HEREDITARY’s Dark Heart of Grief and Mental Illness

Hereditary. 2018. Directed & Written by Ari Aster.
Starring Toni Collette, Gabriel Byrne, Alex Wolff, Milly Shapiro, & Ann Dowd.
PalmStar Media

Rated R. 127 minutes.


Hereditary - Annie's GlassesEverybody has their own opinion on Ari Aster’s debut feature, Hereditary. Father Gore’s not here to go against any of the general consensus: it’s one of his favourite horrors of the past 18 years. Neither will this article claim the movie’s not a horror, because it certainly is, and a frightening one at that. This is going to dive headlong into the drama amongst all the horror, hopefully illustrating how the screenplay’s supernatural aspects double as commentary on real life family terrors.

All the supernatural events of the movie speak for themselves. Aster’s consistent attention to the Graham family at the centre of these events is what makes it all so compelling. The Exorcist similarly rooted its occult/religious themes and possession plot in a family struggle, as did The Sixth Sense (also starring Toni Collette) explore families in various ways through its use of ghosts— the list of movies using family as their spotlight for otherworldly horror is endless. By examining a family in the wake of tragedy, and in the throes of grief, Aster drives home the horrible ways in which mental health can come to bear on a family, and how such hereditary cycles of psychological horror repeat themselves from one generation to the next.
Hereditary - Diorama

“She had private rituals,
private friends,
and private anxieties.”

Screen Shot 2018-09-28 at 11.40.36 AMIs the family cursed, or are they destroying themselves from within? Certainly the supernatural elements make it evident there’s a sinister force preying on them. If we take it all as metaphorical, the broader thematic picture appears. Often in the event of tragedies there’s a desire to blame family issues on an outside, controlling force of fate. This part of the story is reflected in the use of the model home and Annie Graham’s (Collette) work as an artist who makes miniature dioramas.

Aster takes us inside a model home in the opening, as the camera moves from a shot of the miniature into the bedroom of Annie’s son Peter (Alex Wolff). Just as the director manipulates our perspective, it’s symbolic of an outside force manipulating the private sphere of a family— God or a darker entity exerting control. It isn’t insignificant Aster chooses to include a scene in class where Peter’s teacher references Heracles and the “fatal flaw” of the Greek hero, and the illusions of control/free will in his story. One student perfectly encapsulates the horror of the Graham family, unknowingly referring to them as “pawns in this horrible, hopeless machine.”

The use of miniatures also speaks to the isolation of Annie from her own family. She not only spends lots of time alone working on her art, her figurative distancing from those around her is represented in the literal size of her in comparison to the miniature real life scenes she builds. Aster’s movie is titled as such because there’s an underlying focus on themes of hereditary mental illness.

The controlling force manipulating Annie and her family is hereditary fate. In the funeral scene, Annie mentions the difficulties of her mother, then elaborates more during a grief group meeting. She tells the group about her family’s troublesome psych history: her mother suffered from DID (dissociative identity disorder), her father starved himself out of “psychotic depression,” and her older brother was a schizophrenic who killed himself, leaving a suicide note accusing their mother of “putting people inside him.” While all this perfectly leads to the supernatural, it operates well on a symbolic level as evidence of a genetic predisposition in Annie’s family towards violent psychosis.
Hereditary - Paimon Effigy

“Bind all men to our will as we have bound ourselves
for now and ever
to yours.
Hail, Paimon!”

Screen Shot 2018-09-28 at 11.48.14 AMGrief acts as a gateway to the mental breakdown Annie experiences, as her family experiences one tragedy after another. Hereditary takes on the possession of grief in a literal manner, as we see the body taken over, time and time again, by demonic forces— Annie later, and earlier Peter smashes his face into his desk. Grief turns us into someone other than ourselves, so much so we may speak in a different voice (i.e. Annie speaking in Charlie’s voice after the ritual), do things outside what our regular behaviour dictates, and we can harm ourselves, or others.

Charlie’s pigeon decapitation is a sign of trauma and grief in the form of violent play, considered troubling behaviour in kids after a death in the family or a similar traumatic event. Her orange sweater alone is a visual homage to the red raincoat from Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now— another masterpiece about grief and the supernatural.
Is it so unbelievable that Annie – affected by hereditary mental illness and a double serving of grief after her mother then daughter each die – could be the one to have done all the awful things we witness? We gradually become rooted entirely in her perspective. We see all her hidden issues with Peter emerge, most of which are horribly depressing, and she’s had psychotic episodes in the past, as well. Isn’t it possible we’re seeing things from her POV, as she believes an evil supernatural entity has been the cause of her family’s ills but she’s really the cause herself? In the end, Annie destroys her own family, and the only one left— Peter— becomes infected by the traumatic horror.

A couple images worthy of note when it comes to mental illness. Annie mentions her mother having experienced dementia. One shot in her art room features the apparition of her mother, barely visible in the shadows. Later, we see identical shots, though they’re populated by other old, naked people lurking in the shadows. Forget the obvious cult stuff. This is an image of the looming shadow of old age, the presence of Alzheimer’s, dementia, and other genetically inherited disorders. Why are all the cultists old or elderly? They’re all symbolic of old age descending into psychological ruin.

Peter represents a child untouched by genetic fate, symbolised via Annie’s rejection of her mother during the first pregnancy with her son, as opposed to Charlie, who’s possessed by the family’s troubles, again symbolised by a proximity to her grandmother. Mental illness may not have struck Alex, but the effects of a mentally ill parent can damage a child irreparably. The last scenes see Alex terrorised by a possessed Annie, fully taken over by her genetic disorder, and in the final moments where Alex is crowned Paimon by the cult, we’re witness to the lingering trauma of having lived under the same roof as someone with a psychotic mental illness— the crowning is merely an image of his birthright bestowed upon him through external means, rather than the genes of his mother’s side of the family, suggesting these experiences will negatively shape him and render him dangerous, destructive, or worse, exactly like mom.
Screen Shot 2018-09-28 at 11.39.03 AMThe psychological state of a family with hereditary mental illness as an everyday presence in their lives can be terrifying, depending on the seriousness. Often times, even in a close knit family, mental health goes unnoticed, not talked about between loved ones. Like the festering, headless body of grandma in the attic, serious issues can remain hidden in the home, usually until too late.

Hereditary is, first and foremost, a genuinely scary horror movie, and its supernatural leanings are overt. There’s nothing being disguised here, neither does Father Gore doubt for a moment Ari Aster was only looking to tell a spooky story of a family plagued by an eerie curse, complete with aspects of the occult.

His story works effectively as an exploration of a family impacted by its secrets, the mental health of its members, and the horrific power of grief. This is why the drama of Hereditary is as intense and unnerving as its horror. Aster’s heavy focus on the family keeps everything grounded, so when things move deeper into the dark, fantastical elements a constant human terror remains to drive the plot. These are (some of)the reasons so many of us horror lovers have been celebrating Aster’s movie since it was released, and why we’ll continue.

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