Dreams of the Damned: Signs and Agency in Hereditary and Midsommar

Dreams of the Damned: Signs and Agency in Hereditary and Midsommar

 

Adulthood is fallacious escape, a false break from childhood and its myriad restraints. Parental influence, control, and abuse linger as traumas, buried fears, and puissant echoes…retaining a subtler, more sinister hold on their “lost” charges. The world’s hold is even firmer. Its stories and codes belie adult agency, shaping its choices while hemming its hopes. Parenting may bring power, position can grant authority, but “adults” remain children subject to families, worlds, and their byzantine forces and tales.

This dynamic is the cruel, enveloping theme of Ari Aster’s Horror–his films Hereditary and Midsommar.  Both chronicle their protagonist’s travails following their parents’ or last parent’s death. For Hereditary’s Annie Graham—successful miniaturist, wife, and mother of two—her controlling mother’s passing seems freedom from her residual clutches, affirmation of her agency and place as materfamilias…not as inhibited child.  For Midsommar’s Dani Ardor, her parents’ (and sister’s) tragic death begins her adulthood, untethering her from filial dependence and opening her—and her distant beau Christian—to her own family and place as family head. Each, however, are unmanned and undone by sinister sects, their arcane myths, and their sublime reach and sway. Acting as resilient family authority in Hereditary, and dominant outer world in Midsommar, the cults and their agents act as their film’s exterior powers we all strive against…but with arcane menace further threatening sanities and lives. To triumph, or even survive, the heroes must detect and decipher signs the schemes leave exposed, the strange phenomena that may possibly save them.  The hermeneutics they use will, and must, be strange as well.  No longer occupying just the natural world, transcendental idealism will not aid them; they will be solving unnatural phenomena, using unnatural reason. Phenomenology will also fail: with time and space collapsing, and the demonic invading, subject and object shed definition and form. Insight and salvation will only come from submission to the signs, letting their dark sublimities inform and enlighten as they haunt, torment, and seek to destroy.

     Annie’s process, and Hereditary, begins with her mother’s funeral where she reveals her still present resentments and conflicted filial feelings. A highly sought out artist and respected mother and wife, she still harbors the wounds and confusions of a damaged child:

               It’s heartening to see so many strange new faces here today. I know my Mom would be very touched…and probably a little suspicious to see this turnout. So…my mother was a very secretive and private woman. She had private rituals, private friends, private anxieties…it almost feels like a betrayal just to be standing here talking about her. She was a very difficult woman to read. If you ever thought you knew what was going on with her…and God forbid you tried to confront that…but when her life was un-polluted, she could be the sweetest, warmest, most loving person in the world. She was also incredibly stubborn, which maybe explains me. You could always count on her to always have the answer, and if she ever was mistaken, well, that was your opinion and you were….wrong.

Annie’s pique and pain–and guilt over feeling them–are palpable…and palpably present. The young girl wincing at her mother’s judgments and distance speaks clearly if in her grown-up form’s voice. She remains ignorant, however, of the source and scheme behind her suffering: her mother worshipped the demon king Paimon and–along with fellow members–tried to make Annie’s brother Paimon’s host (driving him to suicide), made Annie’s daughter Charlie Paimon’s temporary host, and was preparing Annie’s son Peter to be his final one. If Annie cannot see this intrigue, and halt its success, it will decimate what her mother has already damaged and unseat Annie from any adulthood she built.

     Midsommar’s Dani faces no such Oedipal or Hamlet-ian curse; she does not resent her dead parents, reel from their abuse, or face damnation from their dark machinations. While her anxiety issues could suggest parental neglect, Dani is sincerely distraught over their deaths, and her sister’s bi-polar disorder suggests somatic rather than parental torment. She also receives no solace; her parents’ death brings material and emotional instability, not psychological autonomy. Already unstable and emotionally dependent, Dani crumbles further, grasping outward for new grounding, clinging tighter to the now-beholden Christian and her dreams for their future…including his plans for a Swedish Midsommar festival. With his two American friends, Christian had accepted Swedish exchange—and fellow Anthropology—student Pelle’s invitation to join him for his commune’s 9-day pageant. With Christian’s attentions re-focused on her, Dani hopes the vacation will fortify their fraying bond. While Christian and rival Josh see career opportunity; and their vulgar friend Mark envisions lovely Swedish damsels; Dani sees adulthood’s succor, her becoming the figure of maturity she had tragically lost. Unfortunately, Pelle (and his family/Harga cult) is already working to subsume her into his family, making her his wife and family May Queen, Christian and his friends ritual sacrifices, and himself his family’s oracle…which is why he murdered Dani’s family in a staged murder-suicide.[1] He hopes to realize his envisioned adulthood and his family’s plot ominously drawn on the film’s opening “curtain.”

Oracular plotting also marks Annie’s struggle–her and her family’s fight against their fate. Her son Peter’s class ironically discusses Sophocles’ The Women of Trachis, the oracle foreseeing Heracles’ death, and Heracles fatally missing the signs for preventing it.  While claiming heroes are undone by their fatal flaw, Peter’s teacher asks what is Heracles’? A student astutely responds “Arrogance…because he literally refuses to look at all the signs that are being literally handed to him the entire play.”  When the teacher argues the oracle’s vision undoes agency, asking if this makes the tale more or less tragic, another student says it’s less “because if its all just inevitable, then that means the characters have no hope…they never had hope as they’re all just pawns in this horrible hopeless machine.”  Peter, of course, fails to pay attention as he hurtles towards his own doom in the Paimon cult’s machine. Annie, however, can defy that machine if–unlike Heracles and Peter–she sees the signs it hands to her…not looking away in Heracles’ arrogance, Peter’s dullness, or her own self-doubt and self-absorption her mother cruelly left her.

     Annie’s failings had blinded her to her mother’s designs, particularly in the material world. Her brother had tried to warn her, claiming their mother was putting people (Paimon) in his head…but she wrote it off as madness as he saved himself through suicide.  When her daughter Charlie tells her her mother “wanted her to be a boy,” Annie misses the ominous connection, falling instead into narcissistic revelry of her tomboy youth.  These lapses show why Annie found her mother difficult to read, and later “gave” Charlie over to her out of guilt for protecting Peter–her residual trauma has stifled her imagination as it has dulled her empathy and parenting skills. Unable to see beyond her own pain and needs, she can only rely on banal websites on “discerning presumed apparitions” and her own myopic view…symbolized by her narrowing magnifying visors. Ironically, Annie’s vision expands and improves as she abandons such optics, as she exchanges material clarity for sublime awareness. In Paimon’s realm of dreams and spirit, Annie had seen and sensed her children’s danger and–in sturdy somnambulism–poured thinner over their bodies to burn in service of their souls. Later, in a disturbing dream, she faces her desire to kill her children, and her not wanting to have Peter, awakening to a sense of threat the waking world denied her. So, her salvation and agency lie in the dark realms, not the material one of her childish blindness.

     Such childish blindness also plagues Dani. Self-loathing with no self-sufficiency, with emotional dependence on her parents, she clings to and fawns over Christian, pathetically reminding him “I’m lucky to have you” with equally repellent and self-demeaning effect. Her perception of him is even more tragic. While her friend can clearly see his failings, Dani’s needs blind her to their signs:

     Dani: Like, what if I have overwhelmed him and he thinks that I just have too much baggage?

     Friend: Well, if that’s the case, then good riddance, right?

Dani’s distorted view of Christian not only feeds the self-loathing feeding it; it perverts her view of the people and world around her…for possibly fatal results. Discussing her sister Terri’s e-mail, she shows neither compassion nor sufficient concern for her safety, instead echoing Christian’s cruel judgment of Terri’s (and her own) mental illness:

     Dani: Like, I even called (Christian) today in tears because my sister wrote another stupid scary e-mail

     Friend: What did your sister write?

     Dani: Just some ominous bullshit like she always does and it’s torture!

Lost in projection and childish contempt for Terri, Dani cannot recognize the direness or strangeness of her (or Pelle’s) email. Without adult sturdiness, she lacks adult clarity and loses all chance of saving Terri.

     Without that clarity, she could fail in saving herself. Like the similarly hampered Annie, Dani must access signs within the realm of her tormenters, the same world of dreams Pelle masters. The Harga cult ironically aids this by continually plying Dani and her friends with drugs–LSD, opiatic teas, and even a love potion for Christian. This opens Dani’s vision, freeing it from her conscious self’s. During a group acid-dropping at the festival, Dani finds her feet melding with the grass then, after running into an outhouse for comfort, disturbingly sees Terri’s face in the mirror. She then falls asleep and dreams of her sleeping parents lying next to a softly smiling Terri. Finally, after two elder cult members kill themselves in ritual suicide, Dani dreams of Christian and his friends leaving her…and her parents dead bodies lying in the cult members’ place.  Like Annie’s, Dani’s unconscious, spiritual mind can discern and deduct where her childish conscious mind cannot. Whether she is receiving signs, processing difficult truths, or both, she is decrypting the meanings and causes of her family’s deaths and her current situation. Her freedom depends on this decryption’s success and the failure of her waking world: success will ensconce her in marital adulthood; failure will doom her to cultish, kiddish submission

     Annie knows the pang of such submission and has spent her “adulthood” avoiding it. Fearing its return, she has submitted her family to her own authority: haranguing her milquetoast husband, governing her troubled children…managing all like her favorite diorama. With Heracles’ hubris, she barrels forward, more concerned with sovereignty than salvation, preserving status while imperiling self and kin. Overlooking her mother’s new “friends,” her mother’s desecrated grave, the familiar placemat at her new friend’s door, and her vivid new dreams, Annie falls back on rash action and parental supremacy—the flailing of a grown-up child and tragic hero, not a successful adult one. Demanding Peter take Charlie to his high school party, Annie seals the cult’s plans for Charlie’s death.  Forcing her family into a séance for Charlie, she erringly summons Paimon who possessed her. Seeking to best Paimon, she burns his book, setting her husband aflame, making herself Paimon’s vessel, and terrifying Peter into a violent death. Beheading herself with wire, she floats softly into her treehouse where the cult, her mother, and Peter (now Paimon) await. Her flight for freedom ends in greater submission, her corpse frozen in filial worship to an Oedipal nightmare—her mother’s marriage to her son’s body, bound in demonic bliss.

     Dani’s impending nightmare is less Sophoclean as she stumbles in laxity, not hubris. Her dreams and visions gave her sound warning, and the ritual suicide stirred her horror and qualms about the cult. “I wanna go,” she tells Christian.  Preparing to leave, she cannily shouts at Pelle, “I don’t know why I’m here, Pelle! I don’t know why you invited us!” Instead of exploring those questions, she quickly succumbs to Pelle’s sweet words smoothly chosen.  Flattering her, he assures her he was “most excited for her to come,” then plays on her recent loss by telling her he lost his parents, too. Finally, holding her hands, he says he is now held by a real family she too deserves…then asks, “Do you feel held by (Christian), does he feel like home to you?” Dani’s trauma, doubts of Christian, and Pelle’s ardor exhaust and excite her, opening new hopes as she begins closing others. Pouncing on her pliant state, the cult holds Dani closely. Plying her with strange drinks, calling her “family,” draining her through dance, they draw Dani in, giving her self-worth she never had. Making her May Queen, they give her place and esteem she never knew.

     So, her zeal for the cult quickens as her plans for Christian fade. Lost in their embrace, she no longer scans for signs…discounting even her parents’ uncanny shades. And when she finds Christian, love potion-addled, entangled with another, she joins her new “sisters” in a rite of catharsis, expelling her love along with her pain. As Pelle becomes oracle and she his future wife, she calmly dooms Christian to horrific death. Unlike Annie, she lives further; like her, she bows and submits. Dreams of adulthood become childhood’s salve, expiring with Christian as he tragically burns.


[1] For an excellent explanation why Pelle was Dani’s family’s likely killer, read Rebekah Camp’s “Dani’s Sister Was Murdered: A Brief Essay on Midsommar”