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Why Is ‘Hereditary’ Truly Frightening? Its Perversion Of Family


This review of “Hereditary” contains spoilers.

There is an old South Park episode entitled “Child Abduction Is Not Funny.” In their typically bizarre and occasionally brilliant satirical style, the creators take the town of South Park in a horrific downward spiral towards insanity. It starts with the parents becoming horrified about all the risks to their children’s lives that the news media was blowing out of proportion in 2002, such as domestic terror attacks.

The satire essentially creates ever-shrinking spheres of paranoia. The townsfolk build a wall to keep others out, then Mongolians magically appear to attack it. That doesn’t make them feel better, of course, so they separate from society until the news tells them the statistically most likely source of harm to children comes from their own parents. Strictly speaking, this is not true, because it’s rare for parents to purposefully harm their own children. But what is true is that children are even less at risk from strangers. Abusers tend to be people the children know.

So what is played for laughs in South Park can easily be turned towards horror. The best horror actually gets the audience into the emotional shoes of the protagonist. One of the most effective ways to do this is by tweaking the world in some way—by taking something familiar and making it severe. When the family can be tweaked in this way, it really frightens us.

That’s why the “South Park” episode is so funny. What reason would 99 percent of parents have to harm their children? Yet the “South Park” parents start suspecting their own spouses of scheming against their families. It’s extremely absurd. That’s where horror lives: the absurd made to seem possible.

This is why the recent horror film “Hereditary” works so well. It takes a family line and turns that into a villain. This is more common in the real world than most of us realize, which makes the threshold for suspending disbelief lower than normal. Family can be a great source of pain and suffering. This is typically not so in a gross way like child abduction or sexual abuse, but our families of origin are often the sources of our deepest emotional struggles.

This admission is difficult for many Americans on the Right to make. As society deteriorates, conservatives have felt forced to double down on the goodness of family. That’s partially because there’s a near-universal consensus that coming from a stable two-parent family is one of the best indicators of future success and happiness in life.

The American Left has extended their Marxist critique of society to the family for a long time now. In many ways, Marxism boils down to equality of outcome that ensures everyone is equally miserable because it’s impossible to make everyone equally happy and successful. Therefore the family must be undermined as well, simply because a few children have worse families than most kids do.

But two things can be true at the same time. It can be true that the traditional nuclear family is essentially the grounding of virtually every good thing in this world, while also true that our families of origins are a source of great suffering and dysfunction. The problem isn’t with the family qua family, but from a familial line. If the root of the tree is bad, then there will always been some poison in its branches. If the root is good, then vestigial virtues will be present as well. Either way, the psychological stability produced by the presence of two parents has enormous benefits.

This could be the difference between a mentally ill person who seeks help when he starts to see his mental illness, versus someone who cannot. If my parents had divorced when I was young, my mental health problems would probably be worse than they are, and I might not have had the presence of mind to get help with them as I have.

Regardless, these issues are present in a person like me. Some of it is just simple biological genetics that a small pill can considerably help with. Some of it requires real work with a therapist and support from my wife to try and make real changes. But if I had no parents, or my parents had not remained committed to their marital covenant, it is almost certain that my current state would be far worse.

This is what makes “Hereditary” scary. It’s hyperbolic in its honesty over what hereditary can do to us. The line that we came from can and sadly does define many people. Codependent bonds strangle. The simplest way to be released from them is by breaking contact.

The characters in “Hereditary” should have done that. There’s more going on in the plot than simply a codependent family. There’s a secret pagan coven in the town that is trying to incarnate an ancient chaos god. To do that, they need a male heir for the god to possess. So at least two generations of this family became unwittingly part of what essentially amounts to a witch’s eugenic plan.

Those elements are disturbing, but they are present in hundreds of horror films. The fears horror films express in witches and secret paganism have more to do with the near-constant threat of cultural regression. What makes this film interesting is that the supernatural pagan horror is just dressing for the real horrors: A disastrous family line. This is a truly disturbing theme, especially because it’s unclear whether the characters can deviate from the tragic course they’re on.

One scene takes place in a high school literature class. The eldest son—who is the focal point of the coven’s attempt to incarnate the chaos god, Paimon—is barely listening while the teacher explains the nature of Greek tragedy. He asks if a hero’s undoing is more or less tragic if he could have done something to change the course of events, as opposed to being merely fated.

The answer to this question is profound. It’s the difference between Hamlet and Herakles. William Shakespeare’s tragedies are based in the Christian moral tradition, where we are responsible for our outcomes, at least in part. Euripides’ works are based in the fatalism of the ancient world. His characters are tricked or fated by the gods into horrible things, whereas Hamlet, Macbeth, etc. are true moral actors. This dialectic between the two tragic visions is exemplified by Shakespeare’s Cassius when he tells Brutus the fault is not in their stars but in themselves.

This is an elevated view of human nature based in dignity. “Hereditary” presents us with the older view that we live and die on the whim of ancient invisible powers. This is the most disturbing reality of all, and I think the main reason the film received a shocking D+ rating from Cinemascore. That polling company is based on reactions from theater-goers directly after they see the film.

People really didn’t feel good when they left this movie, which is appropriate. After all, the point of the film is that ultimately Cassius was wrong.