by Claire Marie Anderson
We like to watch movies about things that would never happen to us because they would never happen to us. (Quotation marks around “would never happen” not necessary here, because then again, maybe it would.) That’s why the horror movie remains, a century of film later, one of the most popular entertainment genres out there, regardless of what kind of gore, torture, or distress on fictional characters or real audience alike its definition implies. But now there are movies in this infamous genre coming out that proclaim to be much more than their labels, movies described by their creator Ari Aster as supernaturally exaggerated family dramas and violently sadistic millennial satires which scream themselves into offscreen relevance, securing their places in history as disturbingly funny and frequently misunderstood contemporary masterpieces. 30 years ago, though, a similar kind of self-conscious schadenfreude in cinema existed in David Lynch’s Twin Peaks, a confusingly horrible and woefully wonderful piece of modern murder mystery art. Although young Aster’s work is of a significantly different, more socially conscious, tone than the elder Lynch’s inspired, fantastical, and terrible content, to compare the two generation-defining auteurs gives the viewer of both’s work some madly intriguing comparative food for thought–only some of it creamed corn. (That’s a joke you’ll get by the end of the article, I promise.)
Twin Peaks was considered by many to be the weirdest thing ever made until its sequel The Return came out in 2017. It’s a cheesy ‘90s show that starts out as an Agatha Christie story more odd than surreal, and very quickly descends into the complex, disturbing, and genre-defying narrative it occupies for two gloriously unstable seasons. The plot is simple enough: everyone’s favorite girl next door, Laura Palmer, is found dead, and a special agent from the FBI, Dale Cooper, often sees her and various mystical beings (including a midget, a giant, and a one-armed man) in helpful yet ominous dreams while trying to find her killer, who turns out to be her own father, Leland, albeit possessed by a demonic Native American spirit named BOB. Leading up to this discovery, we learn lewd things about Laura’s life, like the fact that she was a 16-year-old prostitute working in a brothel owned by her richer classmate’s father (who definitely had sex with teenagers, often, and in a later plotline, almost has sex with his daughter after she anonymously goes undercover to help investigate the brothel), and seemingly insignificant information about the other kooky characters in town, like how Ed, owner of the local gas station, accidentally shot his wife Nadine in the eye while on their honeymoon. All of these strange and fascinating storylines come together in a beautiful cacophony of artistic horror (a memorable shot of BOB climbing over a couch and toward the camera to terrorize yet another Palmer girl), cringingly funny comedy (Detective Andy getting hit on the head and feeling it when he steps on a floorboard hiding valuable evidence against a potential suspect), and painfully real drama (Sarah Palmer having to cope not only with the death of her only daughter, but later, with the realization of her husband’s guilt, and unexplained, terrifying visions of BOB), giving the viewer not only a multifaceted perspective on what untimely death does to a small town full of people who really do all know each other, but also a darkly alternative approach to the coming of age genre, shoving deep and mature issues and plots down the throats of fictional teenagers without exploiting them in uncomfortable and provocative settings years before it was trendy to do so.
With any coming of age story, emotions run high. Laura is an egregiously troubled young woman, a pseudo-archetypal hormonal teenager of the movies experimenting with sex, drugs, and alcohol, and we see her pain and suffering (or garmonbozia, to BOB and other spirits of the Black Lodge) explicitly drawn out in both natural and supernatural circumstances. In Lynch’s controversial prequel film Fire Walk with Me, we’re given heartbreaking documentation of Laura’s sexual abuse at the hands of her father/BOB (himself a mixture of man and demon), and her quick descent into cocaine addiction and random, dangerous sex as coping mechanism (a scenario too often not at all supernaturally induced). Stuck in a dozen genre tropes at once, Laura is disgustingly batted around by parents, spirits, and dreams in a giant pot of terrible, ugly creamed corn. But that creamed corn, what garmonbozia looks like to those who aren’t mythical entities, is implied to lie inside of us all as representation of our individual pain and suffering, which for some thankfully stays idle in our stomachs, kept down forcefully or never being a burden at all, but which for others is constantly stirred and eaten by demons from within and without, beings simultaneously attracted and repelled by our sins and vices, and eventually, that creamed corn must always come up somehow. Laura’s garmonbozia is obvious, and it is horrifying to witness her downfall as target of malicious supernatural force and victim of her own adolescent dilemmas and disillusionment, but it makes us thankful that we aren’t anywhere near her situation, we the sober, we the virgins, we the children of loving, normal parents. At the same time, some of her plight is relatable, what with navigating platonic and romantic teenage relationships, dealing with parents who “just don’t understand”, and acting out in excessive cries for attention. So why is it so enjoyable for so many to watch this kind of dreadful story unfold, and why is it so offensive to us when we recognize parts of ourselves in the same narrative?
When we’re approached with subject matter that seemingly has nothing to do with us, such as death by ghost or child abuse, via entertainment media that can easily be used as escape, a fantastical break from our boring, if not sane, reality, it’s easy for all of the reality existing within that fantasy to go over our heads. We don’t have to share any traits or empathy with Laura to appreciate her story as a good story, and we don’t have to take any longer to think about the psychological, moral, and potentially morbid consequences of her and our choices in life, but when we do, we’re frighteningly able to put ourselves in another’s shoes for just long enough to perhaps help or prevent ourselves from doing something similarly stupid in the future. In this sense, Laura becomes more than just a victim, traumatized by so much at such a young age, but a martyr or prophet of sorts, allowing others to learn from her mistakes and being uplifted herself in the process. At the end of Fire Walk with Me, Laura posthumously winds up in the Black Lodge, sobbing in confusion and anger, only to be greeted by an angel which had previously disappeared from a painting in her room, turning her tears into those of relief, and 25 years later, in The Return, Laura, or her doppelganger, or another version of one or the other, attempts to help Dale on his next mission with a series of strange backward-speaking clues, and upon the removal of the mask which was her face only moments before, shines a painfully bright white light onto him. These are beautiful images for a girl who has gone through so much for the frank enjoyment of those around her (and in front of the tv screen), to have ascended to a place of such deep internal purity, to have insides made of white light, the sins of yesterday never too late to be made up for and forgiven by your guardian angel. As the father of a friend tries to comfort Laura shortly before her death, “the angels will always return”, and it’s true for us, too. We often feel like our garmonbozia, our pain and suffering, over whatever we must deal with is just too intense to be able to leave our systems painlessly, so we let it writhe around and keep getting worse inside of ourselves, but creamed corn can always settle again, as long as we take the time and make the effort to let it. Even Laura Palmer found peace after such a horror film of life and death. It’s inspiring, to say the least.
Dani, the heroine of the young, brilliant and arguably pretentious Ari Aster’s latest film, Midsommar, similarly finds peace after a string of not entirely supernatural events plague her. She’s a grad student whose mentally ill sister kills herself and their parents in a horrible fashion, and afterwards, her shitty grad school boyfriend, Christian, attempts to escape her and her trauma by taking a pre-thesis trip with other students to a small, old Swedish town, led by a mysteriously cheerful (so, creepy) foreign exchange student, Pelle. The grad students get there just in time for a pagan festival celebrating the summer solstice, which features rites and lore somewhat based on actual history, but blissfully steered away from cultural exploitation by Aster through fictional addendums, and lo and behold, everyone’s used and killed for the sake of nature and tradition except for Dani, who is celebrated and welcomed into the cult (I mean, commune) and achieves the most explicit form of a post-break-up high by letting her shitty grad school past literally burn to the ground, thus allowing herself to become a part of a new kind of family. It’s a rough story to handle psychologically or morally because it’s not really as simple as “Swedish cult bad, grad school good” or vice versa, and as a matter of fact, either rival weigh their pros and cons fairly equally. The grad students don’t technically deserve to die, because this is technically a horror movie, and what’s a good horror movie without innocent Americans dying at the hands of bad foreigners, but they all do things throughout the film which show the audience that they don’t take anything about this seemingly ancient festival very seriously beyond the constant, nagging, and selfish presence of their yet-to-be-written theses, so in the eyes of the cult members, they do–kind of–deserve to die.
Question: Why travel halfway across the world to experience and participate in such an enigmatic religious event among such deeply rooted people, if it’s merely for the sake of your PhD in Anthropology? Answer: Your ego.
The first to die at the festival are an elderly couple from the commune in a spectacularly gruesome, though interpretively beautiful, way. Pelle explains early in the film that his people believe in specific cycles of life which parallel the seasons of the year, and that with the end of one’s 4th cycle (somewhere in their 70s) comes the end of one’s life. What he doesn’t explain, though, is that their method of ensuring these cycles’ exact schedules is literally throwing one’s self off a high cliff, after a short ritual of lunch and runes of course, in front of your friends, family, and comrades. After the wife takes her turn, her husband doesn’t die immediately upon landing, so the rest of their family comes over to hit him with a giant Thor-like mallet until he does so, a morbid little way of saying goodbye to grandpa. Obviously, this horrifies all the newcomers while the rest of the commune mourns and celebrates the so-called “natural order”, and a young couple who until now have willingly and excitedly decided to join the commune and live life the “natural” way freak out, not just over the violence they’ve witnessed, but of the realization that if they stay where they are, in a few decades they’ll end up having to do the same thing to themselves. The young couple start cussing out the commune’s elders and refuse to change their minds upon hearing the explanation behind the ritual, and this verbal disrespect, especially coming from those who have been attempting to become one with the commune, is probably what cements the couple’s later deaths, and most certainly foreshadows the next few characters’. The moral of this part of Aster’s pagan parable is that there’s nothing wrong with disagreeing with something you think absolutely morally wrong, but when you have willingly decided to join a foreign religious and social order in which this moral outrage exists, devoted yourself wholeheartedly to it, and then frankly, rudely, and dismissively lash out at your new rulers over something unexpected yet able to be explained, expect consequences for your actions.
Question: If you’re so eager to write the perfect essay, then shouldn’t you be willing to die for it, too? Answer: Sure, I guess so.
Most of the other characters who are killed throughout the movie each commit a particularly idiotic and/or ignorant act that cleverly justifies their sacrificial murders in the eyes of the beholders and provides a further moral crisis for the audience to cope with–Mark, the jokester of the bunch, pees on the commune’s ancestral tree and refuses to apologize for it, so is skinned and later stuffed as a harlequin scarecrow; Josh, the obsessive student and the only one who is already working on his thesis, attempts to secretly take pictures of the commune’s sacred book of prophecies after specifically being told not to, and is hit on the head with a similar mallet to that which the old man was beaten to death to; and Christian, after being drugged and only somewhat unwillingly used in a sexual ritual (long story), is chosen by his new ex, now the damn May Queen, to be fit inside a bear skin as the piece de resistance of the bonfire finale. If these grad students, killed against their wishes to provide a sacrifice for a spiritual concept they have nothing to do with in a completely foreign environment, hadn’t done anything stupid along the way, we would arguably consider their deaths as more shocking, more unjust, and more immoral. But these kids were stupid, and even though they were definitely going to be killed anyway (thanks, Pelle), it feels different realizing that their various dishonors and unlearned behavior toward hallowed, age-old traditions of a people existing for centuries and a spiritual community established decades ago actually offer pretty understandable, if not still corrupt and unfair, justification for punishment. Of course they didn’t deserve to die, they were semi-intellectual 20-somethings with a lot more to offer. At the same time, though, they walked right into deathtraps presumably made by others but actually self-made, and unlike when a bear steps in front of the hunter’s gaze, they were not innocent creatures at the mercy of unscrupulous villains, but problematic people fighting battles they themselves began.
It’s fucked up, sure, but there’s a grim sort of satisfaction to it, too, and the ending of the film is a perfect example of the macabre sense of worth the audience is intended to leave with. Somewhere at the movie’s midpoint, Pelle, who has most certainly taken a liking to Dani, asks her if she “feels held”, or if Christian “feels like home” to her, remarkable and painful questions to be asked of anyone and their significant others. Dani, like most of us probably, doesn’t know what to answer, and it haunts her, I’m sure, until the final shot of the movie, where she, just moments before so mentally and physically distraught over the unreal rite she’s witnessing, staring at her shitty grad school ex-boyfriend burning up along with everything else, realizes that without her past defining and burdening her, she can finally “feel held” in a “home” unlike any other, a functioning society she will always have a place in, surrounded by people who will always provide a feeling of unity and act as family to her. Yes, she’s in a cult. But cults, although they are in fact bad things to find one’s self in, make people feel needed, giving them the sense, however true or false, of community, prosperity, health and happiness, much like how many feel upon joining a church or other kind of organized religion. Different people need different things at different times of their lives, and sometimes a skewed reality helps or even saves them, briefly or forever, much like how we sometimes watch horror movies to feel good about other people’s misery, as in “at least my life is a whole lot better than hers right now”, and to help us cope with the three-dimensional jump scares of reality by letting us escape into a demented story far, but not too far, away from our own.
Question: When one has lost everything in their life–their family–aren’t they allowed to find strength and willpower in a potentially dangerous or distorted environment, as long as they themselves feel at peace? Answer: Absolutely, if we’re following the same logic as Aster’s previous film about successive generations of mothers who lose their children, Hereditary.
In Hereditary, the gist is this: a troubled artist and mother of two, Annie, loses her own mother, a complex woman she wasn’t on close or even speaking terms with on and off throughout their lives, and shortly after, her daughter Charlie is accidentally killed via the actions of her elder son Peter, leading to a divisive, hateful, and ominous rift between mother, father, and now only child. The volatile grieving mother meets a seemingly benign old lady at a group therapy session who tries to convince her to contact her dead daughter via a seance, and being the eternally distraught and decaying woman she now is, Annie accepts participating in the potentially fabricated event. After apparently successfully contacting Charlie, Annie becomes obsessed in trying to involve her husband and son in further communication with Charlie’s spirit, unknowing yet of her mother’s (and the no-longer-benign old lady’s) membership in a satanic cult to which she had sacrificed the bodies of her grandchildren (and earlier, it’s implied, her son, Annie’s late brother) to serve as hosts for Paimon, the historically documented demon they worship. By the end of the film, Charlie’s father has been killed for his unwillingness to partake in the posthumous possession rituals, and Annie, through both supernatural and conscious decision, sacrifices herself (just as her mother and that evil old lady did) with a self-beheading before the final climax, where Peter is crowned as Paimon’s host once and for all in front of the prostrate headless corpses of his family and other members of the cult. It’s all so horrible.
The first half of Hereditary is completely free of supernatural occurrence. The death of Annie’s mother is unnerving mainly because of the discomfort her surviving family feels upon it, seeing strangers (cult members) at her funeral and trying to move on collectively from a loss which is significant to all of them, regardless of how negative their feelings were to mother, mother-in-law, grandmother. Charlie’s death is the greatly disturbing and defining halfway point of the film, though, and it is made worse and worse in retrospect, as one pinpoints every single instance in which it could have been avoided. Annie forces Peter to take his little sister to a “school picnic”, which is actually a high school party full of alcohol, drugs, and chocolate cake with nuts, things Charlie is extremely allergic to. As she starts reacting to the cake, she finds Peter smoking weed with his crush, and he frantically starts driving her toward the nearest hospital as she writhes in the backseat. At some point during the faster and faster ride down a lonely stretch of highway, Charlie opens the window to get some air and is beheaded by a metal pole, a horrible, instant, and violent death for an innocent, eccentric young girl. If Peter hadn’t wanted to sneak out to a party by lying about its details, his mother wouldn’t have made him take Charlie with him; if someone had asked ahead of time about potential nuts in the cake, Charlie wouldn’t have eaten a slice, and wouldn’t have experienced the reaction; if Charlie had had her EpiPen; if Peter hadn’t smoked any weed; if the hospital had been closer; if Peter hadn’t been driving so fast; if Annie had been talking to her mother, giving her a reason to quit the cult or catching her before she ever joined it; if they had loved each other; etc., etc., etc.
These questions and more are what every mother who experiences the death of a child must ask herself, and what anyone who has ever accidentally contributed to the death of someone must ask him or herself, and what the viewers of a horror movie rarely ask the characters or themselves when experiencing such traumatic events secondhand. Just like with Midsommar, the unexpected consequences of unthinking actions are what become the most damaging and fatal to characters who unintentionally involve themselves in such convoluted and harsh scenarios. It’s what makes Hereditary infinitely harder to watch than Midsommar, because it takes events that, however horrifying or supernatural to imagine, do unfortunately happen to ordinary people, innocent people, loving people. Some may argue that it’s impossible for them to watch such a film, then, because of the horrible subject matter and how explicitly it’s depicted, but why then do we not turn away in similar fashion when viewing the violent slasher horror of the Saw movies, but instead enjoy ourselves cringing in the face of fictional, bloody misery? Why is it so hard for some of us to get through news coverage of the aftermaths of mass shootings, listening to the solemn sobs of families of victims and miraculous survivors, but we actively look forward to seeing monsters and demons do unspeakable things to groups of people in the guise of horror, science fiction, or thriller genres? It’s because realism is always scarier than fantasy, no matter what we tell ourselves. In my personal experience watching the film, the first half (that is, the non-ghost/seance/cult half, but the death/grief/self-destruction half) is so much harder to watch and remember than the second half, because it all feels way too real to comfortably sit as a bystander to the garmonbozia of this family, and yet you’re damn grateful to not be anything more than a bystander. Most people I know consider the second half more memorable, though, because of its traditional horror complex, what with people floating and bursting into flames, and all because of a demon spirit you never actually see, because many of us proclaim ghosts scarier than death itself, even those who don’t believe in ghosts in the first place. Why are we lying to ourselves?
With this in mind, consider the ending again. The family is united together at last, albeit in a horrific, demonic, and distressing way; distant grandmother, her pained daughter, beloved children and grandchildren, powerful satanic spirit and various members of a cult who worship him. Through each individual’s choices, many of which were failed attempts to break away from respective family members, they have become ever more linked in madness and disease, true blood relatives after all. It’s not an ending to aspire to, not at all, but it’s an ending of comparatively peaceful compromise, compromise which could not be reached between these characters in life due to a lack of communication, fidelity, and love. If there’s a moral here, maybe it’s “make sure you know your family (because one of you might be in a cult and the rest of you won’t know it until you get sacrificed).” And ask yourself, once again: is the ending scary because of what Paimon has done to this family? Or is it scary because of what this family have done to themselves? What would you have done in their place? Would you have found a way out? Was there a way out?
The tightest common bonds between David Lynch and Ari Aster’s work are threefold; supernaturally-tinged American Gothic storylines; surreal, dark, beautiful, and life-changing imagery; and honest to God (or spirit, or tree, or demon king, or whatever you choose to worship) morals. These pieces of cinema entertain above all else, but they also exist to teach everyone something. Maybe you were touched, spiritually or otherwise, by Laura Palmer’s miraculous ascension, feeling uplifted and reinvigorated for dealing with your own garmonbozia, or maybe you were ambivalent to her annoying teenager complex, regardless of all the murder, and perhaps you didn’t consider the details and effects of her death disturbing enough as a result. Maybe Dani drove you up a wall with her complaints and frustrations and crying and misery, allowing you to look forward to a potentially bloody end to all the annoyance, or maybe you saw yourself in her, glad or horrified to witness her, as aspiration or martyr, move on past everything she’d been through. (Could she have given you the strength to leave someone you’d been meaning to?) Maybe you could sympathize with Annie, Charlie, and Peter, feeling devastation over their destruction, realizing that what happened to them could happen to almost anyone who is forced into such sadistic confines, or maybe you hated their confusion, blaming them for most of their downfall, and you might have left the film disappointed in the relatively simplistic supernatural explanation because of how annoyingly inhuman the characters seemed to you.
Regardless of how one personally feels when watching such stories play out, through them we are all forced to reckon with something for ourselves and for the characters, and that is a beautiful and powerful thing, especially in this day and age. Millennials aren’t always thinking about what comes next for them, often preferring to zone out with weed or binge-watching or both, and when Netflix comes on, we’re usually looking for a break from everything, not another essay to write or grade. To see young people (and some benevolent, understanding, and modern-thinking old ones) interacting with young people to suggest and force reflection on future consequences spilling from the choices we’re making now is breath-taking. Even if people don’t care about, or don’t “get”, these movies and shows at first, something will enter them subconsciously, through their ear or eye or other orifice, and might pop back up later, just in time to save them from a fatal mistake. This kind of forward-thinking might have helped the Palmer family of Twin Peaks preventatively, educating young Leland well enough to stay away from stranger danger (the method in which BOB originally entered the picture), or the grad students of Midsommar, who might have escaped literal death by being less pretentious and shallow (and actually practicing what they preached), or Annie’s clan in Hereditary, who were torn apart by each other’s inadequacies and led like sheep, simultaneously united and divided, toward storybook madness (like an actual parable, something straight out of the Bible). It’s a shame that we often have to witness other people’s deaths, fictional or otherwise, to wake ourselves up to our own realities, but if they’re such a huge part of our culture already, then why shouldn’t we take horror movies a little more seriously? “Learn from other’s mistakes” has never rung truer.
Claire Marie Anderson is an Art History student, writer, actress, director, and artist from Houston, TX. Some of her work has previously been featured in The Showbear Family Circus and Internet Void, and she’s doing great, thanks for asking.