Hereditary (2018) and Defining Horror pt. 2/3

Hereditary is a story about a family. Grandmother has died and we see the family – mother Annie, father Steve, daughter Charlie and son Peter – at her funeral. Things are not quite right. There is a strange symbol on the necklaces of grandmother and mother. Annie doesn’t know most of the guests nor did she knew her own mother very well according to her eulogy. A man smiles like a crazy doll in a fun house. Charlie – periodically making a sound which seems to be a tic – is drawing, her dad closes her sketchbook. Charlie gulches some moments later on chocolate, again it is Steve who gets her out of her behavior. Back at home Annie asks ‘Should I be sad?’. ‘You should be whatever you are,’ Steve replies.

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This reply is slightly mirrored in Peter’s class. His teacher asks whether the fate of the hero is more or less tragic if this fate was set in stone beforehand, if there was no choice. Peter doesn’t answer (distracted by a pretty girl), but his classmates think choice makes it more tragic.

In just these first ten minutes Hereditary sets you up with questions as what is choice, what is inherited, should you be who you are and can you escape your fate, while the atmosphere is immediately unsettling. While most call this movie a slow burner, I never felt completely at ease from start till end and I enjoyed it a lot.

In the following I want to look closer at what makes Hereditary a horror movie and while I won’t spoil or say anything the plot, I will use explicit examples from the movie. Best not read before watching!

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Compared to A Quiet Place, Hereditary is a much more a traditional horror in that our focus is on the strange things that are going on. Already in the opening scene we see a blending of categories. The family house is also made by Annie as a doll house. We can see through the doll house to the real world, but as the camera zooms into Peter’s room, towards the little Peter doll, the real Steve walks in the room. The boundaries between the ‘fictional’ doll house and the real world are unclear. After the funeral we see Annie work on another miniature world, the hospice where her mother died. This seems a bit odd. Is she recreating her world in miniature, as her way to cope with her life? Or do her actions have a real effect? After the funeral Steve checks in on his son; teenage room, guitar, just a short talk, nothing out of the ordinary. Annie checks in on Charlie, in Charlie’s room we see that she too is a crafter, she too makes figures, but her figures are not anything recognizable. Her materials seem to be things she finds, later we see her take home the head of a bird she cut off with scissors. Her hobby, like her mothers, is strange, uncanny. Just like their talk. Annie says Charlie was her grandmother’s favorite, that she always wanted to feed her. Charlie replies that she did want her to be a boy. After their talk we see a miniature scene of the grandmother breastfeeding a baby. The male-female situation is changed up. While in a family setting the women are usually morally good, sweet and safe. (Witches are single and barren.) If there is a bad, abnormal element within the family it is usually the man. Annie yells to her son that she never wanted him. The horror! But still, trespassing of cultural categories is not yet horror. The trespassing has to be impossible.

Because horror is about the mixing of categories that are scientifically impossible to mix or cross, there is often a phase where protagonists need to find proof or try to convince others about the existence of the monster. In this phase the viewer learns more about the monster as well, horror often has this element of ratiocination. In Hereditary there is also this phase, and the monster is connected to the family. The family needs to be convinced that something is going on. In Annie’s family history there are a lot of cases of mental illness. In the end, Annie is convinced that something supernatural is going on and she has found proof (books, signs, pictures of people who know each other). She tries to convince her male family members by showing the proof and performing a séance. (She does of course come across kinda crazy doing this.) She also tries to figure out what to do to prevent bad things from happening. We – the audience – are convinced too: we have learned about the grandmother’s plans, connections and ideas, but more importantly: we have seen Annie attached to the ceiling, objects moving, sounds that cannot be, spontaneous fire, etc.

The interesting thing is, that while Hereditary is scary in the traditional horror way, with focus on ‘the monster’ and ratiocination unlike A Quiet Place, Hereditary is less traditional regarding who the monster is. The unit of safety, the family (female family line) is part of the horror. Annie is part of (or at least very close to) what needs to be fought but she is also the one who knows something is going on, she is trying to fight it and to be part of the solution. The questions in the beginning of the movie return stronger: is it more or less tragic to have a choice?

Next post will look at another aspect of horror and the family and will discuss Incident in a Ghostland.

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