Even when a viewer recognizes a typical horror-movie beat or a tired trope, even when the story seems predictable, the deeper questions of identity and agency remain.
When I saw Hereditary a week into its theatrical run, professional film critics and fans had already called Ari Aster’s movie the scariest piece of American cinema since The Exorcist.
I disagree. Though the film succeeds in maintaining an atmosphere of anticipatory dread, I found it more thought-provoking than scary. I don’t say this to minimize Aster’s achievement, a perfectly acceptable genre piece that uses familiar haunted-house/creepy-kid/unreliable-protagonist beats cleverly, proving there’s plenty of life in theatrical horror beyond boring fragmentation-of-body gross-outs.
But what’s so fascinating about Hereditary?
WARNING: spoilers follow.
As others have already pointed out, comparing Hereditary to Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby is far more apt. Both movies use motherhood, family, domestic settings, and a cult conspiracy to show how, especially for women, everyday life is fraught with danger. Both feature a strong female lead whose character exists at the center of a plot to manifest a devil on Earth. Aster’s twist on Polanski’s film makes the conspiracy multigenerational, grounded in the family and women’s so-called “biological imperative.” Unlike Rosemary, Toni Collette’s character, Annie, already has children, but her motherhood was manipulated and controlled to an even greater degree than her cinematic predecessor’s.
Ironically, in terms of Hereditary’s representations of gender and family, men don’t last. Annie’s father died when she was young, while her cold, distant, haughty mother drove her teenage brother to suicide by “putting people inside him.” Annie’s friend Joan (Ann Dowd, Aunt Lydia from The Handmaid’s Tale) claims to have lost both her son and grandson via drowning. Much like Aunt Lydia, Joan is devoted both to her faith and to preserving a nuclear family for a nefarious purpose. Joan is also the catalyst for connecting Annie—and, by extension, the whole family—to the spirit world.
In Hereditary’s world, fathers and brothers die, but mothers cannot be trusted. The film opens with Annie’s mother’s death, which seems to traumatize her daughter Charlie (Milly Shapiro, in a creepy performance that makes her every gesture, facial expression, and cluck of tongue portentous). Her son Peter (Alex Wolff, who, with respect to Collette and Shapiro, does the best work in this movie) seems numb. Annie sometimes uses poor judgment—one after-movie argument might focus on why she forces Charlie to attend a party when she seems certain alcohol will be involved—and has a history of sleepwalking, including an incident in which she nearly immolated herself and her children.
America distrusts women who don’t give birth. Childless women are viewed askance, as if they might bite the rest of us and infect the general population with their deviancy. Annie is a mother, but, in a dream sequence, she tells Peter that she never wanted him. Many people in my theater audibly gasped. Certainly, if you don’t want kids but have them anyway, you probably shouldn’t tell them how you originally felt, but much of the shock came from seeing a woman with a good husband (Gabriel Byrne, who does his best with an underwritten role), an art career, and a stable home admit she wanted something different.
After her brother’s death, Annie claims, her mother manipulated her into having children, which makes sense, given Grandmother’s leadership role in the cult of Paimon, the Eight King of Hell. Whether there are at least seven other active kings or Paimon is the latest in some netherworld line of succession remains unclear. Recognizing Grandmother’s ominous nature, Annie shields Peter from her, but claims she “sunk her claws into” Charlie, the daughter whose drawings are distorted grotesqueries and who decapitates a dead bird, because, well, she’s creepy. She is, in fact, the human manifestation of Paimon—the female body that the cult settles for because there are no males available.
As others have pointed out, Paimon has historically been depicted as a male figure, hence “king,” with some traditionally feminine or androgynous qualities, which makes the focus on Peter an even more unsettling comment on male ascendency in contemporary America. Paimon, apparently a raging sexist, cannot or will not abide a woman’s body. Charlie won’t do, because girl, so Joan and, from beyond the grave, Grandmother drive Annie to destroy her family’s bonds.
In a vehicular accident after the aforementioned party, Charlie is decapitated. This act releases Paimon’s essence from Charlie’s ewww-gross female body and emotionally devastates the whole family, allowing Joan and Paimon to prepare Peter for vesselhood. Annie is the brood mare, the Rosemary, a living epitome of patriarchal America’s assumptions about why women should bear children to preserve a male’s bloodline. Peter is the heir. Charlie was simply a shell, perhaps even an obstacle, to male ascendancy.
This storyline raises questions that cultural critics could debate for a long time. Can patriarchal assumptions and prescriptions reduce children to teloi, mere products of a familial or social goal? One could argue that such is true in the film, where the very existence of children serves only the goal of bringing Paimon to Earth. “I never wanted to be your mother,” says Dream Annie to Dream Peter, yet he exists, and in the end, he is exalted and crowned. Will critics write teleological readings of Charlie, Peter, and Annie?
Other potential grist for critics’ mills—in this haunted-house story, the characters do not move into a haunted space. The spirits come from their own family and render their safe, prosperous dwelling strange, dangerous, alien. What, then, might this movie say about American domesticity—its allure, its dangers, its gendered spaces, its illusions?
What about the decapitation conceit? Charlie dies of decapitation. Later, Grandmother’s body is dug up and decapitated. Charlie’s head is attached to an effigy of Paimon, while Grandmother’s stinking corpse draws flies in the attic, the same place where, under Paimon’s sway, Annie decapitates herself. Both Grandmother and Annie are briefly and literally the madwomen in the attic, and three generations of women literally lose their heads so that a male being can exist and rule. Women have agency, but they usually use it to serve the male hell-god or to manipulate other women. Their sacrifices leads to their gruesome deaths or desecration. So what have they inherited? What do we inherit when women and children are cogs in some machine, demonic or otherwise? Is dehumanization encoded in our genes?
When Paimon manifests in Charlie, his gender identity does not match her sex as assigned at birth or her gender identity and expression. He must have Peter, the penis-bearing body. Does this body-switching make Paimon a metaphorically transgender King of Hell? If so, what might Queer theorists make of Hereditary? Does this film literally demonize transgender people, or does it fill some heretofore-unsuspected gap in filmic representation of the transgender community? Was anyone clamoring for a transgender demon?
At times, Hereditary horrifies. At others, it’s funny, even campy. My theater laughed when Annie’s headless, nightgown-clad body floated into a treehouse because the image looked silly compared to the body horror we had just witnessed.
But all that seems beside the point, because Hereditary, like Get Out, is about something. Even when a viewer recognizes a typical horror-movie beat or a tired trope, even when the story seems predictable, the deeper questions of identity and agency remain.
For a genre film, there are worse fates than transcending people’s expectations of categorical possibilities. Hereditary manages it.
Brett Riley is the Pushcart-nominated author of The Subtle Dance of Impulse and Light (Ink Brush Press) and the feature-length screenplay Candy’s First Kiss, which won or placed in five contests. His short fiction has appeared in journals such as Solstice, Folio, The Wisconsin Review, Red Rock Review, The Evansville Review, and many others. Email him at email@example.com, or follow him on Twitter and Instagram: @brettwrites.