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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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MIDSUMMER

The essential dishes for Swedish Midsummer

Midsummer is the most Swedish of Swedish holidays, widely considered to be the real National Day to celebrate all things Swedish. So, what are the essentials for a Midsummer celebration?

The essential dishes for Swedish Midsummer

Traditional Midsummer fare is served buffet-style, similar to the food served at Christmas or Easter, with a focus on summer crops such as new potatoes, radishes and strawberries, rather than winter vegetables like cabbage and kale. 

Midsummer is always celebrated on the Friday closest to the summer solstice, which falls on June 24th this year. It’s not technically a public holiday so you may be in work, but lots of employers will give their staff a half or full day off anyway.

Here’s what you’re likely to see at a Midsummer celebration, as well as how you can make it yourself.

Matjes-style herring served with crispbread, boiled new potatoes with dill, cheese and diced onions. Photo: Janerik Henriksson/TT

Herring

It wouldn’t be a proper Swedish celebration without pickled herring or sill. In many families, one member of the family (often a grandmother) is tasked with preparing sill for the Midsummer meal weeks in advance.

If you’re based in Sweden, you can buy herring in the supermarket, although most will say that homemade pickled herring is superior. Vegetarian or vegan pickled herring substitutes such as svill (made from mushrooms) and tofusill (made from tofu) are also commercially available.

If you are planning on making your own pickled herring for Midsummer, you have a few options. Either you can buy ready-salted herring fillets in the supermarket which can be pickled straight away, or you will have to buy fresh herring fillets which you salt yourself – the latter option can take up to two weeks though, so you’ll have to save that for next year if you want to try doing it yourself.

You can also make your own vegetarian options: try pickling auberginecourgette or tofu. Most recipes will take at least two days, with the herring or alternative of choice needing to marinate overnight before serving, so get planning now if you want to have it on the table for Friday.

Here are a selection of pickled herring recipes from John Duxbury’s Swedish Food website.

Herring is usually served alongside bread or crispbread, cheese and butter, referred to as an S.O.S. (sill, ost och smör), so make sure you pick up some bread and hard mature cheese such as västerbottensost if you want to recreate this dish.

Summer crops

Some early varieties of potato are ready just in time for Midsummer, making them a feature on the Midsummer table. New potatoes, färskpotatis (“fresh potatoes”) in Swedish, are delicious by themselves, so you’ll often see them just served boiled, cooled, and sprinkled with dill.

Radishes are also a popular feature on the Midsummer table as they are ready at this time of year, although it can be difficult to find Swedish radishes in the shops. They’re often served raw, perhaps with a dip of sour cream or gräddfil on the side.

Finally on the summer crops front, strawberries are the crowning glory of the Midsummer table, with pundits closely monitoring the harvest in the weeks leading up to the holiday. Strawberries and cream are a classic combination, either served as-is or in some sort of strawberry tart or cake.

Strawberries are the crowning glory of the Midsummer buffet. Photo: Carolina Romare/imagebank.sweden.se

Salmon

Most Midsummer buffets will feature at least two sorts of salmon, one is often a baked side of salmon. Along with baked salmon, you’re likely to find smoked salmon and/or gravad lax (literally “buried salmon”, preserved in salt, sugar and often dill) alongside hovmästarsås, a mustard and dill sauce which is also served at Christmas.

If you don’t eat fish, you can make a vegetarian or vegan version of gravad lax from carrots. This is usually referred to as gravad morot. Here’s a recipe (in Swedish) from the book Vegansk husmanskost by Gustav Johansson. Again, it needs to be marinated overnight, so make sure to plan this in advance.

Eggs

Although not quite as important at Midsummer as they are at Easter, eggs are another mainstay of a Midsummer buffet.

You’ll often see them served simply hardboiled and cut in half, or potentially topped with mayonnaise, prawns and cod roe, known as kaviar in Swedish. This is sold in small glass jars in the fridge section of the supermarket, and can be orange or black – and is not the same as Kalles kaviar, sold in blue tubes, which is much saltier.

To make these vegetarian, you can leave out the prawns and use a vegetarian version of kaviar made from seaweed. Look for tångkaviar, which may be in the fish section of the supermarket, or the vegetarian section, if your supermarket has one of these.

If you live outside Sweden, you may be able to source tångkaviar in the food market at your local Ikea.

For a vegan option, try sliced tofu topped with vegan mayonnaise (spiked with black salt, if you can get hold of it, which will give it an eggy flavour). Top with tångkaviar and a sprig of dill and you’re good to go.

Make sure to brush up on your snapsvisor if you want to fit in at Midsummer. Photo: Janus Langhorn/imagebank.sweden.se

Snaps

Finally, don’t forget the snaps. Midsummer is the booziest holiday of the year, with Swedes taking breaks throughout the meal to drink nubbar (small bottles of flavoured snaps or akvavit) and sing snapsvisor (drinking songs).

Make sure you eat a lot of food to soak up all that alcohol, and you’re certain to have a great Midsummer – maybe grab a couple of frozen pizzas for the next day, though, when you’re busy nursing your hangover.

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