One Year of ‘Hereditary’: its Personal Impact on Me & its Cultural Impact on the Horror Genre (Originally published for Bloody-Disgusting.com)

The original post can be found on Bloody-Disgusting.com under “Editorials.”

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Every now and again, a film comes along that feels like it was made just for you.  Whether its themes parallel your own personal struggles, its characters possess your own flaws, or it scrapes the bones of your own anxieties— if we are lucky, we all get at least one that comes along that hollows us out and changes us profoundly.  For me, during this week exactly one year ago, that film was Ari Aster’s Hereditary.

I distinctly remember reading the first rumblings about the film after its premiere at Sundance in early 2018.  I was enthralled by the early marketing posters— one in particular with the family home being half-flipped upside down, as each of the four family members resided in separate rooms, away from each other, not communicating.  Another contained a family portrait in which each family member is somberly frowning, looking away from one another, visibly miserable to be near one another.  Shortly after, I watched the inflicting 2-minute trailer and felt my stomach sink.  I was hooked from day one— mainly, because I could relate to this tale.

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Sure, my grandmother wasn’t the queen of a Paimon-worshipping cult, nor have I ever lost a sister from a telephone pole decapitation “accident.”   However, for me (and any other viewer who did not necessarily grow up in a Beaver Cleaver-like household) I felt this family’s pain.  I recognized that misery.  I identified with that tension that permeated throughout their cold, wooden household.  I knew what it felt like to be afraid of your own family’s unraveling.

While some may have walked away from the film remembering those pearl-clutching decapitation scenes or the disturbingly, lifelike miniature dioramas, what has haunted me the most over the last year about Hereditary lies within its intimate, relatable moments.  After the climatic car accident, an ashamed Peter (Alex Wolff) comes home from school on his bike and pauses before entering his home.  He breathes in deeply and nervously shakes his fists, as if mentally preparing himself before having to be anywhere near his grieving mother. Meanwhile, he fails to realize that Annie (Toni Collette) is avoiding him as well, as she hides in the parked car, ducked down in her seat, waiting to drive away, secretly contemplating her decision to attend another grief therapy session, because she cannot even bear to disclose this to her unsupportive family members. Been there, I thought to myself.

And don’t even get me started on the dinner table scene.  When Peter notices his mother’s lack of appetite and provokes her into unleashing her bottled up emotions, I knew he was (deservedly) done for— because I too have witnessed that same form of motherly wrath from my own mother during our worst familial days.  During my first viewing of Hereditary, I misread Annie Graham as a quasi-villain: she seemed to almost resent her children; I didn’t know what to make of her oft-detached style of parenting; I wasn’t sure if she was lying about how little she understood about her own mother’s sinister intentions.  But in my subsequent viewings over the last year, I have completely changed my perception of Annie because she reminds me of my own mother.  Like Annie, my mother (named Ann, coincidentally) cared so deeply for our crumbling family unit that all she wanted to do was turn negative situations into ones that could have “brought us together- or something!” while also “worried, and slaved, and defended” us.  This poignant scene gave me perspective of how much my own mother sacrificed for us, even when she had her own versions of dinner table freak-outs.

When I was around the same age as Peter is in the film, and my family hit an explosive precipice during its split up, I experienced moments like these constantly.  Everything from the “fucking face on your face!” arguments, to unspoken tension, to awkward avoidances of another family member at all costs, to not being able to tell my own family how I felt about everything and just burying it like Annie does— my family home felt much like the Grahams’ home, and seeing that reflected so sincerely on screen gave me an odd sense of comfort.  Finally, I thought, a film that really understands how to capture that brand of isolating, collapsing home life.

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Judging from the waves of Internet dissections and other op-eds, I was far from alone in how this film has affected me over these last 12 months, which brings me to ask: What exactly is it about Hereditary that none of us have been able to shake, and what will its legacy continue to be within the horror genre?   

Its sense of realism

Fear is subjective, and whether or not you found its figures lurking in the shadows and meticulously inserted “cluck” sounds scary is your call.  However, where Ari Aster struck gold is within the film’s unsettling sense of realism— the feeling that we, as an audience, could identify with the Graham family, as they reminded us so much of ourselves.  Every moment containing screaming flare-ups, sleep-walking confessions of cruel honesty for things that could never been unsaid, choosing alcohol or pot to ease grief and depression, every questionable, yet human decision— Hereditary held up a mirror to our faces and forced us to look inward.  Specifically, Peter’s choice to not look behind him in the backseat after we all knew that Charlie had just died is one of the most realistic depictions of a teenage character’s behavior that horror doesn’t always grasp.  Acting out of fear instead of rationality is what makes his character’s decision so authentic.  The Grahams, with their flaws and fleshed-out arcs, could be any of us, which makes the eventual fates that befall them all the more disconcerting.  Hell, it even inspired us all to Google “Paimon” and discover that he is, indeed, an actual demonic entity that real cults worship.

Its non-exploitative look at trauma & mental illness

While countless other genre films have used characters’ mental health issues for scares or shock value, Hereditary takes a more thoughtful and less exploitative approach.  Even though I would argue that most of the (living) characters depicted in the film weren’t actuallymentally ill and much of the supernatural elements were to blame, Hereditaryhas done an excellent job at commenting about how certain individuals take advantage of those suffering from any of these issues, as well as how dismissive some can be towards those who suffer from internal pain.  Annie’s elusive mother Ellen manipulated her into thinking that mental illness was running in the family to cover up the fact that she literally was attempting to “put people inside” of her family members, hiding the truth from her daughter for decades.  Sadly, Ellen’s lies likely led to an actual form of PTSD and repressed trauma for Annie, which eventually did get passed onto her own children, ironically. The film interestingly flips the old school notion that mental illness equals demon possession and flips it to actual accuracy.  Additionally, while Steve (Gabriel Byrne) sometimes earns our sympathy for being the most level-headed of the unit, his dismissiveness of Annie and his repeated use of referring to her as “sick” instead of just listening to her and believing her is frustrating to us, because we know Annie is telling the truth.  Like Rosemary’s Baby and Gaslight that came before it, Hereditary has reiterated the message to a contemporary audience that we still have a lot of work to do when it comes to how we treat those suffering from trauma.

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 It doesn’t give us a happy ending

Hereditaryhas distinguished itself amongst its peers in terms of how it breaks up, so to speak, with its audience.  While films like Get Out,The Witch, and The Babadook let us down more gently and gave us (some) sense of hope in their conclusions, Hereditary doesn’t lie to us.  Instead, it tragically yanks the rug out from underneath us and reminds us that sometimes things are not going to be okay.  It chooses to give us a narrative resolution instead of an emotional one, which felt surprisingly satisfying to us because it’s so uncommon— even in horror. Aster has claimed that his intent was to make a film that depicts what happens when things do not work out for the best (a whopping understatement), which not only made the film more memorable, but oddly more cathartic.  We felt like the film took us, the audience, more seriously by not giving us everything we wanted, because real life can often feel the same way.  Much of the horror genre aims to help us conquer our fears, while Hereditary aims to help us process our emotions, like any other form of good therapy.

Its role in the “elevated” horror conversation

One of Hereditary’s most prominent legacies will perhaps be its role within the “elevated horror” conversation.  In a decade filled with so many prestige genre films, Hereditary was surely not the first nor the last of its kind, but it has played a huge part in how we categorize and discuss films, particularly those that happen to be both artistic and horrifying.  While horror fans have known how capable the genre is at exploring weighty themes for decades, it sure has been gratifying to remind the “I usually don’t like these kinds of movies, but I like this one” crowd that, yes, that film you just watched was indeed a horror film that you would normally look down upon.  Hereditary may not have (infuriatingly) garnered any Oscar nominations this year, but as one of A24’s most successful films, it has helped catapult independent horror, while also raising our expectations for future genre films to come.  We expect more from a film’s characters, metaphors, and performances, because films of Hereditary’s caliber have proven to us that the genre is more than competent to bring that to us.

Even though there is nothing inherently happy about you, Happy First Birthday, Hereditary.  Thanks for helping so many others and myself make sense of our own traumas.  We reject the trinity and pray devoutly to you, Great Ari Aster.

Aster’s sophomore film Midsommar will likely traumatize us all over again on July 3.~

 

 

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