Warning: This article contains spoilers for Hereditary.
Towards the back end of Hereditary, Ari Aster’s extraordinary feature debut, a secret is discovered in an attic. That’s not particularly unusual for a horror film, of course – movies as diverse as Bob Clark’s slasher classic Black Christmas and the more contemporary Sinister have cast the attic as a place to hide bodies and portents.
But unlike those films, in Hereditary, the secret is not a clingfilm wrapped body, or a long-haired ghoul. It is a photo. Or, more accurately, a series of them, hidden in plain sight – trapped between the distinctly ordinary leather bound pages of a family diary.
Watch the trailer for Hereditary here:
Nor are these pictures haunted in the way we can sometimes use that word. They’re not of horror, or violence, or death. They are of a grandmother, smiling in that quietly malign way grandmothers can sometimes smile, her face caked in make-up so thick it looks to be hiding some disorder of the skin.
I never met my maternal grandmother, except through photos tucked in albums eerily similar to the ones Hereditary’s haunted protagonist Annie (Toni Collette) claws through, her face contorted impossibly wide. The photos were old; blurred. I couldn’t tell you a thing about what my grandmother looked like now. I haven’t seen those photos in years, and even when I first clapped my eyes on them, they barely registered.
A grandmother is meant to give you the things your parents won’t; to spoil you; to slip you little sweets, and trinkets, and coins. To kiss you on the forehead and mutter “God bless” at night; to tuck you in, a cushion of their perfume looming up over you. That’s what my paternal grandmother did anyway, and for me, she was the archetype of the elder. She was English, and she never swore, and she wore cardigans she would run the back of her liver-spotted hands against when she was worried about something, which was often.
Listen to one of the key tracks from Hereditary here:
My maternal grandmother did none of these things. My maternal grandmother was a gaping absence. She was a ghost. She had died very young, when my own mother was just 16. As I grew up, I learned a little more about her, but never very much. I learned that my mother didn’t always like her; that they fought often; that my grandmother had died angry at all of her three children, and at her husband, and at the world. But that was it. Once, when I was just 18, a new girlfriend asked me what my grandmother’s name was. I thought for a long time. I couldn’t answer.
Hereditary is a film about ghosts as most of us know them. The spirits in the film aren’t pale visions composed of smoke: they are bad memories; regrets; mistakes. Paraphrasing Henry James, Guillermo Del Toro once said that ghosts are representations of the past; that they are “impediments to us moving into the future.” This is the role they play in Hereditary. They are lingering, traumatic stains.
As the film starts, Annie loses her mother. Within half an hour of the film’s run-time, she loses her daughter Charlie (Milly Shapiro) too. Her future is torn bloodily from her; and her past, the looming, bizarre threat posed by her over-possessive mother, won’t seem to leave her alone. Pain wells up against her on either side.
Watch an interview with the cast and crew of Hereditary here:
How often trauma travels in this direction. It drips downwards, through bloodlines, coursing over families. Sometimes, it skips a generation: someone is spared. These survivors flee their childhood home and start some new life in some other part of the country, and only think about their families when they have to, with their teeth gritted.
But even then, no-one ever really gets out. As in Hereditary, families are linked by traumas so all-consuming as to resemble bad spells. And as much as Annie might try to fight, she eventually succumbs to the pain around her; to the great, terrible curse of lineage. By the film’s end, all her inherited suffering has rendered her agency meaningless. She’s nothing but her mother’s cruelty; a puppet, flying around the walls, her face frozen in an expression as lifeless as the ones she cuts into her miniature figures.
When I was 18, I started drinking heavily. I had hated high school, and everything that came with being a teenager. I was ready to do the things people did when they became adults, which the movies had taught me meant drinking a lot, smoking Marlboro reds, and talking less. My mother couldn’t stand being around me while I drank. I didn’t like going out, so I’d do it at home, in the back yard, and it’d drive my mother mad. She would pour my whiskey down the sink when I wasn’t watching.
She never really gave a reason why it annoyed her so much. I didn’t think about it often. I assumed she was irritated about the drinking for the same reason she was irritated with almost everything I did: because she had wanted more for me. Which was a reason, certainly. It just wasn’t the only one.
As in Hereditary, families are linked by traumas so all-consuming as to resemble bad spells.
Over the next little while, things only got worse for me. I drank more; smoked more; spoke so rarely my voice would croak when I did. For long stretches of time I’d lie in bed, staring at the ceiling. For others, I would be insatiable – drinking two litres of whiskey a night and writing page after page of nonsense, possessed by forces I didn’t understand.
Eventually, one evening, after two failed suicide attempts, and years of aching, paralysing depression, I decided to go for a walk. It was something I did almost every night. I walked up the top of my street, round the corner, and then stopped. I couldn’t go on. My body went all stricken. I felt a thousand pounds heavier, just like that. I didn’t know if I was having a seizure, or maybe a stroke. I looked, unnervingly, exactly like Peter at the moment of possession in Hereditary, my body contorted, my eyes very wide.
Watch Toni Collette talk Hereditary:
Everybody hits their lowest point eventually. That was mine. I called my parents. They sent me to a doctor; the doctor sent me to the hospital; the hospital sent me to the psych ward. And that’s where I stayed, for two weeks. There were bars on my windows. At night, the doctors would come around every hour to check I was still alive. You’d have to stand right up against the dirty white tiles of the bathroom when you wanted to clean yourself: the head of the shower only barely jutted out from the wall. It was only after a few days that I realised it was so you couldn’t hang yourself off it.
A less capable filmmaker would want to show you Annie’s mum. She is, after all, the seed of Hereditary’s horror: the point from where all its screaming, and pain, and burning blooms. But Aster never does. She is a perfectly curated absence, never present but somehow always present, leering out of photographs and unexpectedly surfacing in conversation with strangers like a shark’s fin.
I discovered that I had bipolar disorder in the ward. It made a lot of sense to me. It explained the alternating bouts of energy; the attachment to alcohol; the self-destruction. That was also when my mother told me that my grandmother had bipolar too: that she had spent a lot of time in and out of wards; that she would shoplift alcohol to keep up her habit; that her death was due to an accidental overdose of anti-depressants. Realising that made a lot of sense to me too.
Watch an interview with Hereditary director Ari Aster here:
By the end of Hereditary, the conspiracy that Annie uncovers is the conspiracy of family. She is haunted by lineage; forced to watch as her children fit the strange, terrible shape formed by her own mother. This, after all, is what a family is. A family is a steel-jawed trap. A family is the promise of a terrible thing.
My grandmother is my ghost. I have spent some 27 years quietly and accidentally making my life resemble hers. She had a weakness for whiskey too; a penchant for self-destruction; an unstoppable, unswerving desire to make good things go bad.
Bipolar disorder is an inherited illness. It moves downwards. Sometimes it skips a generation. Not, mind you, that the people that it skips – people like my mother – are spared. They suffer in different ways. They are victims too.
None of us get away unscathed. We are all Peter, trapped in a house of mourning. This is how it ends for us all: our father burned to death in the living room, our mother tucked up in the corner like a spider, sawing off her own waxy head. Our worst horrors realised, hiding just there in the corner of a shadow-sick room.
Hereditary is now playing in Australian cinemas. For more longform film criticism, read our thoughts on Annihilation here.