“Horror films unleash the forces repressed by Christianity—evil and the barbarism of nature. Horror films are rituals of pagan worship. There western man obsessively confronts what Christianity has never been able to bury or explain away.”
—Camille Paglia, Sexual Personae, p.269
“The Eternal Feminine propels us onward.”—Goethe, Faust, II. V.
Whenever I approach the Crossroads of Art and Spirit, I hope to encounter newfound understanding for a given medium’s ability to express the Numinous. The effect of such an encounter on me is multidimensional—emotional, intellectual, and spiritual—and I require several days of processing before I can begin to consciously articulate the artwork’s Numinosity to others. In the case of American writer/director Ari Aster’s critically acclaimed 2018 debut feature film, Hereditary, I became hooked after my first viewing on the evening of June 8 (and dashed back to the theater for a second viewing 9 hours later) not just because the film is wonderfully Saturnian in its mood or because it courageously dares to cast an unflinching gaze at the culturally taboo subjects of the rejection of maternity, children’s deaths, and PTSD, but because it delivers a surprising whopper of an occult philosophy that showcases the Feminine Daemonic (in all Her Chinnamasta head-chopping glory, no less)!
Be advised: This film review contains spoilers for Hereditary!
Synopsis of an 8th House-Saturated Plot
Darkness, denial, death, deeply buried (until they’re dug up and decapitated!) family secrets, shame, inheritances, (Goetic) spirit conjuration and magical operations, emotional manipulation, intimacy and the lack thereof, apotheosis/transformation…the elements of the plot inform us that, from an astrological standpoint, Hereditary plunges us deep into a Plutonian playhouse of 8th House energies.
The movie opens with the stark audience reading exercise of the obituary of grandmother Ellen Leigh, matriarch of the Graham family. (Interestingly, the actress who plays her gets no mention in the credits.) Then the camera angle tours—reluctantly, it seems, as if afraid to discover what’s around the corner—the intricately designed and painted rooms of a miniature house, the exact replica, in fact, of the Grahams’ own house nestled in a disturbing white birch forest somewhere on a Utah hilltop in the present day. The wee house with Graham family dolls is the work of miniature artist Annie Graham (played by Toni Collette), daughter of the newly deceased Ellen. As the camera angle zooms into the room of the sleeping teenage son, Peter Graham (played by Alex Wolff), it becomes clear that there’s a sympathetic magical link between the miniature house (and Annie’s entire microcosm of miniatures, for that matter) and the actual family house and “real world.” More on this link in a bit.
Steve Graham (played by Gabriel Byrne; he was also one of the film’s executive producers), Annie’s husband and a psychiatrist by trade, is clearly sent by Annie on a mission to round up the tardy Graham children and get everyone to the funeral home for Ellen’s wake/funeral service. Steve rouses Peter from his sleep easily enough but has trouble locating his and Annie’s 13-year-old daughter, Charlie (played by Milly Shapiro). Instead of sleeping in her bed, the bird-like Charlie had spent the night asleep in her eerie treehouse/bird house in the woods, a structure that energetically and aesthetically has more in common with Baba Yaga’s chthonic house of horrors than it does a child’s innocent fortress of the imagination. The children finally rounded up, the family sets off for the funeral home, and it’s during this pivotal scene of Annie awkwardly delivering her mother’s eulogy and what comes after that I see, in hindsight, how all of the plot elements that will subsequently unfold coalesce in the tomb/womb of this mortuary chapel.
The late Ellen was, we learn before the film’s climax, the leader of a mysterious occult fraternity (“Queen Leigh,” according to a placard next to her framed photo, but we don’t learn this until the film’s climax) that was apparently greatly skilled in Goetic workings and devoted its collective energy to summoning one infernal King (Paimon) in particular. Ellen’s corpse is adorned with a necklace comprised of the sigil of this Goetic spirit (well, not the actual sigil because Aster took some artistic liberties with the visual representations of Goetia in this film), a fact unbeknownst to all except the cult members, who happen to be the only other people besides the Grahams at Ellen’s funeral. At one point, the delightfully antinomian Charlie, irreverently chewing on a chocolate bar and drawing in her sketchbook during the eulogy, notices one of the male cult members (she doesn’t know, of course, that that’s what he actually is) staring at her and when she returns his gaze, he creepily smiles at her. A female cult member is briefly depicted rubbing an ointment on the lips of Ellen’s corpse while speaking unknown words of power to her, eliciting a curious stare from Charlie. When Steve discovers his daughter eating the chocolate bar, his initial reaction of disgust/disapproval at her irreverent behavior on such a solemn occasion is replaced by fear that the girl is ingesting a nut-laced candy bar, as she has a severe nut allergy and neither parent has brought an EpiPen to treat a potential allergic reaction.
As Annie’s eulogy revealed, there clearly was no love lost between her and her mother. Nevertheless, she feels shame upon returning home from the funeral for not outwardly mourning the loss, which she confides to her husband and he assures her that whatever amount of grief she feels is the right amount. That night, after putting in more hours on her miniatures to prepare them for an upcoming art exhibit in New York, Annie heads to her mother’s room and the audience is treated to the film’s first jump scare: the surprising sight of Ellen’s ghost standing just a few feet away from Annie. Annie had intended to rummage through some boxes of items that belonged to her mother, and it’s when she extracts a book on spiritualism that contains a hand-written note from Ellen that an occult-attuned audience member would have an Aha! moment regarding what this film is really about: Not only is Ellen spiritually powerful—even beyond the grave, as evidenced by her full-body apparition— but the cryptic note deliberately left behind that exhorts Annie to put up with the deep pain of enigmatic sacrifices that she’s going to have to make in order to reap “great rewards” is a major clue-by-four that Annie will have no choice but to play her part in a magical working of epic proportions.
The sacrifices alluded to in Ellen’s note come in the forms of the shockingly unexpected and visually abhorrent death-by-decapitation of Charlie in an auto accident (with Peter driving her to a hospital after both of them were at a party where Charlie had accidentally consumed walnuts in a slice of chocolate cake), Annie’s ingress into a state of full-on demonic possession (resulting in self-decapitation with a piano wire), Steve’s death (by fire, a mischievous act of retaliation by either the spirit of Ellen or King Paimon or both), and the “long-benightmar’d” (to use a phrase from Keats) Peter’s death by way of ritual sacrifice.
Peter’s body, it turns out, is needed to serve as the host for Charlie’s transmigrated soul exalted through ritual apotheosis to become one and the same as the Goetic spirit of Paimon, a King of Hell “Who is obedient unto Lucifer” and Who comes from the Order of Dominions (Wilson, DuQuette, Hyatt 93). Governing 200 Legions comprised of the Order of Angels and Potentates, Paimon appears “with a most glorious crown on his head” to the sound of trumpets (Wilson, DuQuette, Hyatt 93). Evoked to “teach all arts and sciences” and to “bind or make any man subject to the Magician,” King Paimon also “gives Dignity… and good Familiars” (Wilson, DuQuette, Hyatt 93).
This is an important point that I think many audience members totally got wrong: it’s not Peter who is resurrected, it’s Charlie-as-Paimon. The glorious image revealed in the macabre treehouse-turned-Goetic Evocation Chapel at the film’s climax is the Feminine Daemonic Trinity of the headless Matriarch Ellen and headless Mother Annie bowing in obeisance before their transformed daughter Charlie. (If you want to be Wiccan about it, we’re talking descending order of Crone-Mother-Maiden.) Charlie has executed the Great Work, alchemically fusing her anima to the animus of Paimon in the alembic of Peter’s body.
“The walker of the Vama Marga seeks to become that sexually opposite being, creating a fully integrated androgyne, facilitating the universe-creating coitus of Shakti and Shiva within his or her own consciousness. … (The mysterious Western hermaphroditic egregore called Baphomet symbolizes the same principle.) The left-hand path magician comes to know that the daemon inhabiting the physical organism is truly his or her other erotic half” (Schreck and Schreck 66).
Visually, the bowing Ellen and Annie before a “genetically altered, irradiated by the daemonic” (Paglia 341) Charlie form a triangle between them with Charlie at the apex—a veritable Triangle of Art through which the Feminine Daemonic serves as both magical operator and Force conjured.
Vama Marga: It’s All in the Family! Or, Transmitted Legacies—What’s Meant by “Hereditary”
Simply put, Hereditary depicts three generations of female magi in the Graham family, Craft-y women with an innate ability to conjure and mold reality through force of Will. Ellen, Annie, and Charlie each serve as “…a link in the chain of an initiated lineage of women embodying the vital power of the dark goddess” (Schreck and Schreck 35). The path they forge for themselves is a sinister one in the original Latin sense of the term: left-turning—contrary, in these female characters’ cases, to the social norms of the roles of wife and mother (Annie, but Ellen also) and conforming adult-in-training (Charlie). This is the Left-Hand Path (LHP) vocation of Self-actualization; this is Vama Marga territory, as the LHP philosophy was first termed in Classical India. Amidst the herd mentality of collective unconsciousness of the Divine Self, the Daemonic Feminine—the activating principle of the cosmos known as Shakti (“power”) and incarnated as countless “Dark” Goddesses such as Kali-Ma—comes roaring through in the quest for liberation from maya (illusion) and realization of the Divine Within. The devouring mother comes with the force of a thousand hurricanes, by the blinding light of a million detonating suns.
Far from being a philosophical abstraction, Shakti as Goddess is incarnate in every woman—the contours of flesh serve as Her living temple (Schreck and Schreck 31). She is “an infinitely complex living principle; virgin and whore at the same time, hideous hag, ravishing beauty, alternatively creative, annihilative, merciful, fickle, cruel, loving, and indifferent—an endless surge of transformative female energy, a matrix from which all matter is emanated as well as the mysterious night into which all matter is consumed” (Schreck and Schreck 61).
The devouring mother/raging aspect of Shakti is synonymous with the Feminine Daemonic, and in the unfolding of the narrative in Hereditary, we see that energy most explosively with Annie’s liberating rage. It comes in verbal cruelty, especially to her son, Peter (to whom she blurts out, during one of her disturbing episodes of sleepwalking: “I never wanted to be your mother”), and it also comes with overt, daemonically-calculated threats to the lives of both Peter and Steve.
But the flip-side of destruction, of course, is creation, and Annie’s and Charlie’s roles as artists also tie them in to the Feminine Daemonic and serve as metaphors for magical workings—literally, the ability to create new worlds. As previously mentioned, Annie is an artist who creates miniatures, replicas of her home, family, and the defining moments of her life. It’s not just how she makes her living; it’s how she does her conjuring, exerting control by reframing experiences of her life like Charlie’s birth or her fatal car accident.
Charlie clearly inherited her mother’s artistic traits, although her work leans toward cobbling together doll-like oddities, mash-ups of organic and inorganic materials (electrical sockets, empty prescription pill bottles, pigeon heads) that have the look and feel of magical fetishes or homunculi. Her doll-like objects foreshadow the grisly Paimon mannequin shown at the film’s climax, a crowned figure featuring her own blackened and decomposed head as the primary organic material.
Both mother and daughter toil away in solitude in service to the Art, completely uninterested in fulfilling the limiting social roles defined by their gender, refusing to compromise on the integrity of their roles as Creators. Looking solely at Charlie, factoring her visible (she’s a redhead) and behavioral (her odd clucking sounds) departures from family “normalcy,” plus the exposition given that Grandma Ellen laid claim to Charlie at birth and sorcerously influenced her development, I’m of the opinion that Charlie has carried the spirit of Paimon with her since infancy. (And that she was the third and final attempt at serving as Paimon’s vessel, with Annie’s suicidal schizophrenic brother and Joan’s drowned son and grandson serving as the former attempts at hosting Paimon in their bodies.)
As an aside, why the choice of Paimon of all Beings? Writer/director Ari Aster actually took the time to explain a couple of days ago during a June 15 Hereditary spoiler-saturated Reddit AMA:
“The Devil has been done to death. Paimon was my favorite option that came up in my research. I’ve already been told by some that Paimon is an ‘obvious choice.’ Everyone is a critic, it seems.” (Aster answered a related question from a different fan about whether he has any occult fixations; Aster denied it, writing: “I have no connection to the occult. I did pretty extensive research into witchcraft and invocation spells, and then I took some luxuries [in the name of convenience] that I’m sure will get the goat of any dedicated occultist.”)
Ultimately, the Magical Will of Grandmother Ellen, a.k.a. “Queen Leigh,” set the Great Work in motion; she is the Ur-Mother of the Feminine Daemonic. Daring to raise Hell in Mormon Country, U.S.A., she coursed the river of Vama Marga in the strongest antinomian currents possible, and her legacy was passed not just biologically through her female descendants of Annie and Charlie, but through her magical group/lodge/fraternal order/coven, whose members mysteriously show up nude all over the Graham residence and inside Charlie’s treehouse, locus of ritual apotheosis. They’re nude, of course, because “nakedness is a symbol of the magical power of the Goddess unveiled” (Schreck and Schreck 85).
The Evolution of Horror as a Genre in the 21st Century
I know many people that I’ve recommended Hereditary to won’t go see it because of the stigma associated with its genre of “horror,” and that’s a damn shame because they’re truly depriving themselves of the experience of a film that is tantamount to a modern Greek tragedy. As with Oedipus Rex or any other Sophoclean nightmare, we see the dissolution of the nuclear family set amidst the backdrop of intervening Cosmic Forces, a tour de force of emotional pain that gives rise to clarity. Ancient Greek tragedy as Aristotle outlined it in his Poetics intends to have its audiences undergo the emotional states of pity—because the suffering of the characters on the stage is heartbreaking to witness—and terror, because the audience realizes that what happens to the characters in the story could just as easily happen to them. When the thesis and the antithesis of those emotional states are met, the audience can leave the theater with a synthesis emotional state of catharsis, a purging of negativity.
Hereditary certainly lives up to Aristotle’s qualifications for a tragedy, although I would argue that one of the great things about Aster’s film is its perniciousness in getting under your skin. It’s not a film that one treats as a disposable commodity of an entertainment experience, forgetting all about it the next day like more vapid films (“blockbuster” film sequels and the like). Its grief and violence coil around your soul: Annie’s scene-breaking screams in the wake of Charlie’s death continue to ring in your ears in the quiet watches of the night days after you’ve seen the film.
Hereditary is the third horror film in studio A24’s past three years of shaking up conventions in the genre (2016’s The Witch by Robert Eggers blazed the trail, and It Comes At Night was released last year). Predictable jump scares peppering fast-moving plots are replaced by existential horror mediated through carefully wrought depictions of the dissolution of families; soul-crushing grief envelops the viewer through narratives that creep along like slow-moving brush fires. This new style—call it “elevated horror” or “art house horror” or whatever—isn’t to everyone’s liking. Hereditary, while garnering critical acclaim and box office success, isn’t aligning with all audiences’ expectations for what a horror film ought to be and do and look like.
No, you can’t please everyone, so don’t even try, Ari Aster. Those who won’t like Hereditary because they can’t accept its occult-/Goetia-informed framework can’t be helped. For those of us who do and who are looking forward to seeing your Midsommar (among whose cinematic influences you cite Polanski’s Macbeth and the original Wicker Man—two of my all-time faves!) when it comes out, I think I can speak on behalf of all of us in wishing you “Dignity…and good Familiars.”
Paglia, Camille. Sexual Personae: Art and Decadence from Nefertiti to Emily Dickinson. New York: Vintage Books, 1991.
Schreck, Nikolas and Zeena Schreck. Demons of the Flesh: The Complete Guide to Left Hand Path Sex Magic. London: Creation Books, 2002.
Wilson, David P, Lon Milo DuQuette, and Christopher S. Hyatt. Aleister Crowley’s Illustrated Goetia. Las Vegas: New Falcon Publications, 1992.