'Hereditary' is a Very Scary Movie About Not Believing Women [Spoilers + CW for death/gore]


#1

Content warning for death and dismemberment. Story spoilers for Hereditary.

This weekend, to “wind down” from E3, I saw Hereditary, a brooding and truly terrifying meditation on grief, death, and family trauma. It does a lot of things right, as I mentioned briefly in the Waypoints section of the podcast yesterday: with slow, building tension and moments of sickening horror.

It’s also very resonant, as the best horror movies tend to be, with just how awful life can feel when you’re enduring trauma. It’s very much a movie about death, and how we deal with death and loss, centering on a woman named Annie who loses her mother (by natural causes), and rapidly loses her daughter Charlie in a horrific car accident not long after.

In many ways, it’s also a movie about not listening to women.

Charlie dies in an accident that was precipitated by her older brother ignoring her at a party. She eats cake that has nuts in it (she’s deathly allergic), and he’s high when she finally finds him and begs him to rush her to the hospital. She didn’t want to go to the party, or to eat the cake.

To his credit, Peter hauls ass when he sees Charlie in the throes of a massive, life threatening allergic reaction, carrying her to the car and driving off. To his eternal discredit, however, he drives like an asshole and his sister ends up dead. He drives home in silence and lets his parents find her decapitated corpse sitting in the backseat the next morning.

Someone really should’ve listened to her sooner.

This serves as something of a catalyst for the events already set in motion by the grandmother’s death. It turns out, grandma was into some high-level occult shit, with hauntings, and possessions all on the menu. Annie, barely hanging on after the double loss, starts to see things—and encounters a “friend” at grief counseling who shows her how to contact the dead. But her husband (who, to this point has tried to keep things together) doesn’t believe her, even when he, too, starts to see uncanny things. He thinks Annie is doing everything: that she dug up her mother’s body and stuffed it in the attic, let’s say.

There’s an element of Toni Collette’s performance that begs the question of whether Annie herself believes she’s at fault for what’s going on. Of whether she has lost her mind in the process of grieving. As it turns out, she is absolutely being possessed at times during the movie, so her own belief in her actions ties into the trope again.

These are all pervasive tropes in the genre—the terror of losing one’s mind, the hysterical woman, the traditional ghost story, the mysterious relative’s death setting off supernatural events. But it all builds, convincingly, to a climax that I haven’t been able to shake for the last several days.

The best horror does this, it works on several levels. There’s the physical thrill of being scared, the catharsis of watching scary things happening on a screen, a safe way to experience emotions we don’t talk about much. The themes working on a deeper level: family trauma, a loss of safety and security, the insidious nature of knowing something awful, and no one believes you until it’s too late. The everyday sexism of being a woman whose needs and wants go ignored.

All of it connected for me, on those multiple levels. And, until I see it again, I know Hereditary will haunt me, in the best possible way.

How about you, dear readers? Have you seen Hereditary, and if not, is there a horror movie that really connected for you lately? Sound off on the forums!


This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at https://waypoint.vice.com/en_us/article/9k8vey/hereditary-listen-to-women

#2

I think you are glossing over a crucial fact that Charlie was inhabited by the Demon Paimon from practically birth, and while gut wrenching in cinematic execution, that death was not that of a little girl but a demon that had long since replaced that girl and was using her body as a vessel.


#3

There should probably be some spoiler tags on that. Although I’m not sure it’s a given that Charlie was possessed from birth, as the exact moment of possession is never directly stated and some believe it occurs after the grandmother’s death, I do agree that Charlie’s death was less about Peter’s neglect since the cult worked to orchestrate it.

However, I think that the point Danielle makes about Annie being ignored by her husband (and mistreated by her son - though perhaps for understandable reasons) is an important one…the one person who actually understands what is happening here and has a chance to stop it is Annie, and she’s ignored for most of the movie. I like that this is a horror movie that gives the “hysterical woman” back some agency and credibility, and for me Danielle’s read on this film is an important one that gives me a lot to think back through, especially when I start thinking about how Paimon is a spirit in a female body that strongly desires a male one, and is at one point depicted as a female head on a male body. I’d be interested to hear the writer talk about gender/trans identity in relation to this story.


#4

‘Hereditary’ is a triumph of a horror film with some incredibly chilling imagery, and a camera that tends to linger when all we want to do is look away. I’m excited to see it again, because I think it will reward multiple viewings.

All that said, my wife and I both felt a bit troubled by the way this movie handled mental illness. Throughout the film, the viewer is left wondering if a lot of the paranormal stuff (specifically with Annie) is actual paranormal manifestation, or if it is just the side effects of her unspecified mental illness. In a culture that too often demonizes mental illness/people who suffer from mental illness, it felt uncomfortable to even question “is this the work of a demon, or is this just mental illness,” and the film seems to want us as viewers to operate in that space. The end of the film does make it clear that Annie’s visions/hauntings were deliberately demonic in nature, but it still felt a little troubling that the film made the comparison to begin with. Sorry for the long spoiler tag - just want to be sensitive to those who haven’t seen it yet!


#5

I saw Hereditary last week. Overall I really liked it, enjoyed is… not the word. It’s great to see a horror done properly. I think it follows in the footsteps of A24’s previous horrors, The Witch and It Comes At Night - using a slowburning tension to populate this atmosphere of unrelenting dread. Some of the visuals were fantastic in the movie, just really creepy that got under your skin. The acting was amazing - Toni Collete obviously, but she’s well supported by Gabriel Byrnne as the non-plused father and the son who just starts off as your typical stoner teenager and just becomes this scared little boy. You really feel for the kid.

I will say, I saw it in a fairly packed cinema - again, this is great to see, for a horror movie of this style and scale. At one point I had convinced myself that the sound editing had put this heavy breathing into the background as a way to freak people out. It worked for me! Until I realised that what I was actually hearing was a guy who had fallen asleep at the front and was snoring… The whole theatre started laughing.

I suppose my main problem with the film, and I feel it is a problem that I have with a lot of other movies, particularly in the horror and sci-fi genre. The first half of the movie is a slow understated affair, with you questioning whether what the characters are experiencing is actually real but then the second movie takes some pretty deliberate steps to spell it out for you - “no, this is what is actually happening” and I’m not sure whether this really landed with me. I did not take the leap the film itself took. It felt like the movie train switched tracks to something more conventional and, dare I say it, sillier. As soon as Annie is instructed to read an ancient language from a scroll… I mean… the film has brilliant moments - such as the death of Charlie and how the son immediatly deals with it. Even flicking off the lights to see the grandmother smiling from out of the darkness… ooooh… no thankyou. But don’t read from the ancient scrolls…

I feel it is a movie that I definitely need to see again. I loved it’s themes of metal illness and tragedy being passed on to the next generation - a truly horrific notion that is difficult to unpack yet perfect for a horror to encapsulate conceptually. I lost my last living grandparent earlier in the year, and seeing how it has affected my own mother and how it has affected me as a result has been difficult but something I am attempting to grapple with rationally. My mum’s called Ann. My name is Charlie… so the film did hit home. Pretty sure, my Nan wasn’t up into any satanic cults though, so there is that.


#6

There is certainly a way to read this movie about the problem of not listening to women, I just don’t think it’s done very well here.

Why? Let’s talk about Charlie. It isn’t that Peter doesn’t listen to Charlie (though he doesn’t, later, both Peter and Charlie don’t want her to go at this moment), but that Annie doesn’t listen to Peter (or Charlie). The result of both of them being headstrong (the better reading of this) is that they both play into the Occult purpose: as Charlie was already possessed by Paimon, who wanted a male body, and the pole had been marked already, the the theme of decapitation was already established. In other words, every ‘simply’ played into a preordained series of events.

Annie, rather than seeking solace in her (male) family, or the mixed male/female room of people in group therapy, instead listens to the strange woman, summoning a demon that begins fucking things up. The father and son are horrified by the events that happen (because they’re horrifying)–it isn’t that they aren’t listening to Annie, but that what Annie is saying is horrifying at best. Annie later is convinced that if she burns a book, it will solve all the problems. It doesn’t (it kills her husband).

So, yeah, there are examples women not being listened to when they should have been, but there are also at least as many other examples of women being listened to, and that not working out well at all.

A much more interesting read is on mental disorder, and how we should and shouldn’t listen to loved ones suffering from it. I don’t think the movie has a good answer to this, and I don’t think that anyone handles it well, and there is something especially horrifying about not knowing when you should go along with your loved one and when you should speak out for their own good.


#7

Yeah, I have to say I didn’t see it. I do slightly regret going in having read this topic title, because I spent a lot of the movie looking for it.

I loved the movie, but can’t say I found it very scary? It was beautifully shot, had spectacular cuts, angles, and composition. It was interesting in ways that had me wanting to discuss the movie well after leaving the theatre.

There wasn’t really either of the two things I tend to associate with horror films though.

Firstly, no super tense, adrenaline building moments of fear or surprise. I suspect a lot of this is to do with an excessive understanding of composition, music psychology, etc. where the music in the movie was fantastic, and interesting, instead of ominous or mood building. They did some fascinating things with music, particularly in the closing scenes, but my interest was less experiential, and more acedemic.

Second, I walked away unafraid. What stuck with me was fascination with characters, meaning, intention. What happened and why. I didn’t walk away more afraid of the dark. I didn’t walk away wanting to leave a light on as I slept. I walked away wanting to talk about decisions. I walked away wanting to debate theories about what happened. (Again, likely a side effect of design appreciation, instead of adrenaline.)

I also walked away assuming, on account of this thread title, that the takeaway was that you shouldn’t listen to women, which is a weird and shitty message for a movie to send. It’s also ultimately a message I don’t think it sent either though.

I would say, for interesting considerations for post-viewing discussions, the title of the movie is fantastic.

I think the movie primed me for a bit of a different read early on. When Charlie mentions people wanting her to be a different gender. I can’t say I’m thrilled that the movie, while not intending it, managed to have the most direct and literal trans people are demons stories I’ve ever seen as a core story.

Dysfunctional families hit a bit close home too.

I think eventually the movie is going to end up in my top ten. I walked out of the theatre having loved it, and slowly started to question how good it was, issues, etc. Over the past twelve hours. I suspect next viewing a lot of those questions will become clearer, and solidify it as an absolute favorite classic, cult or not. Wink.


#8

I haven’t disliked a film this much in a long time. I don’t want to take away from anyone else’s enjoyment, especially Danielle’s - the article was really thoughtful and brought up some insightful readings I had not considered.

But more than the problems with its treatment of listening to women, mental illness or equating trans with demons, the thing that really catapulted me over the line was the use of the extremely tired horror trope of “differently abled or differently looking child = satan spawn”.

I get that the horror genre has these tropes that you sometimes have to look past. But I think the way the film twisted and turned in its plot beats, combined with the buzz I was hearing from critics, made me think it was going to subvert my expectations. For the film’s ending to just collapse into essentially “yep the kid had cleidocranial dysplasia (the same thing the very talented actress that portrays her, Milly Shapiro has) because she’s demon spawn!” is one of the worst things I’ve seen in a while.

I’m notoriously able to look past a lot of other things in most stuff i see and still get enjoyment, but there’s something about the horror genre that just walks headfirst into the most problematic garbage.


#9

I am very lost by this essay. The party scene is simply about Annie listening to NEITHER of her kids. And as for the rest of the movie, there are certainly times when other characters are disbelieving and skeptical about what Annie is saying. But is Annie ever anything but completely wrong in what she is trying to persuade them? I guess the seance (which is really a summoning) and the significance of the sketchpad are the two examples that come to mind. It seems to me the family would have ended up far better off has they not listened to Annie at all.

I appreciate your perspective…but I don’t see it at all.


#10

i really loved this movie. firstly, it was genuinely scary in a lot of ways i really appreciate - i’m such a sucker for demonic possession stories, cults, and sam raimi-style levitation horror - and also it managed to take a big bite of a thematic apple without losing the ability to confuse and surprise. for what it’s worth, i don’t agree with the thesis of the above article at all - it’s an explanation a bit too simple, a bit too tidy, for a movie which is not simple or tidy in the slightest.

in terms of the representation of mental illness, i’ve had to think a lot about what the movie is exploring. i feel the central conflict for toni collette’s character is trying to avoid being like her mother; that is, an abusive, manipulative, and (also, unconnectedly!) mentally ill character who destroys her family with the former two behaviours and passes on a genetic predisposition for the latter.

this concern about hereditary mental illness underpins the whole piece, but i think what’s interesting is that the movie concludes that it’s manipulation and abuse which really tears apart the family; the grandmother, after all, joined the cult and started all this violence with a clear mind, before the dementia kicked in (as evidenced by all the photos of her in the cult, apparently entirely compos mentis).

i think it’s a little intellectually easy to criticise a movie in which mental illness and horror / violence are thematically linked for that fact alone, but i think the focus on cults and chaos steers the conversation much more towards manipulation, abuse, violence, and control. the factors which create all this chaos and violence are external, not implicit; ultimately, the Hereditary of the title is more about how socially-constrained violence echoes through a family, rather than mental illness. at least in my opinion.

also: i love a movie which isn’t afraid to go completely off the fucking rails in the final act, to go all-in, and to aggressively keep you guessing. love it love it love it.


#11

I appreciate this reading. I’m studying to become a clinical psychologist, so I tend to be pretty critical of portrayals, depictions, and representations of mental health issues in film.

Overall, I actually think this film succeeded in several ways. First, it places the responsibility on the viewer to decide whether what’s happening is due to mental health concerns. The film never makes that decision for us - and actually, to support Danielle’s point, the people quickest to make that determination are the men in Annie’s life. They are the most dismissive.

That said, I also think they had a decent reason to be. Imagine you’re Annie’s husband or son, and now imagine a version of this movie that splices together only those interactions had between the family, removing any knowledge of what Annie was doing in the meantime. It jumps from Annie presumably going “to the movies,” to essentially subscribing to and conducting seances. I would have my doubts as well, and to me, that’s the scariest thing - my first thought when Annie was trying to explain why her family was unsafe was that, to her husband, it probably sounded like a psychotic episode. Because it honestly does: Her thought pattern seems highly disorganized, and she’s describing things that sound like bizarre delusions and hallucinations.

The scary part is that they’re not, at least how I read the film, and if I were in Annie’s husband’s place, I would have done the same thing, and I would have been wrong for it. I think the film is digging deeper than mental health - it’s how the environments we live in can peck away at our well-being. It’s about how when women are dismissed and devalued their whole lives, it’s exhausting, draining, and crushing. I think the film is reasonable for bringing up the possibility of psychosis - because in all honestly, from the husband’s perspective, it appears to be a possibility - and it’s clever for diverting. It would have been easy to end the movie saying, “Ahhh, it was all in her head!” But that would have been lazy, and the film would have been much, much worse for it. Instead, it focused on environmental and structural contributions (and detriments) to our well-being, never blaming the lead for being upset and appalled at her for wanting to be trusted and understood, especially at her most vulnerable.

Sorry if that’s a bit disorganized. I just saw the film last night and I have a lot of thoughts about it.


#12

Gabriel Byrne’s husband was such a wet fart of a character because they cross the line where he VERY clearly plain as day no ambiguity sees that supernatural shit is real multiple times but still doesn’t believe her. You can tell they wrote themselves into a corner with him due to the way his character exits the film.


#13

I’m not much of a horror buff, so definitely feel free to take my opinion with a handful of salt, but despite some good acting and camera work I came away kinda meh. I thought that the jump from “is it in their minds or is it actually demonic” to “definitely demonic” was ridiculous and too fast.

I also just laughed out loud at the pole scene, but maybe I have a sick sense of humour.