Symmetry and the Occult: Ari Aster’s “Hereditary” as Counterculture

Ari Aster’s Hereditary was the horror film fans needed after the great horror drought of the early 2000s. As explained in American Horror Film: The Genre at the Turn of the Millennium, the horror genre went through its, somewhat insufferable, developmental stage throughout the 20th and early 21st centuries. After decades of shameless slasher remakes, predictable jump scares, and Rob Zombie cameos, creatives within the genre decided to free themselves from canonical chains.

The 2018 film Hereditary received an 87/100 on MetaCritic as well as a 7.3/10 on IMDb. Hereditary, like its predecessors, is a movie that uses these new horror techniques that appeal to the subconscious fears of its audience. Similar to films like Rosemary’s Baby, Hereditary was released, and found success, in the midst of a highly contentious societal era in the United States. The techniques that create the film’s suspense are indicative of a society in a fight to regain control. The movie became an instant hit with its nuanced take on the mechanics of occult sacrifice, beheadings, and naked senior citizens, as well as the necessary neo-gore and eerie predicaments that ultimately placed the characters in suspenseful situations that left audience members struggling to decide whether to look away or keep watching.

Hereditary tells the story of the Graham family and a series of misfortunes thrust upon them in the aftermath of their matriarchal grandmother’s death. The Grahams’ daughter, Charlie, is shattered by the passing of her grandmother. Charlie was grandma’s favorite. In an effort to cure Charlie’s aloof state, her mother Annie urges her to attend a party with her older brother Peter. Charlie is reluctant but ultimately decides to go to appease her mother.

At the party, Charlie accidentally eats chocolate cake with peanut butter frosting. Charlie has a severe peanut allergy and falls into a fit of anaphylaxis. Peter hurries Charlie to the hospital. During their ride, Charlie shoves her head out of the speeding car in a desperate attempt to catch her breath. Simultaneously, Peter swerves to avoid a dead deer in the road, and in doing so sideswipes a telephone pole, decapitating Charlie.

In shock, Peter drives back to his home and forces himself to sleep. His parents find Charlie’s body in the backseat of the car the following morning. Annie is debilitated by her daughter’s death, and the family is ripped apart by the tragedy. The Grahams begin to fight with each other as they grapple with the loss of Charlie.

Annie decides to join a grief counseling program where she meets Joan, a friend of Charlie’s grandmother. Joan informs Annie that the only way she’s been able to cope with her own grief is through the use of a medium who communicates with the dead. Annie’s devolution into the realm of the occult begins here. She discovers her mother was heavily involved in occult proceedings and was beheaded in a sacrificial ritual. The events leading up to Annie’s discovery of this truth were all planned by the coven she had become involved with.

At this point, Annie is helpless to alter the course of events established by the coven. By the end of the movie, Annie, Peter, and Mr. Graham are sacrificed by the cult. Following the ritual, Charlie’s spirit is able to possess Peter’s body and take on the role of Paimon, who is the eighth king of Hell. The film concludes with the occult members bowing before a possessed Peter dressed in king’s garb.

Aside from the crazy, convoluted plot, Hereditary uses an abundance of screenplay techniques that enhance the terrifying elements of the story. Aster films scenes with an overt symmetry that serves a few different purposes. Symmetrical shots coax the eye to the center of the screen which makes the eye assume that both halves are the same on either side (read more about symmetry as film technique here). This forces its focus entirely on the center of the shot.

However, the margins are where Aster hides his frights. For example, in Annie’s possession scene, the symmetry of Peter’s room is disrupted by Annie floating in the corner, above Peter’s head, and out of the direct line of sight. Thus, when the viewer notices Annie’s presence, they are startled by both the disruption of the symmetry and by having to draw their eye away from the center where the action usually happens. Furthermore, the symmetry makes the space feel tight. With attention drawn to the center of the screen, the viewer is no longer incentivized to look around the scene, causing the space to feel smaller.

Stanley Kubrik used similar techniques while filming The Shining (more on this can be found here). The size of the space limits the scope of the viewers’ perception, and when their gaze is forced to expand, they are frightened by the horrors tucked away in the corners of the scene. Many of these techniques are similar to the ones used in Rosemary’s Baby and have a similar effect on its audience.

The horror of Hereditary is not what is most obvious to the audience; the horror is in what slips through the viewers’ fingers the first time around, leaving them with an elevated heart rate and the inability to sleep later that evening. The story preys on fears similar to those explored in Rosemary’s Baby though it pushes past the threat of Satanic worship.

Each horrific event was orchestrated by the occult. The coven, headed by Charlie’s grandmother, manufactured every detail that destroyed a seemingly regular family. The characters go through their lives, ignorant to the fabricated circumstances that cling to and influence their very existence. These preconceived events eventually lead to their deaths, and the rebirth of the eighth king of Hell. The story places the characters in positions of hopelessness and helplessness within the greater workings of those around them. This, coupled with Aster’s camera play, leaves the audience feeling just as hopeless as the characters, preying upon the same primal fears Rosemary’s Baby toys with.

Why were audiences so receptive to predatory impotence three years ago? The late 2010s was host to a mass of protests. American society was disheartened by the relentless war in the Middle East, a questionable election, and ongoing police brutality (view a timeline of 2018 here). The result was a society that demanded agency and recovery. Hereditary took away these possibilities.

The events throughout the film were created and executed by an invisible, demonic force that left the characters completely helpless. That sense of helplessness resonated with audiences because their own society was being manipulated by alien forces that ultimately left the public feeling that their destinies were out of their control. As these societal issues persist into the early 2020s, Hereditary will continue to prey on the generational impotence that still plagues American society.

Films like Hereditary continue to challenge America’s social landscape and continue to impact industry-specific norms. They have the unique capability to lead the way into a new area of film analysis that delves into the underlying fears of society. These fears are representative of the most vulnerable aspects of society. Horror films put these vulnerabilities on display for all to see, which normalizes the fears we try to shield from the outside world. This prompts the audience to embrace these vulnerabilities and even celebrate them, breaking down barriers to the core of the human condition which entails an exploration of the individual and its deeper connections to human relationships.

Hereditary images courtesy of A24.

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