“Hereditary” with Spoilers

Many spoilers below. Watch out.

In the theater where I saw Hereditary, most of the audience began laughing around the middle and gained momentum until the end of the film, calling out things like, “What the hell am I watching?” Yes, that’s right: people in the theater where I saw this laughed at a  dream sequence where a mother tells her son she tried to have a miscarriage when she was pregnant with him, laughed at scenes about a family failing to cope with grief after the death of a child, laughed at multiple beheadings and people suffering from schizophrenic delusions.

I guess that’s how we roll in Detroit. Beheading pun intended.

I didn’t feel afraid while watching Hereditary. This was a complaint made by some other horror writer acquaintances, too. But that’s our job hazard, isn’t it? We work with fear. We pull the strings. When I watch or read horror, I’m analyzing and working my way out of the danger or I’m making up a my own plot and getting bored with yours. You must be very subtle and smart and persistent to make me jump.

Hereditary didn’t make me jump until I sat around and thought about it. It’s like a glass splinter that works its way deeper under the skin. I will definitely watch it again.

The opening scene sets the action in a doll house. There’s a constant interplay between miniatures/toys/constructions and the larger/real(?)/dynamic world. One question that remains with me is how much of the action is occurring naturally and how much is being created. You can’t ever trust dolls in horror, can you? Perhaps all of the action is within the mind of one or several members of a schizophrenic family. Perhaps mom is the only schizophrenic and her dolls are undermining the behavior and sanity of everyone around her through unintentional sympathetic magic. Perhaps the miniatures anchor the family; when they are destroyed near the end, the demise of the family soon follows. The house representing the family harkens back to Poe. Unlike House of Usher, in Hereditary the house still stands when the family falls.

I’ll need to see it again to think more about the visual symbolism of the house and miniatures. There’s even a sculpture of the house inside the house that I’m fascinated with and don’t even know what to say about yet. It looks a bit like the house is erupting from underground, a sort of inverse burial. Sort of the way trees look when they’re uprooted still living in the forest-the house is rising and the dirt and roots below it seem to heave it up.

The point of view shifts and hovers, so the next question is whose story are we following exactly. This is a risky tactic because people like to know who the main character is in a story. In Hereditary, it mutates. Based on one review I expected it to mutate more, and envisioned a film where the characters were malleable and fluid and therefore utterly unsettling, but that would be a different movie. (Maybe like parts of Cronenberg’s Spider, which makes much better use of Gabriel Byrne. Hereditary kind of wastes his talent, and that was a disappointment.) The characters in Hereditary remain consistent while the point of view is uncertain.

One of my favorite things in the film is the contradiction between what the mother says in group therapy – that she was estranged from her own mother – and the intimacy  of them both breastfeeding Charlie portrayed in a dollhouse. The director let me know early on that she was lying about being estranged. What people lie about is much more interesting than hearing them speak their truth, at least for entertainment purposes. The three generations of women seem to be the subject of the film at first, but with Charlie’s brutal death, all this changes.

The death scene is an unexpected gut punch, even if you know the plot beforehand. It is more affecting because the shot that follows of Peter’s face as he does nothing puts the audience right in the seat with him. It’s hard to think of a better horror scene in any film, and it’s nothing but a guy sitting in a car staring ahead.

But of course it’s much more than that. The emotional bravery of the film is overwhelming. Here’s something I love about horror: you get to go there. Where? All the bad dark places no one thinks they can talk about. Emotionally, this film shows a family failing to handle grief and getting everything wrong. There’s no model of healthy behavior here. These people are in pain and they take it out on each other or try to run away from it. Lots of blame, shifting alliances, and confessions that should never be made. There’s apparently a three hour version of the film before the long, drawn out, grueling emotional scenes were cut, so the theater version is Hereditary Lite.

I’d watch the full version for the visuals alone. After Charlie’s accident (is it an accident, though?) we see Peter through distorting glass doors and in mirrors and in ways that state he is no longer whole and solid. The visuals show him eroding with guilt. They place him in isolation. It’s one of so many things being done without words that makes this film powerful.

If you follow the theory that the film is about possession, the main character is the demon or deity who is off-screen the whole time. But I don’t like that simple of an answer. I like the unsettling and murky feelings of chilling discomfort I get from not knowing an answer. And I think possession is too simple of a term for how it ends.

The end is perfection. I can’t say anymore.

Published by: Joe

Joe Koch writes literary horror and surrealist trash. A Shirley Jackson Award finalist, Joe is the author of The Wingspan of Severed Hands, The Couvade, and Convulsive. Their short fiction appears in publications such as Vastarien, Southwest Review, Pseudopod, and Children of the New Flesh. He’s been a flash fiction judge for Cemetery Gates Media as well as co-editing the art horror anthology Stories of the Eye from Weirdpunk Books. Find Joe (he/they) online at horrorsong.blog and on Twitter @horrorsong.

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