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The Cruelest Moments in 'Hereditary' Are Not About Violence

Ari Aster's controversial horror film focuses not just on physical pain, but emotional pain as well.
'Hereditary'   |   Courtesy of A24
Ari Aster's controversial horror film focuses not just on physical pain, but emotional pain as well.

[This story contains spoilers for A24's Hereditary.]

A week after Hereditary's release, audiences continue to debate and dissect the controversial horror project, so it's time to highlight one aspect viewers might not have expected going in. Ari Aster's film shows that family can be more terrifying than spooky things that lurk in the shadows, with the project thriving on the visceral emotional pain of the Graham clan as they deal with figurative and literal demons in their home.

In addition to grieving the recent loss of matriarch Grandma Leigh, they are dealing with traumas of the past. The relationship between mother Annie (Toni Collette) and her teenage son Peter (Alex Wolff) is strained due to an experience several years earlier in which she was sleepwalking and almost set him and his younger sister Charlie (Milly Shapiro) on fire, dousing them in paint thinner before being woken up. And even deeper, the audience learns in a grief counseling scene that a long time ago, Annie’s brother died by suicide, after accusing his mother of trying to put "people in him." This all occurred before the traumatic incident that kicks the story into full gear — the sudden death of Charlie that creates a bigger divide in the home, and an even more tense atmosphere. Hereditary's violent scenes are incredibly cruel. Members of the Graham family are beheaded, lit on fire or shown slicing their own heads off with piano wire. But Aster suggests that the cruelty of a family can be just as insidious.

In the film’s first shocking moment, Peter is responsible for the accidental beheading of his sister when he drives too close to a pole as she's sticking her head out of the car window during a peanut allergy attack. Unable to even look in the rear-view mirror, Peter returns home. Leaving his sister’s headless body in the car, he crawls into bed, in complete shock, and does not tell his parents what happened. When his mother finds the body in the morning, he traumatizes her in a way that she never recovers from.

Aster’s camera remains focused on Peter’s face throughout the scene, which will certainly go down as an iconic moment for the film. Horror fans often look for gaps in logic in scripts and will scoff if a protagonist's actions seem unbelievable. One can’t watch that scene without thinking about what you would have done if you were in the driver’s seat, and likely recognizing Peter’s headspace as feeling authentic for someone who has gone through a traumatic event — even if his actions would be different than yours. One can also sympathize with a character who has inflicted such trauma on his mother. All you need to see is Peter's face as he listens to his mother wailing after finding the body.

Later, Hereditary again takes the minimalist approach with one of its most shocking moments, delivered via a single line of dialogue. After an explosive argument earlier at the dinner table and with the progressively lingering presence of a demon, Annie wakes up from a sleepwalking spell at the foot of Peter’s bed. Startled by her presence, he pleads with her, "Why are you scared of me?" To which she blurts out, looking him dead in the face: "I never wanted to be your mother." Collette delivers the line as though Annie were temporarily possessed, quickly covering her mouth in horror for saying the worst thing a parent could say to a child. During each of the three times I've the film in theaters, this scene elicits one of the biggest, if not the biggest, collective gasps in the audience. For a movie that rarely gives audiences a chance to breathe with its sense of dread, it sucks the air out of the theater in a way that’s uniquely devastating.  

This is where a key influence on Hereditary particularly shines through. Aster has said that he screened Ingmar Bergman’s Oscar-winning classic Cries and Whispers for his crew before making Hereditary, which is all the more perfect given the way that Hereditary and Bergman’s 1972 film heavily depict the suffering of a family; both movies want the very concept of pain to be the primary take-away when you walk out of the theater. The two films are also quite visceral; in Bergman’s movie, about three sisters, there’s even a main character who is screaming in pain on her death bed throughout the pic. She would fit right in with the hell that the Grahams experience.

It’s not surprising that Aster has said that he didn’t initially approach Hereditary as a horror movie, however much the film might draw from genre elements. His primary approach was that of emotional pain, and to make a movie that is challenging to genre audiences and a different kind of disturbing. A new type of nightmare, Hereditary might make you sleep with the lights on, but it’s just as likely to make you consider if there are any demons worth confronting in your own family tree.

  • Nick Allen
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