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Midsommar, Scary Stories, and the horror of realizing your fate is sealed

Midsommar
Photo: A24

The original poster for Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chain Saw Massacre asked perhaps the definitive question in all of horror: “Who will survive, and what will be left of them?” For the film’s marketing campaign, that was a rhetorical inquiry. For the horror genre on a whole, it’s just part of the agreement—you know that anyone who watches the tape in Ringu won’t get to rent another one eight days later, that visitors to the Bates Motel won’t all check out, or more recently, that some Floridians in Crawl are bound to become alligator food. Like dogs on a film set, horror characters don’t know they’re in a horror movie, and don’t know that in one way or the other, they’re fucked.

Horror’s mechanics of cruel inevitability have recently inspired some storytellers to go deeper with this fatalism, while playing with what the audience does and does not know. In Ari Aster’s Midsommar and Andre Øvredal’s Scary Stories To Tell In The Dark, characters find themselves trapped in stories they can’t control, their fates possibly set. Both films concern the dread of the sign-posted, as characters work through predetermined plots, creating a unique sensation of hopelessness—instead of surprise, they play on a creeping fear of the unavoidable, conjuring tales of helpless submission.

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Aster’s Midsommar is a scary story told in broad daylight, its insidious plans unfolding not in shadows but outside the perspective of those who will be ensnared by them. Aster begins this nightmare of predetermination with honest advertising: The very first image is a sprawling, excessively detailed mural that displays Midsommar’s plot in full. Looking left to right across its five columns, it depicts a woman (we’ll come to know her as Dani, played by Florence Pugh) stricken with grief. The mural then captures the fruitless attempts by a man (in the plot, this role will be filled by shitbag boyfriend Christian, played by Jack Reynor) to console her, while another man (Pelle, played by Vilhelm Blomgren) sketches above them. From there, we see this group traveling to a mystical land with two friends (revealed to be Josh, played by William Jackson Harper, and Mark, played by Will Poulter). The final column is of a large feast featuring Dani, with her fellow male travelers nowhere to be seen.

In the bigger picture, this is the grand scheme by the Hårga cult to gain their new May Queen, presented with a dreamy hopefulness. But that scheme also involves the horrific deaths of other characters, who are assigned an inescapable purpose—to contribute their flesh, blood, or, in Christian’s case, semen—for the cult’s enrichment. Like the paintings that later adorn the cult’s compound, the mural is at first staggering and strange, a fairytale map of an uncertain tone, where happy human figures dance with skeletons. For the viewer, it becomes even more sinister in retrospect; what the audience understands, by the end, is that the horror of Midsommar is in watching everything fall into place, in seeing innocent people ritualistically dehumanized.

Scary Stories To Tell In The Dark
Photo: CBS Films

In a literally darker world, the kids of Scary Stories To Tell In The Dark watch in terror as their fates are literally written out in front of them. Tasked with adapting the short stories of Alvin Schwartz’s famous books, credited story writers Guillermo del Toro, Marcus Dunstan, and Patrick Melton (and screenwriters Dan Hageman and Kevin Hageman) subject their teen characters to a kind of literary fatalism, pitting them against inescapable monsters inspired by their own fears.

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Schwartz’s selected tales are presented as the work of an evil spirit named Sarah Bellows, who in life was locked up and eventually murdered by her parents. While stumbling through the family’s haunted mansion on Halloween with friends Chuck (Austin Zajur) and Auggie (Gabriel Rush), as well as new tagalong Ramón (Michael Garza), aspiring horror writer Stella (Zoe Margaret Colletti) finds Sarah’s stories, bound up in a single volume. Sarah’s storytelling is already a myth within the town of Mill Valley—as Stella repeats, “If Sarah tells you a story, it’ll be the last you ever hear!” But she cracks the book anyway, awakening the dormant rage of the dead writer, and discovering that the pages fill themselves with fresh yarns, self-scrawling in blood the ghastly supernatural horror as it’s happening.

Sarah’s ghost stories prove to be an unstoppable force night after night, and create sequences of cruel futility, as when local bully and prospective soldier Tommy (Austin Abrams) is stalked by the scarecrow Harold in his family’s labyrinthian cornfield, or when Auggie’s open disgust with processed foods leads him to eating a big toe in a stew, provoking a hopeless game of hide-and-seek with a toeless ghoul. It’s hopeless to resist these horrors, and there’s an intimate and personal touch to Sarah’s supernatural attacks, which prey on the weaknesses and phobias of her victims. As Stella points out, “You don’t read the book, the book reads you.”

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Midsommar
Photo: A24

That same warning could apply to any outsiders targeted by the mysterious, manipulative Hårga cult as it plans its once-every-90-years festival. In Midsommar, Aster’s horror of fatalism (even more overt here than the “horrible, helpless machine” that was his debut, Hereditary) lends itself to a creepy preparation that involves lots of foreshadowing; the tourists are surrounded by visual spoiler alerts for the disturbing episodes that await them. Over Christian’s bed is a painting of two people having sex while others ritualistically observe—a disturbing fate that Christian faces in the third act. Dani’s bed is overlooked by an Ättestupa ritual, teasing the horrifying sacrificial cliff-diving ceremony that she and others will soon witness. All the while, Pelle sleeps under the image of a kingdom with two crowns, and a naked man and woman—a type of reward for finding and bringing Dani. These ominous previews convey how they are all part of a larger design, and the movie’s true horror isn’t diminished on repeat viewings, because it depends not on surprise but fulfillment. We see, even more clearly, how impossibly doomed the visitors were before they even arrived.

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Scary Stories To Tell In The Dark has a more interior sense of foreshadowing, as the characters are often aware of the stories that are coming to get them—they’ve heard about or seen them before. Sarah weaponizes scary stories that are familiar to her targets: Before Auggie realizes he’s trapped in the “Big Toe” plot, he brushes it off by saying it was just a story that his father used to tell to him as a kid. Later on, Ramón correctly predicts the monster who will be coming for him—the Jangly Man, whose body parts echo Ramón’s trauma in seeing his brother come home from Vietnam “in pieces”—because it’s from a campfire story that used to frighten him when he was younger. Sarah now presents these nightmares as real and inevitable, keeping with Schwartz’s original idea that the stories in his book were collected from various people who at one point believed them to be true.

In ways either abstract or literal, both Midsommar and Scary Stories To Tell In The Dark reckon with the power of a narrative—the power in being able to control it, and the subsequent helplessness of being trapped in one, forced to submit to it. Midsommar accentuates the horror of inevitability with the arc of Christian, who is caught up in the salaciousness of the Hårga, his wandering eyes for a young woman in the group preventing him from seeing the cult closing in on him, and that he is being prepped to inseminate and then be sacrificed. His story is one of not understanding the signs that are all around him and suffering for it, with Christian even staring at an image of a bear on fire, unaware that he’s seeing his own fate. When he does realize what purpose he ultimately has to the cult, it’s too late for him to resist; a potent drug has left him paralyzed and unable to speak, and his eyes have to be forcefully opened. The cult has successfully preyed on his oblivious nature and his lack of backbone to push him into their scheme, aware that he does not have the power to resist.

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Scary Stories To Tell In The Dark
Photo: CBS Films

There’s a terrifying sequence of submission in Scary Stories, too. It involves one of the teens, Chuck, and a reoccurring nightmare about a red room and a grotesque pale lady who tells him, “This is an evil place.” The dream haunts him throughout the film, until the group goes looking for information at a hospital and Chuck refuses to accompany his friends to the red room, thinking he can avoid the image that’s been terrifying him. But the red room turns out to be the R.E.D. room—the records and evaluation department. And in trying to avoid it, Chuck finds himself cornered in a hallway tinted red by the hospital’s alarms, pursued on all sides by the Pale Lady of his imagination. It’s a vision of nightmare logic and dreadful destiny: Chuck racing down different hallways but always finding the Pale Lady in his path, walking at the same deliberate pace, wearing a mysterious grin. He has nowhere to go and is forced to let her consume him, accepting a fate determined the night Stella took Sarah’s book.

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In Midsommar, the characters have no idea they’re part of a larger plot. They’re blissfully ignorant in a strange land, peacefully trusting their hosts, which makes it all the more disturbing to them when they learn the Hårga’s true, insidious intent. But as Scary Stories To Tell In The Dark demonstrates, knowing the full story, recognizing your fate and being unable to stop it, carries its own dread. The scare scenes in the film rely less on shock than the spectacle of watching these kids futilely resist Sarah’s plan for them. Øvredal’s film offers only one possible way to fight such fatalism: influence the storyteller to change their story, as Stella does by eventually confronting Sarah, offering to tell the vengeful ghost’s true tale if she calls off the monsters.

Both films offer the viewer a first-person perspective of being trapped, and having one’s fate decided once the puppet-master storytellers have moved into action. Free will is a means of rationalization—at least someone chooses to go to Camp Crystal Lake—but these movies vividly strip that away, and imagine the more existential terror of predetermined doom, controlled by forces larger and stronger than ourselves. That’s the key to their shared horror: They say that life is a story, and imagine how scary it would be to realize that it’s already been written.

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