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.

Impotence in Mundanity: “Rosemary’s Baby”

Horror is a genre of film that is inherently disobedient. It is a visceral rejection of societal norms, of dominant culture, and of the very evils it depicts on screen. Great horror films, then, are ones that use societal fears in a way that alters the construction of the whole genre. The adaptation of Ira Levin’s 1967 novel, Rosemary’s Baby, was one such film.

Upon its release in 1968, Rosemary’s Baby was an instant hit. In his review, Roger Ebert described it as “a creepy film and a crawly film, and a film filled with things that go bump in the night,” and concluded that “it is very good.”

Since then, the film has accrued a 96% on Metacritic, which demonstrates the occult-based film’s ability to eerily transcend the fad-trap of popular culture. Rosemary’s Baby was able to outlive such fads by being… scary. But why did audiences react so viscerally to a story about an average American couple? What was the underlying societal expectation that Rosemary’s Baby toyed with?

1968 was notably a year filled with unprecedented social change. Civil Rights rallies swept across the United States, the American public was outraged by the Vietnam War, and hippie movements refused to adhere to established norms. Rosemary’s Baby was considered terrifying because it challenged these norms and the spaces where the American people felt most secure. In a society torn by hatred and mistrust, Rosemary’s Baby was a violent reminder to the audience that not even their homes were safe.

Horror films are meant to act like funhouse mirrors that force the audience to watch a contorted and often horrific reflection of themselves. Directors use techniques that purposefully go against the status quo in order to evoke a sense of fear from the audience. This genre is, necessarily, a symbol of nonconformity since it refuses to adhere to the standards of the film industry as a whole.

The great horror films — ones that set the bar for remakes and tropes — are the ones that truly terrify and entertain an audience. Of course, the audiences’ fears are intimately intertwined with their understanding of the world around them. The production and appreciation of horror films must feed off of a society where there is much to fear.

Why did audiences react so viscerally to a story about an average American couple?

Mackenzie DeVita

Rosemary’s Baby is a masterpiece, from the writing to the production. It tells the story of a young 60s couple, Guy and Rosemary (Ro), that move into their dream apartment in New York City. Guy is a mediocre actor, who works doggedly to break through in his long-shot acting career. Ro is comparatively domestic. She strives to make a happy family with Guy.

After settling into their new apartment, they are befriended by their older neighbors, Minnie and Roman, who are mourning the death of their adopted daughter. As the couples grow closer in friendship, Guy and Ro’s relationship becomes increasingly tumultuous. Guy becomes distant and irritable in the rare moments he’s with Rosemary. Ro, however, is obsessed with having a child, thus creating an ever-expanding divide between the two as they pull the strands of their relationship apart.

As Ro and Guy navigate their respective desires, the couple decides to continue their efforts to conceive. On “baby night,” Ro falls ill after eating a dessert gifted to her by her neighbor Minnie. In the midst of the resulting fever-induced nightmare, Ro dreams that she is impregnated by a horned, clawed, and hooved monster. Soon thereafter, Ro learns that she is pregnant. While she is elated, her pregnancy quickly becomes exceptionally brutal.

She endures abnormal pain, begins to lose weight, and craves raw meat. Both her husband and physician dismiss her concerns about the pains and illnesses she experiences, writing the symptoms off as hysteria. With a tip from a friend, Ro learns of witchcraft and occult practices that are eerily similar to what she is experiencing with her husband, pregnancy, and unusual neighbors.

Ro is convinced that her husband has offered their future child as a sacrifice in exchange for success with his acting career. Ro’s panic forces her into having labor induced by her physician. When she awakens, she discovers a company of elderly people watching her child. Then Ro first meets the newborn and she is horrified — her child is a monstrosity. The company explains that Satan chose her to consummate with in order to produce a child that is “stronger than stronger.” The cult then, without using witchcraft, convinces Ro to raise the child; sullenly Rosemary complies.

The movie’s plot is simple and real, a rejection of contemporary horror conventions like grandiose castles in far-away places, rare mutations that turn men to flesh-hungry wolves, and giant women that roam the streets of New York. As Jon Towlson writes in his book, Subversive Horror Cinema, the mundanity of the screenplay stirs terror in the audience.

Rather than distancing the viewer from the terror, as castles and werewolves and giants do, the movie encapsulates the banal experiences of average American life during the late 60s. As a result of this, the audience experiences heightened intimacy with the characters and events. The entirety of the movie takes place inside the couple’s apartment, with limited scenes depicting the outside world. The effect of this setting is twofold. Firstly, it limits the scope of information available to the audience. Consequently, the audience is forced to become intimate with the main characters, and grow hopeful along with Rosemary as she progresses with her pregnancy.

The movie establishes this intimacy between viewer and character, and then rips hope from their clutches as Ro’s pregnancy worsens. Secondly, the limited scope of the audiences’ perception exaggerates the inherent impotence of Rosemary’s situation. Since the audience doesn’t see much more than Ro’s face for the majority of the movie, it feels as though there is nowhere for the viewer to escape to other than Rosemary’s tragedy.

The movie preys on primal fear in its exploitation of the places where we are meant to feel most comfortable: our homes; with our significant others; or with doctors, neighbors, or friends. The movie thus transforms the typical into the terrible, and makes the audience want to escape from their own lives in order to not end up like Rosemary.

The year this film was released, was “a year of turmoil and change.” The United States was torn apart by frustrations with the federal government and the war in Vietnam. The nation was in the midst of one of the greatest developments for racial equality with the passage of the Civil Rights Act. Protests and a multitude of counterculture movements were erupting across America.

The horror of Rosemary’s Baby and its positive reception from audiences are linked with the American people’s demand for control over their own lives. The film refuses to lull the audience into a sense of security. Instead, the film depicts characters in a hopeless situation that the audience is forced to experience along with them, mimicking the very hopelessness they can’t escape from in their daily lives. The horror of impotence is forced upon the audience in their everyday lives during a time when their agency was being constantly threatened.

Rosemary’s Baby challenged its audience with fear of their neighbors, friends, doctors, husbands, and even their own children. It emphasized the terror of everyday life; the terror in the ignorance that is promulgated by the mundane. Rosemary’s Baby emphasized that the grotesque can and will rip average families apart.

Rosemary’s Baby pictures courtesy Paramount Pictures, 1968.

Take a Hint: Pitt Students Take a Stand Against Big Oil

Divestment continues growing in concern with students on Pitt’s campus. Already, a group of students called Fossil Fuel Free Pitt has collated against Pitt’s fossil fuels investment and continues to pressure university executives to reallocate their funding elsewhere.

They have occupied common areas and toted megaphones and posters from class to class. They have stormed various intersections through Pitt’s urban campus, the same ones that are overlooked by big, orange eyes from Boulevard of the Allies. The message is clear: Pitt’s student body demands that the university withdraw investments from oil behemoths.

Climate-related harms threaten the livelihoods of adult-life for many students; the permanent harms from centuries of environmental damage are upon this generation of students. As representatives and economic investors of the University, students are demanding that the University drastically reform their investment model to contribute to a cleaner, eco-friendly future for themselves and  for the student body.

Eagerness to “fight-the-man” typically bulldozes the nuances of such justice movements. So, how exactly does Pitt invest their money, and what’s at stake for the institution ? Why should the University care about the harms caused by big oil? What is the University currently doing, and how could they make it better? Here’s your Pitt edition guide to the argument of divestment.

Pitt’s Economic Model: A Non-Expert’s Explanation of How Pitt Invests

The University of Pittsburgh is a public, nonprofit institution, which requires the university to operate under an economic model that does not prioritize revenue. These nonprofit models  prioritize ventures that contribute to the holistic quality of the university, such as the expansion of educational and research-based opportunities, the renovation of the William Pitt Union, shampooing the smog off of Cathy, and so forth.

Of course, Pitt also pays its professors, deans, and relevant administration with the revenue the school is able to bring in from tuition, merchandise sales, room and board, investments, etc. This ultimately incentivizes Pitt to invest their money in certain projects and equities that are likely to make a profitable return, regardless of the University’s technical — and conveniently tax exempt — status. Enter: energy and oil!

In 2019 the energy and oil industries amassed 2.47 trillion dollars. Even after the major damages brought on by the pandemic, the market still earned around 1 trillion dollars by the end of 2020. With the industry growing by trillions of dollars annually, the decision to invest in energy and oil companies and projects that reap the benefits of those margins is a reasonable economic strategy for an institution looking to make money.

One can see how and why Pitt would want to place their money in a highly profitable industry; however, the moral and financial risk associated with investing in institutions that are perceived as being (at best) morally ambiguous, far outweigh the return Pitt will get on their investments.

The Obligations of the University

One of the primary reasons why students want Pitt to divest is to mitigate the harm brought about by big oil. In other words, since major universities have the most money to invest in various oil companies, pulling their large investments will put pressure on the oil companies to alter their harmful practices. Theoretically, companies that use these investments will not be able to financially sustain their practices without the necessary funds from major contributors — like universities. If oil companies can’t engage in destructive practices, then the harm that those practices bring about will be reduced. The divestment movement asserts that if Pitt doesn’t divest from these types of harmful practices, then Pitt is complacent and just as accountable for the damages brought on by them.

Arguments regarding morality and harm mitigation, with consideration to the aforementioned moral principles, are twofold. First, all existing institutions (and people, for that matter) have an obligation to protect the health of future generations. Second, a university that claims to be dedicated to bettering its community should not engage in practices that will bring harm to that community. These two ideas are the foundation of the divestment movement’s moral concerns with Pitt’s investment allocations.

All members of existing generations have an obligation to take care of the world for the sake of future generations. If existing institutions are engaging in practices that pose a significant threat to future generations, such as investing in harmful oil drilling practices and pipeline construction, then we must convince them to stop participating in those practices.

Future generations have no agency in the institutional practices of today. When existing institutions and industries do not exercise caution in practices, they have a massive impact on people who are unable to make decisions about those practices but who will have to live with the consequences of them. You’d  expect a reasonable agent to avoid participating in something that is going to bring about some harm to their children and grandchildren .

Pragmatically, Pitt as an institution has already entrenched itself as a future-looking institution by the nature of investing, contributing to the community, establishing professor tenures, research projects, and more. Engagement in these practices has demonstrated Pitt’s clear investment in technology that could benefit future generations, and therefore recognizes their obligation to future people. This is intimately related to the way Pitt portrays itself to the community.

As explained by Jeremy Moss in their essay “The Morality of Divestment,” since Pitt portrays itself as a benefactor to the community, then they shouldn’t engage in nefarious revenue practices that directly violate their public image. Therefore, Pitt should invest in all levels of their future, not merely ones that are deemed profitable. In fact, by only engaging in profitable future endeavors, Pitt is not upholding its nonprofit status, again in violation both with the way they project themselves to the public and to their solvency as an institution.

Burst the Big Oily Bubble

Now that we understand why Pitt has invested in fossil fuel companies, and why they are morally obligated to pull those investments, the issue becomes how they plan to balance profit and morality.

However, as concerns about the environmental harms from fossil fuel companies continue to grow, concerns about the possibilities of a ‘carbon bubble’ grow with it. Chelsie Hunt and Olaf Weber explain the nuances of the carbon bubble in their essay “Fossil-Fuel Divestment Strategies: Financial and Carbon-Related Consequences.” They argue that since the value of fossil fuel companies is linked to their reserves of energy sources, if governments penalize companies for using these energy sources, then those companies will no longer buy or invest in those reserves — rendering them useless.

Therefore, Pitt should invest in all levels of their future, not merely ones that are deemed profitable.

Mackenzie DeVita

Those now-worthless investments cause their investors to lose money, miss out on their expected return, and economic turmoil if they don’t have a diverse investment portfolio. For a nonprofit like Pitt, a major loss of expected return could result in consequences, such as higher tuition prices for students, cutting salaries for professors, and cutting research programs. In these instances, the University would actually be sacrificing the very thing that makes them a nonprofit. Not only does this make the University appear disingenuous from a public relations standpoint, but the participants in the University, particularly students, are bound to bear the brunt from the profit loss. To avoid this, the University should diversify its investment portfolio into green and renewable energy companies and research projects, if not for the betterment of ethical energy consumption, then at least to create a safety net of diversification.

Lastly, diversifying investments away from fossil fuel goliaths and into green energy is also likely to produce highly profitable publicity for the University. Prospective students will be drawn in by the University’s modern investment strategies as well as their truthful dedication to bettering the community. Students passionate about these types of green energy products will attract be attracted to the University’s energy conservation and environmental engineering.

As the world continues to suffer from the harmful effects of climate change, the demand for more environmental engineers is growing, and the University has the unique opportunity to educate them. While bad investment is not likely to disincentivize prospective students from attending the University, green investment can incentivize students who otherwise wouldn’t have considered Pitt. Divestment can help the University construct a narrative about how they continue to help their community — one that isn’t undermined by their involvement with environmentally harmful practices.

So, What is Pitt Doing? (The Answer: Not Much.)

Unfortunately, the University fumbled their response to this pressure. The Ad Hoc Committee on Fossil Fuels released an out-of-touch statement given by the University that was full of vague promises and unclear goals. While the report promises that they’ve “cut investments by 45%”, the companies that they are cutting out are significant to the divestment process. For example, if Pitt invested 45% of their fossil fuel funding on smaller energy companies that aren’t as harmful as large companies, then the cut in their investment has an insignificant effect on the harms the divestment movement seeks to mitigate. Furthermore, there is a significant lack of transparency in their financial documents. The University has made no effort to translate complex banking documents that would otherwise reveal where they are keeping most of their investments. Instead, the public is forced to rely on the interpretations published by the Ad Hoc committee, which, as previously discussed, comes across as unreliable. Pitt’s current efforts towards divestment come across as lazily acquired bones that they decided to throw to the ravenous public.