“What the fuck was that all about?”
So said the people sat behind me as the credits rolled during Hereditary last night (after they’d talked all the way through – you know who you are, Peckhamplex pests). It’s safe to say they’re probably not the only ones left scratching their heads after seeing this curveball horror; if anyone claims it all fell into place instantly, they’re probably lying. Or possessed.
Hereditary is not a willfully deceptive film, more one that refuses to bombard the viewer with exposition. Director Ari Aster has described it as “as a conspiracy movie without exposition, told from the perspective of the people being conspired against,” which goes some way to explaining the confusion – and the unsettling experience of spending two hours in its world.
“I tried to riddle the movie with clues,” he has said, “and ultimately you’re only given shards and fragments of the whole story, but I wanted to make sure you had enough to figure out what happened.”
Even if you ‘got’ the film, there are doubtless some things that have left you pondering their meaning. So we did the research to save you the hassle. Here, then, is Hereditary explained, with spoilers more terrifying than the film itself. If you’ve not seen it yet, abandon hope all ye who enter here.
So, we’ve all heard of Satan, but Paimon? The demon is not an invention for the film, but a demon noted in the 17th Century grimoire (spell book) Lesser Key Of Solomon (ask your local library for your nearest copy), which itself gathered reference materials from centuries past. Though his specific rank differs according to different accounts, Paimon is usually referred to as a high-level entity in hell’s social strata, usually a king or a duke, albeit one who is subservient to Satan, who is very much the boss in those parts. According to lore, Paimon would come to our world wearing a crown and bearing gifts for followers, so there’s your motive for bringing him here.
So, like, was the son possessed at the end?
That’s the idea, yes. The deceased grandmother Ellen – who, you remember, we hear at her funeral was a distant, difficult and private person – had dedicated her life – and her family – to bringing Paimon to earth, sacrificing first her granddaughter, Charlie. Charlie had been of great interest to granny since birth – she even breastfed her, we’re told. Aster told Variety Charlie had been possessed “from the moment she’s born… I mean, there’s a girl that was displaced, but she was displaced from the very beginning.” But Paimon wanted a male body, meaning Peter was prime demon real estate.
Why didn’t Ellen commit Peter to Paimon at birth, like she did with Charlie?
As Annie explains, she kept Peter away from Ellen as they were estranged at the time and she didn’t want Ellen to have anything to do with her firstborn. Charlie notes in the film that her grandmother had wished she was a boy, presumably as it would have saved a whole lot of hassle.
Was the accident (you know – THE ACCIDENT) really an accident?
Noooo. You might have missed it, but the cult sigil was etched in the telegraph poll that did a Marie Antoinette on poor Charlie. Note that her eventual condition is echoed by the female members of the family: grandma’s corpse has had the head removed too.
Why didn’t young Charlie act more demonic?
No pea soup vomit here. Instead, Charlie is shown as a quiet, distant outsider, a social outcast with some strange habits, such as making toys with ill-fitting heads – more of that later.
Really, this question depends on who you see as being the true evil in Hereditary. Paimon is being used – he didn’t ask to be resurrected, and he seems a bit sad and confused about being on earth. “[Charlie] is a demon,” Alex Wolff, who plays Peter, has said, “But I feel like it’s so interesting – Ari took the approach that she’s not necessarily evil. She’s actually scared, and she’s just in this circumstance. She’s born this way, and she doesn’t feel connected to the rest of the world. And I think it’s kind of a sick, twisted, true analogy about being on the outside and having a mental disorder.” So yeah, granny’s the baddy. Bad gran.
How bad is bad gran?
Really bad! Remember the bit in the bereavement support group where Annie says her brother killed himself because mum was “trying to put people inside him” – that’d be Paimon. She’d put demonology – fuelled by greed – before generations of her own family.
Why does Charlie make that clicking noise?
It’s a tick to show that she’s not ‘normal’ (in case the bit where she chopped a bird’s head off didn’t hammer that message home). The click is Paimon’s tick, hence why Peter does it later; Charlie’s nut allergy, on the other hand, shows the fallibility of a human host.
Why did the rest of the family need to die?
If you were quick, you may have noted from the pages of the spell book that Annie finds that the male host must be worn down enough for Paimon to enter the body. The events of the film create those conditions.
Why didn’t Paimon possess dad?
It’s not totally clear, but the film’s title suggests the host needed to be a member of the bloodline of ‘Queen Leigh’, as her followers called her. Dad married in.
What’s with all the naked people?
The birthday suit is, apparently, the best outfit in which to indulge in a little occultist fun. Clothing is believed to impede the flow of magical energies through the body. Consider that if you ever go to a ‘clothing optional’ resort.
What’s with the words written on the walls?
Satony? Yeah, it’s Tony! Arf arf. But seriously now, throughout Hereditary, we can see words written in the pattern of wallpaper in family members’ bedrooms. Put simply, they’re magic incantations, likely placed there by the grandmother or by the cult trying to bring Paimon back. According to research by Signal Horizon, ‘Satony’ is a word used in a Ritual of Necromancy (communicating with the dead), ‘Zasas’ is a word used by famed British occultist Aleister Crowley when summoning a demon called Choronzon and ‘Liftoach Pandemonium’ is a combination of a Hebrew word meaning ‘open up’ and the familiar word pandemium, which in the context of Milton’s Paradise Lost referred to a place where Lucifer and the fallen exist.
What’s the sigil on the necklaces?
It’s the Seal Of Paimon, of course! The iconography in Hereditary isn’t the usual stuff we see in horror films – there’s nothing so simple as a pentagram here. It’s the result of deep research into the occult, says director Ari Aster. “I did want to avoid certain clichés and the obvious symbols,” he told Newsweek. “The first thing I told the production design team as we started to look for what the symbology would be is no pentagrams, no upside-down crosses.” So this sigil, like the mysterious triangles on the floorboards, are to give a sense of satanic worship without spoon feeding the viewer.
Why did a girl with a nut allergy eat a cake that clearly had chopped nuts in it?
Yeah, you’re kind of on your own here. Though we do know that Charlie was acting under Paimon’s influence, we also get the sense that Paimon is a fairly passive presence. Chocolate cake is nice though, so maybe that’s reason enough.
Why did her parents never seem to send her out with an Epipen?
Again, good question, but bearing in mind this is a mother who doused her children in paint thinner and tried to light it, social services have bigger things to worry about.
What’s with the immolation?
Immolation – the act of setting oneself on fire or, going further back, suicide by a number of means – has significance in a number of religions as a ritual sacrifice. Tellingly, another name for the act in Buddhism is “abandoning the body”. It’s possible that Annie, who tried to burn her children and herself while sleepwalking, was acting subconsciously, or under the influence of the cult. And of course, it’s poor old dad that barbecues in the end.
How much were the cult influencing proceedings?
A lot. We can assume it was they that exhumed Ellen’s grave, and perhaps wrote on the walls. At Ellen’s funeral, Charlie notes strange people smiling at her, which is of course because they’re smiling at a demon they summoned. It seems like a coincidence at the time, but we see the family receive a flyer for a spiritualist. She doesn’t take the bait, so the duplicitous Ruth lures Annie into the practice herself. That, we understand, is Plan B.
What’s the mysterious light that guides the family?
It’s never explained in the film, but fans theorise that the light represents Paimon’s energy guiding members of the family to deliver his will. Some go one step further, saying the light is like that refracted through a lens, like the one Annie uses when she’s making her miniatures. In that sense, the action is, perhaps, taking place in a microcosm overseen by a much bigger – and scarier – miniaturist, which in turn recalls the very first scene of the film, as we zoom into the miniature bedroom. Trippy, man.
Could this ‘miniature’ theory be less literal?
Absolutely. Throughout their lives, the family have been manipulated by external forces, like dolls in a doll’s house. The events that fall them are pre-determined; their condition is hereditary.
Is it all a metaphor for mental illness?
Put simply, no. “[The ending] is literal,” Aster has said. “Nobody likes the ‘It was all a dream’ thing.” That being said, mental illness is a strong theme in the film, and it’s no coincidence that dad Steve is a therapist. Toni Collette, who plays Annie, told Washington Post that originally the idea was that Annie and Steve had met as patient and doctor.
Shall we go and watch it again?