16th April 2019
More often than not, grief is something that hits us out of the blue, without notice or restrain it lunges out of the shadows, reminding us unwelcomingly that dealing with loss is part of what it means to be human. Like grief, Ari Aster’s debut feature: Hereditary exploded out of the horror genre without warning, creeping ominously onto our screens first through an evocative trailer which threw up a great deal of question and intrigue. What were audiences to expect and just what was this film about; a family dealing with the after effects of the death of their matriarch? A tale about a young, possessed girl who happens to like decapitating animals? Or simply a portrait of a woman that dedicates her time to painting miniatures who may also be having a nervous breakdown? The impossibility to neatly compartmentalise the film right from the outset is indicative of its complexity; along with the Graham family, we embark on a journey that travels in one direction only to hurdle unexpectantly towards another, never allowing us long enough to get comfortable. As such then, Hereditary might be most accurately described as a moodscape, a meditation on that fact that we are never allowed to feel fully settled in our own lives as we respond to a range of emotions and events moment by moment.
The Oxford English Dictionary defines grief as: ‘intense sorrow, especially caused by someone’s death’. Whilst true, equating grief above all else with sorrow is reductive in terms of securing a critical reading of Hereditary. Instead, what we experience is told through a series of chapters which can be attributed to the Kubler-Ross model known more widely as ‘The Five Stages of Grief’. Originally used as a tool to mark the psychological process of terminally ill patients, the model is now commonly accepted as a general framework for the five phases of bereavement. It is through the prism of this model that I apply an analysis of Hereditary with the aim of demonstrating all five stages are present and that therefore Aster’s film is ultimately an exploration of grief.
An initial reaction to loss or a bereavement, denial is a natural defence mechanism used to reject the reality of a situation meaning we don’t have to face the hurt and pain that comes with it. When we first see the Grahams, they have suffered the loss of Ellen, the Grandmother and matriarch of the family. There is no hint of closeness between parents Annie and Steve and their two children Peter and Charlie. Instead, it is abundantly clear that they are not dealing with grief well as a unit; their interactions are detached and they retreat to spend time alone in separate rooms of the house. Furthermore, they are no better at communicating outside of the house either as can be seen at the funeral where they drift about aimlessly. In Annie’s speech she makes reference to the ‘private rituals, private secrets and private anxieties’ her mother harboured, our first insight that the current detachment permeates through the family tree. Despite their apathy towards one another, the Graham’s are cursed to gravitate reluctantly back together but with no sign of intimacy, instead they act with complete indifference towards one another.
Once back home, Annie admits to Steve that she: ‘doesn’t know what to be’ which is of course a perfectly normal remark given the circumstances. However, this is followed up with: ‘should I be sad?’ suggesting a much deeper sense of emotional distancing. The next shot we see is one of Annie’s models; a clinical scene featuring her now deceased mother. In miniaturising events in her life, Annie is simultaneously minimising them, as mere creations they are removed from reality, a denial which masquerades as a coping mechanism. Interestingly, in another act of resistance, it’s Steve who openly refers to the model as ‘the hospice’, Annie either cannot or does not wish to say it. As we shall see, Steve acts as the bridge between his wife and children across the film but there’s something lacking in his authenticity, as though he is merely duty bound to be the neutralizer. Flitting from Annie’s studio where they make stilted conversation to Peter’s bedroom where he just wants to check his son is: ‘okay about everything’ in an echo of Annie’s earlier question: ‘shouldn’t I be sad?’ he asks Peter (who in response, shakes his head): ‘you’re not sad?’ The cracks in their father / son relationship become even more visible as Peter’s reassuring smile fades as soon as Steve leaves the room. Across all their different dynamics, the Graham’s deny themselves expression of emotion and consequently there is a noticeable tension fizzling underneath all their interactions.
A similar struggle for parent / child connection takes place in Charlie’s bedroom where Annie reveals to her daughter that Grandma wouldn’t let her feed her as a baby acknowledging that to a certain degree the two of them have been denied a mother / daughter bond. Unable to look at her mother whilst conversing, Charlie admits to an awareness that Ellen would have preferred for her to be a boy. Even young Charlie doesn’t escape being denied something; acceptance to be herself. When she questions her mother about who will take care of her when she is gone, Annie assures her that: ‘Daddy and Peter’ will assume this role. Charlie’s reaction to this is telling of another unhealthy dynamic as she clearly fears rather than welcomes such a prospect. Trying to encourage her daughter that release can be healing, Annie gently tells Charlie that it might feel: ‘like a relief’ to cry but she is unable to elicit a response. What Annie fails to see is that in not expressing emotion openly in front of her child, she is in turn teaching her that the right thing to do is to repress her own. Their inability to communicate is not just a one way failing as when Annie notices a word written on Charlie’s wall she chooses not to raise this with her. Once more, the impossibility of the Graham’s allowing themselves any release of the unspoken is what keeps them frozen in their collective state of denial.
When we see Annie alone, we are provided with a private glimpse into the extent of her denial. As she looks through a box labelled: ‘Mom’s things’ she cannot bring herself to leaf through a photograph album for more than a few pages, preferring to keep these memories shut up tight. A notelet bearing the initials EL strangely asks Annie: ‘not to despair your losses’ as she: ‘will see in the end that they were worth it’. This is hugely mystifying and poses the question as to whether this is the reason why she is so unable to connect with her family. How much is she aware of at this point, how much is she supressing and is she supressing it because she knows how doomed everything is or simply because she can’t deal with what she is uncovering? The note ends with reference to: ‘our sacrifice’ upholding the suggestion that whatever this is, it is a family-wide burden. Closing the box tightly to avoid confronting any feelings she may be experiencing; Ellen appears to her suddenly in the dark. Annie’s mind is fighting against her denial by proving that she cannot erase her mother so easily and that if she continues to deny the tension surrounding their relationship, her grief will manifest itself in other ways. The sight of her mother doesn’t appear to comfort Annie, instead she reacts by rejecting another aspect of her past by turning a miniature of her mother breastfeeding Charlie away from view. When she joins Steve in bed later that night and confesses that: ‘I just scared myself in the workshop’ and he asks with what. Although she chooses not to elaborate further it is notable that he also closes off any potential for exploring this by not probing any deeper.
Walking towards her mothers’ room which is a near empty shell, Annie spots a strange triangular shape marked out on the floor. Once again, she cannot bring herself to commit to the moment and does not enter the room to find out more. Not only does she shut the door resolutely, she enlists her husband to lock it ensuring that the space which she associates with her mother is now inaccessible to everyone. This action is immediately followed by a telephone call from the cemetery to advise of the desecration of Ellen’s grave. Steve deals with this and as he finishes the call Annie is seen putting her coat on to flee from another uncomfortable conflict. Tentatively, she enquires what the call was concerning and he withholds the truth claiming it to be: ‘some billing crap’. The deceit between them builds as she opts not to tell Steve where she is going. How much Annie knows of the phone conversation is ambiguous but she seems to instinctively gage that it’s not good news and her response is to remove herself from any discussion relating to her mother.
Although Steve might not know where his wife is going, the audience soon discover that Annie has taken herself to a support group to deal with her grief as she admits of her family: ‘I don’t think they could offer me that kind of support’. After an initial reluctance, Annie addresses the group and is clearly more comfortable opening up to strangers, perhaps because they cannot challenge her version of the truth. Annie reveals that she was estranged from her mother and that her death wasn’t a: ‘big blow’ although it’s clear that she was a presence in her life that had a significant impact. Interestingly, she confesses to loving her mother and refers to how difficult her life had been as a sufferer of dementia. We then learn more detail of Annie’s cursed background including the suicide of both her father and older brother which she describes as being: ‘her mother’s life’ but what she doesn’t acknowledge is that this was her own life too. She explains how despite her mother’s controlling behaviour she carried a lot of personal guilt when she became ill. In a troubling confession she confides that: ‘its all ruined’ and she is: ‘blamed’ an indication that denial cannot stop this family from falling apart.
Outside of the family home, Peter and Charlie continue their dysfunctionality and lack of being present in different ways to varying degrees. Charlie sits playing with a toy when she should be completing a quiz and when approached by the teacher, she agrees to stop but her mind appears to be elsewhere. At this moment a bird flies into the classroom window before falling to the ground and the children react with a unified gasp. Charlie on the other hand remains silent, starring ahead at a pair of scissors, the detachment she is surrounded by in her home life has filtered out into her day to day world and she is unable to respond to events in the way that others do. Likewise, Peter’s alimentation from the world is achieved through his drug use and his vacancy in the classroom scenes is strikingly obvious. As the teacher discusses the myth of Heracles and the debate of fate versus control, a student notes how the tragic hero refused to see the signs that were: ‘literally handed to him, literally throughout the entire play’, a description that fits Peter’s character arc perfectly. Indeed, at this very moment he disengages and takes out his mobile phone to text a friend across the room who he plans to get high with during the break, this is his method of escapism. When asked by the teacher for his thoughts, Peter cannot contribute and another student remarks how the characters of Sophocles play (like the Grahams) are part of a: ‘hopeless machine’. There are two possibilities at work here; one the family are pre-destined to begin in denial and as such bring about the events that occur and two, that even if the family chose to move towards acceptance, this would have no bearing on the chain of events that follow. As events unfold, the siblings gradually grow more and more disconnected, spending time in their rooms undertaking questionable activities (Peter smokes weed and Charlies makes strange creations out of random objects) which neither of their parents pay attention towards.
One of the most significant relationships at the heart of the film is that of Annie and Peter. When he approaches her to ask if he can borrow the car, the tension between them is razor sharp as they notably talk to one another in a series of stichomythic questions that are steeped in resentment. At the party, even Peter and Charlie float around distant from one another and ultimately Peter denies his responsibility to his sister by leaving her to get high which will result in the start of an awful night for them both. On their way to the hospital a tragic incident occurs and it is in response to this that we first see Peter express his emotions as he sheds tears; he can only manage this in private. In a breath- taking sequence he drives back to the house and immediately retreats to bed; denying this ever happened is easier than acknowledging the horror of the situation. All that is left is for him to stare alone into the void he has created as his parents make the nightmarish discovery.
After the initial shock of loss has dissolved and the reality of events come into focus, anger begins to take over as the principle emotion. We are not yet ready to absorb the truth of our situation and similar to denial, anger becomes a way of postponing coming to terms with the truth. This second stage of grief can be directed at the deceased person, our loved ones, complete strangers or in some cases, even objects. In this new phase, Annie’s grief is much more openly released in response to the death of Charlie as we see her wail in despair unrelentingly. In fact, this heart-breaking outpour of emotion comes from so deep within Annie and is sustained onscreen for so long that the grief she expresses might also include the delayed response to losing her mother.
Annie’s seemingly cathartic release, however, does not work towards bringing the family closer together, instead it engineers a further separation as her denial evolves into anger. When confronted with the sight of Peter on the driveway, she sits broodingly in the car starring ahead unable to approach him. Her relationship with Steve also maintains its distance as she continues to detach herself from him in lying about where she is going and preferring to sleep in a haunt we have only previously seen Charlie in; the treehouse. It is at this time that Annie begins to visit Joan, a woman who she has made a connection with at the support group. In her meetings with Joan, she is able to speak more candidly about her daughter’s death, describing the horror of what she saw and how this made her feel. Importantly, what also comes to the forefront in these conversations is that her anger is channelled directly at Peter. As she describes an incident regarding paint thinner and matches which could’ve ended tragically but didn’t, it is clear that there are resentment issues between Annie and her son that stem back prior to Charlie’s death. Annie talks of how he has: ‘always held this against her’ and given recent events, she now has something to use as a reciprocal hold over him.
Although her grief has moved on a stage, Annie’s place of escape is still her workshop where Steve now finds her constructing what she calls: ‘a neutral view of the accident’. This fuels his anger and he is scoffing of her remark that it’s not about Peter as he knows that behind the model making she directs the blame and anger towards their son. She is trying desperately to process her grief in the only way she knows how and instead of allowing her the opportunity to discuss this, Steve first moves the conversation away from the death of Charlie and then onto the mundane by asking her if she is coming down to dinner. Another opportunity for husband and wife to understand one another is lost and escalates towards rage as Steve lashes out at her proclaiming that he doesn’t: ‘really give a shit’ if she comes to dinner or not. If Annie’s anger is directed towards Peter then Steve’s anger is directed towards his wife.
As it transpires, Annie does come to dinner and this becomes a crucial scene for defining the current phase of anger that the Graham’s are experiencing. This family mealtime is heavily charged with a current of snapping tension and is so rich with detail that it’s hard to gain a full understanding of the dynamics from a single watch. Parents and son are highly alert and defensive, ready to interpret any address as a potential threat. Annie observes every move, gesture and expression that Peter makes with utter contempt, jeering when he exchanges pleasantries with his father. In an attempt to shatter the silence, Peter bravely opens up conversation by asking his mother if she is okay and if there’s anything she wishes to say. As we have seen from their previous exchanges, they communicate with one another through a series of clipped questions that go back and forth. It feels that we are on the cusp of an explosion which might be healthy for the family but once more Steve tries to put the jack back in the box by warning Peter off broaching this any further. However, Peter pushes with persistence and Annie soon retaliates. She concedes that Charlie’s death was an accident, that her son is in pain but also unfairly blames him, echoing her admission in the support group that: ‘she is to blame’. Annie’s anger reaches its peak as she refuses to release her son but in doing so is also anchoring her own progress in dealing with the grief that is destroying her family. By creating a culture of not acknowledging anything openly and discussing their feelings to work through what has happened, Steve and Annie disenable any possibility of release and healing. Peter reflects his mother’s behaviour by turning his anger and blame back on her in reminding her that she forced Charlie to go to the party. There is an air of deep regret when Annie laments that Charlie’s death did not bring them closer together as a family and in doing so drains any hope of reconciliation amongst them. All Steve can do is assume the role of mediator as he eventually brings the conflict to a halt. What seems most lamentable is that if they had allowed themselves the space to continue this discussion this might have been a release for them all.
While the very notion of the term suggests a willingness to compromise, with bargaining comes a sense of hopelessness that in turn brings about a desire to regain control. Now alienated from her husband and son and still deeply immersed in grief, Annie is searching for something to cling onto and this means she has to amend some of her beliefs and open herself up to new possibilities. On her final visit to Joan, she is exposed to some unexplainable supernatural occurrences through a séance including a moving glass, the sensation of a presence in the room and writing appearing mysteriously on a chalkboard. This has a profound effect on Annie who concludes that if she can persuade Steve and Peter to partake in their own séance she might be able to communicate with Charlie.
Using her bargaining skills, Annie enters Peter’s room and offers an immediate apology for her previous behaviour, whether she is sincere or not is questionable but we know that she needs Peter on side as all members of the family must be present for the séance to be successful. Similarly, she disturbs the sleep of Steve using the affectionate term of ‘baby’ for the first time; pleading them to trust her she does all she can to involve them in the ritual. Even when Steve retorts: ‘for fucks sake’ uncharacteristically she doesn’t rise to the cynicism and remains committed to her cause, calling him: ‘sweetheart’.
Greater forces of fate are at work in the later stages of the film as the Grahams become bargaining tools themselves; Annie’s voice is possessed by Charlie, a trail of insects leads her to Peter’s room where his head is covered in the creatures reminiscent of an earlier shot we have seen of Charlie and an action that Annie believes will result in her death proves fatal for Steve. Peter also enters the last stage of his journey by becoming a channel for bargaining when he is overtaken by a bright light in readiness for the final act.
Before Annie can move to the fifth and final stage of grief she must first pass through the penultimate phase of depression. In mapping out the journey of the Graham’s the passage of depression does not occupy much of the film’s running time and it could almost be missed between the heights of anger and the grim inevitability of acceptance. The key scene that signifies Annie’s descent into a depressive state is the destruction of her art. Having set Peter and Steve firmly on edge with her enforcement of the séance Annie has isolated herself completely only now she has something to believe in, she has a mission, to save her son and in order to do this she must sacrifice herself and come to terms with reality. A huge step in achieving this is to remove the coping mechanism she has been hiding behind; her miniatures. In tearing apart objects that not only represent hours of skilled work but fundamental memories that make up the fabric of her life, Annie is destroying a part of herself. Her modelling can no longer be depended upon for escapism or alleviation as she has arrived at a place that is hopeless and yet paradoxically revelatory. When Steve finds her sat amongst the ruins of her work and questions why she has done this, she remarks: ‘I just don’t feel like looking at it anymore’. Annie has surrounded herself with tableaus that represent the darker side of life; illness, death and loss and she has to let go of these in order to move away from her earlier modes of denial, anger and depression. We also see Steve shift closer towards depression as he now needs to take medication in order to function.
Acceptance for the Graham family is not an indication of hope or happiness, instead it represents them coming to terms (to varying degrees) with events as they hurdle towards their inevitable fate. Annie comes to realise that there is a connection between her mother and Joan which prompts her to revisit her mothers’ box of belongings. Here she is compelled into acceptance as in looking at the contents of the box she finds tangible evidence of her mothers’ association with Joan allowing her to move forward without questioning anything. In a moment that mirrors an earlier scene, Peter becomes Charlie and Steve becomes Peter as the father almost causes a collision with his son in the back seat; with both hands on the wheel he proceeds to break down in tears.
In addition to reaching a place of acceptance herself, Annie also needs the acceptance of others as can be seen when she begs Steve to confirm that her mother’s body is in the attic. She desperately tries to explain the connection to the photographs and the symbol on the necklace. Unfortunately, Steve cannot reach the same space of acceptance as although he sees the body, he believes his wife has removed the corpse from the cemetery. Distraught and fearful that there is little time to save Peter, Annie now becomes willing to accept fault for events and to sacrifice herself by asking Steve to throw a sacred book into the fire which she believes will result in her death. In another cruel twist of fate however, she unfortunately misjudges this situation and the outcome is not what she anticipated.
As we draw to the closing scenes it is now Peter’s turn to face acceptance as he walks about the emptiness of the house to discover the burnt body of his father. Seeking a hiding place from his mother, he retreats to the attic and is forced to confront a photograph of himself with the eyes cut out. At this stage, he still refuses to believe and proceeds to slap himself across the face declaring: ‘wake up!’ sadly, he has no choice but to accept what he witnesses next as Annie decapitates herself and he is the only member of his family to remain alive. As Peter follows his mother’s headless floating corpse he walks with an eerie sense of calm towards his inevitable doom into the treehouse. Once inside, he is surrounded by a horrifying spectacle and remains emotionless as he is pronounced as one of the eight Kings of Hell. Crowned and staring blankly ahead, Peter has now been expelled from his own body and there is nothing left for the audience to do but reflect on what has passed, whether it could have been avoided and wonder what this transmittance from parent to offspring will mean for the future.
By Rebecca McCallum