passing the torch
Posted on June 20, 2020

Midsommar and Cross-Quarter Day Horror

Guest Post

Halloween has long been the basis for horror celebrations, but it was made canonical for horror films with John Carpenter’s debut film, Halloween (1978), which uses the holiday as the basis for a supernatural Michael Myers to take vengeance on naughty teenagers. The origin of Halloween is Samhain, one of four Celtic cross-quarter days. The other three, one of which already has an iconic horror film associated with it, are Imbolc (February 2), Beltane (May 1), and Lughnasadh (August 1). Cross-quarter days fall roughly midway between the solstices and equinoxes, each of which also has ancient religious celebrations. The iconic cross-quarter horror film mentioned is, of course, Robin Hardy’s The Wicker Man (1973), and it is set during the time of Beltane.


Apart from seventies styles, The Wicker Man has held up remarkably well. Sergeant Howie, a Scottish police officer, is lured to Summerisle, a remote Hebridean island, to investigate a missing child. He’s been set up, however, by the islanders who need an outsider to sacrifice on their May Day celebrations. Although they never call the holiday Beltane, that is the title of the Gaelic spring festival that dates back to the tenth century. The Wicker Man has received accolades that have grown over the years. It’s been a kind of gold standard for intelligent horror.

woman in white dress welcomes revelers

The cross-quarter days are closely connected with the quarter days of the solstices and equinoxes. Somewhat surprisingly the September equinox never evolved into a major Celtic-style holiday. In Wicca the celebration of Mabon doesn’t rise to the level of the other quarter days. In Christianity it was associated with Michaelmas, in some settings the beginning of the school year. The winter solstice is probably the best known and most widely celebrated holiday in the western world. It goes by many names and comes in many varieties, but it’s safe enough to call it Yule or Christmas. It has its own variety of seasonal horror films. The spring equinox also takes many forms but we generally recognize it as Passover or Easter. Midsummer is the celebration of the summer solstice and is the fuel behind Ari Aster’s 2019 film Midsommar.


Often compared to The Wicker Man, Midsommar takes five graduate students to Hälsingland, Sweden, to observe the once-in-ninety-years celebration of midsummer. One of the students, Pelle, grew up among the Hårga, a remote commune. He has invited the others there to witness the rituals. Upon arrival they are given psilocybin mushrooms and a series of disorienting experiences begins. The daylight isn’t total, but it never really gets dark. The guests sleep in a communal room with a crying baby. The food is strange. Everyone wears white. The chosen one here is Dani, the only female in the group, who eventually becomes the May Queen and finds a family among the Hårga. Although the ending is similar to The Wicker Man, the real similarity is that both movies are completely plotted around religion. Take the religion away and there is no horror here.

Howie’s Christianity is central


Skipping back to 1973, consider Sergeant Howie’s plight again. He’s unwittingly recruited by the natives of Summerisle because he fits their ideal profile: a person who came with the power of the king (as a police officer), a virgin, and a fool who’s come of his own free will. The faith of Summerisle is a revival of Celtic religion. Lord Summerisle explains that his grandfather reintroduced belief in the old gods intentionally to inspire the starving islanders to work. In the end, when Howie is taken to the wicker man he comes to learn that although they believe fabricated religion they believe it with deadly seriousness. The religion is the horror.

The parade that will culmination in Neil Howie’s sacrifice


Set in more modern times and at a leisurely pace, Midsommar also involves a setup. Pelle, a true believer among the Hårga, recruits his graduate student friends as unsuspecting sacrifices. Two of them are working on their theses in anthropology and they can’t pass up an opportunity to witness a once-in-a-lifetime occurrence. The celebration takes place only once every ninety years, and they have an invitation from an insider. The religion of the commune is presented as ancient—it uses runes and some of its rites are decidedly arcane—yet it too is contrived. The community faces issues of inbreeding. The Hårga create their designated oracles by purposefully conceiving disfigured individuals through inbreeding. Their scriptures, the Rubi Radr, are based on paintings made by these oracles, as interpreted by the elders.


Shown largely through Dani’s point of view, the disturbing aspects of the Hårga’s religion are reminders of the two main stresses in her life: the recent death of her family—killed by her sister in an act of murder-suicide—and her deteriorating relationship with Christian, her boyfriend of four years. Although Christian had originally planned to go on the trip without her, it’s clear Pelle wanted her to come. As a psychology student, she’s well aware of her own mental condition and is worried that Christian no longer wants to be with her. It’s not accidental that her boyfriend’s name is Christian; Dani is losing her faith.

The visiting male students are being killed off by the Hårga. One of them, Mark, violates a sacred tree by urinating on it, unaware of its sacred import. Another, Josh, photographs the sacred text after he was explicitly told not to. Another couple, brought in by Ingemar (another village youth), also disappears. When the time comes to select the May Queen, a village elder narrates how the devil (“the Black One”) once appeared at that site and made the villagers dance themselves to death. Now they dance to keep the evil out. Dani wins the competition, but she has lost Christian. During the celebrations, Christian is compelled to have sex with one of the local girls because they require outsiders to counter the inbreeding. Dani witnesses his infidelity through a keyhole. He’s then paralyzed, and when Dani has to choose a sacrifice for the culmination of the ceremony, it’s Christian. Religion drives this horror from start to finish.


Halloween has no shortage of horror films dedicated to religion. The Wicker Man, however, may have been the first horror movie to focus on the religious rites of a quarter or cross-quarter day for the inherently religious terror of the holiday. The true believers in a manufactured religion are dangerous. In a self-aware moment, when the students arrive in Midsommar, Mark sarcastically asks if they’re stopping at Waco before going to Pelle’s village. The reference to the Branch Davidians is apt, since the final sacrifice will be offered up by fire. The non-Christian religions here are the source of fear, but they suggest that any religion, taken too seriously, leads necessarily to the destruction of non-believers.

Related: Read about Aesthetic Whiteness in Midsommar.

You can stream The Wicker Man and Midsommar on Amazon: 

Steve A. Wiggins is the author of Holy Horror: The Bible and Fear in Movies. His next book, Nightmares with the Bible: The Good Book and Cinematic Demons is due out next year with Lexington Books. He blogs at Sects and Violence in the Ancient World.

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