I remember the first time I saw Hereditary. It took me about three days to be able to talk about it without hiding underneath a blanket. And I’m only being a little facetious.
Ari Aster’s Hereditary is quite frankly the scariest film I’ve ever seen. It combines disturbing visuals with unexpected twists and visceral performances to create a truly terrifying example of modern horror. But that’s not all. Hereditary uses classic writing techniques to heighten the horror. In this post, we’ll explore a few of the most notable.
A warning to those who might want to watch this film: This post will involve spoilers. If you don’t want them, turn back now!
But First, the Plot
As the name implies, Hereditary is a film about a family. Their matriarchal (and kinda creepy) grandmother has recently passed away. A simple enough start, yet this death leads to increasingly disturbing events, including an intrusion by a strange cult. As the plot develops, each family member’s sanity is put to the test.
So what outstanding writing techniques might we observe in this movie? Let’s take a look.
One of the hallmarks of horror (and suspense, for that matter) is keeping your audience guessing. The trick here is balance: Give them enough so they’re interested in your story, yet not enough so they can guess what’s happening. The right amount of uncertainty heightens tension and establishes dread.
In Hereditary, this uncertainty fuels two possible explanations of the film. The first is that everything we see is literal reality. The entire family has been sacrificed for the demon Paimon. The cult is real, all of its members are real, and no one’s actually going mad since everything they see is reality. The other explanation is that everything that occurs in the film is an elaborate delusion. Peter, the son of the family, has murdered his entire family as a result of his hereditary mental illness. (Either way, don’t let your kids watch this movie. They might get ideas.)
This uncertainty is part of what makes Hereditary so unsettling. We can’t be sure if everything’s all in the characters’ minds or if it’s really happening. Many films strive for this effect, but this is one of the few that succeeds.
2. Elements of Reality
The central evil of Hereditary is the aforementioned demon god Paimon. If you’re not a Wikipedia junkie like me, you might think writer/director Ari Aster invented this dude. Turns out Paimon is an actual, honest-to-goodness, real demon (or at least as real as demons get).
According to several ancient texts on demonology, Paimon was a powerful spirit who could grant knowledge and wealth to whosoever he chose. In the film, the cult believes in Paimon’s powers. They carry out an elaborate plan to grant him a human vessel, all for the knowledge and wealth he promises.
This layer of reality adds depth to the horror—there really were (and maybe still are) people who believe in this spirit’s existence. Which is pretty scary in and of itself.
3. Subverting Tropes
Speaking of that cult…when you think of cults in movies, what’s the first image that comes to mind? Likely people dressed in featureless robes with their faces hooded. That feels like a standard horror trope ever since Lovecraft.
It would’ve been easy for Aster to write his cultists as such. Yet he takes the extra care to create something different. In this instance, he goes with naked old people.
Okay, this sounds kind of silly when I write it. But in the context of the film, it’s downright terrifying. For example, toward the end, Peter discovers his father’s charred corpse in the family living room. As if that isn’t horrifying enough, he hears a noise and turns toward it. There’s a man standing in his house—a cultist. I can’t tell you how frightening that shot was the first time I saw it. A naked man framed by a doorway, standing partially in shadow, grinning. It’s the very same grinning man we see at the beginning of the film, too, making it even more chilling.
Imagine if the cultists had simply been people in robes, like Death Eaters or something. They might be a little creepy, sure, but they wouldn’t be disturbing in quite the same way. That’s because robed cultists are familiar. Naked cultists are unfamiliar. And in life, the unfamiliar is almost always more terrifying.
4. Metaphoric and Literal Meaning
There’s a lot of decapitation in Hereditary. In fact, it’s “Off with their heads!” for 50 percent of the entire principle cast. This decapitation is not only gruesome—it’s also symbolic of the family’s mental state.
Consider this. A common euphemism for insanity is “losing your mind.” Or, in this case, it’s losing your entire head. In Hereditary, that idea is taken quite literally. Just ask Charlie.
The horror genre has a rich history of taking the metaphoric and making it literal. Almost all ghost stories, for example, examine the lingering effects of death. When people die, they remain in our minds. Sometimes it feels like traces of them are left behind. Sometimes it might even feel like they're not really gone. The entire concept of a ghost is this idea, only made literal. In a story, such literalization gives our characters an entity to interact with, fear, and fight.
Now back to Hereditary. Taking the symbolic and making it literal heightens our fear and adds another layer of meaning to the story. Plus, it further blurs the two possible meanings mentioned in point number one. Are the characters literally being decapitated, or are they metaphorically losing their sanity? Either way, you might want to close your eyes—especially at that part with Toni Collette and the piano wire. Yikes.
5. Inverting Common Assumptions
There are some things in life that we take for granted. Hard work pays off, love conquers hate, everyone makes mistakes, pineapple does not belong on pizza. These are some of our most common assumptions. They’re sort of like guidelines for life. Hereditary takes many common assumptions we’re accustomed to and (to stay on theme) beheads them. Here’s a brief list:
Common assumption: Family members love each other, support each other, and make each other feel safe. Not so in Hereditary. In this film, family members try tearing each others' heads off while they sleep.
Common assumption: Religion is a code of ethics that’s meant to provide meaning and guidance for practitioners’ lives. In Hereditary, religion is personified as cultists who want to murder your family and gift your body to a demon.
Common assumption: The home is a safe place. In Hereditary, the home is where your mom lights your dad on fire and the aforementioned cultists hang out in the attic, sans clothes.
Common assumption: People you meet at support groups are trying to help you. In Hereditary, the seemingly kind June is actually the new leader of the evil cult.
Common assumption: Dead people stay dead. Nope. In Hereditary, the dead constantly exert their influence over the living.
As you can see, Aster takes a special delight in violating our basic assumptions. This adds to our fear because what should happen doesn’t happen. Instead, we’re given much more horrifying alternatives.
Hereditary is a masterwork of horror, both visually and in terms of writing. If you haven’t seen it yet, go watch it. If you’ve seen it before, watch it again. Either way, I’d recommend leaving the lights on.