*CONTAINS MAJOR SPOILERS*
There is a now-famous exchange in the first Jurassic Park between Jeff Goldblum’s Dr. Ian Malcom and Laura Dern’s Dr. Ellie Sattler that is essentially a thesis of the film:
Dr. Ian Malcolm: God creates dinosaurs. God destroys dinosaurs. God creates man. Man destroys God. Man creates dinosaurs.
Dr. Ellie Sattler: Dinosaurs eat man. Woman inherits the earth.
It’s meant to point out, in all its Goldblum smarminess, that creation at the hands of an incapable creator leads to destruction and, therefore, the gift of existence should be placed back in the care of a more capable handler.
In Hereditary, we’re told a similar narrative about our perceived deserved inheritance of the earth, this time with pernicious, misogynistic undertones. When Annie’s mother Ellen heads the founding of a demon-worshipping cult, it is noted in one of their texts that their demon king, Paimon, must inhabit the body of a man to be resurrected.
The reason it must be a man’s body is never explained but is clear in its message: Paimon’s followers believe man to be the capable hands that the earth is given back to. A woman would never be able to do the job, and Ellen decides that Annie’s son Peter is a perfect host for their king, following in her bloodline, and passing over both Annie her daughter Charlie for the sake of fulfilling this prophecy.
Rituals, possessions, and violence are then perpetrated by the cult over the course of the gruelling and disturbing film to bring the spirit of Paimon out of the body of Charlie and into that of Peter’s. Peter is successfully coronated at the film’s end, while Charlie has long since been brutally killed, and the headless, obedient corpse of Annie lays at the feet of Paimon.
It’s a striking and disturbing tale of how women’s bodies are used and discarded for the benefit and reward of men. Endless sequences of emotional and physical torment at the hands of the cult punctuate the lives of Annie and her daughter, all to be forgotten about once the king has been crowned. Annie and Charlie suffer, while Peter is rewarded with a literal crown in the ashes of that suffering. Women like Annie endure pain, death, destruction, and loss and are given nothing for it, though it’s often expected. Their suffering is not even their own.
We want the best parts of our parents to be passed down to us. We want to be born and naturally gifted with the long list of talents, skills, and smarts from the even longer line of relatives that came before us. We want these things without having to actually work for them, too. It’s a form of privilege in heritage that believes us to earn these things because of the surnames on our birth certificates. It’s expected to receive a piece of each of the people that made you possible to exist.
What is passed down in Hereditary, at first, we understand to be issues relating to mental illness: depression, schizophrenia, anxiety. What we come to understand instead, is that the true trait running through the bloodline of the Graham family is burden and starts with Ellen. Annie carries the burdens of her mother’s abuse, her family the burdens that have resulted from this suffering. They give them names of a medical nature and think they understand. They try to get by each day but the burdens are all around them, haunting them where they lay.
And so burden places itself on their bodies, but it lands upon the women the hardest. Annie is forced into motherhood and then, just as quickly, is forced into loss. First her father then her brother and mother, and eventually, her daughter. Her body is given over to the grief. She creates her doll houses and characters that inhabit them to forget. She creates to introduce a new narrative, for control. Charlie is burdened with something she might not yet realize, let alone understand, but it possesses her, moves through her. Her body is barely her own. Peter is gifted with something inherited, but not necessarily deserved. His body is his and it was the end game. In the wake of everything this family has been through, it was the only one that really mattered.
Narratively, it’s an interesting choice. The film is hardly the first to grapple with the idea of a demon baby/mother host scenario (the most famous reference here being Rosemary’s Baby), but exactly the how and why of Peter being the perfect host is an interesting one. Paimon, historically, is depicted as a male figure, so it’s completely understandable that the cult believed in a literal, if not misguided, understanding of how gender plays into their plan. Charlie is a girl, therefore she can’t technically be a king.
But rhetoric in regard to sexist gender roles aside, the question becomes less about why man, and more about why Peter. A burnout with little ambition, Peter is a side note through the overall story as we watch the slow and painful decline of the family. As the film moves forward, we’re told that Peter has suffered some traumas, too. As he was growing up, Annie would sleepwalk through the house and on one occasion tried to burn her son alive. This has traumatized Peter we’re told, and is somewhat the cause of him being a bit checked out. But unlike the other family members like his mother and sister, Peter is struggling because of something specific that happened to him, whereas Annie suffers because she is a woman and, worse, a mother.
We’re confronted with Annie’s past and traumas in a way that is framed specifically around her motherhood, not as individual instances of abuse. We’re reminded that she can be tough, that her relationship with her own mother was a challenge, that she prioritizes creating and her career. As the film unravels their lives further, she suffers the loss of a child in Charlie. She is heartbroken, distant. She retreats further into herself and her madness. She admits in a moment of panicked vulnerability that she never wanted children. This is treated like the ultimate sin, a whisper of something dark and terrible a woman should never admit to. Her character is framed to us consistently as being a bad mother, though we can understand it as her just trying to do her best. It’s never good enough.
And so Peter is crowned because he is presumably good enough, but with absolutely no founding. Annie and Charlie were both smart, capable women, but for Paimon they were just bodies to be used and thrown out. Vessels to carry out his deeds while Peter inherits the throne. Everything passed down; the suffering, the death, the destruction, all was in service of bringing a king to its body. It’s a perfect metaphor for something the modern woman understands too well: the lesser qualified dude is the one getting the promotion over the more qualified and deserving woman. It’s an arbitrary rule by the people in power who want to keep that power. What is passed to Annie and Charlie is pain. What is passed to Peter is the whole kingdom.
And of course, that’s the end game here. The patriarchy expects the suffering of women for the gain of man. For the followers of Paimon, they believed it to truly be for the gain of all mankind. Annie’s mother tells her in a note that her sacrifices will be “worth it.” As the world crumbles and burns around her, Annie is reminded that she doesn’t know what’s best in her own home and that her suffering is for a greater good. A mother’s job is to suffer for her children above all else. Her life is not her own just as her suffering is not.
But really that’s the most pernicious thing about the patriarchy and misogyny in general in Hereditary: women are the greatest perpetrators of it. It’s a clawing, endless thing that you believe to be good for you but is really tearing you up from the inside and you happily welcome it in because it treats you well and makes you feel like you’re powerful. Annie’s mother was the biggest puppet master in this tale of misogyny and women like her will always be, so long as our burdens lead us to believe that’s all we’re good for.
For a smart and capable woman to do the biddings of a man at the relinquishment of her own self is exactly how the patriarchy takes and regains its power. It can’t survive without the fuel of the exact people it victimizes. In the biggest ironic sense, it needs women as much as it needs to discard them. So long as women’s bodies are our demonic playthings instead of our leaders and heroes these ideas are passed down and the cycle continues. Demon eats woman. Man inherits the earth.
by Allison Valiquette
Categories: Feminist Criticism