Hereditary and The Burden of Maternal Trauma

A24 first started gaining wider attention with the release of ‘Springbreakers’ in 2013. The questionable film appealed to teenagers and young adults alike, and although it lacked genuity and was degraded by James Franco’s bizarre performance, the film did hit on something that contributed to the company’s cinematic success. Preempting films such as ‘American Honey’ and ‘20th Century Women’, ‘Springbreakers’ struck a chord with its audience, conveying the perceived stasis of modern day life and the ever growing gap between the suburban quiet of the private sphere and the constant evolution and double-edged appeal of the public sphere.

This June, A24 brought us ‘Hereditary’ – Ari Aster’s cinematic writer-director debut – hitting theatres after opening to high acclaim at Sundance. Dubbed “this generation’s The Exorcist”, ‘Hereditary’ is undoubtedly startling, almost unbearably visceral in its deliverance and one of the most rewardingly uncomfortable films you will see this year. Just to clarify – I don’t think this is a great film. I’m not even sure I think it’s good. But it has something to say, a commentary to provide (whether intentionally or not) on the role of women and mothers, not only in the 21st century horror genre, but within our society as a whole.

Toni Collette is flawless in her role as Annie Graham – wife to Steve (Gabriel Byrne), mother to Peter (Alex Wolff) and Charlie (Milly Shapiro) – who is startled by the lack of reactionary feeling she has toward the death of her mother, Ellen. Not long after the funeral, Charlie is decapitated as Peter attempts to rush her to hospital following an allergic reaction. Charlie, unable to breathe, sticks her head out of the window in an attempt to get air, and when Peter swerves to avoid an animal lying dead in the road Charlie’s head is cut clean off by a telephone pole. The trauma of this scene is executed with sheer artistic brilliance by Aster, culminating in silence bathed in the solitary lights of the road. Peter drives away, returns home and goes to bed, presumably still in shock, leaving his mother to find the headless corpse of her young daughter in the backseat of the family car.

The film begins with an eerie tour of Annie’s studio, in which she’s crafting a number of scenes for a gallery show. Annie’s career seems distant and unattainable, confined to her studio in a solitary act of creating, and this process plays a vital role in ‘Hereditary’. As an artist, Annie painstakingly births her work into microcosmic reality, contained in a size that is manageable and controllable. This is in stark contrast to the realities of her own life that the miniatures are based upon, which are unforgiving, overwhelming, dwarfing Annie into a violent panic that no matter how terrific her anger is, it will never overcome the entangled web of family trauma. At the beginning of the film Annie is working on a playschool and a hospice, with additional scenes being exposed throughout the movie. Following the death of her mother Ellen and her reluctant return to grief counselling, the miniature scenes become more personal, based in and around the home. The most memorable of the scenes is undoubtedly the one in which Annie is in bed holding newborn Charlie, the figure of her mother in her white nightgown exposing one swollen breast looming over her. The miniatures are all maternal and caring in nature, either centred around her own home or her own family, or focusing on scenes of caregiving. Even in her work, the one escape she has from the stifling reality of her suffocating family situation, she cannot reach beyond the role of the mother, the giver of life and the facilitator of others. Perhaps you could argue that in a world where maternity is the most prized attribute of women, the mother can be entirely absorbed by this role, losing her sense of self like Annie does.

The women in the film share an obvious maternal bond, one that favours the protection of their ‘offspring’ (whether that be their child, grandchild or the Goetic demon spirit they’re summoning in the treehouse). From the suggestion that Ellen insisted on feeding Charlie, to the presence of the woman waving at Charlie from across the road outside school, to Joan’s insidious appearances throughout – motherhood is not a solo act. There is solidarity in this burden, a solidarity of shared pain, shared joy, but most of all, shared trauma. The trauma expressed through the monologue Annie delivers in her return to grief counselling, in the admission that she had tried to miscarry when she was pregnant with Peter, in the savage outburst Annie has in reaction to Peter asking if she is okay. The latter is one of the most beautifully emotionally rendered scenes I have witnessed. Annie can’t comprehend the turn of attention, from her expected role of caregiver to being questioned about her own wellbeing by her child.

The weight of responsibility for Annie becomes a trauma in itself. In the grief counselling session that she attends, we watch her rattle off all of her and her mother’s shared traumas, such as her father dying from self imposed starvation, and her brother hanging himself in her mother’s room. This sudden burst of private information culminates by Annie stating she feels guilty, and after the counsellor asks her what she feels guilty about, she says she doesn’t know. None of the traumas she has experienced are her fault, and she can’t lay blame on herself logically for such experiences. However, this idea of the shared maternal burden, the role of the caregiver being placed upon women from an early age, could arguably be the explanation as to why Annie feels so desperately guilty. From infanthood, women are placed in the realm of the mother, and the burden of traumas in the way of motherly responsibility are ever present before one can truly grasp the weight of this burden.

And, of course, there is the importance of the symbol of Paimon, the spirit the cult is attempting to summon from the dead (female) form of Charlie to the living (male) form of Peter. Even in the grimoire Paimon first appears in – The Lesser Key of Solomon, in case you were wondering – he is described as having a woman’s face. Occultist Carroll Runyon argues that the origins of Paimon are ultimately female, based upon a Middle Eastern Pagan Goddess similarly depicted in a number of manuscripts as a woman riding a camel. This depiction is briefly shown at the climax of the film, a highly intelligent aside from Aster to anyone attempting to analyse the movie. For most audience members, the fleeting glance at the picture is hard to pick up on, amongst the distraction of Collette decapitating herself and aging naked occultists running amok in the family garden. Another demonstrably subtle allusion to the female experience is the recurrence of Charlie’s trademark clicking noise – Paimon has been argued to have once meant a “tinkling noise” in an unspecified language, and therefore suggestive of Isis. Isis, an Ancient Egyptian Goddess (associated with sistra and the tide of the Nile), is emblematic of maternity and rebirth in much the same way that Paimon is suggested to have the power to create and make life – an often dually praised and demonised female trait.

Apart from Annie’s two outbursts, underlying tensions are left to fester unspoken and unaddressed. Family troubles are palpable in every shot, however Aster allows these to build until it is physically impossible for his characters to avoid them any longer, leading to some of the most emotionally taut, insidiously destructive breakdowns in modern cinema. The first half of the film is fresh, untouched by the tired conventions of modern jumpscare horrors, and the personal familial traumas we’re privy to are deeply unsettling. Not even the emblem (and quite an emblem it was) of Annie sawing off her own head could amount to the brutality of the burden of the family, and the hereditary responsibility placed on women to constantly care for and facilitate the prosperity of the family unit. Although I can appreciate the power of the invasion of the home and the appropriation of a private dwelling by a perceived outside danger, the initial terror evoked by the strain of family trauma remain unrivaled in regard to the fear it injects into viewers.

Partly for the wider tensions running deep beneath the terror, ‘Hereditory’ is an interesting film – though isn’t as spectacular as the reviews have suggested, and the tensions initially delicately crafted by Aster aren’t realised by the climax of the film. Despite this, ‘Hereditary’ reflects the burden of the family on women, the true horror of responsibility and sacrifice in the face of reproduction and maintaining the existence of the family. The demonic social drive to appropriate bodies for these causes is as chilling in real life as it is in the cinematic universe – and for this suprising relevancy alone, it’s well worth a watch.


Words by Britt Irwin

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