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Midsommar

July 11, 2019

Other than pornography, there is no film genre so concerned with the body, nor of gouging a reaction from it, than horror. The word is derived the Latin horrēre – which describes how hairs on the nape of the neck bristle when one is flushed with fear or excitement. Often, this reaction is provoked by images of the body itself: The Phantom of the Opera’s disfigured half-face; the flesh of Frankenstein’s monster fixed together with nails; the extreme anaemia of Dracula. All of these fantastically distorted bodies must have raised combfuls of baby hairs by now.

And now to these we must add Ari Aster’s Midsommar, which elicited gasps at the screening I attended when the camera panned to Ruben, “the disabled one” as a character describes him. In keeping with Aster’s previous film Hereditary, in which physical and mental disability provides a metaphor for trauma and familial dysfunction, the disabled body once again becomes the monstrous body, used to convey a monstrous world.

Midsommar seems to hark back to the horror film’s eugenicist beginnings. It’s no coincidence that the monstrous tropes of horror’s mainstream began to be configured during the rise of eugenics in the United States. Identified as one of the first horror films, 1917’s The Black Stork depicts a “heroic” doctor who condemns a syphilitic child to die after convincing its parents that the world would be better off without it.

A flurry of eugenicist horror films came in its wake, with the genre reaching peak popularity in the 1930s. All revolving around “fantasies of alternative reproduction,” as film historian David J Skal writes in Screams of Reason, the wave of eugenicist films came at a time when it was feared that the white and able-bodied race would cease reproducing. After the terrors of Nazi Germany, their production went into rapid decline, but the eugenicist impulse was already embedded in the horror genre. Filled with unorthodox reproduction, harmful inheritance, and physical and mental deformities – even today, many horror films are a eugenicist’s worst nightmare.

“Eugenic assumptions about bodily form and biological inheritance were vital to the formation of classic horror’s visual and narrative conventions,” Angela Smith argues in her book Hideous Progeny. While Cronenbergian body horror – which uses the able-bodied as its site of play – has largely occupied the genre’s avant garde, Lupita Nyong’o’s monstrous double in Jordan Peele’s Us proved that disability is still considered shorthand for horror, as Nyong’o said that she had tailored her vocal performance after the larynx disorder spasmodic dysphonia. “What is difficult for us, and for the thousands of people living with spasmodic dysphonia, is this association to their voice with what might be considered haunting,” the National Spasmodic Dysphonia Association wrote in response.

Aster himself appears to be fully aware of Midsommar’s use of disability. In a recent interview with Forbes, he says Ruben is “a very important character. He’s important more as a symbol, as an idea, than he is even as a character”. Despite his acuity, there seems to be a resistance on his part to elevate the genre beyond its ableist and eugenicist beginnings. How can a new wave of horror truly surface when the same damaging tropes are still being used?

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