Why is Hereditary (2018) so scary?
*Spoilers.* I know, I know. Everyone loves Ari Aster’s first film, Hereditary (2018). While I will probably not be breaking any new ground with this post, I wanted to share what this film means to be on a personal level. Why is hereditary so scary?
In addition to its technical prowess, Hereditary’s scares stick with me in a way that evokes my childhood fears. I spent the majority of my childhood being terrified of the dark and what, I was convinced, was lurking just beyond my periphery. I was absolutely panicked most nights. I would sleep under the covers, turn the light on, and constantly wake up my poor parents. A few times, I even stood above their bed a la paranormal activity because I was too scared to be alone but didn’t want to wake them up. (It didn’t go over well.) Anyway, the point is that I did a lot to overcome that fear and become a fully functioning adult. Moving to New York City and away from my rural hometown also helped. And for years, I have been living in peace, despite the many horror films I consume. An accomplishment I am proud of! And then, one day in 2018, BOOM! Here comes Hereditary, ready to totally undo all of my progress.
Something about Toni Collette suspended in the corner of the room literally haunts my dreams. After first viewing, I had to keep all of my lights on for days. After the second viewing, several years later, I had to keep all the lights on in my hotel room. (I was on a business trip, and that did nothing to distract me from the possibility of Toni Collette floating in the corner.)
Hereditary is deeply unsettling on so many levels. When I tell people to watch it, it’s always with the caveat that they should absolutely look up the trigger warnings first. From the writhing grief to watching someone go into anaphylactic shock to the incredibly graphic beheading scenes (yes, plural), it’s no wonder Hereditary makes its mark on our psyche. But on top of all of that, Aster’s eye for filmmaking is stunning.
I could write an article on the transitions alone, but I will spare you. His single-shot choreography is beautiful. The camera and actors move so seamlessly together we don’t even realize so many scenes in the film are a single take. And yet, despite his artistic eye, there is a bluntness to his storytelling. He shows us horrifying things with no warning or lead-up. Naked people show up at the house in an extreme wide shot, where we just have enough time to comprehend what we are seeing before he cuts.
The performances in Hereditary are also noteworthy. Toni Collete is guttural and raw in this film. I feel her character’s grief in such a profound way. She is joined on screen by Alex Wolff, Milly Shapiro, Ann Dowd, and Gabriel Byrne.
And finally, I must compliment Aster on Hereditary’s cohesive inclusion of so many sub-genres. The film dabbles in the paranormal, real-life trauma and grief, the occult, and cults (just to name a few.)
Hereditary remains a very intense but top-tier horror film for me. As a filmmaker, I am blown away by its execution. As a viewer, I am terrified.