OPINION: Midsommar movie makes Sweden look like a horror show for American viewers

Madeline Tersigni
Madeline Tersigni - [email protected]
OPINION: Midsommar movie makes Sweden look like a horror show for American viewers
American filmmakers have turned the family-friendly festival into a scandal. Photo: Per Bifrost/

The horror film Midsommar turns a family-friendly Swedish festival into a cultist ritual – but some viewers are having trouble separating fact from fiction, and that's a problem, writes US native Madeline Tersigni.


This article contains spoilers for the film Midsommar.

Director Ari Asters tries to scare fans with his sophomore film Midsommar, which takes place in Sweden during the beloved June festival. 

The film revolves around a young student Dani (Florence Pugh), who follows her boyfriend Christian (Jack Reynor) and his two friends to a Midsummer festival in a rural Swedish village. Against a backdrop of picturesque countryside and the midnight sun, it turns out that the commune is actually a cult and the Americans are plucked off one by one by the sadistic Swedes as part of a ritual Midsummer sacrifice.

So far, so normal, by horror film standards at least.

But since its release, the film has received some interesting feedback from American viewers who have confused the film's antics with actual Swedish tradition, with Twitter and Facebook full of people vowing never to set foot in the Scandinavian country.

Presumably (hopefully), at least a few of the many commenters are joking, but it's clear that some people from the States are having a harder time working out what Swedish culture and Midsummer are like in reality.

Although Midsommar was filmed in Hungary, the setting and folk costumes look traditionally Swedish, Swedes are shown speaking Swedish to each other, and the rural landscapes match the image most foreigners have when they think of Sweden – as one Swedish reviewer put it, it's "comically rural"

As an American currently living in Sweden, even some of my close friends rang me to fact-check some of the gruesome aspects of the film, including orgies, human sacrifices and placing pubic hair in pie to serve as a love potion.

In case you were wondering, none of these are part of the traditional Swedish celebrations. 

"So you went to Midsummer this year and there were no orgies, at all?" one childhood friend asked me in surprise. 

The holiday may be based on fertility, but for the most part it's fully family-friendly, and the menu includes ordinary delicacies such as herring and strawberry cake. This year during my first Swedish Midsummer, I spent the majority of my time around babies and small children. We held egg and sack races and danced to silly songs, like 'The Little Frogs', around the maypole. A little bit strange, perhaps, but nothing gruesome.

READ ALSO: The seven bizarre traditions that make up Swedish Midsummer

US journalists have also contacted Swedish media to ask if some of the rituals featured in the film were true. One Swedish journalist for the Dagens Nyheter was asked if the holiday can really be linked back to sacrificial rituals and whether Swedes used magic runes.

Cultist or horror movies set in the US are never thought to be realistic depictions of the places where they're set: Children of the Corn, set in rural Nebraska, also features rural sacrifices that no-one assumed were factual, and we accept that Aster's first film Hereditary is not a true telling of life in Utah. But move the action to a country like Sweden that's a bit unfamiliar, and all of the sudden it's easy for a horror film to be confused with real life.
This highlights how little most people know about Swedish culture overseas. A typical American might know that the Midsummer festival is celebrated in Sweden but be unaware of the customs, so they ask the ridiculous questions to be sure. 
Midsommar is a kid friendly festival for the whole family to enjoy. Photo: Hasse Holmberg/TT
It's a running joke among Swedes and expats that people overseas typically have little knowledge about Sweden. We've all heard people mix it up with Switzerland (a mistake even the New York Stock Exchange is guilty of...) or reduce the country to its nonchalant take towards nudity, Abba, and Ikea.
While those stereotypes are rooted in reality and are generally a lighthearted way of poking fun, the same can't be said of a Midsummer based on human sacrifice.
Some critics in Sweden have expressed reservations about the warped version of Midsummer presented on screen, with one reviewer for Göteborgs Posten suggesting it could be considered cultural appropriation.
The horror genre is all about taking familiar environments and making them terrifying, so the problem here is that people who didn't know much about Swedish culture before watching might now believe it's an accurate representation. 
In the film, the downfall of the American protagonists is their failure to fully understand what they're getting into. Although Christian's friends are writing theses on Midsummer traditions, they don't realize what's happening in Sweden until it's too late (and their lack of language skills doesn't help).

Hopefully instead of falling down the same trap, Americans who watch Midsummer will be able to separate fact from fiction and be inspired to learn more about this country. And in the meantime, let's hope for more representation of Swedish culture on screen. 


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