In his much-hyped 2018 feature debut, Hereditary, Aster depicts the Graham family in the aftermath of the death of their maternal grandmother. The bleak atmosphere conjured between Annie (Toni Collette), a harried, neurotic artist trying to balance her work and her family, Steve (Gabriel Byrne), her stoic and somewhat ineffectual husband, and their strange children, Peter and Charlie (Alex Wolff and Milly Shapiro), as they descend further into a bizarre occult plot is enough to make audiences squirm, but Aster never loses that vein of dark comedy that makes the film unique.
As the family are forced to confront the family’s sinister history of violent deaths and the possibility of Satanic influence, Hereditary could be dismissed as yet another occult movie (albeit one of the more critically-successful ones). However, the occult elements of the film are ambiguous, with the demon-king Paimon having roots in both Arabic religions and in the occult – Aster refuses to frame occult activity through any particular religion. His dodging of Christianity pervades the film, and in comparison to other occult-themed films that grab the low-hanging fruit of Christian-inspired demons or the vague invocation of the devil, Hereditary becomes something harder to pin down. In various interviews, Aster has been careful to emphasise the homage Hereditary plays towards melodrama and family dramas, but is also conscious of the territory he enters by toying with the occult. He has credited his Jewish upbringing with the approach he has taken to the occult, saying ‘I guess nothing is really sacrosanct for me… There was no reason for me to be reverent about it or reverential because I’m a Jew, so for me, it’s about, what can I do to enhance the story and give it the best legs to stand on?’ (Slate) and suggesting that ‘“It’s something that we can actually abuse a little bit and then it’s going to affect other people in a different way because they were raised with it.” (FT). This somewhat playful approach to occult theology incorporates not only the djini from pre-Islamic Arabic beliefs and demons from the work of noted Satanist Aleister Crowley, but also sees words such as ‘Satony’ (used in a Ritual of Necromancy), ‘Zasas’ (another Crowley-ism ), and ‘liftoach pandemonium’ (‘open pandemonium’ in Hebrew) scrawled on the walls of the family home. It all comes together to form a chaotic antagonist that allows the audience significant scope for interpretation. For audiences who are watching Hereditary for a terrifying two hours of occult fun, Aster’s use of Paimon might register merely as yet another movie featuring a minor demon to avoid cliche or as a straightforward case of JHR’s notion of Catholic drag, in which Christian imagery is used to covertly satirise the Jewish family. However, if we interpret Paimon as a djinn, which predates Christianity, Hereditary becomes a narrative of haunting, in which Abrahamic religion returns to a decidedly atheist/agnostic family, drowning out their conflicts and neuroses by reminding them that what they’ve inherited can never quite stay repressed.
The film’s incisive look at trauma, repression, and the role the family plays in exacerbating the two, especially with its streak of dark humour and irony, ends up resembling the psychoanalytic melodrama of Jewish writers like Philip Roth more than typical occult horror texts (note: I’m not the first to make this observation). For example, look at Portnoy’s Complaint, in which Roth whole-heartedly embraces the stereotypical Jewish family, with a neurotic, overbearing mother, a largely inadequate father, and the coddled son who is treated like a prince. Self-described ‘neurotic Jewish guy’ Aster mimics this family dynamic almost exactly, adding another generation of domineering, ambitious mothers, a daughter who is quickly shunted aside on account of her gender, and having the son actually be crowned a prince — of Hell. The family are not depicted as religiously-inclined in any way, with both funerals featured being quite secular affairs, and no reference is made to their cultural identity, but the sensibility of the family, with their concerns over inherited traumas, fraught parent-child relationships, and intergenerational neuroses, feel atypical. This is not a typical, white-picket-fence American family — even their home is implied to be sinister, a cavernous dollhouse where everyone’s free will must be called into question. The precarious atmosphere of the film echoes the experience of diasporic communities, with even the home becoming a loaded environment, both at risk from outside influences and from the repressed trauma always one scratch away from re-emerging.
Recent epigenetic research has suggested that traumas like the Holocaust can impact the health of descendants generations detached from the actual event, and for a movie concerned with what we inherit from our families and literally titled Hereditary, the connection isn’t an obscure one. Just like the ritual words and phrases adorning the walls of the Grahams’ home, the truth is there for anyone who wants to see it. The writing is, quite literally, on the wall. The film centres around a female line, with Annie, her mother, and her daughter being the main instigators and victims of traumatic events, and also the characters most obviously affected by their heritage. Just like Jewish identity, Hereditary is concerned with matrilineal bloodlines, and what is passed down, providing a bleak satire of the family’s inability to confront their inherited traumas, and a horrifying allegorical depiction of what that can entail.