Updated: Jun 1, 2023
Initially I wanted to focus on only witchcraft and witches this summer when it comes to the horror genre, that has clearly changed. Hereditary (2018) technically doesn’t center around a witch but magic, albeit dark magic, is the catalyst and driving force of the story. Ari Aster has managed to create some instant classics in the 2010’s that branch off into a new type of horror, the slow burn.
The first time I saw Hereditary (2018) I went to the theater extremely uninterested. I viewed the trailer and took away a stereotypical horror movie not worth the cost of viewing it in the flesh. I’m not above admitting I was wrong and completely off base. Not only did I enjoy the movie, but it surprised me and left me asking, “wait what?!” as the credits appeared on the screen.
Don’t worry, my opinion in this post comes from a recent re-watch and not solely my 2018 viewing. Upon my most recent viewing, something I noticed in it’s actuality is the use of camera angles to cause discomfort, the dioramas changing along with the story (even using them as a tool to scare and inform the viewer towards the end), and out of nowhere action in moments that are hard to anticipate.
By this point I figure most horror fans have seen Hereditary and know the basic plot points but just in case I’ll go into a few main details. A woman, Annie Graham played by Toni Collette, is a diorama artist whose mother has just passed. After her mother’s passing her family begins to unravel as they come closer to the truth about their family. Her daughter, Charlie Graham played by Milly Shapiro, is decapitated while in a car by a light pole, her son, Peter Graham played by Alex Wolff, begins to lose his mind and becomes possessed by a demon, and her husband, Steve Graham played by Gabriel Bryne, struggles to keep his family together in spite of the trauma and horror.
Annie makes efforts to investigate the strange happenings, seeking comfort after her daughter passes, and finds answers from a woman she believes she can trust who is also grieving. Unfortunately for her the woman is a member of her mother’s coven and worshiper of the demon Paimon. Annie decides to take Joan, played by Ann Dowd, up on her offer to help relieve some of her pain. Joan teaches her how to contact those that have moved to the beyond aka died. Joan contacts her grandson and informs Annie how she can contact Charlie again.
No surprise: Annie is terrified at first but not terrified enough to run in the other direction of this nonsense. Not only does she mess with this unknown magic, but she also terrorizes her son and husband in the process. Some heart wrenching scenes that are so well acted you feel that you’re hurt as well between Annie and Peter take place, her screaming that she never wanted him after sleepwalking into his room. Not only does Annie reveal that she didn’t want him but that she kept him away from her mother but reconciled with her and let her be overly involved with Charlie pre and post birth.
Annie forces Peter and Steve to participate in the ritual she learned from Joan to talk to Charlie. Obviously, this does not go well. Even after all the shit hits the fan they cannot get out of the situation, finding that burning Charlie’s creepy sketchbook will cause her and Steve to catch on fire, now linked to the object.
One of the best scenes in the movie is brought to us by Alex Wolff who dislocated his jaw while filming. How that happened is no mystery as the scene I’ve mentioned includes Peter smashing his head into his desk while possessed. This moment is a peak in the action of the film and things go from zero to 100 real fuckin quick.
Some other noteworthy moments include Annie decapitating herself with a instrument cord, her body levitating to Charlie’s tree house, and of course the big reveal that several naked people (the coven that worships Paimon) are bowing down to Charlie’s dead body (including Annie’s headless body). We find out that due to the ritual needs to bring Paimon here (I think anyways, I’ll be real I am personally still confused about the goal and methods of this coven but they’re still scary) they needed the first born of this blood line but since Charlie had been primed for this her whole life and not Peter they need to kill (or possess?) Peter with Charlie. Paimon is one of the kings of hell and now he’s here or something like that, which will then provide the coven with riches for doing him that solid from what I understand.
The atmosphere that Ari Aster creates in this family’s home through lighting, sound, and camera work causes discomfort. When watching most recently I felt a general layer of tension in the air while watching the movie. The characters tiptoe around this large, dark home while also tip-toeing around Annie’s grief. Her grief is an invisible character of its own. I have compassion for Annie that she is experiencing a horrible time in her life and I also recognize that she is becoming an all consuming black hole in her life She’s only able to recognize her own pain, wants, and needs and often tramples over Peter and Steve’s pain, wants, and needs.
Annie transforms into her worse self throughout the plot, at the beginning we can see she’s barely keeping it together but once Charlie passes she’s unable to hide the cracks in her foundation (understandably so). I often felt more horrified by how Peter’s treated and his mounting grief that has no space in the house more so than I ever became by Paimon waiting in the wings.
Motifs are another tool used to create building tension, the biggest being Charlie’s tongue pops, it’s always one loud, random tongue pop noise usually during a quiet or tense moment. In the start of the film it’s not a huge plot piece but rather a character attribute, possibly to demonstrate that Charlie isn’t totally run of the mill tween girl energy. After Charlie dies we don’t hear many pops but as we pick up pace towards the climax we hear more and more in closer succession. Culminating in a tongue pop occurring during the final ritual as if to signify the ritual's completion and the full arrival of Paimon.
Decapitation is another motif throughout the movie. Charlie cuts the head off of a dead bird while being watched from afar by Joan, Charlie is killed by decapitation, the grandma’s dead and rotting body in the attic is missing the head, and Annie decapitates herself to name a few. I may have forgotten to mention that Annie’s mother’s grave had been desecrated early on in the movie and Peter finds the body in their attic, decomposing above their heads.
Now, when it comes to magic this is a great warning that you should not mess with shit you do not understand. Annie has made a lifetime effort to not get into her mother’s practice and frankly knows zero helpful information that could’ve saved this family. The lady participates in a seance (and/or summoning) led by a woman who is a virtual stranger she met in a parking lot. All of a sudden she’s frantically waking her family up in the night to teach them to perform a ritual to communicate with the other side…what?
Annie sucks at this magic shit, even if she couldn’t stop the pieces already in motion, she still annoyed me. The coven has been playing this game for who knows how long and have finally reached a pivotal moment in their goal, nothing is stopping these worshipers. So what is the big deal about Paimon?
Paimon appears in grimoires as a spirit, said to be obedient to Lucifer that requires a sacrifice if he appears alone. Different sources mention different numbers of spirits under him but nevertheless he’s up there in the hierarchy of demons and spirits. In Livre des Esperitz Paimon is said to answer all questions asked of him truthfully, to reveal treasures, and to know all of the happenings and goings on in the world.
Hereditary uses the myths and folklore about Paimon to create a haunting scenario where grief is not the only inheritance a close family death brings. The coven of practitioners uses the characters as means to their ends and by providing Paimon with what he wants they will receive what they want in return, granted by his “magic” or rather powers. It’s a really fucked up genie in a bottle situation except Paimon is up to other things and not just waiting for summoning (I assume anyways).
I enjoy Hereditary (2018) and like many others view it as part of the modern Ari Aster horror works that have carved out a genre of their own, inspiring many similarly styled films. I see Hereditary as helping cultivate a turning point for modern horror, horror that is psychological and serious and sometimes doesn’t make a lot of sense upon first watch. The artistic choices don’t go without notice and effect on the movie viewing experience and without fully explaining the story to the viewer we’re left feeling somewhat unfinished and unsettled, not bad feelings to have at the end of a horror movie watch.