This is part two of my series analyzing Ari Aster’s horror films Hereditary (2018) and Midsommar (2019). You can find the master list here, but you don’t have to have read the others to necessarily understand this one (but it helps!). Be aware that each article has spoilers galore.
- Horror and Paganism: Watching Midsommar (2019) as a Witch
- Ari Aster’s Hereditary (2018) and the Horror of Existence
Ari Aster and Weird Fiction
One of the greatest strengths in Aster’s film is his ability to capitalize on the deep fears within the human condition: the deep fear that we are not special and that humanity is as random and fleeting as any other life form. In Hereditary, the film culminates in a decades-long ritual intended to claim these lives. There was nothing that the protagonists could have done to escape the trap, and the innocents like Annie’s husband are pulled in just as much as Annie herself.
[Weird fiction] provokes and involves a more conceptual fear than that precipitated by threats to physical safety or straightforward revulsion … something that slips between genres. While undoubtedly most closely related with horror, it also engages with the numinous. I also think that a lack of narrative closure is one of its frequent identifiers.Machin qtd. in Neuharth
The truth that these characters are doomed from the start, from the day of their birth in Charlie and Peter’s case, builds on the long tradition in weird fiction, and specifically Lovecraft’s oeuvre, that there can be inheritable destruction, and sometimes the horrors of the ancestor are visited upon the child. The uncaring universe prevalent in existential dread manifests here as the characters feebly attempt normal life in the midst of their slow progress to their own doom.
Aster’s taken some criticism for his malignment of the occult in his films, but that misses the point. In each case, the occult practices are outside society waiting to manipulate the unwary or unsupported into a trap, a very Lovecraftian idea we see in “The Call of Cthulhu” where cultists seek the ressurection of their deity at the expense of humanity.
Dani in Midsommar at least has some choice in her slow descent into and eventual embrace of the cult. Annie has fewer choices: taught to internalize and ill-equipped for severe psychological challenges to her sense of self-worth and agency, she lashes out at herself and her family following Charlie’s death. While Dani confronts isolation and existential dread by finding solace and purpose in the cult, Annie believes she can control the inevitable. Even when confronted with the supernatural, Annie believes she can fix the problems that arise as a result. Her mother’s books on spiritualism left untended in boxes, she instead believes a person she met randomly in a parking lot. She refers to Joan as “My friend Joan,” to which Steven telling asks, “Who’s Joan?” Annie, seeking validation, trusts anyone who will pity her. If a person listens, Annie feels validated and trusts them.
Annie thrives in settings where she can unload without any questions or being held accountable. In the group therapy scene, she tells the story of her family life, very conveniently leaving out the inciting reason her children distrust her: that she tried to murder them in their sleep.
My mom died a week ago. So I’m just here for trying it. I have a lot of resistance to things like this, but I came to these a couple years ago. Well, I was forced to come … So, my mom was old, and she wasn’t all together there at the end. And we were pretty much estranged before that, so it really wasn’t a huge blow. But I did love her. And she didn’t have an easy life. She had DID, which became extreme at the end. And dementia. And my father died when I was a baby from starvation, because he had psychotic depression and he starved himself, which I’m sure was just as pleasant as it sounds. And then there’s my brother. My older brother had schizophrenia, and when he was sixteen, he hanged himself in my mother’s bedroom and of course his suicide note blamed her, accusing her of putting people inside him. So, that was my mom’s life. And then she lived in our house at the end, before hospice. We weren’t even talking before that. I mean, we were, and then we weren’t. And then we were. She’s completely manipulative. Until my husband finally enforced a no-contact rule, which lasted until I got pregnant with my daughter. I didn’t let her anywhere near me when I had my first, my son, which is why I gave her my daughter, who she immediately stabbed her hooks into. And I just, I felt guilty again. I felt guilty again. When she got sick, not that she was really even my mom at the end, and not that she would ever feel guilty about anything. And I just don’t want to put any more stress on my family. I’m not even really sure if they could, could give me that support. And I just, I just feel like, I just sometimes feel like it’s all ruined. And then I realize that I am to blame. Or not that I’m to blame, but I am blamed!Annie, Hereditary (2018)
The idea that we are essentially doomed to the whims of forces beyond our control and pacts we’ve inherited is itself essentially Lovecraftian. We see it in “The Shadow Over Innsmouth” as the protagonist realized the townspeople hide a dark secret: that they have for generations interbred with The Deep Ones, fish-like creatures in service to a watery Elder Race. This horror intensifies when he realizes that he too is descended from their strange hybridization, and he’s destined for the same monstrous fate:
I began to acquire a kind of terror of my own ancestry. As I have said, my grandmother and uncle Douglas had always disturbed me. Now, years after their passing, I gazed at their pictured faces with a measurably heightened feeling of repulsion and alienation. I could not at first understand the change, but gradually a horrible sort of comparison began to obtrude itself on my unconscious mind despite the steady refusal of my consciousness to admit even the least suspicion of it. It was clear that the typical expression of these faces now suggested something it had not suggested before—something which would bring stark panic if too openly thought of.The Shadow Over Innsmouth, H.P. Lovecraft
This is a stark moment we can compare to Annie’s grim discovery of her mother and Paula’s relationship and the cult itself.
Lovecraft, H.P. “Notes on Writing Weird Fiction.” H.P. Lovecraft.com, http://www.hplovecraft.com/writings/texts/essays/nwwf.aspx
Neuharth, Jared. “Weird Fiction.” Interview with James Machin. Ransom Center Magazine, Apr. 1, 2019, https://sites.utexas.edu/ransomcentermagazine/2019/04/01/weird-fiction/
Vandermeer, Anne and Jeff Vandermeer. “The Weird: An Introduction.” Weird Fiction Review, May 12, 2012, http://weirdfictionreview.com/2012/05/the-weird-an-introduction/