If you’ve listened to our most recent podcast episode all about the Michelle McNamara’s true crime book I’ll Be Gone in the Dark, then maybe you caught our very special “Stuff We’re Into” segment. This time, “Stuff We’re Into” was brought to you by the A24 horror film Hereditary, which Mary and Emily had recently seen and could not stop thinking about. We gushed about the movie without giving away any of the movie’s insane details, and then we urged Kelli and Susan to go see it as soon as possible.
Well, Book Squad Goalies (Squaddies? Bookies? We haven’t decided on the best moniker for you guys yet… leave suggestions in the comments section), Kelli and Susan have seen Herediary, and Emily went to go see it AGAIN, and we are ready to talk about it. We’re dying to talk about it. And we’re not going to be spoiler-free about it this time. So do yourself a favor. Go see the movie, and when you’re ready, our thoughts will be here. We will wait. *click*
Emily: Let’s start with a pretty simple question: was this movie scary?
Susan: Um, yes. Absolutely. More than anything, I’d say this movie was stressful. The long, lingering shots throughout the film were just so damn uncomfortable to sit in. Like, this movie made me physically uncomfortable. And that’s a pretty powerful statement, I think.
Mary: Definitely, but not in the way a lot of horror fans expect. Horror is a fairly broad genre, and the market has become inundated with slasher-style films and action-y films that call themselves horror--and they are!--but my favorite brand of horror is the slow burn, tension building, what the heck ending kind of films. And this one delivers on that. I thought about it for days after seeing it, so I’d say it did its job in scaring me.
Kelli: This is easily the scariest movie I’ve seen in a couple of years. I don’t know if that’s just because all of the horror elements of this movie were basically catered to all of the very specific things that frighten me, from medical emergencies to possession to uncanny spaces to things that go bump in the night… but yeah, I couldn’t sleep after this. It really fucked me up. I got home and had to put on Bob’s Burgers and have a lamp on for the entire night. And I’m not usually like that! I think what was scariest to me was the fact that there were some parts of it that seemed so real. Like the car accident.
Emily: Yeah, I would agree. The scariest things about this movie were things that create dread and fear in me in real life… like medical emergencies, the tragic death of a loved one, feeling loss of control, and things like that. And, Mary, like you said, this movie didn’t scare me the way I think traditional horror movie fans expect to be scared in a movie. I wasn’t sitting there gripping my seat, afraid to look at the screen. On the contrary, I couldn’t look away. What has been really frightening to me about the movie is how it’s haunted me long after my time in the theater was over. I think one of the main things that makes this movie stand out to me are some of the images that are just keep coming back to me. Like, I can’t unsee this movie. I feel changed by it. What were the moments in this movie that stuck out to you? Any particular images that are seared into your brain for all time?
Susan: I feel like most people will say the car accident haunts them. But for me, it was that entire scene leading up to the really awful moment. Charlie’s anaphylaxis was so real, and watching her horrified face as she gets closer and closer to not being able to breathe was just awful to watch. And then, of course, what ends up happening to her has legitimately traumatized me. I did not see that coming at all. But the thing from this scene that really got me more than the decapitation was the long, long shot of Peter’s face as he comes to grips with what just happened. I felt that moment. Oh, and speaking of Peter, his moments in the classroom of hearing the tongue click, seeing his smiling reflection, and of course, smashing his own face into the desk. That head smash and bloody face won’t leave my mind.
Mary: I hate hate hate weird breathing noises that sound like choking--to the point that when I’m playing Dungeons and Dragons and our DM makes these noises for NPCs, I visibly cringe. The anaphylaxis was definitely disturbing to me, too. The end of the film is something I’ve thought a lot about. Rosemary’s Baby stuck with me for a long time because there was something so haunting about a bunch of people screaming “Hail Satan!” at a tiny baby that we, the viewer, were not allowed to see. Hereditary has a very similar ending, but the build up is more intense, and that’ll stick with me. Annie sawing her head off with some sort of wire, then flying limply up to the treehouse? That haunts me.
Kelli: No one is going to talk about Annie crouching upside down in the corner of the darkened bedroom????? I see that every time I close my eyes. I think I’ll see it forever. Also, the image where Charlie is standing in the corner of Peter’s room and her head just slowly ducks down and falls off, turning into a ball that rolls across the floor. Basically, all of the images that occur in the middle of the night in these dark spaces where you think you see something but aren’t sure — those images haunt me, because it’s easy to place them in the context of my own bedroom.
Emily: Oh yeah, absolutely. I’m kind of scared of the dark anyway, so those moments really stuck out to me, and I’ve absolutely seen similar shit in my own room, before even seeing this movie. So this movie really just drove home this scary idea that, like, you know that stuff in your room you think you see? It’s probably really there. Ahhh!
Kelli: I agree with Susan too, though — I think I was most uncomfortable during the scene where Charlie is having her fit in the backseat of the car and is gasping for air, intercut with those shots of the highway and of Peter freaking out as he slams on the accelerator. His face in the rearview mirror afterwards is heartbreaking, and so is the sound of Annie discovering Charlie’s body hours later while the camera is still on Peter’s face. That entire sequence of events is so, so chilling.
Emily: Yeah, that car accident for me was the first moment of true shock in this movie. I just had no idea the movie was going to go there, and it was sort of the moment I felt like Hereditary was telling us, yeah, this isn’t going to go down the way you think, so just sit back and enjoy the ride (no pun intended? Ugh, I really didn’t mean to do that). Hereditary subverting a lot of typical horror movie expectations, at least in my opinion. I was constantly surprised by what happened next. And yet, at the same time, it does seem to be nodding to classic horror films. The comparisons I’ve seen most commonly are The Exorcist and Rosemary’s Baby. So this question is basically a four-parter. One - Did you see any connections to classic horror movies in this movie? Two - Was that working for you, or was that derivative? Three - In what ways did this movie surprise you? Four - How is it that a movie can surprise you and recycle old ideas at the same time? Because I feel like that’s what this movie is doing?
Mary: I definitely saw lots of connections to Rosemary’s Baby in that no one believes Annie, partly because she’s a “hysterical” woman, made hysterical by being a mother, essentially. But Hereditary isn’t JUST stealing things from Rosemary’s Baby. It’s doing so many new things, too! I think what surprised me most is that there isn’t more horror. Yes, creepy things happen throughout the film, but it’s not outright horror until the end-ish. There’s a lot of grief in this movie, and it’s a portrait of a family grieving a huge loss, which is in many ways the most scary thing, because it happens all the time.
Emily: So much of the family’s grief reminded me of my own recent loss of my younger brother. Losses like this are horrific and unfathomable, even after they happen. I’m still haunted by my brother’s death every day. So that part felt so real to me. Most horror movies, I think, simply hint at real life problems (like, say, The Shining’s look at alcoholism and abuse) and this one really gets in there and deals with it in a way that is uncomfortable but so real.
Mary: I definitely felt uncomfortable watching the family grieve Charlie because there was no solution to the problem. I couldn’t sit there and think (in my infinite viewer wisdom), oh but if they just do THIS thing the problem will be solved. There’s not a solution. The movie is recycling some old ideas, but the build up is so different to me, and the film is hitting a lot of issues, which is the mark of a really good horror movie to me. It’s scary, sure, but it’s also a social commentary. Particularly, I’ve been thinking a lot about the title of the film and the portrayal of mental illness. Mental illness wasn’t dwelled upon really, but it was present throughout the film. I think that’s a different take on an old idea for sure.
Susan: As a self-proclaimed horror fan, it’s unacceptable that I’ve never seen Rosemary’s Baby.
Kelli: Yes, Susan, that is unacceptable. It’s a great film. But I agree that this movie is doing a lot more for all of the reasons Mary pointed out. The grief is really the center of the horror in Hereditary, and the movie actually gets less frightening to me the deeper it goes into the Paimon plotline. The ending drove the film more into “fun” horror than “depressing” horror, which was how I would have categorized the movie before.
Emily: Oh, for sure. I agree that the ending is less scary than the rest of the movie, but I don’t feel like it’s enough to make this movie fun. It’s still pretty damn depressing.
Kelli: As for expectations, I think the main way this movie subverts them has partly to do with the marketing campaign — because the studio did a very smart thing in centering Charlie as this film’s ‘scary’ character in all of the trailers. Going in, I was expecting a terrifying child narrative, so when Charlie died a third of the way into the movie, I was stunned. Everything that happened after that was a surprise to me.
Emily: Speaking of expectations and what we expect to happen, one of the major themes of this movie was the tragedy of inevitability. If that wasn’t clear enough, Peter’s teacher brings it up in class (although Peter is, of course, not paying attention because students are the worst).
Susan: Also, he was probably stoned, so can we blame him?
Emily: Yes, we can absolutely blame him because students are THE WORST. Anyway. That’s like the classic way to really emphasize a theme isn’t it? Just get the teacher to bring it up in class in the movie/tv show. I personally love this theme, because I feel like that’s something that really gets to me in books and movies, when I’m watching the characters struggle against an inevitable fate they can’t escape, and yet I’m hoping somehow they do. Does that make sense? How did this theme work for you in the movie?
Susan: Gosh, yes. And the moment you realize just how long this fate has always been decided for him and his family, it’s actually pretty heartbreaking. This was the thing I was talking about in the car on the way home after the movie. I remember saying, “But this was ALWAYS going to happen” and “This has been in motion since before she had kids” and just thinking about that for a long time after. I felt really unsettled by that idea.
Kelli: It definitely makes sense, and worked well for me too. What I find particularly interesting is that at the beginning of the movie, when Leigh dies, there’s a sense of palpable relief within the family — like this disturbing, upsetting chapter of their life is finally over now that she’s gone. Little do they know.
Emily: Haha seriously. They can never escape her! So the tragedy of inevitability was the big theme I really clung onto . . . What other themes/big ideas really stuck out to you in this movie?
Susan: That was the big one for me too. But another one is mother-child relationships. The lighter fluid sleepwalking story, the strained relationship between Annie and her mother (and the fact that her mother’s other child killed himself), the moment when Annie tells Peter, “I never wanted to be your mother.” I felt awful for Peter who was clearly afraid of his mother at several points.
Emily: Oh man. That line of dialogue really haunts me as well. You can tell both Annie and Peter are absolutely horrified it came out of her mouth.
Susan: Also, just the idea of heredity and what things you inevitably (there’s that word again) inherit from your parents (particularly your mother) besides physical traits.
Mary: Like I mentioned earlier, I’m really interested in the depiction of mental disability in the film, especially because, while it’s mentioned, it’s not a HUGE deal--especially considering that in the end the villain is just regular old Satan. I spent most of the movie wondering if these incidents were all in Annie’s head, the world distorted by a combination of her grief and her inherited mental illness. Then I spent the ending of the movie wondering if Peter was showing signs of it too. I don’t think that we’re necessarily supposed to think that the whole thing was a dream or an episode or something, but it’s important to think about how mental health has been a part of the family’s lives. I was especially hit by the scene where Annie goes to a grief support group after her mother’s death. She tells this huge story of how her mother was basically just a bad mother who was in and out of her life for years, and then she ends with, “And that was my mom.” It’s hard to communicate those sorts of relationships because yes, a parent can be objectively awful, but they’re still your parent. You’re still going to feel something for them. That’s not horror, per se, but it’s still terrifying and intense to me.
Kelli: I cheated a little and read a bunch of think pieces about the movie before this discussion. In talking about the relationship between Annie and her children, I want to link to this Vulture piece, which has a really interesting reading of those moments between Annie and Peter. Basically, the argument is that Annie’s sleepwalking was her subconscious way of fighting back against her mother and the ritual. In her sleep, she tries to set Charlie and Peter on fire — and later, it’s after a sleepwalking episode that Annie admits to Peter that she tried to have a miscarriage, insisting that she wasn’t trying to kill him, but trying to protect him. Basically, there is a part of Annie that knows what is destined for her children, and so she tries to destroy them before that fate plays out. I thought that was really interesting, and brings up more questions about what it means to be a good parent, or a good mother.
Emily: See, I was thinking that Annie’s sleepwalking were moments of weakness where her mother had control over her and she was perhaps possessed herself. Like, she wasn’t sleepwalking at all. Just possessed. But that doesn’t entirely make sense, I guess, because why would Paimon want to destroy his perfect male body (aka Peter)? I like the idea that Annie was subconsciously aware of what her mother was doing. That would explain why she tried to keep Peter away from her in the first place. Speaking of Annie… Can we just talk about Toni Collette for a moment? Go.
Susan: Right? Like, DAMN. She was amazing. She owned this movie. And her range! She was just as good in the quiet, subtler moments as she was when she was wailing and screaming after finding Charlie’s body.
Mary: The acting! I really do think this film deserves some Oscar nods, but I doubt it’s going to get any based on the time of the year the film was released.
Emily: If Toni Collette doesn’t get an Oscar nod, I will rage. She’s such an amazing actress, and I feel like this is really her film to finally get some of the recognition she deserves. She has to go to uncomfortable places in this movie, and aren’t the Oscars all about rewarding actors who suffer? Hello, Leonardo DiCaprio couldn’t win a damn Oscar until he wrestled a bear.
Kelli: Toni is the queen. I want to point out that she also slips in some great, unexpected moments of humor — like in her reactions to Anne Dowd’s character, or in the scene where her husband walks in on her painting the tiny decapitated head of Charlie and asks what Peter will think if he sees it, to which she responds something along the lines of, "what? This is just an objective recreation of the accident!" like she can’t BELIEVE he would find it upsetting.
Emily: I love that that moment was funny to you, Kelli. Because I read that as very straight, her just processing her grief in the only way she knew how, through her art. "That stupid face on your face" line was pretty hilarious though.
Susan: Can we also talk about how the miniatures were working?
Mary: I was wondering, too, about how miniatures were in the movie. It reminds me of all those tiny cooking videos. They’re cute, but there’s also something uncanny about everything being so accurate...but tiny. It’s the familiar, but not familiar. In the context of a horror movie, it’s definitely unsettling.
Emily: Um, I love the tiny cooking videos. I feel like the miniatures were connected back to the inevitability of everything. They were never in control of what happened to them, of anything in their lives. They were being manipulated and set into motion by outside forces, much like the miniatures.
Susan: Oh, I like that interpretation, Emily! I also was thinking of it as heredity, especially because it’s the “mother” of the story creating them. But also kind of playing God, like creating stuff in her image or the image of others.
Kelli: Y’all know I love miniatures, and the fact that they played a role in this movie really added to the creepiness of it all. I think it emphasized the overall theme of control, like you’re saying Emily, but also the personal control Annie desperately wants to have over her situation. She creates a tiny, manageable version of every part of her life so that she can examine it from another perspective and maybe understand it better. I think making her a miniaturist was a brilliant bit of characterization. One of my few complaints about the movie is that I wish the miniatures had been utilized more — like, remember that breastfeeding miniature? What the fuck?! I loved it!
Emily: Oh my gosh, that was so creepy. Like, earlier in the movie, when Annie said her mother insisted on feeding her, I didn’t take that to mean, you know, from her own breast. But when I saw the movie a second time and remembered that miniature, I was just very disturbed. What else worked for you in this movie that I haven’t gushed about yet? And what didn’t work?
Susan: Alex Wolff (Peter) really worked for me. I thought he was stellar in this. And if you’ve gotta act next to this version of Toni Collette, you better be on point. And he was. I was so compelled by his character.
Emily: He was so good. So I’ve seen this movie twice, and the second time I went to see it, people in the audience were laughing when he cried. And I was flabbergasted. Have these people no sense of empathy? Would they not also be in hysterics if driven to this point? After killing their sister? After then being haunted by their sister’s ghost/a demon? What the hell is wrong with people?
Kelli: I tend to want to give people the benefit of the doubt when they laugh during moments like that, because I am definitely a person who laughs when I’m deeply uncomfortable. But I’ll say that I didn’t laugh at him sobbing, because that was just genuinely sad. One of his best moments, I thought, was after the accident, when he was sitting around with his group of stupid friends who were all smoking weed and talking about dumb shit, and he got as stoned as he could, obviously thinking it would make him feel better, only to immediately have a panic attack. When he asked his friend to hold his hand, that just broke my heart.
Emily: Oh absolutely, and again, going back to the way this movie handles grief, that moment seemed so real to me. I also thought this might be him having a sort of sympathy allergic reaction similar to the one his sister had? I don't know.
Susan: Also, in general, I love a slow burn horror film. This was right up my alley in terms of pacing and build-up.
Mary: Yessss, I’m also a fan of the slow burn horror. That works very well to me. Also--and I guess this is because of my professional research interests--I’m curious if something was up with Charlie. I did an internet deep dive to try and see if the film is playing her up to be disabled, but couldn’t find much of anything--no one is talking about it! I know that Milly Shapiro (and her sister) have cleidocranial dysplasia, just like Gaten Matarazzo from Stranger Things. All that being said, I really enjoyed that no one mentioned any sort of disability with Charlie. On one hand, it normalizes disability. Charlie’s family loves her and there’s no need to talk about the disability because the movie’s not about that. On the other hand, disabled people have been used as shorthand in horror movies for years. I’m still working through my thoughts on disability in the movie. I guess I need to see it again!
Emily: So I’m a YouTube addict, and I’m seeing a lot of videos on YouTube that have titles that are basically like “The End of Hereditary: Explained.” Was the ending confusing to you guys? I felt like it was pretty straight forward, but what was your interpretation of the ending?
Mary: I don’t think it was confusing, but it was definitely A LOT. Because I was hung up on the disability aspect, I kept asking myself if the ending really happened or not, but WHAT was happening definitely seemed straightforward. I think people are confused because it’s just so much to take in at one time. The entire film is this building tension, this slow accumulation of clues, and then the end just THROWS IT AT YOU. The viewer gets lulled into a false sense of security and then everything is dumped on them at once.
Susan: I agree with Mary that WHAT was happening seemed straightforward, but the WHY might not have been as clear. There was a lot to absorb in the last ten minutes or so, including the whole Annie-cutting-her-own-head off thing. One thing that I did question was who was speaking at the end when Peter (Peter’s body?) is crowned. I thought it was Joan, but the person I was with thought it was the grandmother (Leigh). Do y’all know?
Kelli: Susan, I am 99% sure it was Joan, only because I am so used to hearing Anne Dowd deliver lectures as Aunt Lydia on The Handmaid’s Tale that I could recognize her voice anywhere. But yeah, I agree with you both that what was happening was fairly obvious. What I found the most confusing (and still find confusing, frankly) is the process through which the spirit of Paimon was transferred to Peter. Like, I get that Annie kept Peter away from Leigh so she couldn’t get her clutches into him when he was young, and instead she had to go for Charlie — but like, does the spirit have to be transferred via breast milk specifically? And how does the beheading fit into everything? I guess I’m just curious about the details of the ritual, but those are answers that probably don’t even exist.
Emily: The beheading thing, I think, is again connected to that idea of control. Because in typical Western sciency culture, we think of the mind controlling our body, our thoughts, our emotions, rather than the heart or the soul. But I don’t need a clear explanation of any of these things to have the movie work for me. I like that some of it seems open to interpretation. Okay, last question: I want to end as I began: with a simple question. What would you rate this movie (out of 5, and you can do half stars, because I go by the Letterboxd method)?
Susan: At first, I was going to say 4.5, but the more I talk about it and think about it (and have scary dreams because of it!), I’m going to say 5 stars. This one is sticking with me in a way that most movies don’t.
Mary: 500/5. I’ve been thinking about this movie so much. I formulated ways to get other people to see it (none of these ways have worked...YET). I want to teach it.
Emily: I also would give this movie 5/5 stars. I’ve given two movies 5/5 this year, this and Annihilation. I don’t know if I could ever teach this though because I get frustrated when people don’t get things that are close to my heart. I feel emotionally attached to this movie, and I kind of can’t deal with the fact that some people don’t like it. Like… what is wrong with you? That being said, I did convince Ben to go see it (he hates horror movies) and he liked it, so... success!
Kelli: I originally gave this four stars on Letterboxd, which was my initial reaction to it, but I think I’m going to go up to 4.5 after having read and written about it just now. It’s funny how thinking about a movie can either raise or lower its estimation in your head. I think what I was most turned off by initially was the speechifying at the end, because I think it’s just a little bit too on-the-nose. It felt like the part in the action movie where the bad guy explains his plan to take over the world — like, are you saying this for the benefit of the characters on screen, or are you saying it for the audience? That being said, I think that overall, this film is fantastic. The other day I said to you guys that I’m not sure I can say I “love” this movie when I don’t know if I will ever be able to watch it again… which was when Emily said that love is complicated. So, maybe I do love it. In a ‘this-movie-ruined-my-life’ kind of way.
Emily: Love is complicated! What a great way to end this blog. With something I said. Hehehe.