Originally Published in Farrago Edition Six (2022).
Content Warning: references to blood, decapitation and death
Picture the white-clad, practically nude members of an obscure cult surrounding a lone figure in a rickety treehouse. The decapitated bodies of a dead mother and grandmother are one among the crowd, and the head of a long-dead sister sits crowned atop a mannequin. The journey to this point has since been fraught with death and grievance; sigils hidden in plain sight on a fateful telephone pole and between the pages of a photo album; beheaded pigeons, anaphylactic shock and a dollhouse whose figurines strangely mirror and predict a family's every move; desecration, betrayal, the infernal and the bloody.
The box office numbers speak for themselves: Ari Aster's Hereditary, in addition to being one of the highest-grossing horror films of the decade, is a worthy predecessor to his 2019 Midsommar. While Midsommar is a ravenous, growling hunger for revenge, Hereditary is rife with grief; that unwanted, unexpected, maddening emotion that consumes and ravages the minute its tight leash is loosened. Of course, some similarities between the two films do exist. Both feature cults, both make one feel things one would rather not feel, and both push the limits of humanity, the human mind and human sanity to the brink with a kind of unapologetic arrogance and apathy. Hereditary inhabits the place between sanity and insanity, induced by grief that pushes one from mere blues to resentment, revenge, wallowing, and a vortex of whirling, clawing, murky, muddy darkness.
The tale begins with the death (inevitably) of our protagonist Annie's mother, with whom she maintained a pseudo-estranged relationship. Annie grieves her mother's death, but is more occupied with the generational trauma inflicted upon her by a dysfunctional, death-littered, hallucination-prone family and childhood. This grief is not what drives her to madness, however. The metaphorical spark that sets it all ablaze takes the form of the decapitated body of her daughter in the back seat of her car, discovered in the wee hours of the morning; and her son hidden away in his room in catatonic, guilt-ridden shock.
What follows is disturbing, to say the least, and the undercurrent of a stalking cult, the discovery of a body in the attic and an assortment of frolicking ghosts are not to blame. Annie and her family begin to spiral, each resenting the other for a death neither would have logically been responsible for. Yet, logic proves to be fickle and flighty as Annie is persuaded to try and summon the spirit of her daughter, only to be possessed by a spirit far more malicious than a ten-year-old girl can possibly be. A series of events ensues as the resentment between Annie and her son grows: a figure hidden in the shadows, freak cult members and spontaneous self-combustion; and in the eye of the spinning vortex of darkness, Annie's desperation and grief leaks through the cracks in her facade into an explosion:
"Well, now your sister is dead!" she screams. "And I know you miss her, and I know it was an accident, and I know you're in pain, and I wish I could take that away for you. I wish I could shield you from the knowledge that you did what you did, but your sister is dead! She's gone forever! And what a waste."
Her jaw is contorted; her posture stiff, rigid and almost painful to look at; her eyes are about ready to pop out of their sockets; and every tired wrinkle is highlighted in low candlelight. We, the viewers, are brought to the reality that grief overflows from mental pain to physical anguish, and can manifest in the material. Hereditary ends with the finality of the destruction of Annie's family. As expected from the typical horror movie, the cult overpowers them all; and after many possessions, floor-to-ceiling crawling, traumatic begging, headbanging and murdering, the supernatural triumphs over the preternatural; grief and imbalance triumphs over reason and sanity.
We are reminded of the maddening power of grief; of grief as the "other", the emotion to be regulated and controlled. As Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie states so succinctly, "Grief is a cruel kind of education. You learn how ungentle mourning can be, how full of anger... This is an affliction not merely of the spirit but of the body. Flesh, muscles, organs are all compromised. No physical position is comfortable."
Humans are creatures of emotion, and more often than not, that lack of regulation over one's emotions is simply the basest form of madness, transforming even the most well-adjusted adult into a being encompassing the most primal elements of life. Perhaps the cults, ghosts and subtle easter eggs scattered throughout Hereditary serve as landmarks in the horror film canon. However, it is its raw depiction of human emotion that has succeeded in sneaking its way into the viewer's skin and bones, and leaving a lasting impression embedded in one's very pores.