This article contains massive Hereditary spoilers.
So once again, it’s fair to say that if someone tells you to read words in an unknown language while performing a ritualistic séance, you always say nope. Or at least that is one of the many things to take away from Ari Aster’s relentlessly creepy Hereditary, a hellish marriage of The Exorcist, Rosemary’s Baby, and just genuinely bizarre weirdness.
The new film includes an ending that is pretty straightforward considering that Ann Dowd’s Joanie is on hand to explain to the possessed body of Peter that he is now the newly reborn “King Paimon,” but you might be going… who the hell is King Paimon and how did we get there? Well, in essence, the film is an enormous ritual performed in order to move Paimon’s spirit from Charlie, Peter’s bedeviled little sister, into Peter’s body. Only in retrospect does it become clear from the very beginning, everything was part of a process that was years, or potentially even decades, in the making. Peter and Charlie’s grandmother always intended to use her descendants as a vehicle to bring her coven of witches’ preferred demon into human flesh.
When Den of Geek correspondent Don Kaye spoke with writer-director Aster, the filmmaker confirmed that he views the film as an elaborate ceremony in which the main characters, and thus the audience, are cattle being led to slaughter.
“The film is really dramatizing the last part of this long lived possession ritual, but it’s just told from the perspective of the sacrificial lambs,” Aster says. “So we are with the family in their ignorance of what’s happening—although I do hope that there is a more sadistic knowing perspective at play as well. It should all feel inevitable, but the audience is with the family in their confusion.”
Indeed, much of the film intimates that on an intrinsic level, Toni Collette’s Annie understood who her mother was and what would happen next. When the film begins, Annie almost sneers at her mother’s “secret friends” and their secret rituals while giving an ostensible eulogy. And as she later unspools in pieces during her one group therapy session, she knew her mother was manipulative and thus feels responsible for what happens with letting this woman back into their home. She wouldn’t let her mother near her first child, Peter, but the late matriarch returned to live at home with them when she was pregnant with Charlie. Annie then uses the literal words, “I gave her Charlie.”
On a subconscious level, she always suspected her mother would be their ruin, hence her heavy guilt; she surrendered Charlie as a sort of appeasement to protect the rest of her family. Yet Charlie was not what her mother really wanted.
It is not clear when Charlie became a vessel for King Paimon, who is described in the film as one of the eight Kings of Hell and King of the West. However, my guess is that it must have occurred even before Charlie’s birth, as her mother and her coven would not have wished to bestow Paimon into the body of an infant girl when apparently the desire was always to have a male vessel.
Ergo, it seems like Charlie was possessed in the womb, and Annie carried to term a demon spawn, much like Mia Farrow in Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby. In fact, there are many similarities between Rosemary’s Baby and this film. In both pictures, a family is consumed by the wicked practices of a witchy cult. Whereas it is more direct in Rosemary’s Baby—where the neighbors conspire with a callow husband willing to sell his soul for a successful career, and who then drugs Rosemary to offer her up to Satan’s bed—it is a more circuitous route in Hereditary. The traitor to the family is a mother who apparently suffered from dementia at the end and has died before the story even begins. But well-meaning “friends” like Rosemary’s neighbors and Annie’s new consoling partner in grief, Joanie, are still there to help walk these women to the edge of perdition. Joanie convinces her that saying strange words are summoning Charlie when, in fact, they’re summoning a demon… as they’re one in the same.
It is unclear why Charlie seemed oblivious to her hellish heritage, at least no more so than how Jesus Christ is depicted as initially unaware of his divinity by many sects of Christianity, however Charlie was always doomed. Additionally, and for reasons I am not entirely clear on, a major part of the possession ritual includes decapitation since Charlie, Annie, and her mother are all eventually beheaded. Further, it seems Annie is even knowingly complicit, if not fully understanding of it.
Her desire to burn her children alive, even if it was in a case of “sleep walking,” suggests that she is faintly cognizant of their grim birthrights. She again did not want to have Peter, as she reveals in a dream sequence in the film. She tried to have a miscarriage but he just wouldn’t die. Presumably her resentment of him, even before the death of Charlie, is also informed by this. Even the death of Charlie is inexplicable, as she insists that Peter take Charlie with him to a party where she knows there will be drinking. It is an inexplicable whim in the moment, and one she cannot explain later when Peter confronts her about it.
This could potentially be the act of the coven controlling their fates. As we see in the photographs kept by Annie’s mother, the coven was casting spells on their photographs for years. However, the fact that Annie is forced to behead herself at the beckoning of an evil spirit, and is then laid out next to the headless corpse of her mother in a submissive position of obedience before King Paimon, all would insinuate on a certain level she was participating with her mother. Their demonic devotion is hereditary.
As for why the film used King Paimon, an obscure spirit most known by occultists and presumably the few priests who still practice exorcisms, Aster explained that in pretty straightforward terms to us.
“King Paimon came out of my research. I just didn’t want it to be the Devil again. The Devil is played out.”
Indeed, and like most viewers, I had never heard of Paimon before. A cursory search of the internet gives you some background that all sounds Latin to me. But one interesting element worth noting is that some occultists argue Paimon is a name derived from Mesopotamian mythology and is actually a Middle Eastern goddess in origin. The idea of Western mythology turning a goddess into a demon and a female deity into a male spirit so it could be “king” is an intriguing one. This likewise appears to be intentionally referenced in the film as the Satanists literally will slaughter an entire family just so they can move King Paimon’s body from a feminine vessel to a masculine one. The patriarchy thrives even in the bowels of Hell.
Also on a thematic level, the film is obviously a metaphor for grief. Like so many American families, despite being whole, no one among the four central characters communicates what they’re really feeling or thinking. They just let what goes unsaid pile up in the growing space between them.
So when those unsaid words include trauma—such as the death of the youngest member in the family due, partially, to the actions of her older brother—it can have a transformative and destructive effect. Peter was already distant with his mother before Charlie’s death. After her demise, neither can speak at all with each other. Nor can Annie even confide in her husband, who wants to leave the ugly things better off unsaid. Thus she channels it in her “art,” her grief therapy sessions, and even with the pleasant, smiling witch down the street.
As Aster also said, “The last scene where Peter is made to be a vessel or the host to this demonic entity, that is literally what’s happening, and at the same time there is a metaphor there, because the film is very much about trauma and how trauma can just totally transform a person.”
Peter, like Annie, feels the titanic weight of guilt over what happened to Charlie. Yet he won’t address it or take responsibility for it, so it consumes him whole. It turns him into a shell of the young man he once was, making him something else, darker and lost. And that mark is just as stark as any crown placed on his head.