Tapping the Banshee: Ari Aster’s Keening Women

Keening: (noun) a prolonged and high-pitched sound, typically in a way that expresses grief or sorrow.

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Still: Midsommar, 2019.

Filmmaker Ari Aster has dominated the horror genre after only two films. Shocking and difficult to view, his movies bring extreme gore, tense settings, and monstrosities to the forefront while highlighting strong female performances. The stories he crafts explore gender alongside themes of family, tradition, and ultimately, something deeply human.

Yet in interviews, he says he is not outright drawn to horror. Instead, he is drawn to melodrama:

“ I grew up loving melodrama and anything operatic. I love the idea of having the movie be as big as the feelings that the characters are feeling.”

Aster’s first film, the hit Hereditary, establishes mood before action, building somewhat slowly from the creepy lack of mourning over the loss of one household’s matriarch to the tragic death of a child, and finally spiraling into pure ritual pandemonium. The events are undoubtedly horrific, but the most difficult parts of the film are subtle and push at the sensations of our darkest memories more than our fear reflexes.

His newest creation, Midsommar, conforms more to the horror movie model in some ways. The tale of four friends on an adventure, each fulfilling their own nuanced archetype in the horror canon, and each making regretable mistakes we can predict will lead to their downfall, Midsommar is also built on a tragedy. Already establishing himself as a master of gore, Aster chooses instead to create a gross but quiet murder/suicide scene that is built more on the sister who is sure she could have prevented it.

When protagonist Dani calls her boyfriend back during his night out, we instinctively know what has happened. She does not speak or yell or scream, instead letting out a ululating vocalization that we somehow know deep in our bones is one of loss. The same effect happens when Peter’s mother finds the headless body of his sister in the car where he left it.

Granted, she uses words, but the sounds in between are ones of pure mourning. They have not reached rage or fear or even sadness yet, instead expressing the disconnect of loss with our physical reactions. We might vomit or shake when shocked, but we can also make involuntary sounds.

The depth of our associations with keening and loss goes back centuries. Keening is a specific expression of mourning that in many ways have lost its traditional meaning, but not the feeling we get hearing it. We know keening, we just may not do it as often as once we did.

Keening’s connection with being scared goes beyond the reactive nature of what has occurred in a story. It is something that is seen as necessary for funerals, but the act itself is also associated with specific horrors. One of these is the female monster from Ireland, the banshee.

In Patricia Lysaught’s The Banshee, she tells us that originally the otherworldly creating was called the “bean chointe”. As a death messenger, it means literally “keening woman.” Keening itself has been used traditionally at funerals in many cultures to symbolize the shared loss of the person being honored. When hiring professional mourners, they may be asked to wail at the funeral. In the case of the Banshee, Lysaught lets us know that most of the myth’s instances are accepted to be associated with death and wordless.

In a similar way, the shared emoting of the commune in Midsommar takes on aspects of keening when associated with the loss of Danny’s relationship, or the sacrifice of their elders at the beginning of the festivities. Using these deeply ancestral associations with vocalizations and mourning, Aster has effectively pulled us into the tragedy. We empathize and understand immediately the full horror of what has occurred as the sound fills and overwhelms us. The stories themselves, narratively similar to something that may have happened to a friend’s cousin or scares we may share at a sleepover, are elevated by this unique sound-association into something more human, and ultimately more scary.

Like so many female things, the banshee was simplified through bad translations to mindlessly screaming, reaching out with long nails for anything she could grip and keep. But banshees are more than terrifying brides, or what have you, wandering the wilderness. They are harbingers.

In a similar way, the keening women of Ari Aster’s films are not the scary thing about them. They do not suddenly begin screaming, creating a jump scare more than an emotion. Their slowly building keening is the beginning of the core of the film’s horror, the messenger letting us know that from here on out, things are going to get worse, even if it is deliciously so.

The actresses Aster has employed to bring us through the horror to come are experts at drama. Veteran actress Toni Collette, the mother in Hereditary, and Florence Pugh, Dani in Midsommar, committed themselves completely to the roles of grieving women. Well-established as a break up movie, Aster crafted Dani’s character as a stand-in for himself and an avatar for everyone who has been in a relationship they do not feel “held” by.

The shared emotions of Hårga’s denizens become an outlet for pent up stress by the audience, ultimately coming to a climax while Dani keens over her discovery of Christian’s betrayal and their failing relationship. Pugh devoted herself entirely to Dani’s sad countenance. Part of her process was finding “ quiet places on set where I would go and put headphones on, and just start crying.”

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Still: Hereditary, 2018

When asked by Collider interviewer Haileigh Foutch whether she was a horror fan, Collette answered “No.” Aster had expressed the same sentiment in interviews, saying that he is not particularly attracted to gore or the other trappings of the genre. Instead, both tapped into the human truths explored in the horrible.

Collette says she would not “do a film that’s scary for scary’s sake” and instead admits that Hereditary is “not entirely a horror film.”

“It is horrific, and it becomes what you would consider to be that genre, but I really related to the family dynamics and just the truth of the characters and what they’re going through.”

This is the essence of keening. Not an act that is horror itself, but instead expresses a shared emotion all humans wish we did not have to experience. It is the incarnation of loss. Through its usage in his films, Aster has provided an outlet and a grounding point for the audience to find itself in the depth of his character’s stories.

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