'Midsommar' Takes a Step Forward and a Step Back in its Portrayal of Mental Illness

, like Ari Aster’s previous feature, Hereditary, deals with grief and trauma through intense moments of violence, and grapples with what coping can look like. However, by way of sun-drenched pagan ceremonies, Midsommar more directly addresses the important role empathy plays in living with mental illness.

Through Florence Pugh’s character, Dani, Aster is able to create a narrative about the fear of asking for help, desperately searching for empathy, and the violent catharsis that occurs when that understanding is finally found. Conversely, when it comes to Dani’s sister, Terri, Aster may also be perpetuating stereotypes on the very same topic, making Midsommar a difficult film to reckon with.

While Terri is barely an onscreen character, she plays a pivotal role in Midsommar’s events and in Aster’s portrayal of mental illness. Terri, who is bipolar, is depicted as a burden who only adds to her sister’s stress due to her unpredictable behavior, culminating in a foreboding email declaring that everything is dark, that mom and dad are coming with her, and goodbye. This sends Dani into a spiral of panic, but her boyfriend, Christian, blows off Terri’s behavior as weird but common. Then, tragedy strikes. Aster shows, in graphic detail, how Terri fed tubes from the exhaust pipes of the family cars into her parents’ room and into her mouth, pumping them all full of carbon monoxide.

As someone recently diagnosed with a form of bipolar disorder (rapid-cycling bipolar disorder, to be precise), these opening moments undermine the drama. There are stereotypical behaviors associated with this diagnosis, and the one Aster chose for Terri adds to the perception that people like myself are inherently dangerous and on the precipice of snapping.

Many people with bipolar disorder deal with suicidal ideation, but we are not inherently homicidal. We have dramatic moods, periods of deep depression, and forms of mania that can last hours or days (in my case) to weeks, but we don’t commonly resort to premeditated murder. I try to tell myself my diagnosis does not define me, but in films such as these, it is difficult not to feel despair, and difficult to feel that my diagnosis may strike fear of such acts into the minds of those I choose to tell. The images from Midsommar only reinforce my own personal fears about myself and what people expect from me.

On the other hand, while Terri is explicitly diagnosed with bipolar disorder to explain her erratic, and eventually homicidal, behavior, Dani is left without a diagnosis. However, we are given hints at a life of dealing with some form of mental illness. A glimpse at a pill bottle of Ativan and an agitated phone call with a friend before her family’s death provide us with enough context to know that Dani deals with anxiety and panic attacks.

Dani’s implied mental illness is further compounded by the way Christian and his friends talk about her. His rather insensitive friend, Mark, loudly declares that she needs a therapist. When Christian says that she does in fact have a therapist, Mark retorts that she ought to call them instead of Christian because calling a partner for support is, to him, abuse. Mark equates having a therapist as having enough help and support for mental health issues, reflecting real world misunderstandings and attitudes about mental health care and support. Unfortunately, most therapists aren’t just a phone call away and can’t be reached 24/7. Boundaries are important, but you still need someone to talk to when your thoughts are racing and you just need a distraction. That’s why support systems are key to living with a mental illness.

This brief scene illustrates that, to Christian and his friends, Dani is the crazy girlfriend. Her calls and need for support throughout family issues make her unmanageable and too much trouble. What Dani needs is empathy, but that is nowhere to be found in her onscreen relationships. All of those around her are absorbed in their work, insecurities, and sexual needs instead of trying to understand and care for their friend. While friends and partners should not by any means be a sole source of support, a support system is essential in the healing process. That Dani has a therapist, takes medication, and is repeatedly seen calming herself through breathing exercises shows that she has coping skills. What she lacks is a support system that understands her anxiety. She needs people in her personal life by her side. It seems to exist during a brief phone call with an unseen friend, but this glimmer of hope is quickly extinguished. Instead, Dani is left with a group of self-absorbed and emotionally stunted men who make her feel as if her needs are lesser than their own.

Dani recognizes this lack of empathy and the label of “crazy girl,” joking about how her own research interests in psychology show how crazy she is. She’s internalized these feelings, rather than confronting those who make her feel as though she is crazy. She regards herself as an inconvenience and a burden, someone who needs too much care, a feeling that I can deeply empathize with as someone who has harbored the fear of abandonment that comes with mental illness. There is a deep-seated worry that all of the people who love you will leave you at the slightest inconvenience. In the face of this fear, there is a pressure to seem normal and fully functional when all you want to do is scream.

What Dani does come to realize is the power of empathy and community through the Hårga people, albeit in quite a violent way. She is slowly introduced to what a real support system could look like with Pelle, their Swedish friend who invites them to witness his village’s Midsommar celebration. He relates to Dani through his own experiences with losing his parents, explaining how he does understand her grief, but that it was easier for him because he had the support of his community. As she interacts with the Hårga, she is exposed to their way of life; to some, it is graphically violent, but to Dani, it is almost utopian. As a baby cries, a group of women sing and rock in unison to calm it. During the Ättestupa ceremony, two village elders throw themselves off a cliff. As their bodies smash to the ground, the Hårga scream and cry, vocalizing their emotions, letting themselves feel, rather than hiding it.

It is only when Dani dissolves into a full-blown panic attack that she fully understands what the empathy of the Hårga can offer her. When she discovers Christian having sex with another woman, Dani begins screaming and sobbing. A group of women bring her to a room and begin to cry with her. They mimic every one of Dani’s breaths, sobs, and screams, channeling her feelings into themselves and helping unload this emotional burden. She does not have to experience this anguish alone and carry it all on her shoulders; there are people to help and quite literally support her.

This realization culminates in the murder and burning of Christian, Mark, and Josh. They function as sacrifices to cleanse the village of evil, and in ridding Dani of these “evil,” or toxic, entities, she is able to fully find her true community. As the building’s support beams burn down, so does Dani’s supposed support system. Through that cleansing fire, Dani realizes that the only way to receive what she needed was to burn the whole thing down. As the fire blazes and Dani screams about her decision, the Hårga scream, cry, and pound the ground together. They experience her grief simultaneously; there are no limitations or people to tell you, “That’s enough.” Her grief, while previously ignored or tiptoed around, is being fully indulged and acknowledged. Dani doesn’t need to hide her anxieties. She can just simply feel.

My brain oftentimes feels like a prison, a place where I am trapped with thoughts that cycle from extremely excitable to anxious to depressed at an exhausting speed. I am often so tired and scared of reaching out to others in fear of alienating myself. Midsommar captures these feelings in such a strong way, showcasing the anxieties and concessions many people with anxiety and depression are willing to make to seem like less of an inconvenience.

However, the film still has a complicated relationship with mental illness; Terri and Dani’s diagnoses are different, and treated very differently, too, creating a hierarchy of mental illness in which “easily” diagnosable afflictions are made scary while more nebulous struggles with anxiety and depression come across as less harmful. When it comes to Dani, Aster weaves an important tale about needing support and community to truly cope with mental illness, depicting survival as seeming almost impossible without a support system, even if you need to quite literally burn some bridges. For Terri, he still falls back upon harmful stereotypes about bipolar disorder that characterize those with the diagnosis as homicidal burdens. Midsommar moves a step in the right direction in portraying the importance of empathy, but takes another step back in continuing horror’s tendency to use mental illness as a boogeyman hiding under the bed.

Midsommar is in theaters now.

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