In this section of our Colossus Movie Guide for Hereditary, we answer questions you have about the movie. If you’re curious about plot explanations, meanings, themes, lessons, motifs, symbols, or just confused by something, ask and we’ll do our best to answer.
- Annie Graham – Toni Collette
- Steve Graham – Gabriel Byrne
- Peter Graham – Alex Wolff
- Charlie Graham – Milly Shapiro
- Ellen Taper Leigh – Kathleen Chalfant
- Joan – Ann Dowd
- Bridget – Mallory Bechtel
- Written by – Ari Aster
- Directed by – Ari Aster
Hereditary | Questions and Answers
What is Hereditary about?
Hereditary is about the impact of family history. Parent to child. Ari Aster explores the topic in both grounded and fantastic ways. The fantastic expression is Annie’s mother’s cult’s efforts to put the soul of the demon king Paimon into the body of a boy related to Annie’s mother. First it was Annie’s brother. Then Annie’s daughter. Now it’s Annie’s son. The grounded interpretation of this is the much more relatable idea of genetic mental disorders. We get a hint of this when Annie’s in group therapy and explains her mother had Dissociative Identity Disorder, her father had Psychotic Depression, and her brother had Schizophrenia. It’s likely she’s also dealing with an untreated illness.
You can read more about our explanation of the title (here) and themes (here).
What happened to Charlie?
There’s a miniature we see of a scene with Annie, in bed, holding a newborn, and Annie’s mother, Ellen, is next to the bed, offering a tit for breastfeeding. We also learn that Annie actively kept Ellen away from Peter when Peter was born. Then, feeling guilty, let Ellen be present for Charlie. Annie explains that Ellen immediately had her hooks in Charlie. The implication is that Ellen, very early on, found a way to bind Paimon’s spirit to Charlie. Which is why Charlie is so strange.
It’s unclear if Charlie is always Paimon or if Paimon comes and goes or if Charlie is more of an anchor point and is often just her own, individual self. It’s interesting that when Peter first comes under Paimon’s possession, while in the middle of class, there’s a distinct change to his face. The contortion isn’t identical to Charlie’s features but there’s a degree of similarity that may be intentional.
Joan also refers to the Paimon-possessed Peter at the end of the movie as Charlie. Which does lend to the idea that Charlie was always Paimon-y. Though the implication of that is pretty hilarious. It would mean one of the eight demon kings of Hell just goes to school and does arts and crafts and eats cake at high school parties.
Even if the specifics are hard to pin down, what we do know is that Ellen actively cultivated Charlie as a resource for the coven’s goals. It’s why Charlie’s so strange.
The night of the accident
The night of the accident is brought about because Charlie is allergic to peanuts. We first find this out at Ellen’s funeral when Charlie’s eating a candy bar. Her dad asks her if there’s nuts and she says no. Annie makes reference to not bringing an EpiPen. This establishes both the allergy and the lax way the family thinks of the allergy.
Prior to the accident, Peter brings Charlie with him to a party because he lied to his mom and said it was a school event. The party is fun for Peter, awful for Charlie. In order to distract her, Peter points out a chocolate cake. It’s an irresponsible move. Peter knows his sister’s allergic but risks her life. Charlie also knows better but eats the cake anyway. Sure enough: peanuts. It seems no one at the party had an EpiPen. Instead of waiting for an ambulance, Peter decides to drive Charlie to the hospital himself.
This is where things take a turn. On the way to the party, there’s a shot of a telephone pole. And on the pole is the mark of Ellen’s Paimon coven. One of the main themes of Hereditary is the idea of the characters being stuck in events that are preordained. Meaning they’re powerless to do anything to prevent them. The mark on the telephone pole implies that the coven willed this accident to happen. So were Peter and Charlie actually irresponsible? Or caught up in something out of their control? Peter swerves the car toward the pole because there’s a dead deer in the road. It’s likely the coven put the deer there.
The main question is whether or not Charlie purposefully or unwittingly had her head out the window. She’s clearly in pain. But she’s also the vessel of the demon king Paimon. Who wants out of her body and into Peter’s. The loss of the head is part of that unbinding process. Regardless of the specifics, Charlie was influenced to put her head out the window. Just like Peter was influenced to steer near the pole. This was all part of the coven’s plan.
What happened to Peter?
We see in Ellen’s Paimon book that Paimon can be in either a male or female body but prefers a male body. To the point where he’ll get upset if he’s not in a male host. Unfortunately for the coven and Paimon, they didn’t initially have access to Peter. Meaning, for whatever reason, Ellen bound Paimon to Charlie. All of the events in Hereditary are part of the coven’s machinations to unbind Paimon from Charlie and rebind him to Peter.
The first part of that is Ellen’s death. Then Charlie’s. Then it’s using Annie to unwittingly perform some spells that create a portal to the spirit world. Then it’s weakening Peter in order to expel him, mind and soul, from his own body. Once that’s done, Paimon walks right into Peter’s body.
So at the very end, the cult has successfully installed one of the eight demon kings of Hell into Peter’s body. What does this mean? We have no idea. The consequences of this aren’t even hinted at. Does Paimon keep living Peter’s life as normal? Does he take over the world? Does he use the coven to bring for the other demon kings? Does he just play video games all day?
The more grounded explanation is that Annie’s family has a long history of mental illness. What we see in the movie is symbolic of Annie’s psychotic episode. Peter’s the only survivor. Not only is he severely traumatized, he’s also genetically likely to have similar mental health struggles for the rest of his life. Issues that will probably be forever exacerbated by what he’s just experienced.
Why did Annie cut her own head off?
Joan tricks Annie into casting a spell that connects Annie to the spirit world. Essentially making her ripe for possession. We see the initial possession that scares Peter and Steve. The next and final one happens right after she tries to burn the spellbook. She thought her connection to it meant that burning it would burn her, but for some reason it torches Steve instead. In the middle of her hysteria, some spirit takes her over. It’s unclear if it’s Paimon, her mother, some random familiar the Paimon coven uses for things like this. Whatever the answer, Annie is no longer Annie.
The important thing is that part of the Paimon transference ceremony involves head removal. We saw it with Charlie. With Ellen’s dug up body. And with Annie. It’s likely that this is how the spirit escapes from a body? Or at least symbolic for the body’s loss of identity.
There’s also the grounded metaphor Hereditary has about mental illness. Since these things reside in the head, the loss of the head is a visual that resonates. As opposed to, say, losing a hand.
Why did Steve burn?
There’s some connection between the book and the user. That’s why Annie burned the first time. It’s a little confusing why it is suddenly linked to Steve. He wasn’t the one who threw it into the fire. Nor did he ever read from it. He wasn’t the last person who touched it. The only thing I could point to is Annie kissing him. Maybe she unwittingly “passed” the connection to him at that moment?
There’s also the simple answer that it’s a magical book. If it wants to change who it burns, it can change who it burns. There’s also the answer that the coven is still actively guiding events to their conclusion. So it’s just as likely they’re pulling strings and used some spell to ensure the book burned Steve instead.
Who was the woman sitting by the fire in the woods?
This is the dug up corpse of Ellen. Right before this, Steve gets the call that the grave has been robbed. It seems the coven burned the body in the woods then moved into the attic. All part of the ceremony.
Was that Charlie’s head on the mannequin at the end?
Who is Joan?
She’s one of Ellen’s good friends and a member of the Paimon coven. Ellen had been the previous leader of the coven. It seems likely Joan replaced her as the new queen. She’s even the one who places the crown on Peter-Paimon’s head.
Why is the final shot of a miniature?
The final shot is a miniature of the treehouse where the coven has crowned Peter-Paimon. The previous miniatures had all been created by Annie. Does that mean Annie created this one as well? If so, that would be strange, as it doesn’t seem she was part of the coven. Meaning she either created it in her sleep (she did sleepwalk) or based off of some kind of vision. If she didn’t make it, who did? Why show it?
If you’ve read our sections on the shots (here) or motifs (here), then you’ve seen the theory that the miniatures are tied to the idea of fate and powerlessness. And also the observation of our world by the spiritual world. So the final shot of the miniature could be implying that all of this was already preordained. Or it could be implying that something non-human is observing events. Like God or the Devil or another demon king or just Peter’s own spirit in the afterlife.
The most practical answer is that it just brings the film full circle and gives a sense of closure. Though with how thought out almost everything else is, a purely aesthetic answer seems unlikely.
Unfortunately, there’s not necessarily an explicit, on-the-surface piece of evidence we can point to. Just best guesses.
Who is outside the house, watching Peter?
One of the coven members. They’re doing things in the background the entire movie. We don’t always see what they’re doing. But they’re busy, busy bees.
Is Hereditary connected to Midsommar?
Not narratively. There’s a bit of thematic connection. Hereditary deals with things that are inherited. While Midsommar deals with tradition. The overlap here isn’t as obvious as Darren Aronofsky’s The Wrestler and Black Swan. One of those focused on a wrestler at the end of his career, the other on a ballerina at the start of hers. Both explored the high costs of performance. With Hereditary and Midsommar the similarity is less direct, more poetic. Like when John Donne said “no man is an island”. People aren’t islands. But poetry asks you to accept the leap.
So Hereditary can be read as being about what’s passed down from parent to child. With an emphasis on mental disorders. While a tradition is something less genetic but equally powerful. In both cases, the previous generation shapes and influences the lives of the next generation. Both Hereditary and Midsommar explore the power these inherited things have over people.
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