‘Hereditary’ Explainer: A Spoilery Guide to the Terrifying Twists and That Wild Ending
I’ve seen Hereditary twice now, and both times I exited the theater to hear other audience members excitedly discussing the possible meaning behind various key elements in Ari Aster’s terrifying directorial debut. There is, of course, no concrete answer; whatever you make of Hereditary is what you make of it. But for those hoping to make sense of some of the particular (and particularly horrific) plot points, the seemingly cryptic imagery, and the film’s unforgettable ending, we’re here to help. It should go without saying, but there are major SPOILERS for Hereditary ahead. You’ve been warned.
As revealed in the trailers, Hereditary opens with the death of Annie’s (Toni Collette) mother, Ellen, with whom she admittedly had a strained relationship, as evidenced early on by a fairly dispassionate eulogy. Following the funeral, Annie begins noticing strange symbols and words around her home, and her family experiences a relentless series of tragedies that appear to be directly related to their grandmother’s passing — including the disturbing accidental death of Annie’s young daughter, Charlie (Milly Shapiro), who meets a horrifying end after a night out with her brother, Peter (Alex Wolff).
Hereditary is a thematically heavy horror film that explores grief, trauma, and — clearly — the meaning of inheritance, transforming the concept of family demons into something that’s simultaneously literal and deeply unsettling on an existential level. We’ll start where it all begins, at the beginning:
Several clues to the film’s actual demon are littered throughout, and though you may have noticed a few, a second viewing reveals others hiding in plain sight all along. The first and most obvious is the symbol on the necklace worn by both Annie and her mother. It appears to be the outline of intertwining figures, and, like many things in the film, it can be interpreted in more than one way. Either there’s something witchy and supernatural about this symbol, or it’s just one of those corny things from a special mother-daughter collection at Zales.
Here’s a closer look at the symbol:
That symbol recurs throughout the film, appearing in old photos, a book, on a phone pole, on embroidered welcome mats, and later, in the apartment of Joan (Ann Dowd) — a woman who befriends Annie at a grief support group. It isn’t until the third act that the supernatural force behind this necklace is revealed to be a demon named Paimon.
And yes, Paimon is the real name of a demon written about in several occult texts and grimoires, some of which date all the way back to the 15th and 16th centuries. The necklace in the film boasts Paimon’s actual sigil. You can even purchase your own necklace on Etsy — at your own risk, of course.
In Hereditary, Paimon is hailed as one of the eight kings of Hell. Those who worship him, including Joan, believe that they will be blessed with abundant wealth after he inhabits a human body (more on that in a bit). Often described as “crowned” and one of many kings in Lucifer’s service, Paimon is a science nerd, appreciator of the arts, and a nature-lover who is said to hold all the secrets of Earth. Other texts claim he will truthfully answer any question asked of him, or that he can reveal hidden treasures.
This description, though loosely adapted, makes sense in the context of the film, particularly the stuff about appreciating art (both Charlie and Annie are artistically inclined), speaking the truth (as when Annie blurts out “I never wanted to be your mother!” in Peter’s room), and his ability to grant wealth.
Like her mother, Charlie is also highly creative, but are her demented tchotchkes and drawings merely the result of a quirky, imaginative mind — or are they something more sinister? The artistic connection between Charlie and her mother serves as the most surface component of the “inheritance” metaphor at the heart of the film. Are Charlie’s talents inherited from her mother, or are they a ritual compulsion beyond her control? Are Annie and her family being tormented by a supernatural force, or is Annie manifesting signs of a mental illness she inherited from her own mother?
There is no right or wrong or single answer here; in every instance, it’s both. After her grandmother dies, Charlie sits in class fiddling with her latest “creation.” When her teacher asks her to stop, a pigeon flies into the window. Later that day, Charlie finds the dead bird and cuts off its head to append to the figure she’s made. Headlessness and decapitation are a recurring motif in the movie, as are fire ants — the ants that cover Charlie’s head when she’s decapitated in the car accident, and the ones that that crawl over Annie’s bed and cover Peter’s head during a nightmare sequence.
Symbolically, ants are drawn to death, and pigeons are messengers who sometimes carry warnings. That the pigeon appears early in the film doesn’t feel coincidental.
Charlie’s bedroom is also the location of one of a few strange words scratched into the walls of Annie’s home, presumably left there by her “superstitious” mother. These words include “satony,” “liftoach,” and “pandemonium” — all commonly used in spells and incantations to conjure demons.
Mental Illness and Trauma
Before we get into how all the demonology and symbolism culminates in that insane ending, I want to talk a bit about the themes of mental illness in Hereditary. During one of her grief support group meetings, Annie reveals that her father suffered from “psychotic depression” and starved himself to death (a horror movie all its own, I’m sure), her brother was a schizophrenic who hanged himself, and her mother had dissociative identity disorder, or DID (once known as multiple personality disorder). There’s been plenty of real-world research to suggest that mental illness can “run in the family,” and several psychiatric disorders can be genetically passed down, including schizophrenia and depression.
So Annie’s husband (Gabriel Byrne) is somewhat justified in believing that his wife is in need of professional help. To him, Annie’s behaviors are the signs of mental illness: Manic episodes, hallucinations, the obsessive-compulsive superstitions (the irrational belief that Peter will die if she doesn’t summon Charlie’s spirit), and speaking in Charlie’s voice during a séance (which could be a sign of DID). There’s also Annie’s history of sleepwalking, which returns after the death of Charlie. As she explains to Joan, Annie woke up one time, many years ago, to find herself in the room that Charlie and Peter shared when they were younger. The kids were covered in paint thinner, and Annie was holding an empty can and a lit match. Obviously, she blew the match out, but that horrible, inexplicable experience has lingered in her mind for years.
These episodes could also be considered “dissociative fugues.” Though not necessarily a symptom of mental illness, entering a fugue state can be related to dissociative identity disorder and prolonged trauma. When in a fugue state, the subject experiences a sort of temporary amnesia, where they forget basic identifiers like their name, where they live, their personality and memories. These states can last days, weeks, or months at a time. (It’s covered pretty well in this fascinating and heartbreaking piece for The New Yorker.)
There is also psychological research to suggest that severe trauma, like mental illness, can be passed down from one generation to the next (specifically trauma-induced behavioral disorders). Again, Hereditary asks if Annie — and her children — are predisposed to mental illness and doomed to experience repeated traumas, or if these tragedies are rooted in choice.
The ending of Hereditary is a relentless barrage of revelations and terrifying imagery, but it’s also an exquisite culmination of the film’s devastating themes. Everything comes together in quick succession, so it’s easy to miss something if you’re watching from between your fingers. To recap:
After Annie finds the headless corpse of her mom in the attic and photos of her mother and Joan together wearing those necklaces, the s—t truly hits the fan, to say the least. Annie discovers a book that belonged to her mother, in which a passage regarding the demon Paimon has been highlighted. The passage refers to resurrecting the demon in the body of a human male.
At school, Peter sees Joan standing across the street shouting, “I expel you.” Not long after, he has an “episode” in class: He hallucinates a smirking version of himself reflected in a nearby glass cabinet, his eye twitches in a peculiar manner, and his arm shoots straight up in the air with his palm flexed at an odd angle. And then he smashes his own face into the desk, as if compelled to do so by some unseen force.
When Annie tells her husband about her mother’s corpse and tries to convince him to destroy Charlie’s sketchbook to protect Peter from becoming possessed, he resists. So Annie throws the sketchbook into the fireplace herself, and her husband literally goes up in flames. Annie begins terrorizing Peter, cornering her son in the attic and sawing her own head off with a wire — the ultimate sacrifice made for her child and his future.
Members of his grandmother’s cult suddenly surround him, and Peter jumps out of the window, seemingly to his death. But then he wakes up, with a dazed look in his eye, and follows Annie’s decapitated body as it floats up to their treehouse, where he finds Joan and several nude members of the demonic cult bowing and chanting before him. Charlie’s decapitated head sits on top of a statue of Paimon, posed in the exact same manner as Peter before he smashed his face at school.
Joan tells Peter / Paimon that they have “corrected” his female body with a “healthy male body.” It’s important to recall here something that Annie told Joan earlier: When she gave birth to Peter, she kept him away from Ellen to protect him from her mental illness, but when she had Charlie, she “gave” her to Ellen as a consolation prize of sorts. This gesture, though symbolic in Annie’s mind, cemented the fate of her children. After Ellen dies, Annie comforts Charlie by reminding her that she was Ellen’s favorite. “She wanted me to be a boy,” Charlie says. (Charlie is typically a boy’s name, after all.) Since Paimon can only inhabit the body of a male, Ellen — and her cult, presumably — caused Charlie’s death, freeing Paimon and giving him only one place to go: Peter.
In the end, a crown is placed on Peter’s head as the cult bows before him. While the literal meaning of this scene is chilling enough, it’s the existential implications that are truly upsetting: An entire history of familial tragedy and trauma, of pain and mental illness has been foisted upon him. That crown represents a burden; a weight beyond measure. What appears to be a twisted celebration is a moment of horrible defeat, as Peter is given no choice, but chosen.
You could easily read more into this sequence, like the concept of white male privilege, for instance: Annie and Charlie are extremely talented, and the former’s works speak to how pain and trauma inform art. Peter doesn’t appear to be remarkable in any way; he’s a careless stoner teenager preoccupied with getting laid, and yet he is chosen. His sister is unworthy, her life deemed of no value based entirely on her gender, despite her stronger connection to Ellen. Joan “corrected” the original body with a “healthy male body,” as if the female gender is a mistake that needs fixing.
Ultimately, we’re left with the most indelible image in a film filled with them: Peter, the King of Pain, who fell into his position by virtue of nothing more than circumstance.