In this section of our Colossus Movie Guide for Hereditary, we talk about themes that help us understand the film.
- 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
The themes and meaning of Hereditary
Powerlessness and fate in regard to mental health
One of the film’s earliest scenes has Peter in a high school English class. What’s discussed by the teacher actually frames the events of the movie (something also done in Donnie Darko).
- Teacher: So, if we go by the rule, that the hero is undone by his fatal flaw, what is Heracles’s flaw?
- Bridget: Arrogance
- T: Okay. Why?
- B: Because he literally refuses to look at all the signs that are being literally handed to him the entire play.
- T: Okay. Interesting. So he thinks he has control. But let’s all remember, Sophocles wrote the oracle so that it was unconditional—meaning Heracles never had any choice, right? So does that make it more tragic or less tragic than if he has a choice?
- Random Student: Less.
- T: Okay. Why?
- RS: Because.
- T: Care to weigh in, Peter?
- Peter: Um, about which part?
- Random Student 2: I think it’s more tragic, because if it’s all just inevitable, then that just means that the characters had no hope. They never had hope because they’re all just, like, hopeless. They’re all, like, pawns in this horrible, hopeless machine.
On the chalkboard behind the teacher, we see the heading THEMES followed by bullet points like “Escaping fate” and “Relationship between knowledge + responsibility”.
Obviously, in the events of the film, the thing Peter can’t escape from is the Paimon coven’s machinations to move Paimon’s soul from Charlie to Peter. There’s a marking on the exact telephone pole Charlie hits her head on, as if pre-ordaining what would happen. It seems safe to assume the coven even puts the deer in the road that causes Peter to swerve near the pole. It seems Peter, Charlie, and Annie are the pawns in this horrible, hopeless plot that’s stripped them of all power.
But the conversation transcends those events. Horror films are often metaphors for real life issues. Whether the original Frankenstein novel from 1818 and its meditation on the boundaries and responsibilities of science. Or something as recent as It Follows and its defamiliarization of anxiety or Lights Out and its monster as a representation for bipolar disorder.
Hereditary makes a point of specifying Annie’s family’s history of mental disorder. Someone might argue this is a red herring, that introducing family mental disorders creates doubt within the viewer as to what we’re watching. Are supernatural forces really at play? Or is Annie having a mental episode brought on by tragedy? For example, Annie mentions her brother had schizophrenia and blamed their mother for putting personalities inside of him. It turns out, in the world of Hereditary, you really can put personalities inside of someone. So was Annie’s brother actually schizophrenic or was what happened to him just misunderstood?
The answer is probably a bit of both. Thematically, it seems Hereditary is, like Frankenstein, It Follows, and Lights Out, defamiliarizing a topic via the realistic presentation of something fantastic. In this case, it’s mental illness dramatized via the soul transference of a demon king named Paimon. Dismissing the mental health talking points as red herrings feels simplistic.
With that in mind, it gives completely different context to the idea of the discussion around Heracles and the machine. Someone who has an inherited mental disorder never had a say in the matter. It’s a fate that will, at some point, sway a person’s behavior and life. It can be in minor ways, like having a bad day. Or in major ways, like ruining relationships or losing a career. Or worse. How do you escape that? Is it even possible? And what’s the relationship between knowing you have an issue and the responsibility that comes with having it?
Annie is someone who has dealt with a lot of trauma in her life. And it affects her interactions with her own family. The complicated relationship with her mother has led to complicated relationships with her children. Her struggle to process her feelings leads to a strain in her marriage. Eventually, the death of her daughter causes a terrific break that brings a pall over the entire home. Her actions have a direct and profound impact on her husband and son.
This ties back to the Heracles discussion. Is Annie a victim of forces beyond her control? For example, it’s Joan who tricks Annie into reading the incantation that allows Paimon’s spirit to invade the house. It’s the coven/cult that sets Peter up to have the accident with Charlie. But did they have anything to do with Peter suggesting Charlie eat an unknown cake when he’s aware of her severe peanut allergy? But Charlie knew about her allergy. What’s her level of responsibility? Why didn’t Annie make sure they left with an EpiPen?
No one in Hereditary is innocent. But they all struggle to deal with the trauma. And no one makes it easier on anyone else. The shared trauma becomes too much and the family collapses in on itself.
The Paimon coven has such faith in what they’re doing that they cause a lot of grief, pain, and loss of life to bring about Paimon’s transference into Peter. And it seems their faith is rewarded. The spiritual possession is real. It works.
That reality does bring up a number of questions. First, what reward does Ellen receive for helping to summon Paimon? Is there some kind of afterlife benefit? But there’s also a corollary. If Paimon exists, and he is one of eight demon kings in Hell, that seems to confirm not only the existence of demons, not only Hell, but the afterlife as a whole. So are there forces antithetical to the demon? Are there angels? Is there a heaven? Does God exist? If so, what does the reality of that brand of faith look like in this world? If any of the Graham family had expressed a belief in God or some other divine force, could they have been saved?
What are your thoughts?
Are there more themes you think should be part of the Colossus Movie Guide for Hereditary? Leave your comments below and we’ll consider updating the guide.