Paulina's Gore Corner: Episode 1 - Hereditary 13/07/18
Ari Aster’s sublime Hereditary created a sensation at the latest Sundance Film Festival and was described as the most terrifying cinematic experience since The Exorcist. If that wasn’t enough to make horror lovers thrilled to watch it, the hair-raising trailer went viral, giving the audience a foretaste of the psychological terror that is about to come.
Hereditary premiered on British screens on the 15th of June and is another visually and narratively refreshing horror that fits into the style of the new wave of American commercial arthouse horrors such as Get Out, It Follows, and The Witch. Taking into account Christopher Sharret’s statement that ‘there is no genre more subversive, more innately critical of the values of white bourgeois patriarchal society, than the horror film’ (2014, p.56), the come back of ‘intelligent’ horror on the screens of mainstream cinema coneys the omnipresent social anxieties and doubts about a dominant system that otherwise don’t have a chance to be expressed under the repression of patriarchal capitalism. Hereditary is, therefore, worth looking at not only through the prism of jump-scares and escapism, often associated with the comfortable familiarity of the horror genre. What makes Aster’s feature debut film so gripping is its cathartic power that lies in its honest portrayal of a family breakdown caused by grief and ‘hereditary’, inescapable family sins.
Thus, Aster’s film is not ‘just’ a horror film. The deep family drama is equally important as the supernatural aspects of narrative. These two layers are indisputably connected as the characters’ unresolved traumas are manifested in the uncanny. The parallels to Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook are striking with the monster being the embodiment of Amelia’s repressed grief.
Hereditary is a film pregnant with symbolism and metaphors. As such, psychoanalytic film theory is convenient in order to broaden our understanding of it. Therefore, dear readers, I ask you kindly to approach this article with an open mind for to solve the riddles of Hereditary, I’m taking you for a journey inside that most magnificent machine: the human psyche.
Essentially, Aster’s film is a compelling, mature, and personal study of grief. Each character deals with pain differently but they all suffer equally strongly. Hereditary shows that it is not necessary to cry and scream to be heartbroken while facing the death of a loved one. This is perfectly illustrated in the scene after the accident in which Peter kills his little sister. The lengthy, locked close up of Peter lets the viewer contemplate the emotions the boy experiences - from shock, to denial, and depression. This is contrasted with Annie’s reaction of hysterical despair - loud and expressive.
Aside from its focus on people dealing with huge emotional pain caused by grief, it is beneficial to acknowledge that Hereditary displays recurring references to Greek tragedy where the character’s destiny is doomed from the beginning. The prime example of it is the highly stylised, lengthy, tight shot of Annie begging her husband to burn Charlie’s notebook. Her hopeless desperation to save her family is so painful to watch as we know that, like in Sophocles’ tragedies, the characters are locked in the doll house that belongs to a power they are simply not capable of fighting.
The film opens with a spectacular shot in which the camera pans from a window to a dollhouse. As it gets closer, the dollhouse becomes the real one with real people inside it. The dollhouse was extraordinarily designed Steven Newburn, the artists also responsible for designing the prosthetics for the film. The project was built on set in order to allow the camera to freely penetrate the inside of the house and therefore to put the audience in the position of voyeur. Consequently, the opening establishes not only Annie’s career as a miniature artist but gives the viewers a hint that the family members are only marionettes in the hands of a far greater power.
We enter the life of Graham’s family as they mourn their elder, Annie’s mother Ellen, with whom she had a troubled relationship. The person most affected by the death of her grandmother is Annie’s younger daughter, Charlie (Milly Shapiro) who shared with Ellen a special bond. We find out that it was Annie’s mother who breastfed Charlie. Thereupon, the viewers are being provided with a sign of the Jungian’s archetype of the Great Mother that I will explore deeper in the next part of this article. It may be one of the keys to understanding the characters actions and agenda.
It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to state that Charlie is the most disturbing character in Hereditary and one of the most frightening children in film history. Milly Shapiro’s unsettling outlook and performance combined with her signature tongue-clicking sound - a manifestation of Charlie's repressed demons - stays with the viewer for a long time after the screening.
Charlie’s character is so impactful because she conquers the archetype of innocent infancy. Her and Paimon are the same entity, the devil’s seed was planted inside her before she was born. Consequently, as she grows up in a dysfunctional family, the unanswered traumas of her grandmother and mother are being inherited by the girl. Taking into account Freudian theories, Charlie displays significant castration trauma after the rejection she experienced in infancy. Her grandmother, who breastfed and therefore became Charlie’s primal nurturer denied her love and affection as a result of her lack of a penis. In order to overcome that trauma, Charlie subconsciously seeks to gain control and compensate by destroying phallic objects. Hence, she cuts off a bird’s head, a phallic symbol, so effortlessly. The above thesis finds its conformation in the plot as Paimon can manifest himself only in a male body.
In addition, interestingly, all female bodies in the film end up mutilated and headless by the end, with their corpses resembling castrated phalluses. The gender roles are concurrently disturbed in Hereditary as it’s the father who takes up nurturing duties, traditionally associated with woman, while Annie goes through a nervous breakdown. He is the one who picks up phonecalls from the school when there are problems with Peter, he deals with Ellen’s stolen corpse. However, he is also the one who represses the expression of emotions in the family. It is especially striking during an argument at the dinner table when Annie and Peter try to verbalise their feelings after the accident. He takes up the role of consciousness, reminding the driving family that in order to carry on with their roles in society they cannot give away their inner demons. Nonetheless, as we learn in the course of the film, repressed monsters always come back if left unresolved.
Freudian returning ‘monsters from the id’ carry significant importance in the development of Peter’s character. He is introduced to us as a stoner, detached from the problems in his household. His destiny is foretold early in the film while he studies Sophocles in the classroom. Perhaps the boy would have more of a chance to survive if he’d paid more attention to the analysis of Heracles’s “horrible hopelessness” instead of fantasies about his attractive classmate. But Peter’s days are numbered, as are his mother’s, sister’s and father’s. In the same way as Antigone couldn’t escape her tragic death, the Graham’s family is unable to take any action to change their destiny. Their helplessness, therefore, is conveyed through the level of gore and violence shown onscreen.
Furthermore, it is uncovered that the facade of the careless pothead is only a facade for Peter considering the emotional trauma he endured in childhood, when his mother tried to set him on fire while sleepwalking. The notion that his primal nurturer and care-giver would put him in danger affected their already complicated relationship and forced Peter to repress his demons. Without an opportunity to confront his trauma, he escapes into a fantasy world by smoking weed and daydreaming.
Similarly, Annie also transforms the tragic events that occurred in her life into art. She locks all the grief and inner torment in the dolls. Seeing her daughter’s mutilated body provoked emotions that she is just not able to process. However, when instead her children’s dolls are portrayed at the horrendous accident scene, accepting what happened is more bearable. By creating, Annie becomes the master puppeteer, she’s the one who controls the events, the one with power.
In reality, all power and control have been taken away from Annie. First, in her childhood by her mother who struggled with mental problems and was not able to provide a good care of her children. Aside from this, Annie lost very early her two most significant male figures - her father and brother. Both deaths were horrifying: her father starved himself to death whereas brother committed suicide after a painful battle with schizophrenia.
Annie’s intense engagement in her art has striking similarities to the first patient cured by psychoanalysis, known as Anna O. She was told by her therapeutist, Breuer to ‘expreses her torment in poetical compositions that bring some relief to get agitated state of mind’ (Freud and Bauer: 1895: 29). However, as Freud and Bauer remind us, ‘affect needs to be put into words as recollection without affect almost invariably produces no results’ (2001, p.21) Annie’s trauma that she has allocated to her compulsively produced art, remains unanswered and unsolved as she is not able to consciously confront her grief with family members. As she points out at a support group, she is not even sure if her family could provide her with that aid.
Annie, however resistant she may be to therapy, actively seeks for help by reaching out to this support group. As she admits at her first session after her mother’s death, talking through the trauma of her brother’s suicide brought her much needed comfort.
Annie attempts to attend the session again, when the pain of losing Charlie in such horrendous circumstances becomes unbearable. This is disrupted by the sudden appearance of Joanie, a fellow partner in grief, who lost her son and grandson. She takes up the role of counsellor for Annie, patiently listening with a typical expression of kind understanding on her face. The domestic sessions with her new friend take a different path when Joanie attends a spiritual session and claims that the soul of her seven year-old grandson came back. If we omit the supernatural aspect of Joanie’s role in the narrative, we see a person unable to accept the fact their loved ones are gone, stuck on the first stage of grief, denial. It is easy for Annie, with her friend’s encouragement, to fall into that trap with the initiation of rituals that will supposedly conjure up the ghost of Charlie. She enters another phase of dealing with grief: bargaining. The pain of grieving mother is so overwhelming that she won’t keep away from trading with the devil itself.
With the lack of any other way out, Annie’s ‘primal wish’, the desire to be heard, seen and discovered finds its way in her dreams. The dream sequences are especially powerful in Hereditary as the repressed grief - to much to handle for consciousness - is processed with all its intensity while Annie is asleep. Staying in the spirit of Freudian thinking, the oppressed grief and traumas return symbolically and literally in the dream sequences. Especially impressive is the dream-within-a-dream in which Annie initially sees Peter’s body covered in crawling ants. I would risk suggesting that it is a deeply hidden fear and guilt that Annie feels as she neglects her son after the accident. She wakes up and goes to confess to Peter the shameful secret buried at the bottom of her consciousness: that she tried to have a miscarriage while pregnant with Peter. That leads to Jungian’s archetypes, ‘primordial images or universal symbols’ (Steven, 1982), of womanhood and motherhood. As the oppressed monsters remain in her subconscious, Annie is not able to fulfil her role as mother and consequently her children lack the nurturer they need in order to grow to become mentally healthy adults. This creates a vicious cycle of guilt for Annie which takes her into a deeper depression and therefore also puts her career in danger.
Jung, an eager researcher of culture and mythology, concluded that the archetype of, as he called it, the Great Mother is one that ‘occupies a central role in the unconscious life of every individual’ (Makowski, 1975, p.73) given her cruciality to a child’s development during its earliest formative years and to sustaining its life, both conscious and unconscious. Annie, by admitting she didn’t want to have a child and even tried to killed it, places herself in opposition to social expectations that have been so deeply rooted in her unconscious such that they became part of her identity. Therefore, verbalising her wish of having a miscarriage in a conscious state would be too dangerous and so the opportunity lies in dreams, beyond time, place and logic.
Moreover, as the figure of mother can concurrently be a source of fear for the helpless and dependent infant, it is possible to distinguish polarities within the archetype the Good Mother and the Terrible Mother (Neumann, 1955). However, Annie doesn’t fit into any of these categories. Her bad decision, the source of destructive guilt, ’giving’ Charlie to her mother, was made from the love for her mother and Annie’s pathological need of her approval.
To conclude, I wouldn’t simply state that Hereditary is the scariest horror in years because it gives the viewer much more than just generic thrill evoked by effective jump scares. The fear it provokes is so complex and deep because it is real and inhabits the subconscious of everyone who deals with the loss of a loved one.
Freud Z. ‘In Lebau V. Psychoanalysis and Cinema. The Play of Shadows.’ (2011.p.21) Wallflower Press London
Makowski, JF. "Persephone, psyche, and the mother-maiden archetype" in Classical Outlook 26, 1985.
Neumann, Erich (, 1955, 2d ed. 1963; 1991, 2015), The Great Mother. Bollingen, Princeton University Press
Sharrett C. ‘The Horror Film as Social Allegory (And How it Comes Undone)’ in A Companion to the Horror Film ed. Harry M. Benshoff Malden, MA and Oxford Wiley Blackwell: 2014
Stevens J. Windigo, ed. Colombo J., Saskatoon, Prairie Books, 1982