What Is the Monster in 'The Ritual'? Netflix's Horror Film Adapts Norse Mythology, the Jötunn, and Loki

A part of the Swedish death cult’s offering in ‘The Ritual.’ Netflix

Grief left unchecked can feel like you are being torn apart from the inside. But what if, Netflix's newest horror film asks, your pain made you a target? What if your grief and guilt made you easier to hunt?

The Ritual follows four friends—Luke, Phil, Hutch, and Dom—on a camping trip through Sweden, which they organize after one of their friends is murdered by two muggers in a convenience store. Luke was in the store with their dead friend; we see him cowering behind a shelf in flashback, watching helplessly as a mugger crushes his friend's skull.

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Luke (Rafe Spall) watches in horror as his friend is murdered. Netflix

While avoiding the messy discussion of whether their buddy's death was Luke's fault, the guys come across a spooky cabin. What happens there ends the first act of the film, and the visuals are so disturbing that it leaves the viewer truly nervous for what director David Bruckner (V/H/S, Southbound) is saving for the end.

The guys notice a headless effigy in the cabin's attic, and they nervously laugh, closing the door and vowing not to go in there again. But, this being a horror movie, seeing that creepy structure begins a chain of horrible events. When Luke (Rafe Spall) wakes up first, he finds Phil (Arsher Ali) naked on his knees in front of the effigy, sobbing with his hands stretched out toward it. The other guys have peed themselves in their sleep, and Luke has mysterious puncture wounds on his chest.

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The headless effigy in the first half of 'The Ritual.' Netflix

So what is this monster exactly?

According to The Ritual, ancient Scandinavian people who were burdened by emotional pain were sometimes granted an otherworldly escape—their gods sent a nameless beast to ease their suffering. The beast gave every tortured person a choice: Submit and worship it for life, or die in unimaginable pain.

It's that ancient creature which hunts the characters in The Ritual, but that aspect of the story doesn't appear until halfway in. The film feels like an all-male reboot of The Blair Witch or The Descent, until the scene in which Bruckner lays all his Scandinavian-death-cult cards on the table. Some critics called the mid-move switch from a camping nightmare to a monster movie jarring, but—to this viewer—it was exhilarating.

The film, based on Adam Nevill's 2011 novel, scraps the original story's focus on black metal music and contemporary Swedish culture. The Swedes who worship the death god in the movie aren't Candlemass fans wearing eyeliner; they look like extras from The Witch, dressed in old pilgrim-era robes. As one of them explains to Luke, they've been granted an "unnatural long life" by the god they worship.

Does the monster come from Norse mythology?

Before the big showdown, a cult member tells Luke, "It is a god. Ancient. One of the Jötunn. A pastoral spring of Loki. We do not speak its name." When we finally see the creature, it looks like a black, shaggy demon horse, though instead of a horse's head, it has an opening that leads to a pair of bright eyes. There are two human-like arms on either side of its "face," which it uses to press humans into the ground when it wants them to bow.

Though Bruckner takes a lot of liberties with his monster, the creature does have vague roots in Norse mythology. According to Norman Cohn's Cosmos, Chaos, and the World to Come: The Ancient Roots of Apocalyptic Faith, the Jötunn existed in contrast to the Norse gods, representing the ancient forces behind nature and weather. A Jötunn-esque character, the Jotun of Grief, appears in the Persona video game series. Marvel Cinematic Universe uses the Jötunn "frost giants"—Thor's adopted brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) is actually a frost giant, in addition to being the Trickster God.

As far as horror movies adapting old mythology go, The Ritual stacks up pretty well against its competition. Trolljegeren (2010) adapted Norwegian tales about trolls, 2015's Irish horror The Hallow adapted Celtic stories about baby-stealing faeries, and 2017's Thelma told a modern version of Norse stories about witches.

As these movies prove, when you're looking to be frightened, you could do worse than turning to ancient lore.

The Ritual is currently streaming on Netflix.