This article discusses suicide. It also contains spoilers for Hereditary.
On June 8, A24 released Hereditary, a Sundance competitor from Ari Aster. The much-hyped horror feature has already recouped over three times its $10 million budget and marked the highest-grossing opening of any A24 film. This is a staggering debut given Hereditary’s narrative: The film’s plot gets rolling following a grisly child death, and its experimental, Satan-worshipping story, though compelling, can be difficult to follow. Critics are divided as to what Hereditary is even about—is it a straightforward paranormal tale, or an allegory for familial mental illness?
The film is somewhat at odds with itself. As its melodramatic first half leads to a ghoulish denouement, it can feel like Hereditary is unsure of its own genre, but it is consistently wrenching, as the family in the film collapses under the weight of their shared suffering. Hereditary does not just depict a family undone by mental illness—its subjects ultimately fall victim to their shared inability to speak about emotional trauma.
Hereditary kicks off with a funeral: The estranged mother of Annie Graham (Toni Collette) has died, and Annie is stumbling her way through a eulogy that describes the deceased matriarch as a woman with “private rituals, private friends, private anxieties.” The eulogy makes clear that her mother’s apparent chilliness and secretive nature was part of the rift between them, and Annie is determined not to repeat history with her 13-year-old daughter, Charlie (Milly Shapiro).
The night of the funeral, she encourages Charlie—who she notes never even cried as a baby—to allow herself catharsis; similarly, Annie’s husband, Steve (Gabriel Byrne), asks their teenage son, Peter (Alex Wolff), if he’d like to talk about the difficult day. The children answer their parents with silence and a shrug, respectively—the film’s first warning that, despite their parents’ efforts, it might be too late for the kids to find their emotional voices.
Indeed, Annie and Steve consistently model repression, internalizing everything from spooky night visions to grave desecration. Annie lies to Steve about attending a grief support group where, although she shares, her monologue is couched in sarcasm. “I have a lot of resistance to things like this,” she explains to the group before saying her mother’s death “wasn’t a huge blow.” Familial backstory revealed in that same speech sheds light on Annie’s trauma: A psychotically depressed father who starved himself to death and a schizophrenic brother who hanged himself preceded her mother’s death, whose preexisting dissociative identity disorder worsened before she died of natural causes.
Annie rattles off that history like a grocery list, only occasionally wavering. “I just don’t want to put any more stress on my family,” she admits at the end. “I’m not even sure that they could give me that support.” The film puts that hypothesis to a gut-wrenching test when, after a series of harrowing mistakes, Charlie is killed in a freak accident. Where the death of Annie’s mother was uneasy for the family, Charlie’s death shatters it, with Peter and Annie particularly immersed in guilt and sorrow.
A few outbursts aside, their family history of internalizing tragedy prevails: Though Peter witnesses Charlie’s death, he stomachs it silently, leaving Annie to discover her daughter’s body; Annie’s own unbridled grief quickly gives way to numbness. She and Steve both muffle their emotions with pills, while Peter has to steel himself, fists clenched, before he can walk through his own front door. And though he’s ill-equipped to deal with his increasingly haunted wife and son, Steve does hint at Annie’s history of mental illness in a message to her former psychiatrist (“I’m worried that Annie may be on the verge of, or in the MIDDLE of…”), but with his note unfinished, viewers are left to try and fill in the blanks of Annie’s past themselves.
The literal destruction of their grieving family unfolds with dreadful inevitability, as both Annie and Peter ultimately die by their own hands. Their deaths, despite paranormal influences, can be interpreted as suicide, in light of the film’s overt references to mental illness. Despite ever-evolving diagnoses and new forms of therapy, the stigmatization of mental illness in our society is alive and well.
Though Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain’s tragic deaths recently brought suicide back into the national conversation and, according to a recent CDC study, suicide is the 10th most common cause of death in America, the subject—when not being glorified or sensationalized in shows like 13 Reasons Why—is still taboo. As Kat Kinsman, who in the wake of Bourdain’s death wrote about the food industry’s culture of stoicism for Food and Wine, put it: “…You either have to deal with the slightly uncomfortable situation of having your line cook cry in front of you, or you cry at their funeral.”
Across all classes and all industries, we have engendered a society that’s so uncomfortable with negative emotion and that so stigmatizes mental illness that some of us would literally rather die than reveal that we don’t know how to navigate our pain. Though gently helpful reminders about crisis lines and sliding-scale therapists follow high-profile suicides, survivors often push back against the idea that the burden of reaching out for help should lie solely on depressed people. As Mark Rowland wrote for the UK’s Mental Health Foundation, we “need to cultivate a culture where it’s okay to not be okay.”
We know logically that emotional repression can augment sufferer’s mental health difficulties, leading them to experience social isolation, increased aggression, and possibly even early death. And even though Hereditary is, explicitly, a horror film, it’s particularly jarring to see such a realistic progression play out for its characters, who swallow their grief until it overtakes them.
Ari Aster couldn’t have predicted that Hereditary would be released at a cultural moment in which suicide looms so large, but he has asserted in interviews that he “wanted to make a very serious meditation on grief and trauma and the corrosive effect that trauma can have on the family unit” and that “as I was pitching [the film], I was describing it as a family tragedy that curdles into a nightmare.” Regardless, the film’s chilling lesson is timely: When we cultivate societies, families, and institutions that encourage the suppression of messy emotions, our lives become terrifying even before any gory visions and demonic possessions enter into them.
In the end, despite all its spooky marketing, Hereditary is a fable about generational silence in the face of mental illness, where the moral of the story is so dark and visceral that audiences feel compelled to look away.