Six months into 2018 and we’ve been given one sucker-punch of a horror movie in Hereditary. To call it effective would be an understatement—it’s gross, it’s gruesome, it’s horrific, and it’s absolutely bleak. It’s a movie with no safety net. And it’s brilliant for it too, because it hides this bleakness right in the title. Hereditary. This is a movie born with a disease, one it cannot shake no matter how hard it tries. It’s fated to end the way it ends.
Except, maybe it isn’t. Fate is certainly its biggest theme, but there’s nothing satisfying about a pointless struggle. To be sure, there is a cruelness to the film that most horror movies lack, but I never got the impression it was outright nihilistic. Fate is a theme, but the film isn’t hopeless.
Hereditary shares two other big themes alongside fate: blame and guilt. It’s in these two equally negative emotions that the movie finds its hope and ultimately, the idea that maybe fate could have been bested had the characters not entered the film already broken.
Annie begins the movie feeling blamed. She doesn’t know from what exactly, only that she holds this defensive view of her family, like they’re out to get her. It’s a lens we spend half the film with until we later find out that the blame is actually guilt. Annie once tried to murder her children during a bout of sleepwalking. It’s something she claims was an accident and becomes defensive of. She didn’t mean to, so it’s not something she should be distrusted for.
The problem is, Hereditary is still a movie operating on fate. There are no accidents. Somewhere deep down, Annie wanted to kill her children, and she’s afraid she still wants to kill them. It eats at her.
It means the movie begins with the family already divided and everything we see divides them further. When Peter has a nightmare that he’s being strangled, he wakes up and blames his mother. Why wouldn’t he? She’s tried to kill him before.
Hereditary becomes a balancing act between what the characters do and what they know. Every action in its two-hour runtime has a sinister cloud hanging over it, as if the characters are all struggling to overcome their natural instincts. There is the fated choice to make, and then there is the right choice to make. They always find themselves making the fated choice because they don’t trust each other, but there’s always the option—the hope—not to.
For example, Annie knows her Peter is going to a high school party filled with drinking. He lies; she calls him on his lie. Yet she forces Charlie to go with him, Charlie who is allergic to peanuts, too young to be there, and more than likely possessed by Paemon.
They both know they’re making a mistake, yet they make that mistake anyways.
Charlie’s death was a crossroad for the family. It could have brought them together to grieve as a unit, or it could have divided them further. Ultimately it divides them further. Peter feels blamed for Charlie’s death, and he feels guilty too since he was driving the car. We as the audience know it wasn’t his fault though. We saw Paemon’s symbol on the light post.
Annie, meanwhile, blames Peter. She lashes out at him, and instead of trying to console her son, drifts even further away from her family. Answers are to be found not in communication with one another but to the dead. If Charlie’s ghost can tell her everything is alright, then no one will have to feel guilty about anything. She won’t have to blame Peter for her daughter’s death, and Peter won’t have to feel guilty.
It’s a destructive viewing because it removes introspection and personal growth. The characters have the option to make the right choices, to tackle the emotions they are feeling and grieve, but Annie isn’t willing to do that. Peter isn’t either. Upon Charlie’s death, he avoids the problem and goes to bed. Someone else can deal with it in the morning. After the funeral, he finds solace in solitude and drugs, spending a lot of the movie getting high with his friends.
Ultimately, this lack of dealing with problems is what puts Paemon into Peter.
Guilt is what propels Annie to try and fix the problem, but it’s something she attempts to do by herself. She goes to burn the book believing it will kill her. It doesn’t, and its destruction doesn’t stop Paemon either. All she manages to do is kill her husband—the one person trying to keep the family together—and causes herself to snap.
There’s an argument to be made that the climax of Hereditary is Annie’s final attempt at saving Peter. She still believes this is her fault and by killing her son, she’ll have saved him from being possessed. After all, it’s not the first time she’s tried to kill him. It’s more destruction and more division. It’s the easy way out, of not taking responsibility for what she had done.
It’s what fate wanted.
At the end of the movie, Peter is possessed. He looks at his new congregation as Paemon, and between confusion he seems to look relieved. Killing Charlie was his fault, but this, this was not. He cannot feel guilt for this. He cannot be blamed for this.
Hereditary is a movie filled with loss and grief, yet it’s also a movie where no one apologizes. Characters make mistakes that result in death and emotional trauma, and no one apologizes. Everyone feels guilty and everyone feels blame, but those emotions are only allowed to stew into something destructive, not be released in catharsis. Grief is buried into more grief, and fingers are pointed to avoid taking responsibility.
Had someone just said, “I’m sorry,” the end results of this movie could have been avoided, and that’s where the hope lies. I spent the entire movie hoping someone would just say, “I’m sorry,” and mean it, because that little act would have allowed the family to admit responsibility for their mistakes, grieve as a unit, and then do something about it.