Ari Aster’s Midsommar shows us one of the most well constructed cults I’ve seen on film. It’s not just the mix of Swedish folklore and Norse mythology that makes this work. It’s that it depicts how a vulnerable but rational person can be dragged into a cult, even past the point of murder. How a community that doles out empathy almost like a drug can take the downtrodden and give them a new life in their community. I’m going to highlight a few key scenes and actions that real world cults use in order to recruit people. This is done through structure, proper targeting, isolation, and empathy bombing.
The Harga have created a world in which to isolate themselves from the modern trappings of life. They follow the edicts of their traditions and live richly together, at least for 72 summers then things get sketchy.
For someone such as Dani who is basically in free fall, the structure of the cult would be enticing.The death of her family has her spinning wildly out of control. In Harga Everyone has a place, everything is ordered, and people seem joyful. It’s a far cry from the unsympathetic structure that Christian can give, and certainly stronger than what her family is capable of giving. Cough.
Proper targeting is massive for cults. The Manson Family would send out people (usually not Manson himself) to find young solitary people and take them back to the ranch. After using a mix of charisma, psychedelic drugs, and sexual adventures, many found themselves staying on the ranch of their own volition. Scientology works in a less sticky way, in that they promise to unlock people’s potential. Using a prop e-meter and what they call auditing on the right person, they start to walk the path. Once a person is marked by the group, the recruitment turns to fully bringing them into the fold.
Dani is a perfect mark for this, or basically any other spiritual group. A young woman uncertain about the rest of her life, studying a psych major to try and understand herself and cope with her own issues. More than that, the grief and pain she feels from the loss of her family amplifies her need and desire for real connection. She’s entirely vulnerable.
Although Pelle never openly says it, the film shows that he has been targeting Dani for a while. He’s the only one with any sort of excitement about Dani going, and he does feel a kinship with her considering his parents had perished as well. Using this common ground and enthusiasm, he starts to bring her into ceremonies. She’s not an outsider in Harga like the others. This is highlighted by her clothing. In America and through most of the film she wears baggy clothes. When she starts to join, the clothes are made for her. It’s a metaphor for fitting in. He makes her feel welcome and far from the burden she feels under Christian. Once he has her on the commune it’s only a matter of time before he gets her to split from Christian.
One of the more unexpectedly intense moments in the film is when Dani is weeping and in pain, and instead of just holding her, or trying to comfort her with normal means the group dives on her, feeling the emotions with her. It’s a jarring mass empathy where her pain isn’t demeaned or belittled. It isn’t ignored. It’s given proper attention and she is able to cope.
If you compare this to the sort of uncaring and apathetic comfort that Christian is able to provide you can see why it is so effective.
In cults this is called Love Bombing, a coin termed by the Moonies, or the Unification Church. This is when a vulnerable person is targeted and given massive amounts of validation, affection, attention, and flattery. Even if this isn’t used as an intentional manipulation tactic and the women in the scene are sincere, it is working to sink Dani deeper into her new family.
The next tactic involves isolation. In cults like Jonestown in Guyana, it is literal isolation in a remote place. The Branch Davidians in Waco also did a fair amount of this. Cults like NXVIUM will take people to retreats on weekends and slowly get them to eliminate sources of media and keep people forced on a track of self isolation. Scientology actually uses both, where they have some camps like the one that supposedly has David Viscavage’s wife, as well as isolation through the removal of “suppressive” people and media.
For Dani the isolation is a commune deep in the woods, far from anyone that can give her a reality check. More than this, she has become complicit in several murders, which makes her more dependent on Harga for her protection. In the months that come after the film, there surely must be investigations into a group of missing Americans. I believe that they would work as hard as they could to protect Dani from these people, by either hiding her or everyone collectively denying any allegations.
Dani is trapped with these people, even if it started out as voluntary.
This is also part of the next cult tactic, which is keeping control. Because she chose to have Christian killed, they already have a massive amount of leverage over Dani. More than that, she doesn’t have the family members or the friends to be able to run away to. She has no support structure. Even if she did the Harga would be willing to do anything to protect their way of life and their secrets. In the coming years she is faced with either full assimilation into a cult that pulled her back from the brink, or probable death. It’s already been proved to her that murder is on the table. They can claim as much as they want that it was just for sacrificial reasons but that doesn’t change the fact that they gave the old bloody eagle to a young man for threatening to leave.
In real cults like Scientology they gather information and dirt on the members so if they leave a smear campaign can start. NXIVM would force the women to write down all their secrets as a trust exercise. Other cults seem to be able to make certain members vanish without a trace. Control becomes the greatest factor in any cult. Even if people believe that it is voluntary at the time, they are being coerced into a situation that there is no easy escape from.
Although Midsommar is ostensibly a break up movie, it really is one of the more ironclad views on cult behavior I have watched in years. It’s a genre that I adore because of my morbid fascination with the real thing. What other ways do you believe that the cult was aiming to control Dani? What are some of your favorite cult movies?