Hereditary is perhaps the greatest horror film of 2018. Perhaps the greatest film of 2018, period. It has the conspiracy element and paranoia of Rosemary’s Baby, but surpasses that film. I was fortunate enough to attend an advance screening at the Alamo Drafthouse in La Vista, Nebraska, followed by a live-streamed Q&A with writer/director Ari Aster and two cast members, Alex Wolff and Milly Shapiro. The Alamo staff were kind enough to drop off a complementary desert early during the screening, warning us to avoid eating it if we have nut allergies. You”ll get the joke if you see Hereditary.
It’s difficult to do a proper analysis of the film without giving away major spoilers. However, it would be a disservice to spoil any significant aspect of a new film that is destined to become a classic, and will possibly win major awards. Instead, I will provide an analysis of themes and motifs prevalent in the film, avoiding major plot points that aren’t featured in the official trailers. That said, if you assume you know what will happen based on the trailers, nothing will prepare you for the onslaught of violence and insanity that is the film itself.
If you haven’t already seen them, take the time to view the trailers below, and then read my discussion of motifs and themes in the film itself.
And trailer #2:
Now to get on with a relatively spoiler-free analysis…I will tell you what the film isn’t. It’s not cliched, and it doesn’t follow common horror tropes. It doesn’t take a lazy or cliched approach along the lines of “It was all a dream,” or “It all happened inside one character’s head.” It teases us with those concepts, especially when we see the characters inside a dollhouse, or (early in the film) when Annie (Toni Collette) discusses her family’s history of mental illness. But to my relief, it’s not that kind of film. The ghosts and demons are as real as the mental illness itself.
Power of the ancestors
In the film, Annie carefully hand-crafts miniature homes. One such model is a modern home built on top of increasingly older homes hidden under the foundation, ending in a medieval castle. The implication is that the modern lifestyle we take for granted is built on the foundation of everything our ancestors did before us.
Nature vs. Nurture
With a title like “Hereditary,” you know this theme has to come up. We can inherit a lot of things from our parents: certain forms of mental illness (as Annie discusses), and physical illnesses such as heart disease and diabetes. On a less tangible level, we may “inherit” their biases, likes and dislikes.
Some religions and spiritual traditions believe we can inherit generational curses too. Generational curses are mentioned throughout the Bible. One such passage is Deuteronomy 5:9, which states “Thou shalt not bow down thyself unto them, nor serve them: for I the LORD thy God [am] a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth [generation] of them that hate me.” The “them” we are not to bow down to are the gods and venerated spirits of pagan religions. This is relevant to Hereditary, as the trailer implies the deceased grandmother practiced a form of occultism and had strange “private rituals.” You’ve also seen this concept played out in the Paranormal Activity franchise.
Similarly, there’s the modern New Age concept of “generational contracts” (ask any Akashic Records reader), meaning your ancestors can make major decisions for you, without your knowledge.
Knowing that you don’t have free will won’t save you
One common horror trop that Hereditary does follow is that of a high school or college classroom as a vehicle to explain pertinent concepts to the student character and to the audience alike. We’ve seen it in the Nightmare on Elm Street series, Final Destination, and It Follows, to name just a few. Relatively early in Hereditary, a teacher discusses a Greek tragedy in which it seems that the characters have no free will, and this makes their misfortune seem even more tragic. One main character attends this lecture, but this knowledge doesn’t save him, or even mitigate the horrors to come.
This is alluded to again with Annie’s world of miniature homes and figures. The dolls she creates, however lifelike and realistic, have no say in the role they play in the little world she’s created. The same is true for the main characters. Someone or something is pulling their strings and scripting their every move.
There is a recurring decapitation motif, both literal and figurative, in Hereditary. In the trailers, we see young Charlie cutting the head off of a dead bird. We also see a brief glimpse of one of Annie’s miniature figures, presumable her son Peter, without his head. There are a lot of other gory things that could have been done just for shocks. Since Ari Aster didn’t get to my tweeted question during the Q&A, I don’t know the answer for certain. I assume the decapitation motif alludes to the characters’ lack of free will. They have literally been severed from their decision-making abilities.
Transplantation of a foreign intelligence
Now that you’ve seen the trailer, you’ve probably guessed that this is some sort of demon possession movie. Again, you will see the symbolism in benign places throughout the film. Just as Annie is obsessed with creating a miniature world, her daughter Charlie builds dolls from found objects. You can see glimpses of these dolls in the trailers, and you will notice that they are “off” in a number of ways, most noticeably that the doll heads don’t correspond with the doll bodies. Not only are the characters separated from their decision-making faculties, it stands to reason that something else is making decisions for them.
My biggest spoiler so far:
Even the demon itself, allegedly powerful in Hell, doesn’t seem to have free will. When you view its manifestation while within a human host, it seems that the demon doesn’t want to be there. It’s socially awkward, withdrawn, full of nervous tics, and seems bewildered by the humans around it, even by the human cultists who “worship” it. It’s been taken from its natural habitat, and doesn’t seem to know what to think of the strange, sometimes barbaric, behavior of the humans around it. This is my interpretation, and not explicitly stated. If you were a majestic “King of Hell,” would you want to be bothered with mundane and demeaning human responsibilities such as taking an exam at school or working a menial job? Perhaps being trapped in a human body comes with a degree of powerlessness and confusion.
Hereditary is an atypical horror film with atypical tropes, atypical demons, and atypical occultism. You owe it to yourself to see this wildly original, inventive, and cruel film in theaters.