One of the most original haunted house films since Paranormal Activity, Ari Aster’s debut Hereditary grows stranger and more unsettling as it proceeds, eventually ending up as an entirely different kind of film from what the opening might suggest. At the heart of it is a family regroup around the death of their matriarch – Ellen, mother of Annie (Toni Collette), mother-in-law of Steve (Gabriel Byrne) and grandmother of Charlie (Milly Shapiro) and Peter (Alex Wolff). The film opens just after Ellen has passed away, meaning that her personality still percolates through every pore of the family home, a bizarre toybox structure nestled in the heart of the American woods, although the broader coordinates of the film are suburban more than pastoral. While the entire house is suffused with Ellen’s absence, none of the family exactly grieve her, with the exception of her granddaughter, since, in Annie’s words, she was “a very secretive and private woman” with “private rituals, private friends, private anxieties…a very difficult woman to read.” As the film develops, it gradually becomes clear that Ellen was associated, in some way, with black magic, and that this has somehow ensured her an ongoing existence, although she is never quite offered as a presence or entity either. Instead, her absence becomes more articulate as the film proceeds, as Aster identifies her with all the empty spaces in the house that she once occupied, just as the family’s memories of her are emptied out in turn, as they realise that they never really know her, making them question their knowledge of themselves as well.
That’s all compounded when Charlie is accidentally killed in a car accident, in what has to be one of the most gruesome child deaths I’ve ever seen committed to the big screen. While the family may not have been able to properly grieve Ellen, that just makes their grief all the more flamboyant and traumatic here, especially since Charlie was the only member of the family who was close to her grandmother in the first place. Indeed, what ensues initially plays more as a study in grief than a supernatural thriller, only for Aster to suggest that grief offers a unique point of access to the supernatural, as evinced in Annie’s affective convulsion when she is shown her first séance by Joan (Ann Dowd), a woman she meets at her local grief counselling group. From this point onwards, Annie’s grief becomes an alternative mode of perception, a way of rendering the threshold between the real and supernatural worlds more permeable, as well as a way of making sense of some of the more anomalous moments in the days and weeks after Ellen’s death. For part of what makes the film so eerie is that supernatural occurrences start quite early in the screenplay, and yet precede any clear articulation of the supernatural by either the film or the characters. Nevertheless, they are there, brought into existence by grief, but only available retrospectively, once the first stage of grief has passed and the family starts to take stock.
For the most part, films about grief use trauma as a way of insisting upon a heightened realism, building an emotional connection with the audience that often tries to bypass the mediation of the screen altogether. By contrast, Hereditary suggests that horror is the most appropriate register for approaching grief – or, what amounts to the same thing, that horror is itself the most authentic form of realism when it comes to these kinds of unbearable ruptures of emotional wellbeing. Over the remainder of the film, then, grief gradually undoes the reality field of the film, most emphatically around the miniatures that Annie makes for a living, most of which are related to her mother’s life in some way. This imbues all of Aster’s mise-en-scenes, in turn, with a dollhouse quality, as rooms tend to be shot from just a little too far back, and couched in square compositions and framing devices that suffuse even the most ostensibly realistic tableaux with an elusive sense of artifice and contrivance. Most objects are just a little too crisply defined, while there is always just a little less sound than there should be, leaching and parching the spaces of any sense of being lived in, or accommodating embodied experience, and instead imbuing them with a preternatural and pellucid character that tends to intensify in and around Ellen’s bedroom.
Yet that clarity just means that the darkness of the film has a more stable and consistent field to spread out across, resulting in spaces that feel a little too lucid and a little too obscure at once. Time and again, you sense that we’re in the midst of a house that is being manicured, curated and organised by someone else’s will, as the vacuum between objects grows vaster, but the three walls containing each space grow more contracted, suggesting that the fourth wall – the wall we’re watching from – must be more open and porous than we could possibly imagine. Whereas theatrical convention imagines a fourth wall between the audience and the action, cinematic convention tends to imagine a fourth wall behind the audience at any one moment, especially in the more classical style of cinematic space that is promulgated throughout this film. With no assurance that this hypothetical wall exists – or, rather, unable to hypothesise this wall to begin with – the domestic spaces of Hereditary feel as simultaneously claustrophobic and agoraphobic as Annie’s perfect miniatures, which are contained and circumscribed in every way except for the missing wall that allows her, and her audiences, to peruse their minutely appointed domestic trappings in the first place.
As the film proceeds, that displaces the family unit from itself, as the relationships between Annie, Steve and Peter oscillate between feeling too constrictive, and too distended, never able to meet at the critical compromise that will allow them to reinstate the threshold between their family and the world outside, or between their family and their own inner demons. Doubling down on the family unit while also reiterating what makes it vulnerable, Annie’s miniatures thus testify to the irrevocable dissolution of the family structure in the wake of Charlie’s death, since without their daughter as both guarantor of futurity, and guarantor of continuity with Ellen and with the past, the family as an entity ceases to function. That devolution imperceptibly merges with Annie’s investigation into her mother’s private life, in a procedural narrative that gradually reveals that Ellen was a member of a matriarchal cult whose practices were directly opposed to the nuclear family model. While the practices of this cult are never entirely articulated, the stunning final sequence suggests that it consists entirely of women who worship a malevolent spirit that sustains and provides them with supernatural powers, on the condition that they transfer it from one male host to the other. In these final moments, it also becomes clear that Chris is the next male host, and that his father, mother and sister are all collateral damage in that process of transferral, even if it provides his mother and sister with a new kind of second life as well.
In other words, this cult operates by involuting the premise of the nuclear family, treating men as a disposable vehicle for a matrilinear and collective continuity. In retrospect, it’s clear that Annie has been feeling the impact of this cult, through her mother, for some time, since it gradually emerges that her love for her children has been periodically punctured by what appear to be gestures of sublimated infanticidal rage. In one scene, she recalls a disturbing sleepwalking episode in which she woke up to find that she had doused Peter with petrol in the middle of the night and was standing over him with a match; in another scene, she tells Peter to his face that she tried to have a miscarriage after discovering she was pregnant with him. Critically, however, these revelations never occur with Charlie, and not just because she dies so quickly, but because male children, and husbands, ultimately feel quite disposable within the affective economy of the film as a whole, whose sympathetic patterns start to mirror the cult long before the cult itself is even articulated.
By the end of the film, Annie’s grief has thus taken on a different valency, moving from distress at the death of her daughter to a wider prescience that something deep within her, something inherited from her motherhood, is inimical to the very idea of motherhood itself, at least as we currently understand it, or as it is presented by the nuclear family model. The alternative is so disorienting, however, that it can only be framed in cultic and supernatural terms, as if Aster were trying to envisage how much we would have to dispense with our notion of realism to genuinely counter the notion of patriarchal heredity bound up with traditional marriage. Whereas suburban horror typically focuses on mothers dealing with the absence of that kind of paternal authority, paternal authority typically remains as a horizon of representation, albeit a hyperbolised and flamboyant horizon of representation, usually embodied in the figure of the slasher, or a slasher surrogate. In Hereditary, however, that horizon is more or less eschewed, resulting in a horror film that feels oddly and eerily devoid of a monster or threatening entity, as if aware this entity so often ends up recapitulating precisely the paternal authority and anxiety that it is ostensibly challenging, and that suburban horror so often satiates rather than really questioning patriarchal fears.
Instead, Hereditary suspends us in an odd limbic zone in which paternal authority is gradually sidelined by the ambience of the film, but never replaced with, or deflected into, a monstrous paternal surrogate. What we get, instead, is the dispersed agency of the cult, and the collective supernaturalism of their rituals, rather than any one figure or creature that can be relied upon as a source of malevolent authority. While the demon that they worship might need a male host, the host is entirely fungible and disposable, and devoid of any charisma or authority in himself, as the entire patriarchal basis of longevity and continuity is cursorily reframed as a strategy that these women use to maintain their collective supernatural power. Yet that’s no so very different from the relationship that women are supposed to have to their father and husband’s names in our own society, with the result that the final scenes momentarily – and eerily – envisage the nuclear family as a matriarchal cult in which patrilinear continuity is just a concession made for the sake of a more elusive, macabre agency that remains hidden from the male surnames around them.
At the very least, Hereditary eventually suggests that patriarchy is oblivious enough to be remade in these terms, resulting in a series of tableaux in which the objects and images that Annie has used to anchor her sense of normality, and her sense of self, turn out to have been part of Ellen’s cult all along. In the creepiest, Annie comes across her mother’s photograph album, where she discovers all the family photographs that she knows so well, but transformed into objects that have been used in cult rituals, as well as blueprints for considering where they will take their next male host. In the vision of these entirely normcore mementos lining and facilitating a cult practice lies the uncanny valley of Hereditary, and its strange and eerie reinvention of the homes of American horror cinema.