Note: *SPOILER ALERT*
“Should I be sadder?”
“You should be whatever you are.”
The British author C. S. Lewis once wrote, “No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear…the sensation is like being afraid…I dread the moments when the house is empty.” There is something about grief that it works its way down into the very fabric of our experiences and seems to numb it all. This is only compounded when one expresses the violence of trauma – which often leaves us to experience the world in quite a different way. And for some, this impact of grief and trauma seems to not let up. Enter the film Hereditary.
Director Ari Aster’s new film – with influences such as Japanese ghost stories, Stanley Kubrick’s horror classic The Shining, and 1973’s Don’t Look Now – brings the viewer front and center to an experience when, once the credits roll, leaves you physically tired.
Hereditary introduces us to the Graham family: Annie (Toni Collette) and Steve (Gabriel Byrne), along with their two children, their son Peter (Alex Wolff) and their daughter Charlie (Milly Shapiro). We are invited into the story right as the family is getting ready for the funeral of Annie’s mother. While we don’t experience much of the funeral, only a brief eulogy from Annie, we are given a much clearer picture of Annie’s life when she secretly visits a grief support group. She tells the group her mother had Dissociative Identity Disorder and dementia at the time of her death. Her father had died from starving himself to death, effects from suffering from psychotic depression. She also had a brother who had schizophrenia who ended up taking his own life. Annie feels as if she is to blame, but she can’t quite put her finger on what.
From the outset of the film, we are faced with this reality: Annie has come from a family facing constant grief and trauma.
Even though her and her mother were more or less estranged, Annie does still find herself oscillating between grief and some unknown feeling, perhaps even indifference. As if this does not provide enough for her to process, the unthinkable happens. While at a party with her brother (at Annie’s behest), Charlies suffers a life-threatening allergic reaction. On the way to the hospital, Peter swerves to miss something in the road and, in the process, his sister – whose head is stuck out the window trying to get air – is decapitated. Peter freezes behind the steering wheel, absolutely traumatized, eventually leaving for home. Stunned and numb, he makes his way into his room and collapses on his bed. It isn’t until the next morning, when Annie needs to use the car, that she finds her daughter’s dead – and headless – body in the back seat. This scene, in many ways, is when the movie really starts.
In my estimation, this film needs to be interpreted through the lens of trauma. It is in the context of trauma that the film pieces are put together, not simply in the evil cult/possession plot (which I will return to shortly). As Dr. Bessel van der Kolk notes in his important book The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma,
[Traumatic] experiences do leave traces, whether on a large scale (on our histories and cultures) or close to home, on our families, with dark secrets being imperceptibly passed down through generations. They also leave traces on our minds and emotions, on our capacity for joy and intimacy, and even on our biology and immune systems. Trauma affects not only those who are directly exposed to it, but also those around him…Trauma, by definition, is unbearable and intolerable…It takes tremendous energy to keep functioning while carrying the memory of terror, and the shame of utter weakness and vulnerability.
This description of trauma can almost serve as the interpretive lens for which to begin to understand the movie. Let me mention several examples to help illustrate this.
First, the very atmosphere of the film indicates something is not right here. Along with the film score, we are placed right into the middle of an anxiety-ridden family whose story does not let us rest or take a deep breath until the credits roll. In fact, the numerous scenes which are minimalist in design and effectively use camera focus and silence illustrate the heaviness of grief and the horrors of trauma. Your experience of this family’s grief and trauma effect you, the film viewer, in demonstrable ways. You yourself feel the anxiety, the mixed emotions, the desire you have for it to let up and be all over. Is this not what trauma does to the human experience? Does it not cause us to beg and plead for it to let up, to allow our lives some semblance of “normalcy?” Even as the film begins to wrap up, we are still left with a disorienting fear that we have experienced something humanity was not meant to know.
Secondly, we have the dinner table scene. At this point, no one has mentioned Peter driving the car that killed his sister. It has been the elephant in the room thus far. We see the trauma and grief weighing on Annie, losing two family members in what seems like relatively a brief period. In easily one of the tensest moments of the film, after Peter asks his mother if she’s okay, Annie unloads all her thoughts like weapons towards her son. It is hard to watch as this mother – who clearly is walking the road towards a total breakdown – verbally berates her son. In this scene, not only do we see how grief and trauma can often contribute to us saying careless, hurtful things, but we also see how Annie’s trauma has created a relational numbness and friction.
Thirdly, and my last example, is the cult/possession aspect of the film, which particularly becomes front and center towards the later part of the film. While some criticism of Hereditary argues against its literalism, particularly in dealing with this plot point, I would argue that trauma even informs how we, at one level, understand the final scenes of the film. For many trauma victims, living with the effects of all that you have yet to process can feel like a sort of possession, like you’re not the person you used to be pre-trauma. In the terrifying scene where Annie leaps off the wall and chases her son Peter, we are provided a reminder that, even when we want to flee trauma, it’s not always that easy. Trauma connects us to a moment in our personal history that we wish it didn’t – such as Annie’s connection to Charlie’s sketchbook (which, in the long run, proves to be fatal to her husband). It is not something we easily move on from. Instead, it lingers.
Hereditary leaves us with an ending where trauma has had the final word and you are not totally sure whether what you see – Peter becoming the vessel for the demonic King Paimon – is what actually happened or if the blank stare on Peter’s face is the emotional numbness and trauma giving way to a blank expression where he doesn’t know what to do anymore.
However, for those of us in the Christian tradition, we know that fear, grief, and trauma do not have the final word. While it can be easy to dispense with cheap cliches of vague pseudo-Christian advice, as if one’s grief and trauma can be healed by meditating on a bumper sticker, true hope – the Christian understanding – is, as philosopher James K.A. Smith says, “[awaiting] the coming of a God with scars.” In the Incarnation, Jesus Christ himself faced trauma and grief, knowing what the human body feels like when faced with the horrors of all that entails. And in his resurrection from the dead, the God-Man promised that we will find healing one day – where we can rest and no longer feel the effects of trauma on our bodies.
As a person who lives with the effects of trauma and grief every day, I can empathize with the unsettling nature of these characters’ lives. Trauma is a disorienting experience. While it effects us in ways we are often not immediately aware of, we can develop and nurture emotionally healthy ways to live with it. If Hereditary gives us a fatalistic picture of trauma, the Christian tradition says just the opposite. It doesn’t ask us to pray it away, pretend it isn’t there, or to downplay its very real effects. Instead, it simply whispers, “Don’t lose hope.”
As director Ari Aster himself has said, “Films that deeply affected me did not allow me to move on.” Grief and trauma, for many people, do not allow them to move on. And so it is with Hereditary. It will sit with you for days, perhaps prompting you to be more thankful for family, cherishing those moments when you can hold your little ones a bit more close.