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

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.

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/imagebank.sweden.se

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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OPINION & ANALYSIS

‘Chemical crayfish’: Why does the Swedish media love killjoy festive news?

It's time for this year's "kräftskivor", Swedish crayfish-eating parties! A cause for celebration? Not if the Swedish media has its way.

'Chemical crayfish': Why does the Swedish media love killjoy festive news?

Sweden’s main newswire this week ran a story warning that an analysis of the eight brands of Swedish crayfish available in the country’s supermarkets contained elevated levels of PFAS, a persistent pollutant which can damage your liver and kidneys, disrupt your hormones, and even cause cancer. 

But don’t worry. If you weigh 70kg or more, you can still safely eat as many as six of the outsized prawn-like crustaceans a week without being in the risk zone. 

While I’m sure the news story, which was covered by pretty much every paper, is accurate, it is also part of a grand Swedish media tradition: running miserable, killjoy news stories whenever there’s a sign that people might be planning to have a bit of festive fun. 

The two public service broadcasters, Swedish Radio (SR) and Swedish Television (SVT) are by far the worst offenders, their reporters unusually skilled at finding a downbeat, depressing angle for every public celebration. 

To give readers a sense of the genre, we’ve spent half an hour or so searching through the archives. 

‘This is how dangerous your Christmas tree is’ (and other yuletide cheer)

Source: Screenshot/SR

Christmas is a time for good food, drinking a little too much, and cheery decorations to ward away the winter darkness. But have you considered the risks?

SR has.

In “This is how dangerous your Christmas tree is”, a local reporter in Kronoberg looked into the possibility that your tree might have been sprayed with pesticide, or if not, might be covered in pests you will then bring into your house. 

By far the most common recurring Christmas story reflects Sweden’s guilt-loaded relationship with alcohol. 

You might enjoy a few drinks at Christmas, but what about the trauma you are inflicting on your children?

In this typically festive report from SVT in Uppsala, a doctor asks, ‘why wait for the New Year to give up alcohol? Why not start before Christmas?’, while the reporter notes that according to the children’s rights charity BRIS, one in five children in Sweden has a parent with an alcohol problem, with many finding drunk adults both “alarming and unpleasant”. 

God Jul! 

The Swedish media finds ways to make you feel guilty about the food you eat at Christmas too. You might enjoy a slap-up Christmas dinner, but what about those who suffer from an eating disorder? SVT asked in this important, but less than cheery, story published in the run-up to the big day. “This is the worst time of the year,” Johanna Ahlsten, who suffered from an eating disorder for ten years, told the reporter. 

Don’t you just love a cosy Christmas fire? Well, perhaps you shouldn’t. A seasonal favourite in Sweden’s media is to run warnings from the local fire services on the risk of Christmas house fires. Here’s some advice from SVT in Blekinge on how to avoid burning your house down. 
 
Those Christmas lights. So mysigt. But have you ever added up how much those decorations might be adding to your electricity bill? SVT has. Read about it all here
 
Finally, isn’t it wonderful that people in Sweden get the chance to go and visit their relatives and loved ones over Christmas.
 
Well, it’s wonderful if you’re a burglar! Here’s SVT Jämtland on the risk of house break-ins over the Christmas period. 
 
Eat cheese to protect your teeth! and other Easter advice 
 
 
“Eat cheese after soda”. Good advice from Swedish Radio. Photo: Screenshot/Richard Orange
 
For the Swedish media, Easter is a fantastic opportunity to roll out all the same stories about the risks of open fires and alcohol abuse, and that they do. But the Easter celebration has an additional thing to be worried about: excess consumption of chocolate and sweets. 
 
Here’s Swedish Radio, with a helpful piece of advice to protect your teeth from all that sugary ‘påskmust’, Sweden’s Easter soft drink. “Eat cheese!”. 
 
Yes, you and your children might enjoy eating all those pick-and-mix sweets packed into a decorated cardboard egg, but have you thought who else has had their grubby hands on them? SVT has. In this less than joyous Easter article  a reporter gives viewers the lowdown on “how hygienic are pick-and-mix sweets?” (According to the doctor they interview, sugar acts as an antibacterial agent, so they are in fact less dangerous than the newsroom probably hoped). 
 
Perhaps though, it’s better to avoid those unhealthy sweets altogether, and instead cram your mouth with healthy raw food alternatives, as SVT advises in this Easter report
 
Aren’t daffodils lovely? Well they’re not if you’re a dog. They’re deadly, according to this Easter report from Swedish Radio on all the “dangers lurking for pets over Easter“.
 
Glad Påsk!
 
Midsommar drowning  
 
Midsommar, again, has all the same possibilities for worried articles about excess drinking etc, but in the summer there’s the added risk of drowning. 
 
From Midsummer until the start of August, the temp reporters who take over Sweden’s newsrooms as everyone else goes on their summer holidays churn out a steady stream of drowning stories, all of them with a slightly censorious tone. After all, most of these accidents are really about excess drinking.
 
Here’s SVT Västmanland tallying up the Midsummer weekend’s death toll in a typical story of Midsommar misery. 
 
So, what is the reason for the Swedish media’s taste for removing as much mirth from festivities as possible?
 
It’s partly because Sweden’s media, unlike that of many other countries, sees its public information role as at least as important as entertaining or interesting readers, so an editor is likely to choose a potentially useful story over a heart-warming one. 
 
This is the aspect of the Swedish media beautifully captured by the singer Lou Reed when talking about how he’s more scared in Sweden than in New York in the film Blue in the Face
 
“You turn on the TV, there’s an ear operation. These things scare me. New York, no.” 
 
But it is also reflects the puritanical streak that runs straight through Swedish society, leading to a powerful temperance movement, which meant that by 1908, a staggering 85 percent of Socialist parliamentarians in Sweden were teetotallers.
Sweden is now a liberal country where you can get good food and drink, and enjoy a decent nightlife, but sometimes that old puritanism bubbles up.
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