Hereditary (2018): A Generation of Misery

Hereditary is a sophisticated portrait embroiled in a labyrinth of layers, each steering you deeper and deeper into despair as you are forced to look Into uncomfortable truths, and realize that perhaps horror has nothing to do with poltergeists or evil spirits, but the demons within ourselves.

The Story

The story starts rather grimly, as early on, we see our protagonist Annie giving a dispassionate speech at her mother’s funeral. Along with her is her husband Steven, her first-born Peter, her daughter Charlie, and a number of strangers lurking in the corners. It’s clear that this death has reawakened unprocessed trauma within the matriarch of this house. And it seems that artistry runs within the family, as Annie does miniature dioramas in her studio, her son Peter seems to be drawn to music and her daughter Charlie does… some interesting sculptures of her own. We, however, soon learn that these artistic tendencies are not merely a simple past time, but rather a coping mechanism for them all as we uncover some rather disturbing secrets within the family. For instance, we learn that Annie’s father starved himself to death after a psychotic breakdown, and her brother committed suicide because his mother wanted to put people in him. We also learn that while sleepwalking, Annie nearly burned her children in the middle of the night, and this has been a scar Peter and Charlie had carried throughout their childhood. These events have left a lingering tension within their walls,  which are intensely amplified once tragedy hits their home. During a high school party, Peter is compelled to take Charlie with him. Which he does. But he leaves her completely unattended to ummmmmmm . Meanwhile, Charlie, who is allergic to nuts eats some cake that is practically 80 % walnuts. This triggers an allergic reaction, and when Peter rushes her to the nearest hospital, he swerves to avoid an animal corpse and accidentally decapitates Charlie as she was gasping for air. In utter shock, Peter drives home and goes to bed. And he wakes up to the haunting screams of his mother when she finds the body. Unlike the death of her mother, Charlie’s passing truly eats at her core. She, barely being able to function, seeks help in group therapy to no avail. But as she was prepared to leave, she is approached by a stranged woman named Joanne who convinces her to follow through and process her grief. Peter, meanwhile, also has tremendous trouble coping with what he has done. He has various breakdowns throughout the rest of the film, and the tension between him and his mother culminates during a heated conversation when both of them leave everything out in the open. Soon after, Annie is approached by Joanne and  she shows her how she was able to communicate with her grandchild in the afterlife, and Annie, desperate to get closure with her daughter tries to invite her spirit into her home. And just like in any other horror films, Annie is possessed by a demon, accidentally burns her husband, and is stalking Peter throughout the house. In the end, we get a gruesome image of Annie decapitating herself with a piano wire, while strangers in the nude creep in the corners. Peter, unable to deal with the horrors he is witnessing, jumps out of the window and welcomes his own death. The plot twist, in the very end, was that this was a very elaborate plan by Annie’s mother who was part of a mysterious cult who worship an ancient Demon named Paimon. And this Demon needed a male host to be once again brought into this world. We learn that all along, Paimon was inhabiting Charlie’s body and now that Peter has died, Paimon takes his rightful form and is crowned by his most loyal disciples, setting him to reign supreme among us mortals.

Themes/Motifs

Trauma Through The Generations

It is no secret that this film grapples with the impact of mental illness within the familial structure. Be it anxiety, depression, paranoia, etc; it’s clear that the director, Ari Ester, wrote this script as an allegory for the genetic transmission of mental disorders through the generations. Hence the title. Hereditary. But, if you take a closer look, there are enough hints that perhaps the tragedy that befell this family had nothing to do with genetics, but rather the choices they made that eventually led them to their annihilation. I think it’s fair to start with the matron of this family, and oh boy is she a pretty little number. There are dozens and dozens of things I could say about the one and only queen Leigh. I mean sure there are many mothers out there who are overbearing, manipulative that lean a little on the narcissistic side but offering your first born to a satanic cult…. Jeez… There is something near the climax of the film that truly resonated with me and perhaps could shed a light on the mindset of this grandma from hell. There is a section where Annie is scrambling through her mother’s albums and she finds a set of pictures of her and her little cult. In one of those pictures, she is dressed in a bride’s dress and people are showering her with gold coins. But it was her face that struck me the most. She was ecstatic, the bliss in her face was palpable, I don’t think I have ever seen anyone this happy. And it felt completely out of place, throughout the movie we have seen nothing but a family dwelling in silent desperation with quick and forced smiles in a few instances here and there. And it’s no surprise, there is little if any joy to find within their home. And it’s even more disturbing to see someone so euphoric after having her husband starve himself to death, a son who committed suicide and a stranged daughter that wants nothing to do with her. I wasn’t sure what to make of this, and to this day it still perplexes me. At first I thought this was some sort of criticism for our modern economic circumstances. You know the whole Cat’s in the Cradle cliche, where the parents are metaphorically married to their jobs and while they succeed in the career their home life is hanging by a loose thread. But… this just seems shallow. And Ari Ester does not do shallow. So what in the world could any of this mean? Well, it’s heavily implied that the grandma in this picture, is celebrating her symbolic marriage to King Paimon. There is very little to be found about King Paimon and the lore behind him. He can be summarized as a teacher of the sciences and a lover of art, with the knowledge of the earth and he can reveal hidden treasures. And these treasures is what Annie’s mother is ultimately seeking. But what treasures could this demon possibly offer to a woman who is only a few years from her deathbed? Well, the answer is very simple nothing at all, in her own twisted way. She is doing this for her daughter and her family. Her inheritance isn’t wealth, jewelry or lands. She has left her future generations something much much more valuable. She made her family tree royalty.  And with the rebirth of Paimon, the Leigh treeline will have complete and utter dominance over mankind for centuries to come.

This is why the ending is so daunting, no matter the justification. Queen Leigh did tremendous evil and shattered the humanity of all of her family members. And this is one of the recurring motifs of this film. The victory of animals over humanity. There are a couple of scenes that depict this concept rather brilliantly. First, there is this part where Steve is looking through Charlie’s sketchbook after her tragic death, and she has drawn a pigeon; the one she decapitated, with a crown resting on its head. But there is another scene that truly cuts through the point. Annie, while sleepwalking, skulks into Peter’s Bedroom and is horrified to find his lifeless body lying in bed while a colony of ants have claimed his skull as their new home. Of course, this was all a dream, or rather a dream within a dream. And you could say that this was simply her subconscious expressing her fear of losing her only child the same way as Charlie, you know…. Eaten by ants…. Literally. But I think there is a lot more into play than this. Like I said before, there is so little written about Paimon, that it is difficult to pinpoint what exactly this has to do with him, but I think it’s fair to use the cult as a proxy for Paimon’s blueprint for humanity. There are so many things that could be said about this enigmatic group of folks who have taken a liking of creeping in the nude and worshipping a Demon King from ancient era. But I think we can start with Joanne. Specifically near the end where we get a shot inside of Joanne’s apartment. We see a makeshift altar with three decapitated heads from a squirrel, a rat, and a rabbit. These heads seem to be offerings given to the sculpture Charlie made earlier in the film. And this altar is a replica for what is shown in the end of the film. But what I find so telling and interesting is how  the cult members are portrayed in this tiny shrine. The humans are essentially made out of tools. Like the screwdriver, the salt shaker and a couple of bottles. It’s implied that all these little figurines were made by no other than Charlie, and as we learned in the end, Paimon was inhabiting Charlie’s body all along. Hence, this could be how Paimon sees humanity… as nothing more than lifeless objects he can use as he wishes. And this sentiment could not be clearer as in one of the last shots we see Charlie’s rotting head being displayed as an almost sanctified statue, and this wasn’t done simply for shock value. I think this proves that humanity, in the eyes of Paimon, are nothing but flesh and once devoid of life, they reveal their rotten selves to the entire world. 

Living For The Past VS The Future

Personal growth usually comes at a price. It is a constant battle within yourself, that will eventually demolish a part of your identity; and force you to bury everything and everyone who partook in your debasement. But sometimes these ghosts of the past come begging for mercy, and drive you back to the underworld when you are at your most vulnerable. This, at its core, I believe is the reason that Annie doomed her family to their metaphorical damnation. She was unable to outgrow the influence of her mother. And this is what makes her character so relatable, so real and so human. She is not portrayed pathetically weak, yet her weakness is what led to the events of the film. And this is why I love her character so much, she wrestles with the influence of her mother throughout the film and her suffering is incredibly palpable; which makes her ultimate fate so disturbingly tragic. A woman in constant flight from her malevolent mother, unable to escape from her shadow. Her desire to separate from her past was pretty obvious, she proactively moved out of her home when she came of age and went as far as completely blocking all contact from her mother when Peter was born. Yet, despite all the courageous efforts, she never truly escaped her mental prison from her family of origin. Her new life with her family was founded by the remnants of her past life. Let me try to explain. It’s implied that the only reason she married was because she was accidentally impregnated by her now husband, Steve. Yet despite her own wishes, her mother forced her to go through the pregnancy and marriage. 

But, after Peter was born. She immediately realized that she was only there to devour her newborn, just like she had done with her brother. This is when she made the courageous choice to cut ties with her mother for almost a decade, yet she only did it after she was trapped in a life that had many parallels to her childhood. First, her husband has a lot of similar traits of her father. Annie’s dad had no will of his own.Whether it was his mental afflictions or his own lack of confidence, in the end it doesn’t matter. His children suffered from the insanity of her mother, and he ended up torturing himself to death and quite literally destroyed his body instead of facing his narcissistic wife. Steve, on the other hand, is portrayed as the concerned and reliant husband who is trying to hold the family together despite the huge molting crater that has crushed this family. Yet, despite being a psychiatrist himself, he fails to take reins of the situation and passively lets Annie Spiral out of control, to the point of no return. Throughout the entire film, Steve is unable to confront Annie directly. When she and Peter get into conflicts, he does not interfere, and often consoles Peter instead of trying to reason with his wife, the only time he out right called out his wife for her behaviour was near the end when she directed him to burn Charlie’s notebook, he openly defied her and she janked the book from his grip and threw it to the fire, which surprisingly sets him ablaze and is  metaphorically consumed by the flames just as Annie’s father was consumed by unrestrained perseverance of her mother. 

Steve is only the peak of the iceberg, Annie is unknowingly following the footsteps of her own mother. Her subconscious, in a very twisted way, tried to save her children by literally destroying them because she knew that deep down she was not a good mother and she secretly resented having children and losing the freedom she had always craved. This desire to be free is expressed in her art, and it is interesting how she used paint thinner to literally burn her children because this is what she uses to clean up her mistakes in her models. And this necessity to erase her mistakes is clearly portrayed during one of her dreams, where  she confesses to Peter that she tried to abort him, and that she never wanted to be a mother. And this is perhaps the most honest moment in the film, as throughout the unfolding of the story, there is nothing but lies and avoidance at every corner of the house. This, death wish Annie has towards her children is not very different from the one her mother subjected her, and her brother to. Annie’s and her brother, Charles lives were completely shattered by her mother, she barely escaped from her grip and Charles committed suicide. And now her children are near the same crossroad. Peter, being unable to have a normal social life without the use of drugs to interact with other peers his own age, and Charlie… well she is not socially thriving either. Leaving them only more isolated from the real world. And tragically Peter, unlike Annie, is unable to escape his fate and pays for the sins he inherited from his own mother.

Artistry As A Coping Mechanism

It is interesting how art played such a subtle yet essential component in this film. And like a wise man once said, Art is nothing more than a conduit to console those who are broken by life. This sentiment was completely nailed by Ari Ester, everyone in the family, except good old Steve,  uses art as an escape from the unspoken misery within their walls. Annie has her miniatures. And this is perhaps what takes the edge from her daily frustrations, and gives her a sense of control of herself. Control she relinquished to her mother when she invited her back to her life.  She can’t control her past, her children or her destiny. But she can control her art, and she uses her talent to depict and analyse key aspects of her life. This would explain why every time she was approached by the studio to see her progress, she felt a great deal of anger and irritation. Her creativity is an extension of herself, and she had surrendered much of herself to the mistakes she made in the past and this was the last strand of herself left untainted by the tragedies she had endured. Peter, on the other hand, was drawn to music, and much like Annie, he uses music as a way to cope with the hollow relationship he has with his family. I find it very telling how at the end, Annie decapitated herself with piano wire, perhaps this was a very subtle way to show how this compulsive use of art was a prime dividing factor between Peter and Annie, she literally cut her own vocal chords with a musical instrument rather than facing the truth and salvage what had become of her family. This is where Paimon comes to bare one of his gits, truth. And Charlie, being possessed by this demon since birth, is the perfect portrayal of what this family is proactively trying to conceal.  There are moments throughout the film where everyone in the family showed contempt towards Charlie. Steve and Annie are constantly frustrated with her, and over react to her quirks and mannerisms. Peter is not as hostile towards her but he is clearly ashamed and embarrassed to be seen with her. All of them know how rotten and dysfunctional they truly are, but they try to appear to the outside world as an ordinary family. And Charlie’s appearance and peculiarities actively reveal the dysfunction within their walls. Paimon, through Charlie, brought the truth for all to bare, and this truth ultimately destroyed them. Sealing their fate and sentencing themselves to death by a thousand whispers.

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