By Danielle Meijer
What viewers tend to find most disturbing about Ari Aster’s 2019 film, Midsommar, is that the rural Swedish community at the heart of the narrative not only engages in violent ritual human and animal sacrifice, but does so joyfully. There is a parallel here with how many view Spanish bullfighting. How, outsiders ask in both instances, could a culture take pleasure in the spectacle of watching a creature needlessly murdered in a ritualized way? I wish to call into question the word “needlessly” here, thinking through the ways in which in order for some to live, others must always die. In most civilizations today, both human and animal death are institutionalized, privatized, and hidden away. As a result, the necessity of this death is also obscured. Arguing from the viewpoint of a vegan animal liberation activist who also happens to be a torera, I discuss in this essay how the fiction of Midsommar and the reality of bullfighting reveal both the horror of sacrifice and its potential moral necessity.
Keywords: bullfight; matador; Ari Aster; Midsommar; sacrifice; sacred; animal rights; tauromachia; corrida; pagan; civilization; ritual; animal studies; vegan; death; murder; ethics; Bataille; mortality; morality; philosophy
Dani, a young American woman whose sister recently committed suicide (gassing and killing her parents at the same time that she kills herself), goes off to Sweden with her not-so-supportive boyfriend and his friends to visit a small community, the Harga, who live a commune-esque, non-technological lifestyle. Once there, things seem idyllic until the Midsommar festival progresses, revealing that Midsommar is a kind of pagan fertility sacrificial celebration. Over the course of the festival, nearly all of the outsiders—but also several of the community members—are killed. Elderly people willingly jump off a cliff so as not to burden the younger ones with caring for them. Dani’s boyfriend is sewn up inside a bear skin, put in a specially made wooden lodge with several of the locals, and burned alive. Sacrifices are made. From the perspective of the Harga, the murders are not done out of malice, but rather are viewed as essential for the proper running of their society. Dani, in fact, is chosen to be the “May Queen,” a special honor that she initially resists but eventually accepts, finally marking her integration into the community.
In Spain, a bull enjoys an idyllic life on a ranch with his herd, free from anything but minimal human interference. When he turns five years old, he is taken in a truck to a plaza where he is released into an arena filled with spectators. Here, he must face several men who, over the course of twenty minutes, bait, injure, and finally kill him. He may injure or even kill one of the men, in which case the event does not stop but merely pauses so that the bull may be killed by one of the other bullfighters. That same afternoon, five other bulls suffer the same fate. The murders are not done out of malice, but rather are seen by the participants as a way to honor the bull’s sacrifice publicly—a sacrifice that exists in order to consecrate the human community.
The first story is a summary of the film Midsommar, which depicts a fictional community and fictional sacrifices. The second story is an account of a typical bullfight (or corrida), practiced in Spain and several Latin American countries today—a story of real communities and real sacrifices.
For all life on Earth, existence is predicated on death. Even vegetarians must kill plants; and even plants (that “eat” sunlight) must root in soil—the product of dead, decaying organic matter. In the United States, we kill other beings not merely to survive, but also to enjoy a certain kind of lifestyle. In virtually every contemporary civilization, these deaths are not true sacrifices but assassinations, done without ritual, respect, or sustainability. It is almost assuredly the case that anyone reading this essay is living a life that is fundamentally destructive to people, animals, plants, and the Earth itself. Actively and passively, we count on others to die so that we might live. How, then, do we calculate the worth of our own lives against the lives of others? What is the difference between a murder and a sacrifice? Why do we no longer commit ritual acts of sacrifice and what happens to us, morally, in their absence?
Human and animal sacrifice seems barbaric, a thing of the past, no longer relevant or good in contemporary society. But sacrifice is at the heart of all major religions and some of our most important stories. Before King Solomon’s temple was destroyed, it was Jewish tradition to sacrifice lambs for Passover. The temple priests would wash the altar with the lambs’ blood and burn the internal organs in special vessels as an offering to God so that He would spare human first-born sons. Male circumcision is an echo of Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son Isaac if it is what God demands. Jesus became Christ through his sacrifice—the ultimate sacrifice as the Son of God—and it is his blood that washes away our sins. Gautama Buddha, in one of his incarnations, slit his own throat, sacrificing himself to save a starving tiger mother so she would be roused, eat him, and produce milk for her babies. The Corn Mother in several Indigenous cultures in North America is said to have willingly asked to have her body be repeatedly dragged across the land in order to make the soil fertile, with bits of her flesh becoming the first “seeds” of corn. These gruesome stories show us how sacrifice is always someone else dying for us—for our sins (as in a scapegoat), to satisfy the bloodlust of a god, or simply for food. Life, it seems, demands and even desires the end of another life to sustain itself.
While many of these myths surround us still today in one form or another, meaningful rituals that support the ideals they uphold do not (at least in civilizations). The thing that is most difficult for me to accept, both about my society and my own behavior (even as a vegan animal liberationist—a label that is at times more aspirational than fully-realized) is that there is no sacrificial ritual undertaken for the many deaths that support my life. All of “the dirty work” is done out of my sight and out of public view in general. It is done to people, animals, and plants I have never met. I am alienated from it all and I do not fully choose these deaths. I am not aware of the event of the deaths in most cases, and as such, I can only imagine how many others die for me and in what ways they die. This lack of sacrificial rituals leaves me—leaves all of us—morally and culturally impoverished.
To sacrifice someone (and for the purposes of this essay, “someone” refers to a human, animal, or plant, as I consider all living beings to possess moral personhood) is literally “to make sacred” that being through the act of killing. This “making-sacred” involves not merely a word of thanks, as many of us give in prayer before a meal, or even following the halal and kosher rules for animal slaughter, but investing days, weeks, months, and even years in preparation, education, and learning the technique of various rituals. A true sacrifice is typically a public event, with the participation of the entire community. This publicity is crucial. Death is not to be meted out in secret.
In tribal societies and communities such as Midsommar’s fictional Harga, each death is accounted for, recognized, and valued. Even plants are given respect and care (as is evidenced by the anger felt by one of the Harga when he sees an outsider relieve himself against what appears to be simply a dead tree: “He is pissing on my ancestors,” protests the man). Death is also carefully chosen. The Midsommar festival occurs only once every ninety years, suggesting that the Harga understand the consequences of such a sacrifice and thus the need to enact the ritual only rarely.
The same is true—or nearly so—for the bullfight. I want to be clear from the outset that I do not believe bullfighting is morally equivalent to, say, the animal hunting rituals of the Woods Cree First Nation. Bullfighting is commercialized, commodified, sexist, and done far too often (how can the six bulls that are typically killed in each corrida, one right after the other, truly be recognized and valued?). Its origins are elitist, having been created as an excuse for the wealthy to show off their expensive horses and horsemanship (as bullfighting was originally done on horseback). Bullfighting also does not take place within a true community, at least in the case of the professional fiestas. Furthermore, the intentions of the spectators are not typically grounded in the idea of sacred ritual: uninformed tourists and hardcore aficionados mix with the bored rich who still attend the corrida as a sign of social status. Bullfighting’s contemporary failings are the fault of the context in which it exists. No civilization has ever achieved meaningful sacrifice because civilization itself is anti-sacred. Given all of this, however, it is astounding that the bullfight exists at all today. It is as close as any modern nation-state comes to a pagan ritual sacrifice.
The central character in the bullfight, the matador, is called by a name that identifies him as exactly what he is. He is a killer: matar means “to kill.” For those who love bullfighting, there is a clear difference between a killer and an assassin. When a matador cannot kill a bull quickly and cleanly, he is hissed at, booed, jeered, and even pelted with beer and food (which is dangerous, as it can distract the bull or the man and can result in the latter’s injury or even death). The crowd shouts at him “asesino!” (“murderer” or “assassin”), expressing the general feeling that they and the bull have been cheated out of a proper corrida. When the noble killer becomes a petty murderer, matadors often cry in shame for failing to do their job well. The spectators in the plazas expect the bull to die, but in a strictly prescribed way, one that is honorable and just in their eyes.
In Midsommar, great care is taken to plan the ritualized sacrifices and to ensure that all goes smoothly. While the Harga could kill the outsiders with little fanfare, part of the reason that they choose the vastly more complicated method of ritual sacrifice is to ensure that those who are slaughtered are given a meaningful death. Arguably, the moral key to ritual sacrifice in tribal societies and the fictional Harga is that it is only the death of those sacrificed that produces relatively brief suffering. The community strives to make the actual lives of the animals, plants, and humans in their midst deeply good and relatively free from pain and suffering.
The Harga, it seems, do not promote or tolerate structures that lead to bad lives for their community members or even those beyond their community’s boundaries. There is no attempt to expand the Harga way of life beyond its borders or to interfere with other cultures and their ways of life. Whatever we may think about how they kill, the Harga are not interested in subjugating entire groups of people, be they human, animal, or plant. And this points to a crucial moral: while it is necessary to kill in order to live, it is not necessary to create lives full of suffering.
Living in Chicago, I walk past countless people begging on the streets. They are a kind of living sacrifice offered up in the name of our flourishing in “first-world” culture—the result of our worship of capitalism, hyper-consumption, and convenience. We are disingenuous about such sacrifices, failing to take full ownership of the creation of poverty. Those who are homeless are not homeless because they do not have money; they are homeless because no one loves them. The Harga have no poverty within their community, nor do they colonize and cripple other societies in order to support their own way of life. Similarly, the bulls of the corrida live an incredibly good life on the ranch before they die: the Spanish ganaderia system ensures this. Such bulls avoid the fate of continual suffering and deprivation forced on other animals by virtually all other civilized industries that slaughter these beings for human use. The suicide-death of Dani’s sister in Midsommar is not sacred—and cannot be good—because she lived a sad life up until that point. Committing the tragic murder of her parents before taking her own life, Dani’s life ends as it was lived, and more souls are offered up as unwilling sacrifices in the name of perpetuating the sorry state of modern civilized life. Compare this to the ritual suicide of the two elderly Harga who jump from a cliff while surrounded by friends and family. Though violent and shocking for the viewer, this is a different kind of death—one that is perhaps worth “celebrating”—precisely due to the quality of life the Harga couple had prior to their end.
If at least some killing is necessary for life, whom should we kill? No particular animal or plant has to die for me, but someone must die, and I (or others on my behalf) have to make that impossible choice. This is an existential crisis worth pondering for a moment. New life needs space in the environment; new animal and human life will need to eat some of the life that already exists. Someone must step aside, and someone must be killed for food. No particular being must die in either case, and this open-endedness to the killing adds an almost unbearable moral weight to the choice we face when deciding who will be sacrificed in order to promote our own existence. In contemporary American civilization, we do not choose to kill a human or a domestic animal, so we go “outside” our community to do the killing. We outsource the sacrifice (and thus never see it as a sacrifice). Just as I would never allow someone close to me to work in the conflict-zone mines of the Congo excavating raw materials for computers, but passively accept that other human beings are doing so as I type this essay on my laptop, I also do not eat meat and yet do countless other things that end up destroying the very animals for whom I claim to have compassion. It is a tough reality to face. A nameless, but individual carrot is a living being that dies for my salad. That’s bad enough. But on top of this, the food industry (i.e., farming, transportation, etc.) that makes the carrot’s life and death possible for me also ends up killing a lot of collateral animals along the way. It is death all of the way down and in every direction. Choices about life and death are being made, but the choices are, in essence, far away from me and so I can ignore them, wash my hands of them, and never feel I have to sacrifice anything—anyone—close to me.
What makes the community in Midsommar interesting is that they do not merely take the lives of outsiders, but they take lives from themselves as well. They do not place the burden solely on the “other,” as we do, and this is worth emphasizing, as it is extremely rare for a culture to acknowledge the need for, and then enact, sacrifice in their midst. Bullfighting gestures to this value. The matadors risk their lives again and again by participating in the corrida. While the death of a professional matador is now rare, there is the potential double sacrifice—the bull’s death for the human community, but also the death of the matador. The matador faces death for us so we don’t have to die. The bull faces death for us because someone must die.
One of the most striking parts of the matador’s costume is the pink stockings he wears with an espiga (“spike”) on them sewn in black. The stitching depicts a shaft of wheat. Christians will recognize the reference to John 12:24: “Very truly I tell you, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds.” Like Christ on the cross, the Corn Mother dragged herself over the rocky ground, and the wheat is sown in the field; it is by means of both the bull’s and the matador’s potential falling and death that life is spread across the community like so many seeds. The corrida is thus as close as we get these days not only to true animal ritual sacrifice, but also human ritual sacrifice—and this is a good thing. The bullfight demonstrates what is truly at stake in taking the life of an animal, which is, after all, taking a life, killing a person who does not want to die. No particular being must die for us, but if, today, a bull is chosen to die for us, then the least we can do is create true risk for a human to die as well in the process. Part of respecting life-taking, and thus life-sustaining, is to refrain from making oneself invulnerable to being sacrificed or injured. In civilization, we do our best to inoculate ourselves from reciprocal death. We eliminate any local animal that might want to eat or otherwise harm us; we cut down any plant that might be poisonous; we kill spiders just because they might bite us even if that bite could not possibly lead to anything more serious than an itch (really, all an insect has to do is look at us funny or threaten mildly to annoy or distract us, and we will squish them without thought). We ask so much of the Earth and our plant and animal sisters and brothers, but we offer no sacrifice of our own to them in return.
In sacrificial rituals, love is almost always present, albeit in a complex way. In Midsommar, the outsiders are treated as special guests, appreciated and cared for by the Harga. While it could be argued that this care is a ruse designed to fool unsuspecting victims, the film as a whole fails to support such an interpretation. It would be difficult for a community with the kinds of values the Harga espouse to respect themselves while so baldly being evil. If the argument is simply that murder is wrong and that makes the Harga evil, then we are all guilty—and you and I exponentially more so than the Harga, because our way of life demands that other humans and non-humans live truly bad lives full of suffering with not even an attempt to make their lives or deaths acknowledged and recognized, let alone sacred.
Like the Harga, the corrida and its fans are also often charged with being barbaric, uncivilized, evil. Outsiders see the event as being solely about bloodlust, but the participants and spectators of bullfighting claim no interest in seeing an animal suffer. The confusion on the part of those who have no love for bullfighting makes sense, of course. It is a conundrum even for me: how can I watch an animal being hurt and killed in real time, right in front of me, and do nothing about it? How can I not eat meat but watch a bull die and be turned into meat minutes later? No doubt this is and should be unsettling to all of us, but we come back once again to the simple fact that there is no way around allowing at least some killings, in some contexts, to occur if any of us want to live. The corrida is not about avoiding the messiness of killing and the complex emotions that arise from it. Rather, it seeks to make the killing public because making it public signals the importance of such an act: “Look, an animal is dying for us; this is important; pay attention!” Not wanting to participate or even watch the death of those we kill in society isn’t noble: it’s cowardly and disrespectful to the person dying. Why is it wrong to publicly acknowledge—and even celebrate—the death of an animal we use for our own survival? If this is truly our feeling (that all of this is immoral and wrong), then why do we continue to use animals the way that we do in general? Shouldn’t we be calling for a ban on our very way of civilized life in general and not simply the corrida? The corrida’s failure to be truly moral does not lie in its supposed barbarism, but rather in the fact that it is not “barbaric” (that is, uncivilized) enough.
We fear acknowledging the harm we do to others, especially when that acknowledgement is public. This is inevitable because we no longer have a community in which we might regularly witness life and death publicly. We have privatized nearly all forms of caring and execution in contemporary civilized life, and as a result, we have little understanding of communal ways of living and dying. Nursing homes have replaced multigenerational home life. Hospitals, insurance companies, and doctors have replaced the shaman and the doula. Our food is produced and harvested from places far away from us—even the current bourgeois craze for “eating local” often means eating food produced as much as 300 miles away, and the farmers are still anonymous. Cops “solve” crimes, courts pass judgment, and money has replaced the non-economic way of simply doing what needs to be done to take care of ourselves and our community members without any expectation of payment. This has happened because civilizations are simply too big to run without institutions. None of us can know, and thus care, about the more than 300 million people in the United States, let alone the billions more with whom we are economically connected worldwide. The nuclear, patriarchal, privatized family has replaced community and we have been left to fend for ourselves. We are not doing a very good job of it.
This is perhaps why we are so suspicious of small communities. The seemingly perfect, but actually dastardly, small town/small community is a common trope in horror films. The irony is that our status quo is far more violent than any commune. We are suspicious of friendly communities because they seem to welcome us without asking for anything in return. This strikes us as impossible and we therefore assume there must be some nefarious motive behind such generosity. But anyone who has had the privilege of visiting parts of the world where small-scale communities still exist will tell you that these communities are not cults or havens for crazed pagan psychos. It is sad that we have come to this way of perceiving authentic communities. Sure, the Harga might actually kill you if you happen to visit during Midsommar festival, but no community in the real world will.
In addition to finding the publicity of sacrifice repugnant, we civilized people also find anyone who perceives beauty in that sacrifice to be pathological. In Midsommar, Dani is given a dress made entirely of flowers to wear as the May Queen, and as things start to fall apart there is a stark contrast between the beauty of her gown and the horror of the killings taking place in the surrounding environment. The Harga are celebrating as they kill and this is creepy to us, just as most people find the corrida creepy because the audience cheers and claps while the bull suffers and dies.
The first true test of the audience in Aster’s film occurs when the two Harga who have reached the age of “retirement” willingly jump off a cliff. Like many in the audience, the outsiders who have been invited to witness the event are horrified. We, and they, are asked to find beauty in a tradition that can only appear to us as creepy and horrific. But the tension in the film regarding the ritual suicide of the elderly couple is between the very real wisdom of understanding that dying means giving room for other beings to live and thrive, and the equally true fact that death is always violent. The body—even if not so violently destroyed by jumping off a cliff and then smashed into pieces by your fellow community members to finish you off—will rot and decay. How can we ever accept and see death itself as good (or beautiful)? How could the people in the plazas sit and watch a matador get seriously injured, or even die, and not stop the event? Instead, they wait for the next matador to come out to kill the next bull and continue their celebration.
Reveling in death and horror seems utterly alien to us, but we do, in fact, celebrate horror all of the time by enjoying the results of death. We drool over the Thanksgiving turkey, exclaim over a friend’s new pair of leather boots, and delight in our sweet new ride even though all of these goods demand enormous sacrifice on the part of animals, the ecosystem, and other humans. Turkeys generally live miserable lives before being slaughtered; wearing another being’s skin over our own skin is Hannibal Lecter-level crazy; and cars are responsible for 1.5 million deer deaths in the United States alone, according to the National Association of Insurance Commissioners, a number that far exceeds the total number of bulls killed in the world each year from bullfighting. These are far worse kinds of celebration, in fact, because they ignore the suffering and death of those involved at the time they are killed, focusing our attention solely on how that suffering benefits us after the fact.
Surely, solemnity is important to any sacrificial ritual. The corrida is often said by participants to be “a tragedy in three acts.” As a flamenco dancer, a dance that is as much about pain as it is about joy, I have often been told that it is important to understand that “the Spanish don’t avoid death; they invite death to the party.” It is not the suffering during the corrida that the people cheer; it is the beauty of a ritual accomplished well, an ethic realized. It is admitting to ourselves what we want and need from others.
The same may be true for the Harga. The women of the community commiserate with Dani when she realizes that her boyfriend has cheated on her as part of a fertility ritual (not, perhaps, entirely his fault). The other women howl in agony with Dani. The Harga also cry out as the people in the lodge (both community members and outsiders) are burning to death. It is clear that the intention of the Harga is to be sympathetic even though the scene is unsettling (and even though the Harga are ultimately wrong to do what they do to these people).
Cultural traditions are always inherently weird, because reality in its fullness is beyond logos. When logic fails to do justice in describing life, ritual takes over. There are limits to what we can rationally understand about the world, and death in particular is especially resistant to reason. Traditions and rituals are produced by a society to express its members’ feelings and beliefs; as rituals deal with the inherently illogical (and often paradoxical) nature of existence, the rituals themselves are necessarily illogical.
Bullfighting is one of the best examples of ritual-as-nonsensical. Why dress up in a $10,000 suit of silk and sequins that offers no protection and then fight one of the most dangerous mammals on the planet with pink and red capes in front of an exacting and sometimes hostile audience, tasked with killing the animal with a sword, but only after twenty minutes and only by means of one incredibly specific and difficult method? Why the spectacular commitment of time—so much time on the part of so many people? Why spend the time it takes to raise the toro bravo, the specific breed of bull used solely for bullfighting, the time it takes to train to become a matador, a job that is so difficult only a handful of people in the world can manage to do it well—and even then still fail miserably much of the time—the time it takes to organize and promote corridas, the time it takes to sew a “suit of lights” costume entirely by hand only for it to be torn and soiled almost immediately, the time it takes to recover from the countless injuries every professional bullfighter will suffer in his (or her) career, and the time it takes simply to watch so many bulls die?
Our rituals do not matter to those we sacrifice unwillingly—in fact, the ritual might appear to be menacing or evil. Native Mexican communities cut off the hooves of the deer they kill, ritually wash those hooves with herbed and scented oils and water, say prayers over them, and return the hooves to the deer’s family (in the location where the deer was killed). No deer appreciates or understands this act—and if they could, it would likely seem horrifically creepy. Yet without this ritual, or one like it, the death of the deer would be diminished. The outsiders in Midsommar and the toro bravos in bullfighting likewise do not care about or wish to support the rituals in which they are unwilling participants. The ritual is not for them and does not benefit them. The worth of the ritual, then, is for those who enact it. In this case, these rituals serve as reminders of the immense loss we create simply by living. We could easily forgo ritualizing death and instead use that time to eat, shop, watch porn, and play Grand Theft Auto, but do we not lose something far more than time by doing so? Do we not diminish ourselves in the process of “efficiency”?
Time is life. The only way that we can even begin to acknowledge the sacrifice of other beings that makes our own lives possible is to give up some of our life through ritual.
One might be tempted to think that Bataille’s notion of “the accursed share” is playing a role in this conception of ritual, but this is not the case. For Bataille, civilizations commit acts of destruction/overconsumption due to the sheer abundance of life available. In some sense, civilizations squander life for want of nothing better to do once they have mastered the art of mere survival and are left with “free” time. This frittering away of time via human sacrifice (as in the case of the Mayans), elaborate non-procreative sex acts, art, war, and spectacles such as the Roman gladiator fights are truly a waste, with no end other than themselves. But Bataille economizes the concept of cultural excess, even as he asserts that the accursed share contradicts the fundamental principles of economics itself (in that there is no exchange value to these non-survival acts). And while Bataille is saying that the activities we produce because of the accursed share are illogical, it is not the same kind of illogic of the ritual we are investigating here. Sacrificial ritual is not something “extra” in life; it is essential to a good life and ultimately to our survival. The lack of such ritual is part of what is causing global warming and the third largest extinction event in the history of the planet. To sacrifice our time in order to recognize, honor, and value the death of those we kill is not a “waste” of time. It is not fundamentally an economic behavior, but simply an ethical one. Time is not money but is rather life itself, and giving up moments of our lives to perform rituals cannot be reduced to the language of economics. Unlike Bataille’s examples of illogical behaviors, sacrificial rituals are not undertaken in contemporary societies. The Harga human sacrifice does not fit Bataille’s theory, as the Midsommar festival happens only once every ninety years, too infrequently and with too few people sacrificed to be a true squandering. The bullfight, also, is not the fulfillment of some sci-fi fear fantasy about broadcasting real death on a TV show to entertain a jaded audience. There is a crucial difference between sacrifice and spectacle, and between economic expenditure and communal ritual. While bullfighting may be the bastard child of tribal sacrifice, its meaning still escapes Bataille’s theoretical grasp.
One popular interpretation of the Harga (and their creepiness) is that they are akin to Nazis—believing themselves to be a superior race who has the right to kill outsiders for their own purposes. If this is a reasonable interpretation—and I do not believe it is—how is this any different from our own way of carving up the world? Why are we not continually creeping ourselves out? We claim that human life is superior to all other forms of life, and therefore the death of an animal or plant for food, shelter, or clothing is the way it’s supposed to be. And our treatment of those who live in poverty as a result, and in support, of capitalism reveals our low estimation of the worth of these people’s lives. Any reason to hold humans in higher regard morally over all other beings (or some humans over others) is arbitrary. There is no way to make a bull or a tree believe that their lives and deaths should be in service to our flourishing. To an earthworm, her life is important and she strives every day to do the work necessary to continue living. All life wants to live. For civilization to exist, countless beings must be subjugated or killed, and yet we generally do not think of ourselves as bad people. Who among us believes himself or herself to be the villain of the story? Who are the villains in Midsommar? From whose perspective? Are the outsiders truly better people?
Part of the task of ethics is figuring out when a ritual is doing good work. How do we know whether or not a ritual is leading us to a better life or simply covering up evil? The willing community members in Midsommar who die in the lodge fire seem, during the preparations, happy to do so. They are happy, in fact, right up to the moment they start to burn, at which point they begin to scream. And of course they scream. Dying by fire is not much fun. But does their screaming indicate that they have changed their minds and the Harga have been evil all along? Is pain always synonymous with suffering? Is it better to kill a cow in a slaughterhouse using a bolt gun to destroy the brain, a death that typically lasts mere seconds, than to subject a bull to a 20-minute long “fight” where he is placed in an arena without knowing what is happening to him, without anyone there who is on his side, where he is pierced with barbs then struck with a sword that usually enters the lungs, causing him to choke on his own blood before his spinal cord is severed? Would tribal peoples be better people if they used guns to shoot their animals instead of bows and arrows? Would they still be the kind of people they need to be to maintain their identities if they did? It is tempting to argue that providing a quick and painless death makes one a good killer. But it is morally insufficient to try to answer these questions by examining the deaths alone. We must take into consideration the quality of the creatures’ lives that came before. A good death cannot exist without a good life before it, and an antiseptic death, though quicker, may not actually “contain” less suffering.
Of course, this should not be made into a false dichotomy. We do not have to choose between the bullfight and the slaughterhouse (or cliff jumping and nursing homes) because better options exist. Yet, those better options would require a complete change of life as we know it in order to be realized. While I would wish to argue in favor of the revolution that would make that complete change possible, I also must admit that for now the bullfight is the best we can do to animals we kill in any civilization. If the corrida disturbs and sickens us, if it still feels not quite honorable or moral, then we need to understand that the context of Spanish culture cannot support anything more moral today. The bullfight is a red herring in the politics of animal killing.
No ritual can be sacred without it existing in a greater context of a sacred life. The bullfight ultimately fails because Spanish society, just like American society, fails. Civilization inevitably fails to be sacred in every way. Today in Spain, only some bulls are respected and given good lives, while hundreds of millions of other animals die each year in slaughterhouses. The bullfight should cause the Spanish to reflect on their treatment of other animals (including other breeds of cows), but it fails to do so. The aficionados afford no other animal the same respect as the toro bravo. Where is the pig’s corrida, or the lamb’s, or the fish’s? This is in stark contrast to the Harga, where everyday life does seem rather ideal, apart from a once-every-90-years ritualized murder. In Midsommar, the rituals are depicted as part of a way of being that seems to be ecologically sustainable and beneficial to all members of the society.
As a communitarian anarchist, I want very much for everyone to thrive and for no one to suffer. I actually think this is possible for humans, but I know it is not possible if we include every living being in our ethics—as we should. This fact is inherently horrifying. There is no way around it in terms of basic survival, but we can at least eliminate certain kinds of suffering (e.g., poverty, bigotry, rape, abuse), minimize other kinds, and respect those whom we ultimately choose to die for us. Midsommar is thus ultimately not about an imaginary community that rests on immoral principles. It is a film about a community that makes a serious attempt to deal with the fundamental immorality of the inherent structure of life. They could be better—just as the bullfight could be better—but if we condemn the community as any worse than our way of life, we fail to grasp the moral of these stories.
Ultimately, in the corrida there is sometimes hope. When a bull proves “brave” enough and has given a good performance, he is occasionally pardoned. The matador’s hand touches the place on the bull’s neck where the sword would have gone in, signaling the bull’s release. The animal’s wounds are treated and he becomes a semental, a stud, living the rest of his life back on the ranch. This indulto (“pardon”) is considered the highest honor in bullfighting—a time when everyone wins. Similarly, in Midsommar, the May Queen is given the power to pardon one of those who are marked for death. What both of these moments suggest is that we do not really want anyone to die. We wish for a world in which sacrifices are not necessary, where everyone can flourish. But at least in bullfighting, the indulto happens only rarely.
Our rituals (or lack thereof) reveal whom we value and what we expect out of life. The corrida as a ritual expects bulls to die when none of them have to. Eating meat is not necessary to survive. What if every bull was pardoned, every time, in every instance? A deathless corrida would show us that we can make a deathless choice in our lives at least some of the time for some people, and we should strive to make that choice whenever possible. Perhaps it is thus that we can accept that killing is inevitable without accepting that killing more than we have to, or killing for immoral gains, is unavoidable.
The poet Federico García Lorca is not known as an animal liberationist. He ate a traditional Spanish diet that included plenty of meat and was an ardent fan of the bullfight. But his poem “Office and Destruction in New York” demonstrates his ability to discern a good death from a bad one. For Lorca, all deaths in the New York City he once visited were bad deaths. “I spit in your faces,” Lorca says to those of us who “destroy the forest’s plans,” condemn millions of animals to the slaughterhouse, and get the Hudson “drunk on oil” (122-125). Lorca, even immersed in civilization, could discern the difference between killing and assassination, between the death demanded by life and the overabundance of suffering demanded by our culture, and this must be the primary moral task for us all. Celebrating the demise of our entire way of life today might seem like a tall order. But if we allow our civilization to die and a culture of ritual sacrifice to take its place, we might be able to move forward morally and with hope—our new way of life (and death) producing many seeds.
 Although matadors do receive thirty to forty serious injuries over an average career, in those moments, living seems anything but assured.
 Bullfighting plazas are zoned slaughterhouses, and bulls are immediately dismembered after being dragged out of the arena.
Bataille, Georges. The Accursed Share. Translated by Robert Hurley. Zone Books, 1991.
García Lorca, Federico. “Office and Destruction in New York.” Poet in New York. Grove Press, 2008, pp. 122-125.
Midsommar. Directed by Ari Aster, 2019.
National Association of Insurance Commissioners. “Oh Deer!” Oct. 2017, https://www.naic.org/documents/consumer_alert_oh_deer.htm. Accessed 8 Dec. 2019.