About Ari Aster’s Hereditary (2018)
Hereditary presents a haunting metaphysical bleakness without a clear remedy but challenges our sentimentality towards personal freedom, ultimately encouraging us to question our own responsibilities and the corrosive effect of denying them.
Ari Aster’s 2018 horror masterpiece Hereditary follows the Graham family after the death of matriarch Ellen Leigh (Kathleen Chalfant). The key narrative points are already over by the time we’re introduced to the story, leaving the family to process their grief and ultimately succumb to a violent scheme set in motion by a hidden but omnipresent organization.
In classic dramatic irony, Peter Graham’s (Alex Wolff) classmates describe the characters in Heracles as “pawns in this horrible hopeless machine,” potentially mirroring Peter’s own position; if the outcome was always unconditional, then the Grahams were powerless but therefore blameless in their devastation.
Alternatively, perhaps the family was only compelled by the inescapable conclusion of each member’s character flaws, meaning they’re entirely to blame for their own hubristic demise. Furthermore, as Peter’s teacher asks his class, “which of these conclusions is most tragic?”
Cults, Gods, and Fate In Hereditary
Themes of hard determinism are present throughout Hereditary, with a second viewing uncovering how the jarring third act is carefully constructed by seemingly unimportant figures who lurk in the background. Rewatching the opening scene at the funeral reveals that the same people who will be praying naked to Charlie Graham’s (Millie Shapiro) decapitated head in the conclusion of the film smile eerily at her across from her grandmother’s body, suggesting this powerful group has been ever-present in discretely nudging the family’s path towards their will.
Other examples, like an unidentified breath outside Peter’s window, the séance leaflet in the letterbox, the symbol of Paimon on the post which causes Charlie’s death, and, perhaps most notability, Joan’s (Ann Dowd) influence over Annie Graham (Toni Collette) in her grief support group, all suggest something other than the Graham family is pulling the strings in their lives.
Following this logic, maybe the cult’s ritual has always been manipulating the sequence of events, potentially causing Ellen’s death in order to allow Annie to be groomed by Joan and worn down emotionally enough to carelessly demand Charlie goes to Peter’s party, where the cult is able to seduce Peter away from his sister, put nuts in the cake, erect a post on the journey and plant a deer corpse in the road at just the right position to ensure Charlie’s head is severed from her body when Peter swerves away from the road.
Whilst it maybe is tempting to assume these events are random and unconnected- an unlucky accident resulting in the death of a child- every event is the consequence of a series of other events as determined by the laws of nature; it would not be outlandish to reduce the family’s misfortune to a single overwhelming factor given the evidence of such moments’ salience in their daily life.
This commentary mirrors the likes of Oedipus Rex, where the main character’s fate is determined and inescapable, not necessarily because of an authoritarian higher power, but simply because it is an inevitable natural consequence of factors outside of the hero’s scope.
Just as the oracle is not the villain of Oedipus Rex, perhaps the cult is not the villain of Hereditary, instead allowing the true horror to lie in the uncomfortable realisation that you are not in control of your own fate. The worshippers of Paimon in Hereditary and the Gods in Oedipus Rex merely represent agents of the natural powers that be, embodying the protagonist’s lack of free will.
Philosophers like the 19th century German Baron d’Holbach would also see the Grahams’ free will to change their fate as an illusion; whilst one may believe they have a decision over two options they will only choose one path, and therefore they could’ve only chosen that path because that is the path they chose. Even if one were to believe they had a true decision, the decision-maker is an amalgamation of their parents’ genes and the influence of their environment, neither of which one has much control over.
Sir Francis Galton, cousin to Darwin, articulated this by describing how On the Origin of the Species implies mental faculties are evolved, therefore the capacity to understand a decision is inherited and predetermined for each person. Matter cannot be created or destroyed- one’s very sense of being is recycled material, a consequence of a long series of events at the mercy of the rhythm of life. Annie was always doomed to the fate Ellen had decided because her being, and therefore her decisions, encompass her mother’s biology and socialisation.
The Blame Game
This school of thought lends to a complex moral dilemma: how far can one be held personally responsible for their actions if they themselves are a by-product of predetermined outcomes?
Hard determinism would deem the Grahams blameless through the principle of alternate possibilities; no other sequence of events could’ve happened than the one that did, meaning the family was not free and therefore not responsible.
It could be argued there is a series of Frankfurt cases in Hereditary with a compatibilist lens, whereby responsibility depends on desire regardless of alternate possibilities.
For example, Annie decides she does not want to speak at her first grief support meeting, but the external peer pressure denotes she never really had a choice and is therefore not responsible for the actions of the cult that happen because of the intimate family information she shared, even though the outcome is determined to be the same whether she wanted to speak or not.
On the other hand, Annie can be blamed as the reason why Charlie was at Peter’s party regardless of the fact that her attendance was predetermined, because her attendance was her mother’s desired outcome; what Annie wanted to happen happened, making her responsible, even though nothing else could’ve happened.
On the contrary, Harry Frankfurt’s perspective can be challenged by questioning whether one can truly be blamed for their desires; as previously established, our beliefs and goals are moulded by factors external to us. This theory falsely assumes our motivations are somehow exempt from being determined by cause and effect. Similarly, whilst peer pressure is an external constraint on alternate possibilities, the desire to conform is seen as internal to one’s self, therefore Annie could still be responsible for the information she shared, rendering the perspective useless in differentiating between responsible and not.
The Role Of Sleepwalking
Perhaps the focus of responsibility should shift from the freedom of the character’s minds to their degree of control in response to a stimulus. Whilst Peter could be seen as responsible for Charlie’s death in that he left her unsupervised at the party and inadvertently killed her on the journey to a hospital, he is certainly less responsible than if he had directly decapitated her with an axe, but more responsible than if he had accompanied her throughout the night- despite the outcome being the same with any of these options.
Annie’s sleepwalking extends as a perfect manifestation of this theme. Whilst it was her desire to douse her children in paint thinner, she was unconscious while doing it and therefore more exempt from blame because she lacked control; however, she still has an obligation to accept the consequences of her unconscious actions and refusing to do so drives a lethal wedge between her and her son.
Throughout Hereditary, all of the characters are ‘sleepwalking’ in that they refuse to fully process their grief, anger, and self-knowledge, which ultimately becomes the family’s repressed fatal flaw.
For example, the books which reveal the true nature of Joan’s behaviour are sat in Annie’s mother’s possessions and are easily accessible from the beginning, but Annie has blinded herself with resentment, despite having control over her willingness to be attentive to her surroundings. Herein lies a core hubris and potential argument for why the Graham’s can be blamed for their fate; as Peter’s classmate describes Heracles, he “literally refuses to look at all the signs that are literally handed to him the entire play”.
In her iconic monologue, Annie exclaims “(Peter) can’t take responsibility for anything” and that “nobody admits anything they’ve done”, which becomes the key internal factor in the family’s fate- an intrinsic belief in one’s own goodness and condemnation of the flaws of others.
This notion doesn’t undermine the determinism of the film, but rather presents it as less of a monolith of destiny and more like the predictable conclusion of one’s personality and behaviour; a more useful conclusion than the surface-level fatalism.
Being Genetically Guilty
Of course it must, once again, be questioned whether one is responsible for their personality given it is a combination of their parent’s DNA and learned behaviour; Annie says when speaking about her mother, “she was incredibly stubborn, which maybe explains me,” suggesting the hubris itself is hereditary.
Contemporary Canadian neurophilosopher Patricia Churchland confronts how the antecedent conditions of the brain, in that it’s a causal machine, mean one is never truly justified in holding someone wholly accountable; but the ability to consciously develop one’s sense of self control and subsequent feeling of freedom through the basal ganglia reward system creates a framework for how people can be held somewhat accountable.
Annie is aware, at least on a surface level, of her stubborn arrogance, but she refuses to confront it, even when challenged by Peter. When she does finally begin to play an active role in her life in the third act of the film, she exclaims with pride “I’m not sleepwalking anymore” but a lack of consideration for her fallibility and overconfidence in her discovery leaves her vulnerable to Paimon’s manipulation, resulting in her killing her husband (Gabriel Byrne) when trying to save him.
A similar narrative is present in Oedipus Rex, where Oedipus commits the crime he’s attempting to avoid- killing his father- with an impulsive act of self-righteousness. Perhaps both of these characters should accept a degree of blame for the atrocities which occurred because they didn’t attempt to restrict their maladaptive tendencies appropriately, even though they cannot be blamed for having them.
Hereditary explores how our lives are determined, using a satanic organization as an agent of a chain of events outside the Grahams’ awareness. The evident omnipresence of the group links the Graham family to an intricate web of cause and effect that dictates their every action without them realizing it. Beyond this, the film questions how personal responsibility factors into such determinism; each character is far from perfect and instrumental in their doom despite not necessarily being blamable for their fatal flaws.
The viewer is left with a gut-wrenching hopelessness, as though we are all condemned as horrible conclusions to a story that began before our creation. Where the story could perhaps be interpreted as less tragic is through considering the alternative; however, it would be no less hopeless if the events were undetermined and random: the protagonists would still be powerless in determining their fate. Likewise, to have a totally internal locus of control and see individuals as entirely responsible for their fate is a great amount of pressure to carry.
Hereditary presents a haunting metaphysical bleakness without a clear remedy, but challenges our sentimentality towards personal freedom, ultimately encouraging us to question our own responsibilities and the corrosive effect of denying them.
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