Ari Aster's 2018 debut Hereditary is an unsettling, macabre portrayal of a disintegrating family, reeling under the influence of malevolent supernatural forces. Unlike the conventional James Wan-esque horror genre, which draws its vital force from the supernatural, the primary source of horror and unease in Aster's film is rupturing familial ties and overbearing parental expectations. The entire narrative of Hereditary, I argue, can be viewed as the tussle between two mothers – Annie and her absent-yet-present mother Ellen.
During her lifetime, Ellen Leigh was the leader of a secretive cult that practised occult rituals. She is the dominant mother who casts her ominous shadow throughout, even though the film begins with her funeral. Annie Graham is a reluctant daughter who shared a tumultuous relationship with her mother. This gets established very early in the film, when Annie, in her speech at Ellen's funeral, mentions how her mother was an intensely private woman and could be "incredibly stubborn". Her measured choice of words and restrained tone say a lot about her unease at eulogising Ellen. After the funeral, she asks her husband Steve, "Should I be sadder?" But it is in the group therapy sequence that the tussle between mother and daughter becomes explicit. Ellen used to be extremely manipulative. Annie recounts how she had shielded Peter, her first child, from her mother, but had to "give" her daughter Charlie to her instead. This idea of mothers competing against one another is also the theme of one of Annie's uncanny miniatures where Ellen offers her naked breast while Annie breastfeeds her child.
Annie's motherhood is in question throughout the film. Not unlike her own relationship with her mother, Peter too shares a strained relationship with Annie. The two barely talk, and there is a palpable tension between them. Even Charlie is more predisposed towards her grandmother. After Ellen's funeral, she asks Annie, "Who will take care of me now?" Annie feigns offence and asks, "Excuse me, but you don't think I'll take care of you?" Steve is a gentle, understanding husband but soon we realise that even his and Annie's marriage is fraught with suppressed grievances. Annie divulges during the group therapy session how her family cannot provide her the support she requires since they blame her for everything. We eventually learn about the disturbing incident that had brought about Annie's fall from grace in the eyes of her husband and son: a few years ago, she had tried to kill both her children and herself while sleepwalking. Ever since, her husband and son secretly doubt her maternal credentials. When someone tries to kill Peter in his bedroom, he immediately blames Annie even though she had entered the room to check on him. Similarly, when Peter becomes a victim of supernatural persecution following Annie's séance, Steve implicitly blames her and bluntly declares, "Listen to me, Annie: I have a son to protect." The implication is that, given Annie's 'lack' of maternal protective instincts, he has to oversee the safety of their son.
The truth behind Annie's filicidal attempt becomes apparent in the unsettling nightmare sequence, where we learn that Ellen had imposed motherhood upon Annie: she had never wanted to give birth to Peter and had even tried having a miscarriage. She also explains to Peter that her unconscious attempt to kill him was in fact a protective act, implying that the threat was from her mother. This throws light on the deeply disturbing picture of the Graham family, replete with subterranean anxieties, trauma, grievances and eroding family ties. Annie has always struggled under her mother's stifling shadow. But Ellen was not just a domineering mother, she was demanding as well. She demanded from her daughter control over her grandchildren to fulfil her own motives. Even though she was coerced into having Peter, Annie had resisted Ellen's intrusions into her domain of motherhood. However, with Charlie, she had to give in and hand her over to Ellen who "immediately stabbed her hooks into" her. In a sense, Annie's estrangement from both her children was engineered by Ellen. She is resented by her son who still blames her for the murder attempt; her daughter favours her grandmother over her mother, and doubts whether her mother will look after her. However, there is more in terms of the threat that Ellen poses to Annie's motherhood.
Hereditary charts out the fulfilment of Ellen's sinister plan involving the Grahams. We eventually understand why she was desirous of Annie's children. Charlie was in fact the manifestation of Paimon, "one of the eight kings of hell", whom the cult worshipped. The cult desired her but also needed Peter's body to act as the host for Paimon. The dots add up and we are horrified upon learning why Ellen had forced Annie to become a mother. The cult's covert operations manage to tear apart the family and eventually bring Ellen's plan to fruition. Joan, who is later revealed to be a cult member, exploits Annie's grief over the loss of her daughter and paves the way for the cult's infiltration. After Annie realises the truth, she desperately tries to protect her brood from the threat. She struggles to make her husband aware of it, but fails. The chasm of mistrust is too large to be bridged by even her earnest appeals. Instead, Steve assumes her to be the one behind the exhumation of Ellen's corpse and the other strange occurrences. Ignoring all evidence of the supernatural, he holds Annie responsible for everything, perceiving her to be mentally ill. Annie tries to save her family through one last redemptive act of self-sacrifice. She throws Charlie's notebook into the fire, but it works against her intentions and only furthers the dreadful plan. Subsequently, she gets possessed: completely shorn of her own will, she does not resist anymore and gets reduced to a passive vehicle for carrying out her mother's plan. The dominant mother (Ellen) finally manages to infiltrate her daughter's domain and gain total control over what she had to compete with her daughter for all this while.
It is interesting to note that Ellen's engulfment of her daughter's domain of motherhood involved a two-pronged strategy – not only did her plan undermine Annie's motherhood but also cast further doubts on her maternal credentials in the minds of her family members. As far as the undermining of Annie's motherhood is concerned, every action Annie took out of love and concern for her children was twisted to suit the sinister needs of the cult. Annie believed that summoning Charlie would bring the family together. However, it granted the malevolent forces entry into the household. When Annie threw Charlie's notebook into fire thinking it would save her family, it only expedited Ellen's plan. So technically, Annie was responsible for her family's ruin, even though her intentions were entirely opposite. The dreadful consequences of Annie's actions led Steve and Peter to regard her with suspicion and doubt, which was not surprising given her reputation of being a 'bad', filicidal mother.
Hereditary portrays the burden of toxic parental expectations and how they may be inescapable at times. Annie's struggle to carve out a life independent of what her mother had envisioned for her, is not alien to our society, where parental aspirations and desires loom large in front of any adolescent entering adulthood. We are expected to live up to their demands and let go of any dream or desire that may be contrary to the same. Hereditary presents a bleak scenario in which the imposition of parental desires is shown to be inevitable. Even though the daughter resists, she is eventually subdued and reduced to a passive pawn that carries out her mother's wishes.