Human desire is a micro-organismal haunt loaded into the skin by viruses and bugs that outnumber us ten to one. The family in Ari Aster’s Hereditary stays infested this way, stranded, yet unabsolved, scurrying around its auto-decapitating praying mantis matriarch, who spoons them the wound, a Munchausen by proxy germ to germ, keeping everyone simultaneously sick and nourished. Our bodies teem with ancestral bacteria irrupting the tiniest behavior. Fear and compulsion trickle like honey down the family tree. Their deaths grin back from every surface – the parasite of an identity, our genetic hand-me-downs, always there, hushing threats. If we could only pry the coffin nails up and listen. Labyrinthine hives of who we were stink inside the mind. These stigmas flaunt the sharpest tooth in the jaw parents birth their children into: hereditary illness.
The mother (Toni Collette) is a miniaturist. In her standoffish reservedness, she symbolizes the alleged, archetypal witch who was tortured, burned and hanged by superstitious neighbors, backed by their church, in an attempt to halt stray belief, paradoxically enforcing the validity of an unwarranted concern. The family is sustained to please its demon, the aftermath of a tortuous evocation, tradition as ceremonial spite. King Paimon, particular to her kin, is a Djinni – a group of supernatural creatures in early Arabian myths. In The Lesser Key of Solomon, a 17th century grimoire, Paimon and other djinni (popularized in the west as “genie”) were feared due to the madness and disease they carried with them. Paimon, made literal, parodies a scapegoat for the host family’s shortcomings, much worse than any mental illness passed along. Witches – elderly, reclusive women, often scapegoats for medical inadequacies – are bred here from bloodless noise. In 16th Century Europe, dead children were blamed on the neighborhood witch. It was easier to unload the tragedy of loss on the supernatural. Hereditary plays Bergman-esque blame like a piano, even the audience will sit ill at ease without condemning the grandmother. One scene in a chain of dread unlocks another logic: the daughter (Milly Shapiro) clicks the roof of her mouth with a chocolate covered tongue and clips off the head of a dead bird with scissors, not just intertwining the pleasurable and the grotesque, but visually representing the idea that you can blame whomsoever – in the end, heads will roll. It is through this bowing severance that we are forced to shift perspective. The creatures behind the curtain always hate you.
We’re like the grimoire in the attic, pieced together, after death, across the dull ink of a memory. Our clipped remains quickly leak history, grow yellowed. Characters snag in a funhouse mirror of each other’s rendering, like art made sick. It’s ambiguous where actor and doll depart on anyone’s sightline. This rhizomatous bloat wrenches the foundation apart. Like Narcissus drowning in his reflection, the family, now myth, replicates an addiction to itself. The Christian model of death as a shared transcendence has a fallout of cookie cutter immolations. Even for crystal-sucking millennials idiopathic chronic disease is skyrocketing, which quasi-religious revival might assist, but not if you refuse to subject your psyche to the séance. Witches paw over the power of symbols, like King Paimon’s sigils scattered in the grandmother’s old photographs. The blood emojis painted room to room beg deciphering. Possessed by a spirit, an idea, a sickness, or all three, what if Emily Rose, writhing on the floor, went beyond a metaphor for the intractable pain of Ehlers-Danlos syndrome? Or if the chest-burster in Alien was a visual representation of Crohn’s disease? There are so many embarrassingly misunderstood illnesses medical science disbands with the wave of a hand. Might as well fashion them into a culture, anything better cultivated than what the palm reader’s steamiest coffee enema nourishes. Hereditary is a bomb siren for a scapegoat that won’t stop growing. But there’s enough sick blood to go around.
David Kuhnlein lives in Michigan. Recent writing is published in DIAGRAM, Social Text, Burning House, Tragickal, Abandoned Library, and others. He edited a gothic romance/ witchcraft novel his grandma wrote in 1979, set in her home country—Trinidad. Follow along on IG @olasgrandesnovel .
*Image credit: Still from Ari Aster’s 2018 film ‘Hereditary’