Hereditary and the Antipathy of Grief

Toni Collette in HEREDITARY (2018) | A24

Grief is a mutation. Its personal, physical, and it never goes away, only shifts in form as life forges on, nestled deep in your bodily crooks, quietly wreaking havoc. When it manifests, it is in shapes unknown; you are at the sudden behest of a foreign, lashing tongue, or muscles that will not cool, or a sharp cruelty you had no idea you could muster. It is, in some ways, a possession, and most families dont make it through unscathed. Some crumble altogether. Others decapitate themselves in the name of a demon-worshipping coven. We all have our own way of dealing.

Hereditary is grief in its most salient form. It is that ugly underwire itch—an iron-wrought resentment—that every brutalized family can sniff out and see themselves in. It is also a horror movie in the most bombastic sense, about a family put through the wringer twice, in quick succession, so that the outward horror matches the evil that plagues from within. I’ve seen many films about grief, but none that so accurately articulate the basic human nastiness that loss evokes. Hereditary chilled me to my core, because I know this story too well.

The film opens with the funeral of Ellen Leigh, mother of Annie Graham (Toni Collette), mother-in-law of Steve (Gabriel Byrne), and grandmother of Peter (Alex Wolff) and Charlie (Milly Shapiro). Annie—a miniature artist whose dollhouse-like projects lend the film its visual styleis cordial about her mothers death, but not upset; she confesses to her husband that she doesnt feel sad enough. Still, she attends grief counseling. She goes through the motions. What she doesnt know is that her mothers passing is merely a test drive for a greater tragedy to come. About an hour into the film, Charlie dies in a surprise car accident—with Peter at the wheel—and the event does for the family what Ellens death did not. It completely eradicates their foundation.

There is more going on in Hereditary than meets the eye, and the supernatural elements start creeping into the narrative slowly—then crank up tenfold for the finale. After Charlies death, a grief-plagued Annie has manic episodes, sleepwalks, and has horrible nightmares about killing her son. She has inappropriate responses to her grief, like creating a miniature display of the accident from a neutral perspective,with a total lack of emotion and sympathy for how Peter might react to it.

But, as we learn, this is all the machination of a larger plot laid out by Ellen before her death. Ellen was part of a demonic coven intent on finding a human host for Paimon, one of the eight kings of Hell, and had used Charlie as a temporary vessel until they could get their hooks on Peter. (Paimon prefers a male host.) The coven starts to descend on the family, and eventually Annie—at the recommendation of a grief counseling friend—holds a seance, where all Hell literally breaks loose.

But the visual thrills are merely an entryway for the underlying fissures in the Graham family. In this case, satanic panic masks several strains of familial trauma, like a meditation on genetic mental illness, and a bleak look at the antipathy that brews between loved ones when they lose someone.

Of all the horrific scenes in the film, none is so scary as the dinner table moment just after Charlies death. Tension brews between mother and son until it boils over, until words are said that can never be unsaid. Annie blames Peter for the accident in a breathless monologue that crescendos into utter brutality. He tearfully watches as she deflects blame, as she thoughtlessly says triggering phrases like I know it was an accident, but…”—which sounds almost innocuous but is in truth the most hurtful, poisonous venom a mother could spew. I know it was an accident, but its still your fault and always will be,is what she means. Later, in a dream sequence, she cuts to the chase: I never wanted to be your mother,she tells Petter. Its that same thought concluded, though still, technically unsaid.

Its what we dont say that breaks us apart.

My family, like the Grahams, has been plagued by unspeakable loss. I have borne witness to this same sort of animosity—and have been the aggressor myself. I have felt the pure, undulating animosity for the people I love because of what I cant have. Its not real animosity, but in fact a love so strong its grown thorns. But those thorns puncture, sting, fester. They create enemies out of friends. It is an ugly thing that lives inside of me, and all of those unsaid things start circulating lies—at my own behest, because I let it win. Grief, above all else, is a devastator, a storm; it feeds on these emotions. Sometimes, it has the final say.

The visuals of Hereditary literalize these demons. Charlies ant-infested decapitated head on the side of the road. A possessed Annie perched on the ceiling, lurking over her son, waiting to pounce. A father gone up in flames. The grandmother who started this mess grinning gleefully in a photograph, with a crown on her head.

I love the final sequence, when shit really hits the fan, because it is such a delicious metaphorical rendering of those sacrilegious thoughts. Annie falls under Paimons spell, and starts terrorizing her son, and the coven lures Peter to the treehouse where he becomes the vessel they desired.

It is Annie fully come undone, giving into her mania and all of that repressed antipathy for her husband and son. And it is Peter, aware that its coming after him, too. That theyre plugged into the same machine of relentless familial pain, and that—by virtue of genetics—will never escape it. The Paimon-worshipping coven that encroaches the house is the manifestation of those feelings crushing in. The demons outside are the demons within. And they are coming for your head.

Its bleak as hell, yes, but for someone who lives that reality, theres a catharsis as well. It is always validating to be seen, even when a film reveals parts you wish you could expel. It also serves as a lesson—a visual guide of what not to do. Here is what happens when you let the darkness win. Its made others sleep with the light on. It made me call a therapist.