The ending of Ari Aster's feature film debut Hereditary owes as much of its ending to horror movies like Rosemary's Baby and The Omen as it does to Greek mythology and mental health. That said, it's not especially cut and dry, so cue the complicated layers of interpretation.

In Hereditary, Annie Graham (played by Toni Collette) is an artist whose mother has just passed away. And though her son Peter (played by Alex Wolff) and husband Steve (played by Gabriel Byrne) appear to be mostly indifferent towards her death, Annie's daughter Charlie (played by Milly Shapiro) seems especially troubled. This kicks off a brief exploration into Charlie's peculiar tendencies (clipping off the head of a dead bird, crafting abnormal creatures out of scraps, being completely nonchalant over the fact that her late grandmother used to breastfeed her) before a series of seemingly insignificant events leads to her untimely death. From there, the movie edges suddenly into the supernatural, introducing séances, ghosts, and the occult into the mix. However, whether or not the specters that appear to be haunting their home are real or just heightened projections of grief, there is very clearly something malevolent inhabiting this grief-stricken family; and whether or not the conclusion of Hereditary feels especially satisfying depends on whichever interpretation of horror the audience feels inclined to follow.

Throughout the movie, Peter's high school English class continually nods to Greek tragedies, drawing obvious parallels to his family's current trauma (in one scene, a Sophocles quote reads, "Punishment also brings wisdom"). So, as their strife eventually reaches its inevitable boiling point, the morbid warnings were already laid on thick. Even with the occasional levity (which is an achievement in and of itself, considering that it follows one of the most traumatic scenes in the history of movies), any shot at hope is dashed away. This movie savors punishment - not only for its characters, but for its audience as well - and the ending alone delivers Hereditary its most unforgiving blow.

Hereditary's Literal Interpretation

By the end of Hereditary, it's revealed that Annie's mother was deeply involved in the occult - namely as a devout worshipper of the demon Paimon ("one of the eight kings of Hell"- and per the cult's mission, she was tasked with helping Paimon manifest the body of a human child. She had attempted to use Peter as a host when he was born, but Annie was far too territorial, inadvertently prompting them to use Charlie instead. However, given that a male host was preferred, Charlie's death (whether coincidental, serendipitous, or somehow divinely induced) worked to the cult's benefit. This prompted the transferring of Paimon's soul into Peter's body, and it required some mortal assistance, which explains the company of fellow cultist Joan (played by Ann Dowd).

What's more is that Annie, who had done her best at keeping her family tethered up until the final few moments of the movie, becomes possessed herself, not only aiding in Peter's death, but in Paimon's resurrection. (Maybe she should have seen this coming, considering the demon's symbol was littered throughout the movie - namely on her and her mother's own necklaces.) Having been tricked into summoning the demon, Annie is sadly revoked of her matriarchal title (a title she only managed to hold onto for a few tragic months, following the death of her mother), and cuts her own head off as a final sacrifice for the greater good (the "greater good" being evil in this case). In fact, the recurring decapitations in this movie suggest that Charlie's death (by way of decapitation) was no coincidence after all, especially given the fact that Paimon's symbol is etched onto the very telephone pole that ends up removing her head.

So, in the end, the villains win. The Graham family is invaded by demon worshippers, Annie's mother successfully brings about the resurrection of a demonic being, even in death, and Paimon's spirit inhabits Peter's body (which is visible by the Jason Goes to Hell-esque light orb entering into his body). All of this echoes heavily of the aforementioned Rosemary's Baby and The Omen vibes, with evil edging out good. That said, the literal interpretation of Hereditary is just as potent as the one that delves less into the supernatural than it does mental health.

Page 2 of 2: A Deeper Look at Depression and Mental Illness

A Deeper Look at Depression and Mental Illness

Underneath the overt horror in Hereditary is a deep dive into mental health. Earlier on in the movie, when Annie attends a group therapy session for individuals dealing with the loss of a loved one, she opens up about her family's history of mental health issues (which appear to be, ahem, hereditary). Not only did her father and brother suffer from psychotic depression and schizophrenia, respectively (both resulting in suicide), her mother suffered from dissociative identity disorder. So, with that said, even the most physical representations of horror (i.e. fire spouting out of candles, apparitions appearing in the shadows) can be symbolizing the side effects attributed to these mental illnesses.

In the end, is Annie possessed, or have her symptoms peaked beyond the point of control? Is Peter so terrified of the sights he witnesses in the attic that he's willing to flee through the third story window, or have his escalating episodes of self-harming resulted in suicide?

What's more is that all of the members of the Graham family can also be interpreted as representing the various ways people deal with grief. From this angle, Annie represents anxiety, mania, and self-blame/unwarranted responsibility. Tragedy overpowers her in such a way that her grief turns into guilt. Instead of accepting the loss, she is in a perpetual state of "fixing." Not unlike the way she hones in on all the minute details of her scale models, Annie can not help but carry the weight of every failure, misstep, and loss without allowing herself to heal and let go. The result is an emotional (and physical) implosion, and all because she was unwilling (or unable) to accept her personal tragedies.

Peter, on the other hand, represents self-harm. Incapable of forgiving himself for an incident completely out of his hands, his pain is more physical than anything else. Whether he's being strangled in his sleep, suffocating on insects, or having his face forcibly jerked onto the surface of his school desk and breaking his nose, Peter's form of grief is represented through punishment. At one point, he even endures the same symptoms of anaphylactic shock that Charlie felt moments before her death, suggesting that if Charlie had to suffer, he should have to suffer too.

And finally, there's Steve. The most distant and reserved character in the movie, Steve represents traditional symptoms of major depression. He's shut off, introverted, irritable, lethargic. He symbolizes a quieter kind of depression - a kind of grief that sits on the sidelines and observes, but it is still debilitating and corrosive.

In a movie as layered as Hereditary, there's hardly a limit on how audiences might interpret it. On one hand, there's the exploration of mental health, but other impressions could easily include a wider scope of topics, like gender politics (sacrificing a female host for the preferred male), nihilism, forgiveness, or even the decline of "traditional family values." Then again, some audiences might simply prefer the literal takeaway: mortals worship demon, demon possesses mortal, Hell celebrates a victory.

The Ending Was (Kind Of) Foretold

As jarring as Hereditary may be, it by no means attempts to pull the rug out from underneath its audiences in terms of how big of a gut-punch it ends up being. In fact, it outright embraces its morbid final act from the get-go - the only condition being that all of its minute details require a strict attention to detail.

In another one of Peter's high school English classes, his teacher says (referring to the characters in a story, but indirectly to Peter and his family as well), "They're all pawns in this horrible, hopeless machine."  No matter how inviting the light at the end of tunnel might appear, it's fleeting. The light will go out eventually, fate will have its due, and no mind-blowing performance from Toni Collette can change that. So, if that quote alone (not to mention all the other signs in the movie, indirect or otherwise) isn't enough of a clue as to what direction this movie is going in well before heads literally start rolling, maybe Hereditary deserves a second viewing after all. It's a daunting task, sure, but giving it another shot may well deliver more satisfying results than the first go-around - so long as you mind your head.

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