Hereditary, Hauntings and How to End a Ghost Story

paymonI went to see Ari Aster’s feature debut Hereditary on Friday, and it’s been unpacking itself in my head ever seen then. I feel like jotting my thoughts down, and I should offer fair warning that this post will be a bit on the spoilerish side.

The story kicks off with the central family mourning the death of a grandmother. This primes the audience to expect the spirit haunting the family to be human, and a human spirit would imply human motivations. Ghost stories often use their spirits to represent traumatic memories, unfinished work, lingering resentment and so forth; in the case of Hereditary, the backstory includes multiple cases of family strife, which will presumably drive the grandmother’s restless spirit.

But as the plot unfolds, it reveals that the supernatural presence is not the grandmother’s ghost, but the demon Paimon, whose worshippers have been manipulating the family. This means that the supernatural machinations of the story are driven by an inhuman being whose motives cannot be (and don’t need to be) understood by the audience.

At first I was disappointed by this plot development. It seemed like a cop-out to replace the once-human spirit — and all the psychological potential that comes with the concept — with an entity that is simply evil by default. Like replacing a well-rounded antagonist with a Villain in a Black Hat.

But the film goes on to reveal another layer of depth. The demon is not simply a cut-and-paste horror bad guy: the demon is fate. A shocking death from earlier on the film — one arising from a seemingly chance series of events involving a party, a teenage hook-up, a cake, an allergy, a car and a telegraph pole — is strongly implied to have been the planned by the demon. The demon has been manipulating the whole plot.

The very first scene in the film shows a doll’s house — of the kind regularly made by the mother of the family — which has the characters walking around inside. Initially this seems like no more than a rather fruity scene transition; but once the plot has been laid out, the symbolic significance of the characters as dolls in a miniature house becomes clear. And all this leads to a further set of implications…

One early scene involves a classroom discussion about the role of fate in Sophocles’ Women of Trachis. On one level this is a slap-on-the-head obvious signal that fate will be a theme in Hereditary, but it can also be seen as something of a meta comment: the “fate” governing the lives of the characters in Women of Trachis is ultimately Sophocles himself, as they are no more than characters in a play. Likewise, the family in Hereditary are characters in a film — when we get down to it, their lives are dictated not by Paimon, but by the film’s narrative

I’m reminded of Andy Nyman and Jeremy Dyson’s Ghost Stories, which came out a few months back. That, too, ended with a narrative-bending climax revealing the main character to have been something of a puppet all along, albeit for wildly different reasons in terms of plot.

Ghost stories are best suited to shorter formats and tend to struggle when stretched out to novel or feature film length. The biggest problem is that the genre works by maintaining an enjoyable frisson of ambiguity, and bringing this to a satisfying conclusion is a tall order (shorter forms can get away without concluding). In both Hereditary and Ghost Stories, this problem is solved by a conclusion that disassembled the preceding narrative and asks the viewer to contemplate the mechanics beneath.

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