Written by Alexander Greco
October 16, 2020
This article took on a pretty nihilistic tone (which I inevitably started to really lean into). Now, I personally have learned to live with and accept the infinite absurdity of reality, and have pretty much become de-sensitized to it. If you’re not one for the deep, dark depths of Nihilism, then feel free to set this down, and go on living with the unconscious-but-still-existent sensation that something’s not quite right about the way reality works and your entire life is a lie.
If your psyche has taken enough Defense Against the Dark Arts classes to whether such things, then, by all means, carry on.
Can a Bad Movie Be Good?
If you don’t know this yet, the A24 film company has consistently put out some fantastic movies.
Some of the more notable ones include Ex Machina, The Lighthouse and Midsommar. However, they’ve also put out a number of other unique and well-made films out over the years, including Under the Skin, Room, The Witch, Room, It Comes At Night, Under the Silver Lake and Lady Bird.
A24 is also the company responsible for Hereditary.
Hereditary is pretty far down my lists of favorite horror movies, favorite indie horror movies, and even my favorite A24 horror movies.
Hereditary is pretty cringey from start to finish, and, for the most part, I don’t mean this in a good way. The characters feel unnatural throughout much of the film (but everything feels a little unnatural). The behaviors many of the characters exhibit are off-putting, but an interesting kind of off-putting, just an unlikeable kind of off-putting. As much as I like Steve Graham—the cookie-cutter stereotype of an off-the-boat-but-still-assimilated Irish Father—he’s a bit too flat and static for me, and lacks too much depth.
In addition, so many of the “scary” parts of the film made me laugh (with the electric-pole scene being one big exception (for this, I had to stifle my laugh for the sake of the surrounding audience)). More than just the “scary parts”, most of the movie made me laugh. And, goddamnit, I just couldn’t get over Peter’s crying.
Peter was easily, hands down, the cringiest part of this entire movie. It was rough.
However, there’s something special about Hereditary, and there’s many things I feel I haven’t cracked with this film (mostly because I haven’t really felt the desire to).
This isn’t necessarily a bad movie, there’s just so many surface-level elements of this movie I can barely stand, or that make me laugh when they’re not supposed to.
It’s well-filmed, kinda well-written, and the plot possesses a wicked interesting sub-structure to it with the whole grandma thing lurking in the background. There is indeed so much good to this film that I can’t say it’s a bad movie, and I do somehow enjoy watching it. The movie even seems to get even better once you watch the end of the film, which is where it seems to cement itself as something close to an art film.
Once you’ve seen the ending once, every time you watch the film afterwards, it becomes something like a puzzle. I can respect that.
It’s one of a handful of movies I’ve seen where the ending somehow redeems the rest of the film, and makes the film a better watch after the first viewing.
Today, with this analysis, I don’t want to spend too much time summarizing and explaining and analyzing and this and that. Really, I just want to explore two angles to this movie (which are really just one angle, and then looking at that one angle from two different angles). If you haven’t watched the movie, then just watch it, or read this and be moderately confused. I won’t spend much time explaining it.
In a brief analysis, I want to focus on two angles of a psychological analysis, and present it in a more general, theoretical way than as a concrete, crystalized analysis (Eraserhead kinda burnt me out a bit).
More particularly, I want to examine Hereditary based off of its very name (“hereditary”), in what can be interpreted in a quasi-Freudian, but in a more contemporary developmentally psychological angle, and then look at it in a very specific and somewhat obscure Jungian context using his conceptualization of “Aion”.
Nature vs Nurture
This is a fundamental argument in both psychology and philosophy.
Are our personalities, traits, capabilities and actions pre-determined by our genetics, or who our parents and ancestors are?
Or, are there environmental pressures that effect our development from the time we’re a fetus to the time we die?
The answer, of course, is that both are true.
However, this question can spiral into a much deeper question about Free Will.
Are we, our personalities, our behaviors, our thoughts and our actions pre-determined by our genes? Or is it possible for us to be changed by factors other than genetics, including our own conscious decisions?
The answer, of course, is “No”, there’s no Free Will.
Even if you grant that both Nature and Nurture play a role in development (which you should), these are both, inevitably, purely mechanistic forces acting on a mechanistic entity (you and your body).
Now, personally, I have a theory and a philosophical thought experiment I came up with to explain how humans might approximate partial Free Will (I call it “Greco’s Devil”, keeping in tradition with Laplace’s Demon), but that’s a discussion for another time.
For now, Nature vs. Nurture.
Now, there’s something interesting the writers/creators do in Hereditary. They actually play into the most nihilistic element of Nature vs Nurture, which I already mentioned a few sentences back.
“Nature” is always seen as the more mechanistic and pre-determined of the two developmental forces. To a certain degree, there are aspects of you that are inevitable, simply because of your genetics (and it’s quite a lot more than most people would enjoy hearing). In this perspective, we are like a cue ball that is hit across a pool table, with no personal say in the angle or force we are struck.
“Nurture” is often seen as the less deterministic or mechanistic of the two developmental forces. Yes, we are born with a specific set of genetics that will determine everything from our personality to the rate at which hair on our legs grow, but these are also things that can be altered by external factors, such as events that raise or lower stress, nutrition, the temperature of our environment, how much we exercise and so forth.
However, the problem with this is the same problem as the cue ball.
In the previous thought experiment, let’s imagine the cue ball was bounced around on an empty table, and never struck anything.
Now, for Nurture, let’s imagine the pool table is loaded with pool balls, and we the cue balls are struck in a random angle with a random force. Now, every time we strike a pool ball, our direction and velocity change. This doesn’t mean that our lives are no longer pre-determined, this means that the factors which pre-determined our lives were different than initially thought.
This is the great material-rationalist Nihilism of thinkers like Freud. Not only are we mechanistic robots determined by our genetics, but our entire lives are also pre-determined by how we are raised as children. Now, this discussion is far more complicated than that, and there’s of course the discussion of brain plasticity, crystalized vs fluid intelligence, the positive and negative effects of traumatic or highly emotional events, as well as the generally chaotic nature of existence, but these are all just more complicated pool table dimensions, more numerous varied pool balls and the effects that an infinite multitude of other pool games have on each other and on you.
As a brief side note, the only glimmer of hope for Free Will that I personally think we have is our imperfect ability to consciously observe our own game of pool, as well as the games of pool around us, and our imperfect ability to consciously reselect the angle and force our pool ball is struck each time. I don’t subside in a completely nihilistic framework. Anywho, discussion for another time.
How can this be brought back to Hereditary?
Well, there’s something interesting about the name.
“Hereditary” implies genetically heritable traits—Nature.
However, this isn’t really a thing in Hereditary, except perhaps as a subtext.
What is really explored in Hereditary is the family dynamics, relationships, forces, etc., which would fall under the Nurture category.
What is interesting about this is that it adds a sort of new element to the Nature vs Nurture argument (not actually new, really, but it sounds good to say it’ new). It becomes wholly nihilistic in a beautiful way—I love it.
What if Nurture were a part of our Nature?
What if the parental and ancestral forces that shaped our early development were just as inevitable as our genetic nature?
Now, I in essence already stated this, but I think Hereditary goes a step further out of the distinction between Nature and Nurture, and seems to posit that there are non-genetic, non-materially-heritable traits that will inevitably become a part of our Nature.
I love this.
Nurture is not something heritable, it has nothing to do with our genetics.
Hereditary seems to be saying that there is something that is both heritable, in the same sense as genetics, but also has nothing to do with our genetics.
And here we begin to enter a realm of Jungian archetypes, as well as some of the metaphysical implications of Jungian psychology (I told you I’m not a complete nihilist…)
Aion and Eternity
So, here, we need to discuss a concept that I don’t completely understand, but I will do my best to explain my partial knowledge of it.
Aion is a Greek-Hellenistic deity. He represents Time, but not in the sense that a deity like Chronos does. Where Chronos represents empirical time (past, present, future, as well as the segmentation of time (years, months, days, hours, seconds, etc.)), Aion represents unbounded time. Aion, in a sense, represents eternity, or things that are eternal.
This is a somewhat opaque concept, so there’s two ways I’ve thought of to explain it, one of which I’ll bring up later with Jung.
So, imagine a river, and you are standing halfway between the beginning and end of the river (this actually doesn’t matter, but fuck it). Now, the domain of Chronos would be the domain of measuring the river or measuring the relationship between positions on that river. Discussing the distance to the beginning or end of the river would be the domain of Chronos; discussing the distance between any two points along the river would be the domain of Chronos; discussing the regular segmentation or fractionation of any distance along the river would be the domain of Chronos.
Let’s say the river was infinite or eternal. Even discussing the infiniteness of the river would be the domain of Chronos.
However. Discussing the river itself would be the domain of Aion.
The quantitative observation and discussion of time and eternity is the domain of Chronos.
The qualitative observation and discussion of time and eternity is the domain of Aion.
Aion’s domain or representative domain is that of the nature of time and eternity itself, and the nature eternal things within time and eternity (one might say the shape and course of the river).
Aion is also described as the deity of “ages”, or possibly of “eras”, and, from my half-baked understanding of this portion of Jung’s thinking, Aion represents things that exist across time.
Chronos might represent the domain of being able to measure time (or the regular measurement of change across time, since time isn’t real and all), but Aion’s domain would contain the fact that we are able to measure time—a fact that has existed to some degree across much of human history.
Aion’s domain contains the immovable, eternal things that exist not in segments of time, but across time.
My second example might be a large stone that lies at the bottom of a river bed—large or massive enough that its position hypothetically is not moved by the movement of the river. Even as the transient events or changes that take place across and through the flow of time move over the rock, the rock remains in the same position. Its position and existence in space (and, possibly, it’s position and existence in time) does not move or change. It is almost like a wormhole in this sense, except it does not fold space-time through some material dimension—space-time is folded across an infinite number of segments phenomenologically.
Now, of course, Chronos rules materially and rationally, and Aion only rules from a phenomenological perspective, or from the perspective of a conscious observer, and, really, neither rule (but that’s also another discussion).
However, for the sake of this analysis, what matters is this concept of something that exists “eternally” across time.
This, in Hereditary, would be Paimon. Paimon is representative of the non-genetic hereditary traits of a family.
Paimon is the inherited evil of the family.
Eternal Evil in Hereditary
So, there may be deeper significance to “Paimon” in Hereditary than simply as an entity roughly equivalent to the Devil or Satan or whatever, but I don’t think it’s overly important—at least not for this analysis.
The lore behind Paimon is actually a bit complicated (as is most lore behind demonology) is very multifaceted and convoluted, with connections to, like, twelve other religions or cultures besides Judeo-Christianity, and with multiple interpretations from different angles, blah-blah-blah.
The key factor here seems to be that Paimon is evil, demonic, Satanic, whatever you want to call it.
So, Paimon is obviously representative of the evil within the family. It started with the deceased/“deceased” grandmother, and seemed to have rooted itself in other family members. This evil began to spread throughout the family, infecting them, much like forms of abuse or negative behavior can enter a family and psychologically infect them.
Now, there are two important things to note here.
One: near the beginning of the film, a play that I believe to be Women of Trachis by Sophocles is being discussed in Peter’s class. The main theme of their discussion seems to be the inevitable fate of Heracles’ tragic death, and whether or not Heracles’ lack of control over his own death and its inevitability makes it more or less tragic.
Two: Annie, Peter’s mother, designs miniature buildings, homes and other settings, and the opening shot implies that the Graham home is actually one of these miniature homes. This puts Annie in the position of being some sort of architect, grand designer or transcendent manipulator in the Grahams’ lives. We later discover that Annie’s mother—Peter’s grandmother—as the host for Paimon was actually the grand architect or manipulator of everything that happened in the Grahams’ lives. There are even miniature people Annie creates and puts inside her model houses.
So, we have two things here. The first, the tragic inevitability of fate. The second, the maternal manipulation of that fate.
It seems that whatever evil resides in the family, it is passed down from Annie’s side (grandmother à mother à daughter (Charlie) à son/brother (Peter)), and this fate, ordained by Paimon and Paimon’s followers, is inevitable and ultimately pre-destined. Peter was always fated to become Paimon.
Peter lived inside a reality that was preconstructed (the house constructed by his mother, where he was a small figurine she could manipulate), and he lived a life that was pre-determined.
Now, how does this connect back to the previous theme of Nurture vs Nature?
Well, with developmental psychology, there’s the idea that much of a child’s psychology is determined by how they were raised by their parents. People such as Freud might presume that this effect is quite large, and that a child is essentially fated to live with whatever personal effects the child’s upbringing cursed or blessed them with.
There’s also an idea that many are probably familiar with, the cycle of abuse, which is essentially that people who are abused by their parents will go on to be abusive parents, which will cause their children to go on being abusive parents to their children.
While Hereditary doesn’t quite go to this extreme, the parent-child relationships do at times toe the line of abuse, or at least toxic behavior and relationships.
And now, to return to the idea of Aion and eternity, Hereditary might be trying to imply that there is an eternal evil which moves through, or is moved across by, the succession of generations in this family (Paimon theoretically being a god/angel/devil/entity at least a few thousand years old).
Jung would say this “evil”, even if it were purely psychological and not some conscious, spiritual entity, was a thing in-and-of-itself—a psychological force that persisted across time.
The evil in the Graham family is not only a phenomenon of parenting, but an archetypal, psychological force that has persisted across time and existed like a parasite in the relationships of families. No genetics are inherited for this to happen, and this isn’t just an effect of Nurture.
The psychological force they call “Paimon” is an inherited, non-genetic psychological force. It is not a hereditary gene, but a hereditary psychological parasite that infects and destroys the psyches of families it infects.
Paimon is something eternal, something that does not exist in temporal isolation, but across time across the minds of those it infects. As the world spins and burns and fluctuates across decades, Paimon remains, sitting on its throne.
And this is what I can extract from Hereditary.
No, I’m not suggesting there’s actual demons and devils out there that eternally persist across time, but at least metaphorically there seems to be forces like it.
Of course, when you get into the nitty-gritty of developmental psychology, and psychology in general, you find that something like this is really more of a heuristic. Trauma, abuse and psychological development are all very complex topics, and they don’t happen in a cookie-cutter way. However, Hereditary use a symbol like Paimon to simplify a phenomenon like this and demonstrate how abuse, manipulation and toxicity can persist across generations.
Hereditary also asks, “What immaterial phenomena exist eternally? What evils can outlast even the mountains and forests?”
It examines the deeply Jungian idea of a psychological force existing almost individually and distinctly from the rest of an individual’s identity, and of that psychological force being a distinct phenomenon that exists and persists across time because of culture or society. And that is my two cents on Hereditary.
(Also, if you take the “p” and the “m” out of “Paimon”, you get “Aion”… Mind… Blown.)