Witches, Artists, and Pandemonium in Hereditary


On Film

Still from Hereditary.


I had been sitting in a lovesick fog, waiting to see Ari Aster’s Hereditary, ever since I first heard about it. I don’t usually follow new movie releases too closely, but I found out about the movie back in January, when people at the Sundance Film Festival lost their minds about how good it was. As soon as I saw the words The Exorcist and The Shining attached to the film’s publicity materials, I knew I had to see it.

I spent six agonizing months memorizing its trailers, watching YouTube fan movies (and considering making my own), talking to my friends about it until they began rolling their eyes, and dreaming about its possible endings. I fell madly in love with the idea of what it could be and what it might do to my imagination. For a poet, this is a movie’s greatest gift.

The film came out on June 8, and I’ve already seen it twice. The first time, I saw it only through my fingers. I kept my hands plastered on my face, trying to avoid any jump scares (something I wish I had done when I first saw The Shining nearly twenty years ago and the ghost of room 237 began her lifelong emblazonment on my psyche). The second time, I wrote notes in a green notebook in the dark, scribbling half-words that I can barely read now. It reminded me of the way I first started writing poems in the darkness of my bedroom when I was a little girl.

After so much anticipation, it is only natural that I am not exactly sure how I feel about the movie. The biggest problem with Hereditary is that it isn’t actually a horror movie at all. Or at least what we think a horror movie should be. If you are looking for blood and gore, you may be disappointed. If you go into the movie expecting to not be able to sleep for weeks, you might be disappointed then, too. I had hoped for those things. During these awful times we need some form of catharsis from our art. I went in looking for some sort of psychic salvation, the sort that only horror movies can give. As any horror movie lover knows, watching people be hunted and killed by ghosts and monsters can provide the necessary hyperbole to our reality-based fears. Which, if you are living and conscious in the world today, are currently quite overwhelming.

Hereditary billed itself as a film about the legacy of the devil, but it isn’t really about demons at all. It’s about what people do when they feel life is pointless. It’s about where you go after you realize that all those who are supposed to keep you safe (your parents, your government, your police force, your employers, your school, your places of worship) have not only failed you, but have been plotting all along for your demise. It’s a deeply paranoid movie, which is its own kind of horror. Real horror. The devils in the movie are the ones we know are actually there, waiting in the dark. They’re us.

It seems clear that Hereditary is an extremely feminist movie, but what its message is, I am not sure. The evil runs through the matriarchal line and so does the power. The women in the film are the architects of the downfall of the Graham family. They include Ellen Graham, the grandmother who has recently died from a protracted illness and has Dissociative Identity Disorder, Annie, the mother (Toni Colette) and a professional miniaturist, and Charlie, the daughter (Milly Shapiro) who also makes figurines. The lead male characters, like the son Peter (Alex Wolff), and the long-suffering husband, Steve (Gabriel Brye), are extraordinarily flat characters. Peter is a typical stoner teenager, with no real interests other than getting high and staring at girls’ butts in class. Steve is pretty good at sighing a lot and going along with the tragic events of the film, but doesn’t seem to have any say in what happens to his family or even himself. The men in Hereditary are always there, but they are not really there. Lost and vacuous, they populate the movie as effortlessly as Toni’s miniature scenes and Charlie’s figurines.  Everything male in the film exists simply as accessories to a great female-focused design.

Hereditary is really about the power of art-making, and the movie’s artists are all female. Their artwork is craft-based, works that have long been associated with female labor. Ellen Graham (perhaps named after the socialite photographer) knits beautifully creepy welcome mats for her family and cult family members. Annie has enjoyed some commercial success with her miniature work (a NYC art gallery is hounding her to finish her work for an upcoming gallery show). She uses her tableaus to control the traumatic events of her life. It’s reminiscent of the poet Susan Stewart, who wrote that a “miniature offers a world clearly limited in space but frozen” or “a materialized secret.” Annie’s daughter, Charlie, makes terrifying and fascinating “dolls” out of found objects, most of these objects being the heads of dead animals. In the movie, the females are the true masterminds, who attempt to control life and death, and conjure only as real artists know how to.

And yet, unfortunately, the depiction of female witches in Hereditary tends towards the cliché.  Witchcraft is demonized, and the witches represent our fear of anyone not practicing the one, maybe two, organized religions that we have deemed acceptable in this country. Joanie and her kindred use magick to conjure knowledge and wealth for themselves and kill several people in the process—the ultimate capitalistic act. The movie’s depiction of them is tied to America’s long history of persecuting women for witchcraft, such as in the Salem witch trials. Aster plays on our fears that the secretive rituals of women are always about evil, but many witches today practice in the occult world so as to help heal people. (Check out Mya Spalter’s new book, Enchantments, to find out more.)  I’d love to watch a movie by Aster about good witches one day. That is, if he’s into that.

The great female American poet and witch Joni Mitchell sends us off after the movie’s wild last scene (a scene you are sure to remember for at least the rest of your life.) As the credits roll, Both Sides Now blasts and, as in Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling, we are forced to reconcile how we feel about people sacrificing everything to a god (or in this case, a demon). It’s love’s illusions I recall/ I really don’t know love/ At all …

Yes. Exactly.


Dorothea Lasky is the author of Milk (Wave Books, 2018). Her poem “A Hospital Room,” appeared in our Spring 2018 issue.