Ari Aster’s Hereditary (2018) and the Horror of Existence

Probably one of the most important horror films of the last decade.

What can I say about this movie? It’s a shock, I think. It’s one of those movies you can’t prepare for, walking in innocently expecting a horror movie like any other. Ari Aster does so much more, though. The film is like taking a beating, but it’s also an experience that everyone should allow themselves. It’s hard to explain.

Warning: Spoilers Ahead!

Definitely check out the trailer. It’s pretty amazing even now.

Unlike a lot of others, I approached Hereditary late. I saw Midsommar first, and, bolstered by the unique combination of accurate portrayal of deep existential dread and confident film making in newcomer Ari Aster, I had to seek out his other films. Hereditary came up. It was available on Amazon Prime Video. I watched it blind, not knowing what to expect at all, as is typically my preference when watching new horror movies. I find trailers give too much away, and I already knew from my experience with Aster’s previous film that I wanted to relish every moment of this one.

Oh boy! I’m still reeling months later. I keep bugging friends and family to watch it. I know I’m being annoying, but there’s so much there to discuss and unpack. Like a careful craftsman, Aster has built something raw and extraordinary, and it’s worth taking time to fully unpack what we’re seeing and why it leaves such a devastating impact.

Ari Aster and Existential Dread

Having now seen The Witch, Midsommar, and Hereditary, I can say for a fact that Aster’s strength is in the ability to capture and build on the existential dread within daily life. Humankind and human activities not being the center of the universe, and in fact humanity being itself rather insignificant on the whole, is a deep source of horror. The futility of trying and the fear that there is no God or afterlife, only arbitrary life and death.

[Existential dread] refers to the anxiety we feel when we realize the true nature of human existence and the reality of the choices we must make … These “existential moments” of crisis then lead to more generalized feelings of dread, anxiety, or fear.

CLine

Most of us push these fears aside to function, drown them in faith, or attempt to make a mark of some kind through achievements like parenting or creativity or some other legacy. Aster taps into this fear, showing us a normal, functioning family and pushes. Then, once we’re concerned for the characters, he pushes further until we’re with them in a waking nightmare. And we’re left wondering about ourselves, how we’d react, how our family would adapt. And when the finale hits us, we’re left stunned into shocked horror. Like Peter, crowned king of hell and the vessel of Paimon, we’re left staring blankly.

There are so many nuances that Aster adds to each setting, character, and scene that the film rewards multiple viewings. The conversation between Peter and Annie in her dream following Charlie’s death is perhaps the best example. After following a trail of ants — ants that we earlier saw covering Charlie’s decaying severed head — she finds Peter in his bed with the insects swarming over him, crawling in his eyes and out of his mouth. This moment is a critical juncture because the ants link Charlie’s putrefaction and decay to Peter. It makes him culpable, but also a victim of the inevitable decay and rot that awaits all living things. In this case, the ants swarming at once from outside the house and from within Peter demonstrate the connection between Paimon, the entity that wants to reside within him, and the cultists who watch the house and wait for an opportune moment.

As an artist, the first connection that came to mind was surrealist Salvador Dalí’s use of ants in his paintings as a representation of both sexual desire and decay. As all beings are drawn toward death, sex and pleasure represent faint attempts to stave off the dreadful fate that awaits us all. His works such as Autumn Cannibalism and Soft Self Portrait with Grilled Bacon demonstrate human desires and ideals in the face of inevitable death, dismemberment, and decay. Just as bacon dooms the pig but feeds humanity, humanity is food for the ants and other insects.

 …Soft Self Portrait with Grilled Bacon represents my head without a skull to hold it up … The grilled bacon emphasises the consumability of the flesh, which the ants are eating.

Dalí qtd. in Mata and Costa

Using this connection between ants, sex, and death, we see a strange picture of Annie and her relationship with her children. Catching the characters at a moment where they’re all numb to the recent familial death demonstrates death as a relief and as escape, but Annie and her family cannot escape Leigh so easily. Her mother’s dominating force controls Annie’s every impulse, from her discomfort at the open guest room door to her reluctance to adequately model good coping mechanisms for her children. Ultimately, Leigh has left Annie incapable of shouldering more tragedy. Annie, confronted off-screen with Charlie’s decapitated body, refuses to recognize her culpability. She sees Peter here as a representative of youthful sexual energy and the doomed path that takes. Annie, having already traveled that road with her own abusive mother, recognizes the decay spilling from Peter — the rot he inherited from her.

Peter wakes, and Annie realizes it was a dream. And in this moment, the confrontation is between not just Peter and his mother, but metaphorically between a living being and an uncaring creator:

Annie: I never wanted to be your mother.

Peter: Why?

Annie: I was scared. I didn’t feel like a mother. But she pressured me.

Peter: Then why did you have me?

Annie: It wasn’t my fault! I tried to stop it.

Peter: How?

Annie: I tried to have a miscarriage.

Peter: How?

Annie: However I could. I did everything they told me not to do, but it didn’t work. I’m happy it didn’t work.

Peter: You tried to kill me.

Annie: No, I love you!

Peter: [crying] Why did you try to kill me?

Annie: I didn’t! I was trying to save you!

Hereditary (2018)

By rejecting responsibility for her actions, including passive attempted abortion instead of simply seeking an abortion safely, Annie demonstrates her lack of development. She externalizes her choices and seeks over and over to justify her actions even in the face of Peter’s confusion. Peter in this moment faces the realities of a creator that blames others and demands unconditional love without offering answers. In other words, the very essence of existential dread. It’s significant that the scene morphs into nightmare imagery with Peter dripping in turpentine and Annie holding a lit match. The fire consumes, but it does not cleanse as we see later with Steve burning with Charlie’s notebook. For Annie, there is no purifying flame or magic spell that can counter the inevitability of decay.

Next time, I’ll tackle Ari Aster’s use of the weird in Hereditary, specifically weird fiction as a concept in horror storytelling!

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