When I strolled into Williamsburg Cinemas to treat myself to seeing Hereditary after a light brunch, I didn’t know that I was doing everything but treating myself (at least in the traditional sense). From the shockingly abrupt death of one of the main characters to the subsequent physical and mental deterioration of the family, Ari Aster’s hybrid of an intense family drama and blood-curdling horror flick takes us through a deeply emotionally disturbing experience. There are very few qualities or lived experiences that I can relate to Annie and her family on. They live in a giant, secluded home in a scenic wooded area, both Annie and Steve have white-collar careers, they’re white and don’t have any type of interaction with people of color throughout the film. However, Hereditary behooves all viewers, regardless of race or social class, to become emotionally invested in the lives of its characters by contorting, yet also reflecting, one of the most sacred bonds that most, if not all people, have either personally experienced or hoped to, the relationship between a mother and her children.
The maternal conflicts between Annie and her mother, Ellen, and Annie and Peter create a familiar sense of emotional baggage that we can identify with on some level, making the scenes in which these characters are terrorized by the supernatural that much more horrifying. Annie’s contempt for her mother is heartbreakingly clear to the audience from the very beginning, during the funeral and the few scenes thereafter. In her eulogy, Annie describes Ellen as “a very private person” and admits that she does not know most of the people who have come to pay their respects to her late mother. Later that night, Annie tells Charlie that her grandmother “wouldn’t even let me feed you” to impart to her that she should find comfort in knowing that she was her grandmother’s favorite. After that scene, the camera cuts to a close-up of one of Annie’s miniature art pieces, showing Annie breastfeeding baby Charlie as Ellen approaches her, disrobing as if getting ready to take Charlie away from Annie and breastfeed her herself. The image gives us a glimpse of Ellen injecting herself into the fabric of Annie’s nuclear family without the emotional closeness necessary to even attempt such a flagrant overstepping of boundaries. We see the root of the turmoil in Annie and Ellen’s relationship again when Annie attends a grief support group meeting. When she introduces herself, she recounts the suicides of her father and brother and asserts “...and that’s my mother’s life,” further exposing a weird paradox that forms the basis of her relationship with her mother. The emotional distance and resentment between Annie and her mother prevents her from fully processing and acknowledging the pain rendered by the tragic deaths within their family as her own. Yet, Annie begins her introduction to the support group, a place where she came to seek help for herself and an outlet to tell her own story, with a complete rundown of her “mother’s life.” Annie never fails to mention her emotional detachment from Ellen, but at the same time she reminds us that their families, lives, and pain are inseparable.
The tropes of the overbearing mother and the absentee mother/scorned child pair are commonly used in TV and film because, albeit to an exaggerated extent, they reflect the wide spectrum of challenges that mothers face. In today’s environment of postpartum snapback selfies and the ubiquitously high standards for women, in general, it is difficult for any mom to feel like they are not failing at motherhood. Mothers have to balance not smothering their children, but also not living their lives too independent of their families and, as a result, rendering feelings of abandonment. What makes Hereditary so gut-wrenchingly terrifying is that Ellen manages to destroy her family by doing both. Certainly, her use of devil worship to achieve this feat is the obvious trigger of fear, but the very foundation that our fear is steeped in is the societal pressures that make mothers think any mistake they make has the power to single-handedly cause grave, irreversible damage to their children. We watch Hereditary with our stomachs clenched and eyes half-shielded because it shows us our own worst nightmare: the complete destruction of a family at the hands of the mother.
While the hyperbolic depiction of motherhood gone wrong with Ellen and Annie slightly creeps us out in the beginning of the film, the unraveling of Annie and Peter’s already-strained relationship tips us over the edge. Many people have heralded Charlie’s decapitation as the most frightening scene in Hereditary, with good reason, as the abrupt changes in lighting from pitch black to beaming headlights, in sound from chaotic music to complete silence, and in imagery from Charlie’s flailing body to her lifeless corpse take us on an eerily exhilarating joy ride that is unmatched by any other pivotal moment in the horror genre. However, Annie’s sleepwalking scene could be argued as a close second or even tie for most terrifying because, like the scenes that focus on Ellen and Annie’s relationship, it plays on our innate trepidation of the difficulties of motherhood. If Annie telling Joan about how she almost burned her children alive wasn’t enough to turn your stomach, the dream sequence in which we actually see the flames engulfing Peter’s body reflecting off of Annie’s face surely is. Annie and Peter’s back-and-forth before his body becomes ablaze is equally disturbing. In a fearful, yet frustrated, voice, Peter asks Annie, “Why are you afraid of me?” Annie then admits that she never wanted to be a mother and, in fact, tried to miscarry. The cause of the growing tension between Annie and Peter could be construed as hate but might actually be fear. Fear that she was never supposed to be a mother. Fear that having children was a mistake. Fear that she regrets having children so much so that she will do anything to rectify that mistake, even if it means killing them. Over the past few years, there has been an increase in honest conversations about mental health and an acceptance of women seeking other sources of fulfillment in their lives, besides being a mother. However, the prevalence of these discussions has not completely erased the stigma that women who regret having children or suffer from postpartum depression face. By rooting Annie’s murderous antics towards her children in her reluctance to be a mother, this scene uses our misunderstanding of women with less-than-ecstatic feelings about motherhood to incite our deeply-rooted fears of women not just damaging their children, but not wanting them altogether.
Hereditary is a must-see movie experience. Although it was a story filled with demons, spirits, and other fictitious supernatural elements, the level of humanity that the writing and actors were able to portray was astonishing. Much like Jordan Peele with Get Out, Aster created a film that has traditional uses of shock value, but unlike other horror movies, uses those short instances to piece together a larger narrative on lived human experiences. Grief and trauma can threaten any relationship, but when it causes disruption between a mother and her child, a bond that constantly walks a tightrope of joy and pain, we become especially frightened by what may lie ahead. Hereditary masters the manipulation of this feeling and leaves us both emotionally drained and oddly validated from seeing our own personal, yet collective, fears portrayed on the big screen.