Midsommar’s ending and other horror movies changed the sacrifice trope

Live long enough and you’ll see your favorite tropes get subverted, then those subversions become tropes in their own right. Over the last decade, a very specific iteration of the human sacrifice trope has risen to prominence, transforming the film’s sacrifice into the savior.

People have sacrificed innocent people for their evil purposes since the dawn of horror. Reaching back to films as old as 1933’s King KongThrough the folk horror of The Wicker Man Blood on Satan’s ClawThere are also strange and unusual genres. Satan’s Slave (1976), human sacrifice has long been one of horror’s most memorable tropes. And it’s easy to see why — it provides both the act of killing someone and the justification of why. Instead of a morally driven killer, like In SawOr a spree of vengeance like inFriday, 13 AprilRitualistic sacrifices are justified because they promise personal improvement or gain. Those behind the sacrifice are willing to kill others to make their own lives better or to become more powerful, which in turn is why it’s so appealing to see them fail.

It’s a classic wish fulfillment tale to pit victims against their captors, and watch them win. And it’s what makes the emergence of the one-time subversion turned resounding trope of “the sacrifice becoming the savior” so appealing. The audience is instead presented with a tale about survival, rather than being terrified by watching a sacrifice. They are no longer ruled by the odds, but the one who would be sacrifice is the judge of their fate. They are no longer bound literally or metaphorically. Instead, they fight back.

Darkly humorous and sharply satirical, a recent example of this trend is in 2019’s Ready or not Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett’s satirical slasher pits Grace (Samara Weaving) against a power-mad clan of rich psychopaths. Grace’s wedding night game ends in Grace being deemed a victim. She is then offered as a sacrifice. Her only hope is to live the whole night while her family chases her down. Grace is a former foster child who grew up in near abject poverty; she’s the definition of expendable to her new in-laws. They’ll do anything to keep their wealth and status, including hunting her to the death. So it’s Grace, her Chucks, and her blood-drenched wedding dress against the nightmarish Le Domas family. She may have gained the favour of an ancient demon who was giving them money, status, and material wealth when she survived the night.

A woman in a wedding dress holds a sign that says “ready or not”

Ready or not2019
Image: Searchlight Pictures

This story device may feel, in narrative form, like an offspring or sibling of the exploitative and cathartic rape revenge tale. But in the sacrifice to savior story we often see the potential sacrifice regain their power and justice before they’re physically harmed. There’s more agency in watching someone fight against an injustice that might happen and stopping it rather than retroactively seeing them gain vengeance. It’s just like in Ready or notThe power imbalances explored in sacrifices to savior stories can often provide a thrilling thrill for those who are interested. Rich vs. poor, powerful vs. oppressed, or — as in Chelsea Stardust’s hilarious and knowing Satanic Panic — Workers vs. wealthy

Less tips are given to the richer neighborhoods. It’s a lesson that anyone who’s worked in food delivery knows well, and it’s one that Sam (Hayley Griffith) learns quickly when she takes a pizza to a wealthy enclave. It’s not just the tips that suck, though, as Sam ends up being on the menu when her customers realize she’s a virgin, making for a perfect sacrifice. Stardust knows the rules of these stories well enough to smartly subvert them, and — just like Grace in her battle for survival — Sam ends up in the favor of a demon herself. After a nightmarish night trying to escape the Satanists she’s stumbled upon, she beats them with sheer force of will. She invokes a stronger demon than the Baphomet she adores, which allows Sam to flee while eating on those who would kill her. Sam gets visceral fantasal revenge, which many service workers long for. She also escapes the monotony of her job. Similar films depict that the escapism that can be evoked in movies is the desire to make a sacrifice in an attempt for better, following the melancholy reflection of the self-enrichment which drives the captors.

The stark sunshine of Sweden’s countryside, miles away from the city in which a mother lost her family to a terrible murder suicide, offers an entirely different inversion of sacrifice. Midsommar. Desperately grieving, Florence Pugh’s Dani makes the ill-advised choice to travel with her awful boyfriend to see an ancient Scandinavian ritual. Her deteriorating mental health seems to put her at risk, but as her vacationing party is picked off she finds power in the rituals of Hagår. While Dani eventually becomes the monster she was fighting — and even assimilates to the beliefs of her captors — it’s not so different from what makes the sacrifice to savior trope so enjoyable. In those “good for her” moments, we celebrate a victim becoming something more, taking back their power and defeating those around them by emulating their behavior or besting them.

Midsommar ending, as Dani watches her boyfriend burn

Image: A24

In the case of Dani, it’s all about your reading. The cult of Hagår seems to bring her happiness, safety, and family. It replaces her family and kills her emotional abusive boyfriend. However, it mimics her abuse and attempts to control it. It has all the signs of a group that considers violent white supremacy a part of its “tradition”. While MidsommarIt almost meets all criteria for a sacrifice to save a soul, and it is able to exist in its own space. It is possible to simplify the story to say that Dani won in a situation when she was supposed to die.

A decade before Midsommar hit screens and the “good for her” discourse, there was Jennifer’s Body. Between the shimmery gray and the shining white is Midsommar Ready or notThe film by Karyn Kushma and Diablo Cody was a breakthrough in its day. It explored womanhood and the horrifying reality of teenagerhood. Megan Fox plays the title teen, alongside Amanda Seyfried playing Needy, her long-suffering friend. Jennifer Kusama, Cody and Amanda Seyfried find a sharp commentary about the sexualization of teenager girls and horror women. They create an actual monster when Low Shoulder, a band of useless metal musicians decides to make Jennifer their sacrifice for fame. Jennifer becomes a flesh-eating beast who devours the creepy and useless teen boys around her; it’s a near-aspirational genre fantasy. The sexy young woman who in any other horror movie would be killed for being morally bankrupt — and was supposed to die during a botched sacrifice — is given a second lease on life (and deadly superpowers).

Taking the blurred line between victim and monster one step further is 2020’s We summon the darkness. It’s fun to play The slick slasher exposes that those we believe would become the sacrifices may not be what we expected. You get all the classic trappings. Satanic PanicA movie about a group of teenage girls who go to a show of metal, which includes a dangerous and drunken bunch of men and unsolved murders. You could argue that We summon the darkness This subverts both the traditional human sacrifice trope and the sacrifice for savior. Many horror films focus so heavily on young girls as villains or victims that they don’t expect them to become the Satanic killers. But that’s exactly the case here, as Alexandra Daddario leads a group of young teens on a mission from God to fan the flames of the Satanic panic of the ‘80s.

Alexandra Daddario and her gang strike a pose

We summon the darkness(2020).
Image: Saban Films

What can we do? We summon the darkness Subverting a trope which was previously only an extension of another is a clever idea. Like all stories, sacrifice as a savior is a concept that has been around since long.

Original was among the trailblazers. Hellraiser. While Kirsty Cotton is not a sacrifice but a way to save the Cenobites, it’s clear that she is. After opening the Puzzle Box, Kirsty makes a deal with the hellish creatures, offering her soul in exchange for her Uncle Frank’s. That wileyness defines this trope; it’s about the unexpected ability to change your circumstance. Fight a foe with your inner strength and wits. Kirsty does that here on multiple levels, not only trading her soul for Frank’s but also eventually besting the Cenobites with her own understanding of the Puzzle Box.

Another early example of sacrifice to savior, 1977’s Satan’s Cheerleaders Greydon Clark co-wrote and directed the film. It cleverly defies the sacrifice trope. The entire movie’s first act is more like a teenage romp than a horror flick. It becomes evident that Satan worshippers are consuming more than they can eat once the terror begins. Patti isn’t simply a cheerleader, she’s a conduit for the power of the dark lord. The Satan worshipers who would sacrifice her are deemed unworthy in the face of their deity, and Patti’s power is both respected and appreciated by her peers.

A subversion of the virgin sacrifice trope is made in the film. It shows the female cheerleading coach secretly watching the girls. That concept of sacrificing the “wrong” virgin is continued in Jennifer’s Body. When Low Shoulder chooses Jennifer, it’s simply based on the idea that she’s a virgin. Their mistake — she is decidedly not — is what leads to her becoming possessed by the succubus that gives Jennifer her monstrous powers.

These stories are filled with joy because of the satisfying thrill of seeing an underdog win their destiny. People who were previously oppressed or dominated suddenly find their power dynamic reversed. The choice of what to do with this power adds an additional layer of complexity. The sacrifice of a savior figure can either be an occasion for celebration or a source to horror.

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