Hereditary: The abject horror of being helplessly trapped within a crumbling house
While the events of Ari Aster’s 2018 horror film may have ultimately been orchestrated by a mysterious, malevolent cult, it’s in the tangibility of the grief and trauma infecting the film that the true horror of “Hereditary” lies.
Perhaps the most (in)famous scene in “Hereditary” is a scene that many are innately familiar with, regardless of whether they have seen the film. Not because the particular events in that scene are likely to have occurred in any given person’s life, but because of the universal fear evoked by the cruel escalation of an argument that had become inevitable after a gruelingly tense first act and the bottling up of true emotions within a family that is falling apart. For many, this scene represents a worst case scenario in terms of broken people handling their shared grief. Every word in the scene feels like a word that shouldn’t have been said, a word that should have been kept locked up for a while longer, even if by doing so an even bigger explosion would be witnessed.
“I wish I could shield you from the knowledge that you did what you did. But your sister is dead. She’s gone forever.”
As the audience we feel pain for every character involved. If one is spewing a speech that seems inappropriate and hateful, we understand that it comes from a place of unrelenting agony rather than from a place of pure resentment. But those words continue to have their heavy effect, and with every additional word said, the fear of everything crumbling apart right there and then is surely within reach. Would everything remain okay if those words were never said, simply kept inside for the rest of time? Would the perpetual trauma eventually show itself in other, equally destructive ways, as it refuses to go away without a fight? Is there a way to prevent the escalation witnessed onscreen when those involved are so indescribably broken, and just need some medium to release themselves and each other from the horrors that plague them?
The vast majority of people cannot relate with the horror of a cult controlling their lives. But in the case of “Hereditary,” it’s not the cult that the audience is meant to fear. As with any other genre, the tropes and trappings that define it are only a skeleton to be filled, a device to be used for the purpose of conveying something more universally relatable. Science fiction and fantasy stories don’t merely work because of the worlds that they create, they work because even among all that is different, there is something to grasp onto and understand from a more personal level. The same is of course true of horror. Because, yes, we have little reason to fear an evil cult, much like we have little reason to fear a ghost or a zombie or a vampire. But anyone who has had a family has experienced the small dysfunctions that are inherent in such relationships. Anyone who has experienced grief can connect with the fear of such grief breaking apart everything they know and love. Anyone who has trauma set deep within them can be shaken by the grim portrait of trauma such as that coming back to haunt a person and never truly fading away.
What is horror if it doesn’t use its jagged claws to dig deep into the fears that you’ve never truly acknowledged, but have always existed somewhere in your subconscious, having small effects on you throughout your life? In its careful construction, “Hereditary” operates like most other horror films, building tension and suspense, releasing bits of tension at carefully plotted moments, showing images that send chills down the viewer’s spine. But beyond that, it works as an amplifier, taking what it already knows we have inside our minds and drawing these curses to the forefront, as the playful interaction between what’s happening onscreen and the true fear within commences. It’s not only the puppeteering by a cult hiding in the shadows that has the propensity to make us feel utterly helpless. Far before the twist of the film is revealed in its entirety, the feeling of being trapped is more than communicated by what is concretely known. And in those final twenty minutes or so of the film when it conclusively shifts in tone and away from the apparently realistic, the film sneakily removes itself from the literal and focuses on an allegorical conclusion to the events that came before.
That’s not to say that the final act of the film didn’t occur as shown onscreen within the canon of the film, but instead that the film operates as an allegory the whole way through (after all, demons and cults and such are intrinsically tied to the events of the movie from the very beginning, before any audience member has figured it out yet) and it’s in these final moments that it invites a less literal interpretation of the events. With all of the grief and trauma and anger, with all of the escalation that occurs as a result, it’s easy to envision everything falling apart in a nightmarish way. It’s easy to believe that everything going so perfectly wrong had to have been done by some cunning, malicious force, a force that is ready to issue a final fatal blow that ends it all. There has to be some horrifying, tangible conclusion to it all, right?
There’s no denying that “Hereditary” is in many ways a conventional horror film. It’s not particularly arthouse, it employs quite a coherent structure, it uses plenty of tropes of the genre. But it’s deceptive in its conventionality. As it floats in a place between the nauseatingly real and the destructively abstract, the constant thread to follow is less so the plot itself, and more so the tension, the emotions, the tone, as it rises, falls, swells, shifts. For me, the terror of the film grew stronger as I realized what it was trying to do to me, and what it was succeeding at. It’s not that the film knew exactly what would scare me, but rather that it knew how to scare me: By hiding an unexpected dose of reality within the conventions of the genre. Perhaps the idea of the film instilled more fear in me than the film itself. Jumpscares and creepy (but brilliant) music can scare in the moment, but as they fade away, what’s left? For some horror films there’s nothing beyond that, and every ounce of the horror in the film remains contained within the film, disappearing after the credits roll. And maybe for some that’s the case for “Hereditary” as well. In my mind, however, the apparition left by the film lingers far longer than that.
But hasn’t everyone experienced something that the film taps into, or at least has a fear of such things happening? Tragedy can occur at the worst of times, tension within families and relationships can build and build as every word said, event, and interaction seem to just make everything worse, we can inherit things from our parents, grandparents, and ancestors that haunt us no matter how much we refuse to repeat the mistakes of those that came before us, we can fear passing our worst mistakes and woes down to generations to come. Is there any way to reconcile? The decay continues on, holds power over us, affects every moment of our lives, and we are fully in its hands. “Hereditary” understands this truth to an alarming extent. It takes it to the extreme, amplifying our fears, inflating worries that would otherwise take a backseat in our minds, scaring us with the unexpectedly implicit. And all the while, it manages to squeeze in a few jumpscares that serve to remind the viewers of what they are watching, which isn’t merely a particularly upsetting familial drama.
I don’t mean to undermine the film’s actual plot and construction. Taken from a purely literal standpoint, it’s a well-constructed and effective horror film, a technical achievement in essentially every sense. I’ve seen many great horror films that haven’t actually scared me, but could be appreciated for various reasons beyond that. “Hereditary,” however, stands alone in my mind as the film that taught me that I do in fact have the ability to be scared by horror films, whatever being “scared” even means. It’s not that I have experienced events similar to those in the film, but it somehow roots itself in my mind anyways, finding those vague connections to parts of my psyche and making them stronger, more prominent. And when the dust settles, that is exactly what I want a horror film to be.