Bon Voyage: How ‘Hostel’ and ‘Midsommar’ Are Disturbingly Similar
When thinking of films to associate with Ari Aster’s masterful horror film Midsommar, you probably don’t think of Eli Roth’s Hostel. Both are often in very different conversations regarding horror subgenres, with Midsommar existing as a throwback to classic folk horror films like The Wicker Man and Hostel existing as the functional genesis of the torture porn genre, following Saw.
However, horror isn’t just about labels and subgenres. It’s about taking cultural fears and bringing them to the forefront. Both are, after all, films about Americans taking a European vacation, blissfully unaware that they are walking into a nightmare scenario from which they won’t exit unscathed. Both center on secret societies that run counter to the main characters’ mainstream American sensibilities. And both feature a cast of young adults of varying likeability being offered drinks and drugs by someone who means them ill.
Ultimately, though, Midsommar and Hostel are about one core fear that stands apart from their respective folk horror and torture porn genres: the fear of other cultures; more specifically, ones that served as a precursor to conservative American ideals.
Why Ethnocentrism and Horror Go Hand-In-Hand
Pride cometh before the fall, and there is no person more prideful than an ethnocentrist. It is one thing to be proud of the culture and history from which you come, but the moment you dismiss other cultures as “lesser” than your own, you are entering into a space shared by colonists and bigots. You are entering into a space where, the moment your worldview is challenged, you are destined to existential horror.
Since the early greats of horror, creators explored the fear of the other – the other tribe, the other culture. Bram Stoker’s Dracula centers on the arrival of an immigrant to Britain, one who threatens to exist as a parasite on the underside of respectable British society. This is just one example of the “other” coming into town to cause problems.
However, the inverse—the audience traveling to this “other” place—is explored just as frequently, even in Dracula. Arguably one of the most direct examples of this are stories like The Hills Have Eyes, where traditional, conservative Americans travel to places where their beliefs in law and order mean nothing. The infamous wave of cannibal films—most notably, Cannibal Holocaust—explores the idea of researchers abusing other cultures for the sake of gaining glory or clout among their peers. Only, that culture turns against them after taking enough abuse.
Eli Roth would explore this in his cannibal throwback film, The Green Inferno. In this film, college students are ill-equipped to handle the rainforest travel. They believe, by virtue of being a group of college students, that they are impervious. They are not.
This is the same throughline explored in Hostel, albeit with one key difference: protagonists Paxton and Josh explore are exploring a foreign culture familiar to them. The Indigenous people of South America exist as a true other, unlike anything they might encounter in their daily life. However, the folks of Amsterdam or Slovakia are much like the film’s American tourists.
Safety in Tourism
Countries in Europe tend to be popular tourist sites. But, and let’s be honest now, how many tourists actually are all that familiar with the cultures within these countries? When someone travels to Sweden, do they come to understand this beautiful country or explore the beautiful sights? When someone travels to Amsterdam, are they coming to respect the culture and city? Or do they just want to take advantage of the party scene?
In the case of both Hostel and Midsommar, we see American tourists brought on a vacation by natives to two European nations. The Americans have no real connection to the countries to which they’re traveling. The natives know the Americans don’t really understand where they’re going. And the friendly figure luring them knows this.
There are, of course, several instrumental differences between Hostel and Midsommar, which will be addressed shortly. But the key is that both films focus on tourists going to countries, feeling that they’re safe, only for that belief to be proven false in a horrific fashion.
Both films invert what should be a happy experience into a nightmare. Where the two films diverge—and, indeed, where one film ultimately proves more nuanced—is how they show it.
Hostel and The War on Terror
It’s impossible to divorce Hostel from its historical context: the Bush Era. Bush’s War on Terror and his invasions in both Afghanistan and Iraq shaped Hostel from beginning to end. The mid-2000s saw a national conversation regarding violence in nations along the Middle East and Eastern Europe, as well as Americans invading nations foreign to them and making a big mess of things. On top of that, highly publicized cases of “enhanced interrogation” led people to acknowledge that Americans had enacted torture on vulnerable populations in increasingly bizarre fashions.
Hostel, in many ways, exists in conversation with this real-world horror. Both Paxton and Josh travel abroad and end up in Slovakia. Once they arrive, the two young Americans are tortured by members of the Elite Hunting Club, an exclusive, international organization where the extremely rich pay money to torture innocent tourists.
The setting strips the two young men of any privilege they might’ve benefited from if anyone had sympathy towards Americans in this part of the world. In fact, everyone they encounter along the way is either a victim of the Elite Hunting Club or a card-carrying member of said organization.
It doesn’t help that both Paxton and Josh come to Amsterdam and later Slovakia purely for hedonistic pleasure. They’re out to do drugs, drink, and have lots of sex. They see other countries as vehicles for personal pleasure. And, as such, walk right into a tourist trap from Hell.
But here’s where things fall apart for Hostel. This one center for the Elite Hunting Club is located in Slovakia, but the organization is not simply Slovakian. Over the course of the film, we see Dutch, German, Japanese, and, most relevant to our discussion, American members. They include lower-ranked members who lure in new victims, including sex workers, as well as the super rich who pay to torture and kill human beings.
This muddies the message of Hostel. Are we supposed to fear foreign nations? The untouchable rich elite? Or are we supposed to fear those who commit great acts of evil for a necessary paycheck? All the people, however, seem excited to partake in their cruel actions. We never see why someone would want to work for the Elite Hunting Club.
Besides, analyzing the Elite Hunting Club and what aspects of their organization we should fear is almost pointless. In the eyes of our protagonist Paxton, they are all the same and deserve the same fate: a brutal punishment as part of his roaring rampage of revenge.
The Elite Hunting Club could represent many things. It could exist as a boogieman, manifesting America’s fear of other countries. It could represent the global elite, treating people as commodities. Or it could show how the rich exploit foreign workers for personal profit and pleasure. However, by treating the elite, the foreign location, and the workers as all aspects of the same evil entity, Hostel strips any potential nuance in favor of gory revenge.
This leads us to Paxton. Of all the civilians introduced, Paxton is the least likable by a large margin. Josh displays some blatant homophobia toward the Dutch businessman who, later, murders him, but at least there are attempts to humanize Josh and show he has some nuance. Paxton, however, shows all the emotional range of a fraternity bro, acting only in self-interest throughout the entire film.
The only time he doesn’t is when he saves Kana, a Japanese tourist. Kana is tortured, disfigured, and ultimately ends her own life after seeing the extent of her brutalized face. Paxton’s one good deed amounts to nothing. When Kana dies, Paxton just goes ahead and kills the Dutch Businessman. This barely exists as a blip on his journey.
The only thing foreign about the Elite Hunting Club is that one of their bases exists in another country. There is nothing to examine, nothing to comprehend, and the response to a foreign threat causing you harm is to cause more harm back to them. It’s a very flat, very un-nuanced take. In many ways, when comparing Hostel to Midsommar, you see what Hostel could have done to make its horror all the more resonant.
Midsommar and Folk Horror
The conventions of folk horror actually allow Midsommar to fully exploit vacations for all their terrifying aspects. When one goes on vacations, they see the sights and explore. But they seldom truly experience the historical depths of a culture. Folk horror focuses on showcasing the cultural fears rooted in civilization, channeling something very deep and very resonant from our pasts.
Like in Hostel, the protagonists in Midsommar are lured on a vacation to a foreign land by a friendly face. In this case, Pelle, a native Swede, is inviting his college friends to Harga, the commune where he grew up, for their traditional midsummer festival. Among the invited is Christian, who then reluctantly invites his traumatized partner Dani.
Naturally, while the commune seems welcoming to the group, they have ulterior motives that tie into their religious beliefs. One by one, the visitors are murdered, until only Dani and Christian remain. While Christian is exploited by the cult for his sperm, Dani becomes a part of the commune, finding a community that seemingly understands her. While Christian is tortured and humiliated by the commune, Dani finds kindred spirits. This culminates in Dani sending Christian to his death as part of the Harga’s rituals.
There are a few instrumental differences between these two films. In Hostel, Paxton and Josh go to Amsterdam and later Slovakia for purely carnal reasons. They want sex and weed. The group in Midsommar, however, has far more varied, nuanced reasons. The cast, outside of Dani, are all anthropology students. One of them is working on his thesis when he goes on vacation. They have a vetted, though detached, interest in the Swedish culture.
However, none of that matters when we consider our protagonist, Dani. She travels to Sweden with the others to escape from trauma and repair her relationship. Her sister murdered their parents before killing herself. Dani’s going not only to get away from her pain, but also to potentially salvage her strained relationship with Christian.
The point is that all of these characters approach Sweden from very different, very real perspectives. Their fates are ultimately determined by their relationships with the Harga. Pee on a sacred artifact? Die. Invade the cult’s privacy in the name of research? Die. Feel horrified by the cult’s practices? Die. All of their deaths tie into the cult’s beliefs and practices. One character is killed by experiencing the traditional execution known as the “blood eagle,” where the ribs are pried from under the flesh. The organs, still intact, slowly fail when left without structural support.
It also doesn’t help that the cult is white supremacist. The cult in Midsommar incorporates several pieces of Nordic iconography that have been appropriated by real-world white supremacists. Nazis utilized Norse runes and iconography starting from the 1930s to the present day in order to indicate that their bigoted beliefs had a basis in historical precedent—the so-called Aryan race. Many seemingly inoccuous runes, such as the Life Rune or Thor’s Hammer, have become symbols associated with Neo-Nazi.
It also doesn’t hurt that all of the members of the Harga—including Dani—are white and fair-haired, fitting into the Aryan ideal.
Bringing It All Together
Despite the complexity of the situation, the source of terror in Midsommar is focused on the foreigners’ connection to this culture they don’t understand. This is entirely unlike in Hostel. So why does that matter? Well, Midsommar embodies the true fear of the vacation. You go to a foreign location, you travel to a place you aren’t familiar with, and that place’s history and culture destroy your life. The protagonists have a superficial interest in this other culture or, like Paxton in Hostel, just want to party. However, the source of fear has a real concrete, tangible link to the country in which it takes place.
However, more importantly, Midsommar ends with one core thesis: Americans do not have control. Sure, Paxton dies in Hostel 2, but come the end of the first film, Paxton kills everyone who did him wrong. When Midsommar ends, Dani finds acceptance in a cult that has ultimately destroyed any last tether she had to her old life. They exploited her traumatized state to turn her into yet another part of their cult.
While Americans don’t have control, they’re still characters. We understand why every American acts the way they do. They aren’t stupid people lumbering into an obvious trap. They simply enter into a situation rooted in ancient violence that they don’t fully understand. By the time the Harga enacts their plans, it’s too late for anyone to make a meaningful resistance.
Ari Aster’s film Midsommar exploits the iconography and ancient beliefs of the country in which his characters travel. Aster shows an understanding of why the images he puts on screen are horrific, how they mesh with the inner conflicts of his characters, and how audiences can see why the cult would want certain characters dead and why these certain characters might act in this way. Eli Roth’s Hostel, however, superficially gathers imagery associated with foreign conflicts, scrambles them up, and never analyzes why these concepts are scary.
Let’s Look At the Results
So what’s the result of this? Midsommar becomes a far more nuanced take. It creates a more complex world that the audiences can better connect to. Aster exploits the audience’s sympathy and empathy by creating characters who don’t feel like superficial figures. By contrast, Hostel is a relatively superficial scene. This keeps it from ever reaching its full glory.
It keeps the audience at an arm’s length from the true underlying fear that makes these movies nightmarish: vacationers, for all their interest in foreign places, don’t know what they’re walking into. They fear that the places that bring them joy might secretly be full of people who wish them harm. It’s why whenever you go on vacation, people warn you about pickpocketing. They fear that, when you’re at your happiest, something awful will happen. If you can place yourself in the vacation scenario, then you come closer to feeling that genuine terror.