(WARNING! The following article contains many spoilers for the film ‘Hereditary’ Consider this your first and last warning!)
A generational curse bleeds through Hereditary, Ari Aster’s feature length debut, and candidate for most unsettling film of 2018. When Annie’s (Toni Collette) mother dies, horrific events begin plaguing the family, and as Annie seeks a grief laden solace with a stranger, she unwittingly becomes part of a ritual that her mother has had planned for her entire life. The film unfolds at a strange pace, our main characters discover things and has revelations, long after the audience has figured things out. Annie’s grief puts her right in the path of Joan, and her son Peter is unwittingly lead to the exact spot he needs to go for the Rosemary’s Baby esque ritual to be completed. It’s this inevitability that makes the film work for audience members – especially watching horror, there’s a disconnect between us and the characters. It’s why we yell ‘don’t go up the stairs!’, it’s why the rules outlined in Scream are so knowing, so funny. But Hereditary tells us that the rules don’t matter. It honestly doesn’t matter what Annie, or Peter, or any of the family do in Hereditary. What happens was set in stone before the events of the film even began, and the family’s helplessness, becomes the audience’s helplessness.
Inheritance of this kind is a helpless feeling. It’s something you cannot stop or change.
Hereditary has been seen by some to be a comment on the ways in which mental illness can be passed down through generations. 2011’s Take Shelter, directed by Jeff Nichols explored similar themes. In Take Shelter, Curtis (played by Michael Shannon) suffers from vivid dreams about an oncoming apocalyptic storm. His obsession with preparing for it, building a shelter in his back garden, begins to tear his family apart. Alongside this, he visits his mother who suffers from paranoid schizophrenia. His anxiety about his own mental illness, which he worries may be the same as his mother’s, is the storm. This approaching ball of black cloud. Curtis spends the whole film preparing for its arrival, and in the end, after a brief storm hits their town, and the family head to the beach for a holiday, we are left with a vision of an apocalyptic storm approaching from the sea. It’s only then that Curtis’ wife turns to him, seemingly able to see it also. The storm has been the approaching illness, and his wife has finally come to understand that.
None of the family at the centre of Hereditary understand what’s going on, not really. Charlie (an incredible debut from Milly Shapiro) may not even really know what she really is before she’s killed, in one of the most shocking moments in cinema since that bit in Green Room (you know which bit). Annie’s husband (a frazzled Gabriel Byrne) is almost a stranger, present throughout the film, but with little to do. After Annie and her son have an argument at the dinner table, there’s a lingering shot of Byrne and his son sat alone, and Byrne’s only attempt to comfort his son is to patronisingly pat him. Later in the film, it takes the discovery of a headless body in the attic for him to realise that actually, something odd is going on, but by then it’s too late. It definitely feels apparent that he either doesn’t see, or has chosen to ignore, the debilitating state that his wife and son are in.
Helplessness of another kind can be seen in a long running horror series. The children plagued by dreams of Freddy Krueger have inherited him from their parents, who formed a mob to murder the child killer years ago. A Nightmare on Elm Street is centred on the idea of a shared trauma being passed down through generations. Children of holocaust survivors have described a second-generation syndrome similar to PTSD. One said in The Guardian, “The history was a crushing burden and has to some extent paralysed me.” That paralysis they describe is similar in a way, to the teens, trapped in their dreams, and helpless as the man their parents murdered takes his revenge. The complex emotional state (the idea that Freddy is an horrific killer who they believe deserved to die, but also that they are responsible for killing him) being revisited, passed down to their children. Guilt as a slasher villain.
The nightmare of children inheriting our illnesses is front and centre of the fourth Psycho sequel, as well as in David Cronenberg’s remake of The Fly, in which Geena Davis has a terrifying dream of giving birth to a terrifying fly-baby (a dream fully realised in the ropey sequel).
Most notably though, generations of family members inheriting a lust for human meat in modern French classic Raw. In Julia Ducourmau’s film, Justine, a vegetarian student at a veterinary school undergoes a cannibalistic awakening after being forced to ingest a raw rabbit’s kidney during an initiation ritual. Soon after this awakening she discovers that her elder sister, already a student at the same school has the same affliction. The film, one of the best in recent memory, climaxes with the reveal that not only do the two sisters have cannibalistic tendencies, but so too does their mother. This previously hidden part of them has come to life, and Justine’s realisation at the end of the film, confronted with the scarred and mutilated chest of her father, is that her only choice now is to find a way to live with it.
It’s a difficult line to tread when you’re looking to depict mental illness on screen. So often, horror films lean into the pulp side of mental illness fears, but in using the lens of horror to interrogate our own internal fears about the things we may have inherited, that we have no control over, these manage to needle their way under our skin in ways that many other films fail to. As Hereditary reaches its final moments, son Peter, now fully possessed by Paimon (one of the eight Kings of Hell), stares at the camera. A naked follower places a crown on his head, and he is forced to accept his new mental state, as the song over the credits begins:
‘Bows and flows of angel hair and ice cream castles in the air
And feather canyons everywhere, I’ve looked at clouds that way
But now they only block the sun they rain and snow on everyone
So many things I would have done, but clouds got in my way’
Article by Daniel Carpenter
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