This article contains spoilers for the film Hereditary.
In his preface to Hostage to the Devil, Malachi Martin identifies a condition of the mind and will common to all cases of possession: the “aspiring vacuum.” “Vacuum,” he explains, for the “absence of clearly defined and humanly acceptable concepts for the mind. Aspiring, because there is a corresponding absence of clearly defined and humanly acceptable goals for the will.” In other words, persons ripe for possession lack a proper telos. They are beings-unto-nothing-in-particular. And they are isolated from the natural human associations that orient us toward natural goods.
American society seems designed to produce such individuals. Martin observed our “cultural desolation” in the breakdown of our families, school systems, and manners, and in the drug use and self-destruction rampant among teenagers. Thanks to this societal decay, “Ritualistic Satanism and its inevitable consequence, demonic Possession, are now part and parcel of the atmosphere of life in America.” These words were written in 1992. Compared with today’s cultural landscape, the desolate early nineties seem almost idyllic.
As a Christian who happens to write horror fiction, I often find myself seeking ways to justify my interest in the genre. Of course, I write horror because it thrills me; all other justifications are incidental. But over the years I’ve come to see horror as a vehicle for communicating worldview, as an extreme form of tragedy that can tap into human realities inaccessible to other genres. For instance: How better to dramatize the “aspiring vacuum” than through a possession narrative? A great horror film stays with you. It lingers in ways other films do not. No one ever lost sleep over Citizen Kane.
I have lost plenty of sleep lately thanks to Hereditary, the debut film of 31-year-old writer-director Ari Aster, currently in theaters. I returned home from my first viewing understanding two things: “I’m going to have nightmares unless I read Scripture”; and “This is the standard to which I must now hold my own work.”
Hereditary belongs to the “horror realism” subgenre and wears its influences—Rosemary’s Baby, Don’t Look Now, The Innocents, Carrie—on its sleeve. It merits close study, as much for its social insights as for its craft. Aster explains that Hereditary “owes a greater debt to domestic melodrama than to horror.” But there’s a twist. In most family dramas, characters suffer, sometimes terribly, but come out with greater self-knowledge or some other measure of redemption. As Aster observes, this is not always true to life. Sometimes we are simply crushed by tragedy.
The film opens with an exquisite mise en abyme: The camera explores an artist's home workshop filled with dioramic miniatures, until it fixes on a dollhouse and zooms in on a bedroom. As the frame settles, we discover that we’ve transitioned from dollhouse to real house.
The Graham family—Annie (Toni Collette) and Steve (Gabriel Byrne) and their teenage children, Peter (Alex Wolff) and Charlie (Milly Shapiro)—attend the funeral of Annie’s mother, Ellen. We learn from Annie’s eulogy that she has long been estranged from Ellen, who was a secretive woman with “private rituals” and “private friends.” Annie feels guilty over her ambivalence, her inability to grieve, while Steve and Peter experience the loss as a relief. Charlie—whom Ellen “got her hooks into early”—is distraught, fearing that with her grandmother gone no one will protect her.
While attending group therapy for the bereaved, Annie unloads about her mother's dementia and dissociative identity disorder and her family’s history of mental illness and suicide. She is haunted by a sense of genetic doom. She fears she has bequeathed some sickness to her children, both of whom are distant, offering her no solace. Peter is a pot-head, apathetic about everything but getting laid. Thirteen-year-old Charlie is an anti-social tomboy with a penchant for mutilating dead animals and gluing their parts into disturbing figurines—a hobby that mimics her mother’s profession. Annie is a miniaturist, fashioning intricate dioramas of scenes from her life.
When Annie forces Peter to take Charlie with him to a party, Charlie eats chocolate cake sprinkled with walnuts and has an allergic reaction. As Peter, stoned, races her to the hospital, Charlie hangs her head out of the car window for air. Peter swerves to avoid hitting a dead deer, and Charlie’s head is ripped off by a telephone pole.
The family’s disintegration now begins in earnest. Annie blames Peter for Charlie’s death, and Peter suffers his guilt intensely, hallucinating—so it seems at first—his dead sister’s presence. Steve—stoic, kind, and ineffectual—does his best to keep the peace.
Annie is befriended by Joan (Ann Dowd), a member of her support group, who convinces Annie to perform a séance with her. To Annie’s surprise, it succeeds. Joan instructs Annie how to contact Charlie’s spirit with her family. The results are terrifying.
Joan was one of Ellen’s “private friends,” an acolyte of Ellen’s Satanic coven, which is devoted to the demon Paimon, a “King of Hell” who covets young male hosts. We learn that Paimon has been inhabiting Charlie’s body, and that all of the film’s events have been designed to expel Peter’s soul and make him a fitting vessel for Paimon. In the final act, Annie attempts to sacrifice herself to save her family, but to no avail. She is possessed by Paimon, and the rest of the ritual is enacted flawlessly. The film ends with Peter’s soulless body possessed by Paimon, and a gaggle of naked cultists kneeling before him as Joan places a golden crown on his head.
The Graham family perfectly illustrates Malachi Martin’s “aspiring vacuum.” Everyone self-medicates. Steve and Annie use prescription downers. Peter lives inside a cloud of cannabis smoke. No one has agency. Like the figures in Annie’s dioramas, they are moved about by external forces. As an artist, Annie seems able only to re-present what has happened to her, circling around the scenes of her life, powerless to draw meaning from them. She destroys her creations one day in a fit of despair. In another telling scene, Peter’s English teacher asks the class whether Heracles’s fate (in Sophocles’s The Women of Trachis) is more tragic because he is aware that he was powerless to change it; but Peter is too busy ogling a girl’s butt and texting a friend about weed to respond. Another student states the film’s dominant theme rather nicely: “I think it’s more tragic—because if it’s all just inevitable, that means the characters have no hope and that they never had hope, because they’re just like pawns in this horrible, hopeless machine.”
Aster has claimed in interviews that Hereditary is a “Greek” film. It contains explicit parallels to Trachis, most notably Annie’s unintended immolation of her husband (Heracles throws himself onto a burning pyre after being mortally wounded by his unwitting wife, Deianeira) and her own suicide, in which she decapitates herself with piano wire while levitating in a way that mimics a body swinging on a gallows (Deianeira hangs herself in grief upon learning she has killed her husband). But fate is the real focus. Hereditary’s greatest effect is the mounting dread over the sense that one is merely a passenger. The only character who could conceivably be said to have genuine agency is Paimon—Aster’s stand-in for an Olympian god.
The Grahams’ vulnerability to demonic manipulation is as much a result of their cultural context as of Grandma Ellen’s ministrations. For a film about Satanic covens and demonic possession, Hereditary is notably lacking in Christian imagery. No priests. No Bibles. Not one crucifix. The funeral parlor that hosts Ellen’s service is utterly without any signs of the sacred. Annie’s group therapy meeting is held in a nondescript gymnasium. We’re given no evidence the nameless town even has a church. The Grahams’ plight is a perfectly condensed image of a society that has divested itself of all the most potent means of fending off the demonic.
In “Origami of the Soul,” Timothy Reichert and Francis X. Maier observe that the modern state “augment[s] markets at the expense of the hierarchies that fold the soul.” To the extent that civil society and its constituent institutions—Church, family, school, guild, and so on—are subordinated to the market, they become incapable of structuring the self, leaving people unformed, only minimally individuated. In the name of Mammon, the political project of endless market expansion denatures the institutions most vital to the inculcation of virtue. Unchecked “marketization” can only produce a society of aspiring vacuums.
In view of this, the coven’s commitment to Paimon, among many possible arch-demons, is pointed. Here Aster has really done his research. The Lesser Key of Solomon, an anonymous seventeenth-century grimoire popular among occult hobbyists and fantasy writers, describes Paimon as follows:
This Spirit can teach all Arts and Sciences, and other secret things. He can discover unto thee what the Earth is, and what holdeth it up in the Waters; and what Mind is, and where it is; or any other thing thou mayest desire to know. He giveth Dignity, and confirmeth the same. He bindeth or maketh any man subject unto the Magician if he so desire it. He giveth good Familiars, and such as can teach all Arts. He is to be observed towards the West. He is of the Order of Dominations.
Ellen’s coven covets Paimon’s power as a pathway to riches. We first learn the demon’s name when Annie rummages through her mother’s effects and discovers a book titled Notes on Spiritualism, which contains an illustration of Paimon sitting atop a heap of treasure. Later, Annie discovers in a photo album a picture of Ellen clad in a wedding gown, her acolytes showering her in gold coins.
In the literature of contemporary occult hokum—well downstream of Anton LaVey’s Neitzschefication of Satanism—Paimon is described as a “familiar of musick” and “a higher spirit of self-initiation, who is a path maker for one’s own becoming.” It is no great wonder that he’s “observed towards the West.” One might say he’s the patron imp of liberal individualism.
Hereditary’s thematic concerns are matched perfectly by its craft. The interior scenes were all filmed on a soundstage to allow for long shots that create the film’s haunting “miniature” effect. Aster forgoes the fast cuts common in contemporary horror, favoring immersive long takes that trap the viewer in the tension. In the film’s first truly wrenching scene, Peter arrives home in shock after his sister’s decapitation and crawls into bed fully dressed. We’re given an unbroken shot of his unmoving eyes as Annie wails over Charlie’s headless corpse in the driveway. Then we cut to an equally long close-up of Charlie’s jawless head sitting on the asphalt of the highway, swarmed by ants—one of the most traumatizing images I’ve ever seen in a film.
Hereditary was scored by avant-garde saxophonist Colin Stetson, who regularly collaborates with Arcade Fire and Bon Iver. Aster told Stetson he wanted the film to “sound evil.” And it is indeed unsettling, with plenty of low clarinet pulses that one feels more than hears, throaty roars, and deconstructive percussion created by the rhythmic tapping of saxophone valves. The coven’s worship of Paimon/Peter is accompanied by a tinkling sound eerily evoking a rain of golden coins.
With its riveting performances (Toni Collette is sure to receive a nomination for Best Actress), intricate plotting and staging, and avoidance of traditional jump-scares in favor of tone and dread, and with Aster’s intuition that possession is less about the possessor’s power than about the inviting emptiness of the possessed, Hereditary reinforces my belief in the horror genre’s political and theological utility. The best horror, rather than opening vacuums within us, draws our attention to what already needs filling.
In the moments before the credits roll, the naked acolytes kneeling in the treehouse begin to chant “Hail, Paimon!” The shot is of the treehouse as a dollhouse, surrounded by darkness. The acolytes have become miniatures. This can be read in two ways. Either the puppeteers are themselves puppets of the demonic; or, if artifice wins out, all—even the demons—are puppets of the filmmaker. The chanting grows louder, and it’s clear that we’re hearing many more voices than there are acolytes—as if the audience members nearest the screen had joined in. Everyone in the theater is implicated, forced to question their agency, their place within this “horrible, hopeless machine.”
They are haunted too, I hope, by Joan’s closing invocation: “We reject the Trinity and pray devoutly to you, great Paimon: give us your knowledge of all secret things and all mysteries of the Earth; bring us honor, wealth and good familiars.” There is something demonic in the pursuit of wealth, and if we are haunted by the idea of supernatural evil, we are of necessity haunted by its photo-negative. Great Kings of Hell cannot exist without an even greater King in Heaven.
Justin Lee teaches undergraduate writing at the University of California, Irvine.
Promotional image from IMDb. Cropped from original.