Contains spoilers! (Viewed three times)
As fans of Diabolical and Occult Horror we dare to stare into the artistic abyss in an effort to understand why we find the theme so appealing. Is it an attempt at psychological self-analysis of the Jungian Shadow? Or is it a floundering fight to wrestle with our own inner demons?
Whatever the reason (not that one is needed), few such films in recent years have had quite the impact that ‘Hereditary’ has had. While some have compared it with another icon of Satanic Cinema canon by calling it “this generation’s ‘The Exorcist’” (Time Out New York) – others have ridiculed it for obscuring it’s more subtle elements beneath too much eye candy; or (more bizarrely) claiming that its “predictable” or “supernatural” ending ruined it (!). But in a film in which the supernatural and diabolical elements are the main plot point, what else should one expect, or want, from the ending of such a film? Should the ending be made more ambiguous via: Was it really the Devil or was it all just in her own head?
Why not have a supernatural ending? (Some of us like that sort of thing, you know). And with director Ari Aster‘s latest spiritual folk horror infused film ‘Midsommar’ set for imminent release (and timely Midsummer being the time for the Feast of St. John the Baptist – the famous decapitated prophet), we thought it time to take a closer occult-geek look at Hereditary.
Let us allow our eyes to adjust to the Darkness within and see what we can read upon the twisted familial tree of Hereditary. Of course, if you have not yet viewed the film, this article will certainly spoil the movie for you; save it for after you’ve seen it.
The Opening Shot Sums It All Up
The opening shot of Hereditary has us looking out from a window of the Graham family’s home at the exterior of a treehouse – which itself is a kind of home in miniature. It is built upon and supported by the trunks of mighty birch trees, a few of which have had their tops severed off to form a base for the treehouse structure which is the site of the film’s climax. A fly buzzes around the window’s interior hinting that a germ of corruption is already present. The camera then pulls back to show us an artist’s studio where realistic miniatures are created in minute detail before settling on the interior of one of these miniature houses, steadily zooms in, and the action begins taking place from within a “miniature” house.
The miniatures featured in the story are the work of the artist / mother Annie Graham – played to Oscar worthy heights by actress Toni Collette. Annie tries very hard to maintain control over her world. Her work on miniatures is a reflection of this: Annie’s reality is being reduced to what she is able to hold and manipulate with her own hands, keeping a grip on what is largely beyond her control because, as we come to learn, there are potent occult forces at work.
The trees supporting the treehouse, with either their tops (heads) cropped off or appropriated trunks (torsos), could represent the disintegration and eventual overcoming of the family of four’s natural identity (see below for more on the significance of the decapitation motif). The cropped (decapitated) and appropriated (possessed) trees supporting a smaller house outside the family home could be the sacrifice of the Graham family’s individual lives to support an outside force, a daemonic element. This demonic element we come to discover is the demon King Paimon – an infernal spirit who appears in a number of demonic lists and magical grimoires. This treehouse is a refuge for “outsider” daughter Charlie Graham (Milly Shapiro); it’s a microcosm of, or spiritual battery for, the forces converging upon the Graham family. Viewing the treehouse as superseding the family tree element supports the parasitic or false identity element of demonic possession. This treehouse also calls to mind the Spirit houses of Asia and Pacific Islanders; and this treehouse is indeed a “spirit house” as we discover by movie’s end. The artificial house of geometric form and triangulated roof surmounts and replaces the sacrificed tops of God’s and Nature’s birches; the family tree is capped with an artificial alien construct.
Miniatures, Mannequins and Manipulation
The mother-artist is a combination which on its own creates a dynamic tension (we know whereof we speak). Indeed, there is an automatic inner struggle for Annie to maintain a balance between supporting these two facets. She is a creator of artificial worlds in miniature. She creates miniature scenes: houses, a daycare, a hospital room, a funeral home, and – in a bizarre pseudo meta revelation – even a replica of her own planned exhibition; and she peoples them with perfectly scaled mannequins which she paints and positions in realistic ways. Annie is fighting to maintain a grip on her world, a world which is steadily and increasingly slipping away from her. The subtle cracks in the edifice of the Graham family are – like the demonic formulas scratched into the walls of the house – showing from the start. Annie and her family are themselves (like miniature mannequins) in the grip of much greater powers than they can possibly realize. It is as if they are themselves being artificially manipulated by the art of unseen hands as they move about their daily existence.
Motherhood is an essential thread throughout the story but not in the way it usually is represented. We come to suspect – and find unreliable – every mother figure presented in the film. The non-presence of Annie’s recently deceased and manipulative mother Ellen (portrayed by an uncredited actress) is a mysterious key to this occult force; a key we are unable to totally grasp until it is much too late. Annie’s mother is a mere ghostly presence hinting at the the unspeakable. But the artifacts left behind by Ellen – the necklace with the charming demonic sigil, a disturbed family history recounted by Annie in a grief support circle, a book on demonic spiritualism, personalized hand woven mats with odd geometric configurations, photographs hinting at unsettling connections, a black triangle on her bedroom floor, a mysterious note referring to their “sacrifices” being worth it in the end, etc. – all these elements are woven into a sinister diabolical plot.
On the Significance of Decapitation
There is a fair amount – and effective rendering – of decapitation in this film, and this is no arbitrary horror trope concerning the story’s psychological, spiritual – religious, or demonic possession (or obsession) aspects. The head is the seat of identity and intelligence, and is considered the best part or member of the body – being indisputably essential for existence. One may survive without any other limb or member, or even a kidney or portions of other internal organs, or with implants to accompany the heart, etc.; but the head is naturally an absolute necessity for a person’s existence.
As a reference to the mystical insights of decapitation let us look East. In her book Chinnamastā: The Aweful Buddhist and Hindu Tantric Goddess, Elisabeth Anne Benard analyzes the myths and outlines the worship of the self-decapitating and blood drinking esoteric goddess Chinnamastā – one of a grouping of Ten Wisdom Goddesses (Dasa Mahavidyas). She recounts a few myths on the theme of decapitated and transposed heads – an important theme to Hereditary. Decapitation is largely interpreted in Asian culture as representing the annihilation of the ego, or false individual self (atman), to unite with the greater Self (paramatman). The Goddess Kali is often depicted as carrying a severed head; and some forms of god Shiva have him carrying the skull of creator god Brahma as a begging bowl. These also point to the dissolving of the false ego identity into The Absolute. The story of elephant headed god Ganesha is also of some relevance but let’s not get lost in Indian mythology here. Chinnamasta is a goddess of tremendous esoteric significance we cannot even scratch the surface of here, but like witchy Hecate, She is a threefold goddess – of triple form. Hereditary gives us three generations of female energy through Annie Graham, her mother Ellen, and her daughter Charlie. So we are also supplied with the archetypes of the Maiden, the Mother and the Crone of contemporary witchcraft and goddess religion.
The young girl, the virgin, usually verging on maturity, as a vehicle for supernatural powers is a natural, almost instinctual, device in human legend and storytelling. Modern horror interpretations abound (Carrie, Poltergeist and The Craft spring to mind). The character of Charlie Graham (Milly Shapiro) is a disarming take on the theme, and we are left nearly breathless about a third of the way into the film by her sudden and tragic demise.
Charlie is apparently a special child, and like her mother and grandmother she has creative artistic gifts. Creative gifts which allow her to bring forth – to birth – art into the world. Her sketching and assembling of figures made from found objects turns toward the macabre when she severs and collects the head of a kamikaze pigeon and sketches the bird’s head with a crown – indicating murky intimations of the dove of the Holy Spirit of the Annunciation of Maria – heralding the conception of a new incarnation.
As Peter (Alex Wolff) drives his sister Charlie and himself to a party, the camera lingers upon the fateful roadside post the first time they pass by; a shot in which the discerning eye will note the carved demonic sigil of King Paimon. The three formed Greco-Roman goddess of witches and witchcraft Hecate is also strongly associated with roads, and her shrines were sometimes posts situated at crossroads where masks may be hung to face in each direction the paths would lead. Then, when Peter and Charlie leave the party in a rush to head to the hospital, Peter swerves at high speed to avoid hitting a dead animal, causing his sister to… well, you know, lose her head.
“self decapitation echoes the Chinnamasta motif of sacrifice and feeding or nourishing her “children”.”
Annie Graham’s dramatic self decapitation in the final act (did you notice she had nabbed piano wire to accomplish this? It wasn’t until our second viewing that we realized what she was using to sever her own neck) is – in a sick and twisted way in this case – the mother’s ultimate sacrifice for the “betterment” of her children. This self decapitation echoes the Chinnamasta motif of sacrifice and feeding or nourishing her “children”. She is the sacrifice, the sacrificer and (somehow, we are left to suppose) a recipient of shares of some hellish sacrificial boon as her mother’s message implies.
Freud wrote about the castration symbolism of decapitation; but aside from vague intimations of viewing possession as a type of “impregnation” – relating it to genetics or fertility – to shoehorn it into the “hereditary” theme seems unrelated to our present topic.
A Restoration of the Head
The transposition or restoration of a decapitated head provides a vital note of mystical completion in the myths of Chinnamasta and elephant headed god Ganesha. For the Goddess it displays her ultimate power as being the embodied but transcendent energy of the sacrifice, the sacrificer and the receiver of the sacrifice, and as the force orchestrating the entire scope of the perpetual unfolding, sustainment, disintegration and recycling of manifested existence. As a goddess She can survive cutting off and replacing Her own head as a part of Her divine play (Lila). In occult horror we find supernatural manipulation of the head as ghoulish and threatening because it indicates the identity of the person you care about has been overtaken and possessed by a force majeure.
Mr Graham (Gabriel Byrne in another great understated performance) is informed that Ellen’s grave has been desecrated – a ghoulish fact he shields from his family. We come to find (late in the story) that not only has her corpse been stolen but the head removed and the rotting body laid out in the Graham family’s attic in a ritualistic way. By the climax of the film the grandmother’s head seems unaccounted for though her body, along with that of Annie’s, is positioned in an obscene act of hellish reverence in the treehouse. The headless bodies of grandmother and mother are brought into headless/egoless submission and surrender to the Demon King Paimon. But Charlie’s head (also apparently retrieved by grave-defiling cultists and brought to the treehouse) has been fixed upon a life sized, undressed mannequin icon – reminiscent of those dressed saints and madonnas paraded through streets on holy days – as a kind of cult effigy and object of worship and devotion. This is echoing both Annie’s mini mannequin figurines and Charlie’s strange sculptures which she seems so preoccupied with fixing heads on. The undressed state of the icon reflects Chinnamasta’s own nudity which is known as digambara or “sky clad” as symbolic of the deity’s transcendent state and accounts for King Paimon’s cultists’ nudity.
A Mysterious Light (& Enlightenment)
Like the strange blooming iridescent light which haunts Susie Bannion in another form of spiritual possession in 2018’s Suspiria remake (directed by Luca Guadagnino), 2018’s Hereditary also signals an occult spiritual presence by the zara like pulsations of light which appear to the characters touched by the hellish forces. It’s a device to inform the audience that something outwardly imperceptible – but actually of a profound nature – is taking place within those who become demonically obsessed. Lucifer as Light-Bearer may also offer us a clue as to the occult enlightenment these dark entities (Mater Suspiriorum, King Paimon) offer to their respective protagonists.
These modern occult horrors, these new stories – these updated and thought provoking tales – are not mere horror films but stories delving into the deeper aspects of human suffering: grief, darkness and despair. For the past forty or fifty some years Satanic Cinema and occult horror has reflected (as in a mirror darkly) modern culture’s shifting attitudes towards the supernatural, religion, the occult, The Devil and the origins of “evil”. Are these most recent cinematic incarnations an artistic reflection of a wider acceptance of having to come to terms with the Darkness apparent within human culture and the human condition? Could this lead us towards greater Wisdom and Understanding? As Pinhead / the Lead Cenobite informs us when asked as to just what he and his kind are in Hellraiser, he replies: “Demons to some, Angels to others.” It’s really all about perspective isn’t it? Are demons and angels both not part of God’s divine plan? Is a demon just an angel in a dark mood, or on a dark mission?
We wrote an article not so long ago on the topic of defenestration, which is the act of jumping or being pushed from a window, as it appears in diabolical horror films; and now it appears that ‘Hereditary’ may be added to the list of films which portray a satanic leap of faith as Peter Graham panics and jumps from the attic window – perhaps freeing his own soul (?), but with his body becoming a carnal vehicle for King Paimon to appropriate, enter, possess and utilize. Demon King Paimon is thus finally embodied in his desired male form and crowned and adored by Joan (Ann Dowd) and the other cultists. Could his name Peter relate to Saint Peter? – Holder of the Keys to the kingdom of …well, maybe not Heaven but to Hell? Or maybe as holder of the keys to the car? The vehicle to enter and transport one around as a demon does a corporeal form?
Sacrifice – in one form or another – is a perennial theme throughout every religion. Life (and Love) is a perpetual flame which constantly needs to be fed in order to maintain itself. “Love dies without sacrifice” as Saint Marie Eugenie said. Existence itself can be seen as a kind of ritual enacted where life is in fact constantly poured forth, killed and consumed in a ceaseless round of birth, consumption and recycling death upon the bloody altar of Mother Earth and Her inhabitants. And sacrifice is what a parent does to ensure the survival of their young. The legacy left by Annie’s mother warns of sacrifice but also promises of some reward to be reaped. By destruction – through sacrifice – a sort of hellish revivification is activated.
“Love dies without sacrifice” as Saint Marie Eugenie said.
The film’s title implies how a demonic entity may transmigrate from grandmother to granddaughter to mother to son. It’s a family issue; a trait carried in the blood as a vehicle for a spiritual entity that is pumped and recycled until the opportune avatar is achieved. As Dracula observed long ago: “The blood is the life”. Mr Graham the husband / father is the only family member who is not called to be a vehicle for the entity known as King Paimon, as he is the only one not blood related to Annie’s mother, and so he serves as the final barrier to be sacrificed, sending Annie completely over the edge and into the Abyss.
As Dracula observed long ago: “The blood is the life”.
The demon King Paimon is presented as an entity which hijacks the bodies of those it possesses until using them up to serve its own purposes. We are witnesses to seeing the demonic force obsess and possess members of the Graham family leading to it (the demon) obtaining its targeted host at the finale. The father, not being blood related to Annie’s mother, is spared the “Hereditary” possession and becomes a mere casualty, a burnt offering made of love, a sacrifice to the greater evil.
In Conclusion: “Demons to Some, Angels to Others”
Should we have been left with a more ambiguous ending in which the supernatural and psychotic elements could be left up to personal interpretation? Should we have been left guessing if Annie Graham is, after all the spooky ephemera, merely another hardworking American mom in a psychotic midlife crisis? Observing the long-standing successful Unholy Trinity of Satanic Cinema (Rosemary’s Baby, The Exorcist, The Omen) we see that the stories in the first two films ultimately depend upon a belief in the manifestation of the supernatural or diabolical elements – although Rosemary’s Baby keeps the viewer in suspense between belief in the Devil and suspicion in Rosemary’s state of mind – until the final reveal at the climax of the story (or did before it became a well known horror sub-genre of its own). The original ‘The Omen’ left the viewer in doubt as to whether it was all a shared delusion or an actual satanic conspiracy (however, in every Omen sequel or remake thereafter, the presence of a supernatural diabolical force was depended on and taken as a given). It is all pointing us towards a collective revelation, an Apocalypse – a rending of the veil of our delusion by material existence – as human kind awakens to its true spiritual nature – and to our unique and privileged position as stewards and caretakers of this planet and all it’s lifeforms – in all it’s horror and beauty – in all it’s Darkness and Light.
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