Ari Aster’s Midsommar ends with a smile creeping across the face of its protagonist, Dani (Florence Pugh). The grisly finale feels like a moment of triumph for this character, who’s spent the whole film enduring emotional torment. Watching the suffering of others who’ve wronged her provides her the satisfaction of retribution and lets us participate in a revenge fantasy that might feel especially liberating to anyone who’s suffered a very bad break-up. But if we do smile along with Dani, what does that say about us? Here’s our take on how Midsommar tells a different kind of horror story—one that’s less about things lurking in the darkness, than the truths lurking inside us—and why its terrifying ending is the key to this twisted fairy tale.
Midsommar ends with a smile creeping across the face of its protagonist, Dani. It looks like a happy ending
Ari Aster: “It’s designed to play as a happy ending.”
But is it? After all, what she’s smiling at is death—the sight of her own boyfriend (and eight others) being engulfed in flames. The grisly finale feels like a moment of triumph for this character who’s spent the whole film enduring emotional torment. Watching the suffering of others who’ve wronged her provides her the satisfaction of retribution, and lets us participate in a revenge fantasy that might feel especially liberating to anyone who’s suffered a very bad break-up. But if we do smile along with Dani, what does that say about us? Here’s our take on how Midsommar tells a different kind of horror story— one that’s less about things lurking in the darkness, than the truths lurking inside us—and why its terrifying ending is the key to this twisted fairy tale.
Midsommar boasts a classic horror movie premise: a group of friends heads off on vacation to a remote destination. When the group arrives in the Swedish village that’s home to a commune of people known as the Harga, they’re confronted with another sight familiar to horror fans: pagans excitedly preparing for “festivities” to come. From classics like The Wicker Man to modern riffs like Kill List, we know what to expect: these pagans’ festivities will surely involve our protagonists getting picked off, one by one. But while most horror movies would reveal this slowly, Midsommar hides almost nothing— beginning with an opening tapestry that shows us everything that’s going to happen. We see the death of Dani’s family, Christian failing to comfort her as Pelle watches, Pelle luring the group into a forest, The Harga greeting them with proffered cups and symbolic skulls, the suicide ritual of two elders, the Maypole dance, and above it all, the waiting throne. It’s all as matter-of-fact as the Harga themselves, who respond to questions with honesty —even if the truth is horrifying.
Arne: “Rubin was a product of inbreeding. All of our Oracles are deliberate products of inbreeding.” - Midsommar
This openness extends to their gruesome suicide ritual, the Ättestupa.
Siv: “Those two who jumped had just reached the end of their Harga life cycle, and you need to understand it as a great joy for them.” - Midsommar
Here, everything is right out in the open—in broad daylight. Echoing this out-in-broad-daylight feel, Midsommar itself — with its wondrous visuals of nature and music that’s frequently more magical than foreboding — doesn’t play like a traditional horror film. And that’s because, according to director Ari Aster, it’s not. It’s “more of a fairy tale than a horror film,” he’s said, one inspired by the end of his own relationship.
Ari Aster: “I just wanted to write a break-up movie, and I saw a way of marrying the break-up movie that I had in mind with the structure of a folk horror film.”
Much as Aster’s Hereditary used the tropes of ghosts and demonic possession to explore themes of grief and family trauma, the real horror of Midsommar lies not in those pagans, but in Dani’s toxic romance with her boyfriend, Christian.
As a fairy tale, Midsommar has obvious roots in the stories of the Brothers Grimm, where young innocents wander into strange places—and often meet violent ends. But as Aster told Vulture, it’s also “a Wizard of Oz for perverts.” The group travels from a dark and dreary reality into the vivid, technicolor land of the Harga.
Like Dorothy in Oz, Dani endures a traumatic event that upends her world before meeting fantastical strangers who help lead her over the metaphorical rainbow, in this case using drugs, sex, and death. And we realize that, while her hapless friends may be trapped inside a horror film, Dani is in her own, personal fairy tale—one that’s really a journey of self-discovery.
Ari Aster: “This is a folk horror movie, but for Dani, for the main character, it’s a sort of perverse wish-fulfillment fantasy.”
From the moment we meet her, Dani is scrambling for human connection, but finding her calls unanswered and her emails unread. She’s alienated and alone. Her phone history is a list of contacts she didn’t connect to, and her boyfriend acts burdened and annoyed by her. Christian withholds his emotions from her, which leads her to view her own emotions as a problem, one she fears could drive him away.
Dani: “What if I overwhelmed him and he thinks I just have too much baggage?” - Midsommar
Because she can’t face losing Christian, or anyone else, Dani tries to play the “cool girl.”
Amy Dunne: “Men always use that as their defining compliment. She’s a cool girl. Cool girl is game. Cool girl is fun. Cool girl never gets angry at her man.” - Gone Girl (2014)
She takes medication to suppress her feelings and masks the distress in her voice before talking to him on the phone. When Christian lies about booking a trip to Sweden without telling her, Dani is the one who ends up trying to appease him. And when she tags along on their vacation, she’s so afraid of driving Christian and the others away, she isolates herself whenever she’s overcome by emotion. She won’t even allow herself to give him a hard time over the cardinal boyfriend sin of forgetting her birthday. As toxic as this relationship is, Dani is terrified of being alone. But then she discovers that, among the Harga, no one is really alone. The Harga model their lives on nature and the way its pieces are all interconnected in a unified whole. They’ve created a place where everything is shared, from possessions to parenting. Even death isn’t scary to them because the living and the dead are joined.
“We view life as a circle, a recycle.” - Midsommar
And while Dani is at first uncomfortable with this strange place, she comes to realize that this unity with others is exactly what she’s been missing in her life. The film’s title takes on another layer of meaning when you consider that Dani and her 20-something friends are in the phase of life that the Harga might describe as mid-summer.
Pelle: “Well, we think of life like the seasons. So you’re a child until you’re eighteen, and that’s Spring. And then at some point, we all do our Pilgrimage, which is between eighteen and thirty-six, that’s Summer.” - Midsommar
We can even read Dani’s loss of her family as a universal, metaphorical reflection of the transition to independent adulthood, as many people her age separate more from their given families and look for a new emotional home.
In this culture’s worldview, the summer period of life is defined by a pilgrimage — a great journey where the objective is seeking higher meaning — understanding the nature of existence and one’s place in the world. Through her pilgrimage, Dani gains self-understanding, significantly, during a festival which commences on her birthday and she becomes strong enough to admit that the temporary family she’s been trying to fit in with — Christian and his friends — don’t provide the home she needs.
So the true happy ending to her fairy tale is at last feeling held by a real, new family, replacing the original one she lost. Among the Harga, she is innately understood — even when they don’t
speak the same language. And most importantly for Dani, the Harga even share their emotions — from the heights of pleasure to the most horrific pain. Far from making her feel ashamed of her pain like Christian does, they take it on and participate in it with her. Like other fairy tale protagonists, in the end, Dani discovers that she’s far more powerful than she ever suspected. The Harga recognize that Dani is special because she’s such an emotional person. Her heightened sensitivity gives her an enhanced perceptiveness her peers lack and even lets her anticipate things before they happen.
The Harga use a similar emotional perceptiveness to evaluate their guests. So Dani’s journey to happiness means finally letting go of the false belief that she needs to repress her feelings — which are in fact her superpower. When she does, the Harga don’t only welcome her and save her from feeling alone. They anoint her their Queen. Just as nature includes brutal elements within its harmony, though, accepting her emotions also includes embracing those darker feelings that don’t fit our classic ideas of a fairy tale queen.
Punishing the Sinners:
To a degree, the deaths of the outsiders offered as human sacrifices in Midsommar abide by the conventions of a standard horror film. Mark in particular is a familiar horror archetype: the prototypical bro who thinks of nothing but getting laid. Like countless men in slasher movies before him, Mark is easily lured to his death with the promise of sex. He’s also a jerk who mocks his hosts and thoughtlessly desecrates their ancestral tree. Mark is a fool and so he pays for it.
Josh, meanwhile, is the classic interloper. Although he’s seemingly respectful of the Harga and their traditions, he’s seeking to exploit them for personal gain.
Josh: “My focus is actually on European midsummer traditions. Which was basically the impetus behind this whole trip.” - Midsommar
Josh views the commune’s rituals largely through an academic detachment. He’s a tourist. As with Mark, this fatal flaw is what leads Josh to his doom. Given that this is ultimately a break-up movie, Midsommar proceeds according to emotional logic. So the true reason Mark’s and Josh’s deaths feel justified is because of their symbolic relationship to our protagonist, Dani. Mark is shown to be callous, even hostile to her, while Josh regards her with cold indifference, as an unwelcome distraction from their academic pursuits. They represent toxic, uncaring, masculine attitudes she has to purge from her life.
But by far, the most destructive of these demons is Christian. Christian’s defining sin is passivity, which is rooted in selfishness.
Christian: “Everything you give me is a reminder that I’m not doing enough for you in this relationship” - Midsommar
He hurts others through inactivity — like keeping a woman he doesn’t care about hanging around in a dead-end relationship because he’s afraid that making any choice could deny him something he might potentially want.
Christian: “What if I regret it later and I want her back?” - Midsommar
Even when he has sex with another woman while his girlfriend is nearby, Christian does this passively—allowing himself to be drugged and led to the act— as if this way he can pretend he isn’t really choosing to do it. By the end of the film, his passivity has even been rendered literal through his immobilized body. Ultimately, this character is the opposite of the Harga in every way: never sharing, always taking what he wants. While the Harga are bluntly honest out in the daylight, Christian uses a fake “nice guy” front to feign obliviousness to the harm he causes—whether he’s booking the trip without telling Dani or stealing Josh’s thesis.
Josh: “That’s why you look so guilty right now, because you know. You know that what you’re doing is unethical and leechy and lazy.” - Midsommar
And whereas Dani and the Harga are defined by their feeling, Christian is a picture of apathy— not knowing what he wants, passionate about nothing and loyal to no one.
Christian: “And if he did take that book, I just pray you understand: we do not identify as friends of his, or collaborators, or anything.” - Midsommar
Ultimately, Christian’s death is portrayed as karmic punishment for being both a terrible boyfriend and a garbage human being. But it’s not the Harga or the rules that dictate this. It’s Dani.
This fairy tale’s ending is far from a storybook happily ever after. Five people are murdered. Four commit suicide. Dani is now in the clutches of a violent cult, and her face suggests she may be losing her own sanity. So why, given this set of facts, do many viewers feel satisfaction, even elation, upon viewing Dani’s “victory” over her worthless boyfriend?
Ari Aster: “It’s all kind of designed to really make you want that ending.”
Ultimately, this ending is a “revenge fantasy” in the vein of Lars Von Trier’s Dogville, a favorite of Aster’s that he’s cited as an “unconscious” influence. Like Midsommar, Dogville ends with an exhilarating yet unsettling sequence of a mistreated woman getting murderous revenge against those who’ve wronged her.
As Astor put it, “What that film does with catharsis is what I want to do with the catharsis here—I want it to be a joy, I want the ending to be exciting and kind of crowd-pleasing. And then at the same time, I want it to be something complicated that you’d have to contend with.”
When we do step back to “contend” with why we find Dani’s ending cathartic, we have to question why it feels good for Christian to meet this bitter end. He’s dishonest, lazy, and a really crappy boyfriend, but does that mean he deserves to die? Studies have found that these revenge fantasies appeal to us because they allow those who feel weak or downtrodden to gain a vicarious sense of power and purpose. They also expose the fact that how we react to violence onscreen largely depends on how much we empathize with the one committing it.
Dani’s revenge will likely feel relatable to anyone who’s felt unappreciated and mistreated by an unworthy partner. As Aster has said, Midsommar is a melodrama based on real emotions—meant to be “as big, consuming, and cataclysmic as breakups tend to feel. It’s not the end of the world, but in a way it is.” So ultimately, what we’re relating to here isn’t the literal act of murdering your ex; it’s the feeling that the only way you can move forward when a relationship ends is by burning every trace of that person out of your life—to collapse their world, the way they’ve collapsed yours.
Ari Aster: “If there is any legacy for the film I would love for it to be a movie that people go to when they’re going through a breakup.”
And in the end, Midsommar is satisfying because it bluntly drags these uncomfortable emotions that we might usually repress or deny out of the shadows and into the daylight, with a knowing smile on its face.