Hereditary is a much better experience upon a second viewing. The first time I watched the film I became so fixated on every small hint that it took me away from the movie. I was spending the run time trying to piece the movie together rather than just experiencing it. Director Ari Aster described the film as “as a conspiracy movie without exposition, told from the perspective of the people being conspired against,” and that is a great bit of knowledge to go into the movie with.
A few things really struck me about the film the second time. The Graham family does everything in their power to ignore problems and try to be a “normal” family. This includes moments of reminding the kids to take their shoes off upon entering the house, or how Annie needlessly lies to Steve about going to a support group. A lack of ability to give, ask for, and/or accept forgiveness has poisoned the family over the course of years. Normalcy is of course impossible for them; their fates are set by their dead matriarch long before they realize what is happening. Charlie has always been under Paimon’s possession. Annie failed in her attempt to rescue her bloodline though murdering herself and her children while sleepwalking (though she didn’t realize that is what she was doing at the time). As Peter’s teacher says in an early scene:
Teacher: Sophocles wrote the oracle so that it was unconditional. Meaning Heracles never had any choice. Right? So, does this make it more tragic or less tragic than if he did have a choice?
Student: I think it’s more tragic because if it’s all just inevitable, then that means that the characters had no hope, they never had hope, because they’re just like pawns in this horrible, hopeless machine.
Themes & Motifs in Hereditary:
The characters, especially Annie, are constantly framed in doors to depict the emotional barriers between them, and the impending danger encroaching upon them.
The Significance of the Number Three:
It appears Paimon appreciates three heads as some kind of token. Ellen’s body, Charlie, and Annie are all beheaded in preparation for the ritual to make Peter the ultimate host body for the demon. Sets of three appear in many scenes within the film, reinforcing the importance of this number. The Bible has many significant references to three, including there being three witnesses to the Transfiguration of Jesus.
I’m not entirely sure what to make of this repeated usage of three. It does appear in lore referencing Paimon he is sometimes accompanied by two lesser demonic kings named
Labal and Abali (some viewers have suggested Annie & Ellen’s decapitated bodies at the end are referencing these two figures). Moreover it is probably meant to be a twisted play on the Holy Trinity.
The Inevitability of Fate & How Hereditary References Previous Horror Films
Hereditary is certainly not the first horror film to reference fate in relation to the characters and their predicament. The early classroom scene in Hereditary is reminiscent of the classroom scene discussing fate in Halloween:
Teacher: You see, fate caught up with several lives here. No matter what course of action Rollins took, he was destined to his own fate, his own day of reckoning with himself. The idea is that destiny is a very real, concrete thing that every person has to deal with.Halloween 1978
Laurie: Costaine wrote that fate was somehow related only to religion, where Samuels felt that fate was like a natural element, like earth, air, fire and water.
But unlike the horror of your quiet Midwestern suburb being invaded by a psychopath like in Halloween, Hereditary‘s horror has been permeating within the household the entire time. No need to wait for the doom to come to you with a knife.
Hereditary most reminds me of The Shining. Unlike the Graham household, the Torrance family travels to The Overlook. But as Jack is told it is as if they were always a part of the hotel. The Graham family house is their Overlook, completely with miniatures being populated by the family and shots that reference how small they are in comparison (in The Shining to the place’s evil presence, in Hereditary to the machinations of the cult manipulating their every move).
The Shining also centers characters in many shots. In this Jack appears so powerful while towering over the Hedge Maze in which he will eventually hunt down his son. But he is still small to the huge malevolent force of the hotel around him. The Overlook uses patriarchal tools against Jack, centering him as needed before disposing of him just as quickly.
Annie, in contrast to Jack, is almost imperceptible in this shot of her miniature. Instead her mother’s figurine is the most commanding presence. Although Annie tries to use her miniatures to revisit and take ownership over her trauma, she is always small in comparison as her the malevolent forces in Hereditary need to destroy her sense of free will and power.
Annie is far more reminiscent of the book’s version of Jack Torrance: a tortured character who is slowly worn down by a combination of their tragic flaws and forces beyond their control. She isn’t as personally culpable as Jack, but she is also strong and angry in ways that make her resemble Jack far more than Wendy or Danny.
Let’s look at the scene where Jack first meets a mysteriously empathetic stranger named Lloyd, and contrast that with when Annie first meets a mysteriously empathetic stranger named Joan:
LLOYD How are things going, Mr. Torrance?
JACK Things could be better, Lloyd. Things could be a whole lot better.
LLOYD I hope it’s nothing serious.
JACK No, nothing serious.
JACK Just a little problem with the…old sperm bank upstairs.
LLOYD Women! Can’t live with ’em. Can’t live without ’em!
JACK Words of wisdom, Lloyd. Words of wisdom.
JACK I haven’t laid a hand on him. Goddam it, I didn’t. I wouldn’t touch one hair of his goddam little head. I love the little son-of-a-bitch. I’d do anything for him. Any fucking thing for him. That damn bitch. As long as I live she’ll never let me forget what happened!
He looks cam.L then cam.R — throwing his hands out and sighing.
JACK I did hurt him once, okay? It was an accident, complete unintentional. It could have happened to anybody. And it was three goddam years ago. The little fucker had thrown all my papers all over the floor. All I tried to do was to pull him up. A momentary loss of muscular coordination. I mean… A few extra foot pounds of energy, per second… per second.The Shining
Her face DARKENS and she chuckles. She brushes it off, but then PAUSES. She decides to actually answer.
ANNIE (CONT’D) I sleepwalk. (pause) I haven’t in a long time, but two years ago I woke up – and I really don’t remember this because I was asleep – but I woke up standing next to Peter and Charlie’s bed (when they shared a room), and they were completely covered in paint thinner… And so was I. From head to toe… And I was standing there, and I was holding a box of matches. And I woke myself up by striking one. Which also woke up Peter. And he started screaming. And I immediately put out the match, immediately, but my husband came in… and I was just as shocked as he was, but I was the one with the matches.
Joan is listening with no judgment. Annie, frustrated by the memory, takes a deep breath.
ANNIE (CONT’D) And it was impossible to convince them that it was just sleepwalking – which of course it was – but the timing was awful, Peter and I had already fallen into this stupid quarrelling phase – arguing forever about nothing – such frivolous things – but that’s when the incident happened, so…! (throws her hands up) Over time, everyone affected casualness, “moving on.” But they never forgot and Peter’s always held it against me and there’s nothing I can say and there’s nothing I can do because it happened. While I was asleep.
JOAN (empathic) It’s impossible being a mother. Annie looks at Joan. “Yes it is.”Hereditary
Lloyd says just enough to let Jack know he agrees with him about his perspective. Again he uses patriarchal beliefs, echoing Jack’s words, to manipulate Jack. And Joan does the same thing with Annie sans the patriarchal element, instead using their shared identity as mothers to cement their bond. Lloyd uses statements and silence in the place of open-ended questions with Jack. Joan prompts Annie with open-ended questions. Both use these tactics to ensnare their targets and cement their sense of kinship with one another.
Both Annie and Jack fly through a mix of guilt and defensiveness in these scenes, both insisting however bad their stories sound they were not at fault so what transpired should not be held against them. It is not made clear if Jack was drinking when he broke Danny’s arm although such a conclusion could easily be drawn based on Wendy’s earlier comments about him sobering up after hurting Danny.
Unlike Jack, Annie remains sympathetic throughout the film. In comparison to other horror films which depict a protagonist being driven mad by circumstances, Annie is trying to do what’s right throughout the film, even if what’s right is sometimes subconsciously attempting to kill her children in order to shield them from Paimon (unless you want to look at those actions as a result of postpartum depression from having children she secretly did not want). Much like Peter’s attempts to catch his breath between ugly sobs, there is something heartrendingly relatable in Annie’s guilt bubbling underneath her attempts to struggle through her day to day reality.
Hereditary, like many horror films, employs close up reaction shots to give viewers a base point for how they should feel about what is happening:
What is Hereditary in Hereditary?
The title of film keeps the focus on the fact that something is being transmitted between family members. As a metaphor for mental illness this makes sense as we most often think of hereditary in relation to diseases. Yet despite Annie’s summary of the mental illnesses her immediate family has struggled with, the movie’s events and final scene are not a metaphor – it is meant to depict what actually happened (sidenote: what a happy ending for the cult!). Google provides a different definition of hereditary that seems more fitting for this particular film:
This definition seems much more suited to the transfer of Paimon from family member to family member until it bestowed on it’s rightful heir: the firstborn son of the correct birth line.
I agree with criticisms that this film is slow (although it felt faster the second time I watched it), and doesn’t provide enough exposition to allow the viewer to be able to draw satisfying conclusions on their own. This is a movie that is pretty difficult to piece together in detail without reading additional analysis. And that is fine for some people, though I’d imagine much in the way open endings bother many, films that don’t seem to play fair but also don’t stimulate you throughout can feel underwhelming. The amount of buzz this film generated also sets it up for failure; with many going in and expecting something more formulaic (and not in a negative way), and instead getting a slow burning family drama that flips into being an honest to goodness supernatural horror film (similar to The Shining). Much like The Shining which had a poor reception upon its initial release, I believe Hereditary will gain in acclaim and popularity over time. For now it falls into an interesting subset of recent modern horror films with high critical acclaim and mixed audience reactions:
Criticisms aside, I fully recommend this film. Family dramas are one of my least favorite types of films, but this horror film challenged me to watch a family in crisis. It is hard not to have a visceral reaction to the film, and there are scenes in this film which will haunt me for a very long time. The acting is utterly fantastic for a horror film, and Toni Collette is so damn likable that she truly creates a horror protagonist who is utterly refreshingly relatable and fully human even while going through horrific struggles. This is by far the best of the A24 horror films in my opinion, and I look forward to seeing what they do next.