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!