he follows through – this is a very naughty and weird sex scene for the viewer sensitive to such things). Stumbling out of the building, utterly overcome by the shock of Christian’s betrayal, she is followed by a group of young women. As Dani kneels on the floor convulsing with sadness, she rhythmically weeps, almost hyper-ventilating. In stark contrast to Christian’s passive comfort at the beginning of the film, the group joins Dani on the ground and mimics her wailing, matching the rhythm of her sobs. At first, it almost seems as though they are mocking her, but the group’s faces soon reveal that they have taken Dani’s pain into their own bodies. Her sadness is their sadness now as well, and the group will bear it with her. In short, she has found her people and will never be alone again, until the day comes for her to step off that desolate cliff herself.
For the tightness of this community depends upon two things. First, members must be willing to sacrifice themselves; both their individuality and their biological lives belong to the group that gives them a place to belong. Second, that abject commitment necessitates the violent exclusion of outsiders, Christian and his friends provide the sacrificial foundation for the religion that organizes this beautiful, terrible society.
When you’re a Hårga, you’re a Hårga all the way.
The Problem and Promise of Christian Community
In conclusion, let me just step back and say that, yes, I also value community, and I have certainly selected church-homes for the possibilities they offer to “find my people.” This is inherent to human beings as social creatures. The point of this reflection is not to argue the absurd point that people should reject close friendships out of some self-flagellating devotion.
I simply want to argue that without reflection, those close-knit groups can become alienation machines. They too often are simply cliques that let uncharitable social Darwinism masquerade as virtuous, supportive communities. Your lunch group might not be burning outsiders alive in bear carcasses, but it may be harming other’s
self-esteem and their own senses of belonging by simply politely nodding as it leaves them out.
We sometimes need to be shaken out of our comfortable, routine existence so we can see the world with fresher eyes from newer perspectives. Horror is uniquely capable of doing that for us, since its very purpose is to unsettle.
I work for a Sisters of Mercy college, and we attempt to frame our work around four aspects of “The Mercy Values.” They are Mercy, Justice, Service, and Hospitality. Two of these values, in the way we define them, are particularly applicable to this discussion of exclusive communities. First, we define Mercy as “a willingness to enter the chaos of another’s experience in order to ease their pain, to bring one’s heart to their pain.” The Hårga women exemplify this with their corporate mourning over Dani’s pain. This is a beautiful image in an otherwise horrific film and it should serve as a model for how we might enter the chaos of our neighbors’ lives.
Yet the group reserves this gift for insiders. It lacks a dedication to Hospitality, which we define as “an openness of heart and mind which allows one to be at home with oneself and others.” A truly Christian community of friends keeps its borders open to others who might need the comfort it might provide. For this ethos, home is not a barricaded fortress where one’s sense of self is safe from invading others, it is rather a sanctuary in which others come together to share their selves, and where chaos-bearing Mercy is available to all who seek it.
Shaken into a new perspective by the unsettling horror of Midsommar, we might think about the limitations of our otherwise good communities, and then see the difference between exclusionary friendship and actual Christian Hospitality.
Dr. Daniel Anderson teaches English at Mount Aloysius College in Cresson, PA. He received his Ph.D. in English from Case Western Reserve University. He teaches a range of Rhetoric, Literature, and Film classes at the Mount, including classes on the Jewish American Novel, Flannery O’Connor, Shirley Jackson, Franz Kafka, the Literature of Pittsburgh, and the Classic Horror Film. He also produces and hosts the Sectarian Review Podcast, which investigates art, pop culture, politics, and religion.