They're the silent star of the sun-drenched cult film Midsommar: eerie folk murals painted inside the main hall of the Hårga commune where the young people sleep, including four visiting Americans hoping to escape their various miseries. Over two stories tall, the paintings portray images bucolic and bizarre, from young women in flower crowns dancing about a maypole to a bear burning in flames. Everything in the worlds created by filmmaker Ari Aster and his collaborators seem to have meaning, so what's up with the strange paintings in Midsommar? Mild spoilers ahead.
Aster and production designer Henrik Svensson did a great deal of research to design and build the village, which was physically erected outside Budapest for filming. The inspiration for the murals came from real life, specifically an actual region of Sweden called Hälsingland, which is where the fictional commune is located in the story. "Both Hälsingland and Dalarna (which are close) are famous for their mural style," Svensson says over email. "Dalarna is bit more 'rich' and well-executed while Hälsingland has a more 'punk' feeling."
The murals like the ones you see in the film have a long history. "Since the 1500s," the production designer continues, "these kind of paintings have been a common, more or less permanent, wall decoration in houses built only for celebrations." As the entire field camp of Midsommar was built by the Hårga specifically to celebrate their once-every-90-years solstice celebration, the murals seem appropriately adapted.
For the Hårga, the paintings serve to share lore and history — also clues for any audience members paying close attention. But Svensson says the real murals they studied were mainly painted to increase the towns' bragging rights. While the Midsommar murals depict women performing love spells using their own pubic hair and menstrual blood, the scenes in the historical artwork are "sometimes biblical, sometimes just party scenes," the production designer explains.
Conceptual designer Ragnar Persson explains over email that he and art director Nille Svensson collaborated closely on the Midsommar murals themselves, deciding the art should feel close to the original Hälsingland work, "but with a bit more twisted turn." Henrik Svensson concurs, noting how easy it was "to tweak this already creepy style to the creepiness of our liking."
The production designer also worked on designs, wallpaper, and textiles throughout the Hårga camp, pulling ideas from all over including "a carpet in a hotel in Paris" where he once stayed that depicted "very stylish genitals." He continues, "Female on every other floor and male on the rest. Very Hårgan."
"I wanted to emphasize every possible dark spot, and what stood out was how humanity works in practice," Svensson says of the visuals overall. "Why people resist to help each other. Why capitalism is wrong. Basic stuff ... No cultural history is better than another ... and all cultural histories are dark."
That might explain why Persson was the artist chosen to interpret the original murals. "Ragnar is from the very north of Sweden and I sensed a kind of dark sadness in his work that I really liked," says Svensson. "A strong relationship with nature, the forest and its animals. The night."
As for Persson, he feels the Midsommar murals remain "very close to a Swedish tradition in the sense they reflect both small everyday things as bigger social structures, and in Hårga essence they are a forecast of things to come." There really are no mysteries in the film — the entire deadly outcome is spoiled by the art that surrounds the characters.
"If you really scrutinize all the different panels that were painted all over those walls, you’ll see that all of [Persson's] panels in one way or another anticipated where the film was going," Aster tells Bustle in a separate interview. "Which is also to suggest that everything that will happen is inevitable, but also ... [the Hårga have] all been preparing for a long, long time, and they’ve all been raised with these images and all been raised with this plan."
But there's much more to the murals and the overall look of the film than just foreshadowing. They also have a sociopolitical meaning. Svensson explains that, for him, Midsommar is a "very anti-nationalistic film" and every typical Swedish element a negative omen.
"Hälsingland is pretty much the home of the blond, tall ubermensch [or superior man], and the xenophobia is very deep there and around most of Sweden," he says. "Even today it takes at least three generations before the locals accept you, even if you just move from another town to a village in this region."
That insularity and the insidiousness of it plays against his vision for the set in general. "It is my notion of where a kid could be happy in the summertime," Svensson says. "How I would like to live if I [were] a person that appreciated collectivism and absolute truths."
It's exactly that tension between the sun on the surface and darkness just beneath that makes Midsommar so deeply disturbing.
Additional reporting by Sage Young.