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(Warning: this article contains spoilers. Many of them. Read ahead at your own risk.)

The Ritual, even on its surface, is an unusual movie. It has an ambiguous storyline that blends reality and hallucinations, a monster that seems to defy logic, and the presence of an ancient, disturbing variety of magic. Oh, and it’s about hiking. That alone places in it a very niche group of horror films.

But it’s when you dig a bit deeper that the movie gets even more strange. Sure, it’s a monster movie in the traditional sense, but the mystical creature that is revealed near the end of the movie is only half of the story. The true villain here is actually the invisible hand of nature itself – a villain that none of us can ever truly escape from, no matter how many iPads and IKEA couches we buy.

Unsure what I mean by that? Fair enough. Let’s talk about it. Here is The Ritual movie explained.

Dead Leaves, Dark Forest

Before we jump into analysis, here’s a brief synopsis of the events of The Ritual. Consider this your refresher if it’s been a minute since you last saw the 2017 film.

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The opening of the movie introduces us to the backstory of our heroes. Dom, Hutch, Luke, Phil, and Rob are a group of old buddies trying to figure out a boys’ trip, but tensions are growing as they struggle to settle on an idea. During their deliberations, Luke and Rob slip away to buy some alcohol, but Rob is killed by thieves – Luke is left to watch, traumatized by the fact that he did nothing.

Jump ahead a few months, and the remaining four boys are out backpacking a portion of the Kungsleden, a famous hiking trail in Sweden – you know, because hiking was the trip that Rob suggested before he, uh, had a run-in with some bad guys. With their friend in mind, they begin hiking. They go up a hill, pour one out for their fallen comrade, and continue on.

The Ritual movie explained

That night, though, the boys get lost after Dom suffers an injury. They find a mysterious cabin to hide out in (sounds like a great idea!) and opt to spend the night there. Believe it or not, weird stuff starts to happen. They find a creepy statue, many of them have terrifying nightmares, and Phil seems to have been possessed. Eh, it’s all good… time to keep hiking despite the feeling that they are being watched by some evil creature.

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As luck would have it, the gang gets even more lost than ever. They hunker down, but one of them gets picked off the baddie, and they’re forced to continue on. A second hiker is taken down by the unseen force, and the two remaining men, Dom and Luke, make a break for it. They don’t make it far, though – they’re quickly intercepted by creepy villages and restrained in a basement. While there, they learn that the villagers worship whatever monster has been killing their friends. They also learn, unfortunately, that one of them will need to be sacrificed to this monster – their god – in order to appease it.

Sounds bad, eh? It is. Dom, the old son of a gun, is impaled by the monster, which we finally see is a supernatural giant with qualities from many different animals. The remaining hiker, Luke, is able to escape, but he’s pursued by the monster the whole way. Finally, he breaks out of the forest, and the monster is no longer able to run after him. He’s free… but now he’s gonna have to explain why he went into the woods with three friends and walked out with none. That’ll be fun.

The Creature of The Ritual Movie Explained

At first glance, it appears pretty obvious that the villain of the movie is that thing. The creature. The monster. It kills three out of the four hikers – and it’s a scary monster. That alone should be enough to classify it as the antagonist, right?

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Well, yeah, in a literal sense. But The Ritual plays the monster movie cards correctly and doesn’t show the creature (which is a Jotunn, a real deity) until the very end. That means the majority of the tension in the movie actually isn’t created by the chimeric critter itself. Instead, the characters are under a constant state of duress thanks to nature itself.

In fact, the first half of the movie would be just as terrifying if there were no supernatural forces at play. Four men walk into the woods, far away from civilization, one injures himself, and they decide to go further into wilderness and away from help. Then, when they get lost, they continue on on their imaginary shortcut despite failing compasses, lack of trails, and general disarray. (For the city slickers reading, please note that you do not want to do that. Like, seriously.)

This is an absolutely horrifying scenario, and the film does a great job of emphasizing this with tense shots of dark woods and trails that seem to lead to nowhere. If you’ve ever felt utterly and truly lost in the outdoors before, this is something that will undoubtedly resonate – and, even if not, The Ritual makes the environment seem so completely terrifying that there’s no doubt that the antagonist the four are at war with is simply the woods that surrounds them.

The foreboding nature of nature (ha!) continues to be a theme throughout the rest of the film. When they know they are pursued by something, it manages to stay hidden thanks to the thick, labyrinth-like layout of the woods. With all the tricks their minds begin to play on them as they worry over whatever is chasing them, there may as well not be a monster there at all. It’s cabin fever… in the great outdoors.

And then, finally, there’s that bombastic ending of The Ritual, a movie explained fully only by delving into that ending. After his friends have died, Luke is only able to escape this otherworldly monster by simply leaving the forest.

The Ritual creature

As soon as he’s out of the trees and back into sweet daylight and in sight of civilization, the danger is completely diffused… almost like magic. The monster was a Jotunn, but it may as well have been a bear, a rabid squirrel, or nothing at all. Once he was away from nature, he was safe.

The Tricks Our Minds Play On Us

Nature has an uncanny ability to make us second guess ourselves. “I could’ve sworn the trail was over here,” we’ve all muttered before. You can be hiking in a familiar area, but once you make a wrong turn, it’s like you’re on Planet Mars. This threat of danger looms constantly over The Ritual, but it’s only one of the psychological aspects that is explored here.

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For Luke, the Jotunn is not just a physical manifestation of the emotionless, faceless nature that surrounds him, but it’s also his own grief and PTSD brought to life. Throughout the movie, we get peeks into his mindstate with multiple hallucinations that blur the lines of reality. They always center around the moment he saw Rob die, and it’s clear he feels an immense amount of guilt over not saving his pal.

In explaining the movie The Ritual and watching the situation in the woods becomes more desperate, Luke seems to slip in and out of reality even more. It’s clear that the stress is getting to him, and his visions get worse. Whether these visions are actually coming from inside Luke’s mind or whether they’re being forced upon him by the evil magic found in the woods is unclear, but really, it’s all the same in the end. Whether there’s a literal spell on him or he’s suffering from the spell of PTSD, the result is the same.

In this sense, the movie could work as an excellent allegory for Luke revisiting this traumatic event in his life and overcoming it – he does escape from the big, bad wolf in the end, after all, so that must mean he has “escaped” his trauma, right?

The Ritual creature monster

Not really. Three more of his friends died on the way, and he was unable to help despite his best efforts. If the film was truly about Luke overcoming his demons, he likely would have saved his pals and helped them towards a fairy-tale ending.

Instead, we’re left with something much more ambiguous. We’re told nature is scary, trauma is tricky, and it’s hard to escape your past… maybe even impossible. Not all horror movies are made with happy endings in mind, I guess.

Last Updated on September 22, 2022.

Ben Mangelsdorf
Ben Mangelsdorf is a writer living in Boulder, Colorado. He enjoys horror films, writing poetry, and the Beach Boys.

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