Being an ardent horror fan, especially of female-driven (or female-authored) horror films, I had been absolutely psyched to see Hereditary starring the brilliant Toni Collette. Last night, I finally sated my dark appetite and watched the film in a surprisingly and largely empty theater. My friend and I recapped and mulled over it on the way home, and as predicted, I had weird dreams tinged with domestic discomfort — a labyrinthine house filled with strangely cultish members of a religious sect, filth, disarray and Dali-esque appliances that didn’t work properly. Good stories have a way of sinking in and infiltrating my dreams, whether it be a book (The Blood Countess, The Historian, The Girl with a Dragon Tattoo) or a film. So I woke, still mulling over the things I couldn’t shake off, and went to work online, reading analyses and recaps, watching a couple of “Things You Missed” videos and re-experiencing that familiar deja vu of male misinterpretation.
Let me preface by saying that I’m not a film critic but an ardent lover of dark, art-house cinema. Horror, of the simmering agitation and shocking climax variety, is my gore-soaked jam. As an insomniac teen, I spent many midnight hours in front of the TV soaking up cable’s late-night offerings: Videodrome, Carrie, Altered States, The Hunger, Hellraiser, Rosemary’s Baby. I adored The Company of Wolves, The Fly (still ranked as one of my all-time favorites), American Werewolf in London, Poltergeist, Aliens, Nightmare on Elm Street. I developed a taste of singular and shocking, or sequentially increasing acts of violence within the context of impassioned psychological disintegration: Betty Blue, Intimate Relations, Butterfly Kiss, The Rapture, Damage, Bitter Moon, Audition. You get the picture.*
So I’m dismayed when the male gaze and voice continues to dominate the critical landscape, because it has blind spots. By nature of their physical and perceptual limitation, all forms of sight have blind spots that exist beyond the periphery of our vision. My own analyses likewise have blind spots, but feminine critique (especially from marginalized viewers who are outside the traditionally white, hetero, cis male majority) is a necessary and complimentary viewpoint that more accurately reflects whole picture. As a mixed, queer, feminist mother, my interpretations tend to vary significantly from those I find online. The Blackcoat’s Daughter, for example. The end scene doesn’t reflect Kat reeling from the sudden awareness of the “gravity of her crimes,” rather, it reflects the painful realization that she is alone. And not just alone but rejected, for the demon she worshipped, the one who gave her existence meaning and purpose, has forsaken her. It is the gut-punch of child abandonment. It is the story of an isolate’s forged and broken connection, betrayal and the cold pain of being discarded. Grow up, the demon seems to say. You’re alone in this hard, cruel world, and childish delusions will not save you.
Back to Hereditary (and the requisite spoilers). I’ve read commentary about the film that lays the blame on family mental illness and inherited or epigenetic trauma. But look closer — there’s a deeper vein of subtle social commentary running through the film that speaks to our cultural assumptions about motherhood. When Annie sleepwalks into Peter’s room and confesses that she never wanted to be a mother, she immediately covers her mouth, biting back her terrible truth. This moment is so shocking, so contradictory to the audience’s expectation of Annie’s (presumed) role as a “good” mother — caring, protective, sacrificing — that it elicits verbal denials. (I heard several people in the audience, myself included, utter an incredulous “wow.”) When Annie confesses to trying to miscarry/abort Peter, we get lost in the horror of a mother’s admission that she did not want her child, that pregnancy and motherhood itself were repulsive to her. On one hand, this denies Annie an essential truth which is at the heart of our cultural delusion about female agency: that women are instinctual nurturers, that every women wants a child, and that becoming a mother is the height of achievement and the fulfillment of one’s life purpose, all of which are constraining and deeply damaging, patriarchal contrivances. Annie is painted as the “bad” mother, a brush which continues to tar her throughout the film as she grieves the death of her daughter while ignoring her son’s rapid mental deterioration. (There’s also the whole subtext about male inheritance, the value of boy children, and the disposability of daughters that has rendered an entire generation of young men permanently single, lonely and deprived of their own opportunities to have a family. Hereditary’s battle of patriarchy vs. matriarchy ends in a Pyrrhic victory.) There’s so much to unpack in this film that it’s worthy of a much longer essay.
Annie’s mother Leigh, we learn, is a hubristic bad mother who sacrifices her family to the demon king Paimon for personal gain — wealth, power and vainglory. She is maniacal in her drive to find or even create, from DNA-scratch, a suitable vessel for Paimon to inhabit. Think about this. A mother seeks to craft a human being for the fulfillment of her own wishes — it is a symbiotic nightmare of vicarious living. Who among us hasn’t shucked off the yoke of parental expectation or labored to free ourselves from the weight of their wants for us? Leigh is a bad mother from the start. Her character never wavers in its depravity. Annie, we presume, is the “good” mother, resisting her terrible family legacy.
But good mothers don’t confess their desires to kill their kids.
It is only through the subconscious action of her sleepwalking that Annie can allow herself to acknowledge that her own mother is not just bad, but quintessentially evil. Therefore, the latent agent of Annie’s conscience — her good mother urge to protect her children from harm — can only wrest itself free of parental guilt and the binds of the toxic mother/daughter relationship when Annie is asleep. The action that must be taken (killing her children to prevent them from being possessed by Paimon) is itself so horrific that she cannot confront it while awake. Hence, her husband** deeming her “crazy” with the unique brand of hysteria that only men seem capable of diagnosing in women. She plots her children’s murder in her sleep due to the cognitive dissonance of knowing that she must become the bad mother (harm her children) in order to be the good mother (protect/save them). It’s a fucked up conundrum, and one that parents continually struggle with. Here is blind Lady Justice, weighing out the lesser of two evils — the inflicting of acute manageable pain to avoid the intractable diffusion of intense, future pain. This is tough love at its worst.
Ultimately, Annie discovers, as many of us do, that we cannot always erase ourselves out of the picture of toxic parenting. Adults cannot always make sense of the warped reality of our troubled childhoods or forget the traumas that have been inflicted upon us. These are the ghosts that linger and haunt us — the bad memories of the past and their insidious effects on the present.
Kirsten Imani Kasai is the author of The House of Erzulie (2018, Shade Mountain Press), a Gothic novel about epigenetic trauma in the Antebellum South, and “Eat, Drink and Be Wary: Autosarcophagy and Autoerotism in Body Horror Cinema” in The Body Horror Book anthology (Oscillate Wildly Press 2017, Australia). More of her work can be found at KirstenImaniKasai.com.