By Jossalyn Holbert
Warning this piece contains spoilers!
“Hereditary” and “Midsommar”, directed by Ari Aster, disguise a family drama and a relationship drama under the facade of horror. They demonstrate women’s grief during the most heinous of circumstances, as well as the agency that each protagonist has in facing that grief and finally achieving a sense of peace. Toni Collette and Florence Pugh give stellar performances as women absolving their grief through the most extreme means possible.
In Hereditary, Annie (Toni Collette) faces the loss of her mother, Ellen (Kathleen Chalfant), and her thirteen-year-old daughter, Charlie (Molly Shapiro). Ellen dies of old age and Annie’s son, Peter (Alex Wolff), accidentally decapitates Charlie (Milly Shapiro) on their way to the hospital (Charlie has an allergic reaction to nuts).
Annie reluctantly turns to a grief support group where the audience discovers that she has dealt with death her whole life. Her father starved himself due to schizophrenia, and her brother committed suicide because of the pressure his mother placed on him throughout his life. It is at this group that Annie meets Joan (Ann Dowd).
“Toni Collette and Florence Pugh give stellar performances as women absolving their grief through the most extreme means possible.”
Joan gives Annie the opportunity to access the spiritual realm through a seance, and the audience discovers that Annie is a spiritual medium herself. During her own seance with husband, Steve (Gabriel Byrne) and Peter, she calls Charlie into the real world. This is where it gets hairy. Charlie inhabits Peter’s body, and Annie discovers that her mother was the leader of a Satanic cult that worships Paemon, one of the eight kings of Hell. The film ends with a nativity-like scene in which the cult welcomes worships their king.
Annie gains more and more clarity throughout the film, but by then it’s too late, and the spirit of Charlie/Paemon takes over Peter. He must lose his own spirit with a few violent headbangs, leaving him open to the arrival of Paemon.
“Annie fulfills her duty as a medium between this world and the next, but she also fulfills a duty to herself. Upon the moment of her gruesome death, she is free.”
I believe that Annie has a full arc of grief and resolution, ending the moment she dies. She is possessed in some capacity, it is unclear what, to attack Peter and complete Charlie’s crossover process. However, Annie cuts her own head while suspended ominously above Peter in their attic. Peter then jumps out the window, his body possessed by a mysterious blue light.
While Annie falls into a trance, leading her to attack Peter, she really attacks the main source of that her despair. He is the one who killed Charlie, after all. “I never wanted to be your mother,” she tells him in a dream, and she does what is necessary to rid herself of her sense of devastation.
Annie fulfills her duty as a medium between this world and the next, but she also fulfills a duty to herself. Upon the moment of her gruesome death, she is free. It may not seem like she has any agency, but I believe that her decision to die via decapitation was a choice.
Dani’s (Florence Pugh) story begins similarly, with her sister committing suicide and the homicide of their parents by carbon monoxide poisoning. Both Toni and Florence have an excellent scream cry, portraying their utter and complete despair over the loss of family.
Dani is also in a toxic relationship with Christian (Jack Reynor), who does not respect her and wishes to end their four-year run.
“Aster’s script includes a gaslighting boyfriend with rotten friends who disrespect the customs of the place they visit…These men do not last long, but Dani does.”
Dani ends up following Christian on a trip to Sweden, where they face the generational traditions of a pagan cult. These traditions, in the form of a midsummer celebration, complete with ritual death and pube pies, also involve the sacrifice of seven people. Before this though, the cult crowns Dani as the May Queen, and she blesses their crops for the coming year.
Those sacrifices include Josh (William Jackson Harper), Mark (Will Poulter), Connie (Ellora Torchia), Simon (Archie Madekwe), Ingemar (Hampus Hallberg), Ulf (Henrik Norlén), and Christian. It is Dani who makes the final decision to sacrifice her boyfriend, Christian, feeling a final sense of relief just like Annie does.
Aster’s script includes a gaslighting boyfriend with rotten friends who disrespect the customs of the place they visit. Josh and Christian want to write a college thesis on midsummer rituals, colonizing the people they have come to visit. Mark pees all over the ancient tree where the people of Hälsingland, Sweden lay to rest the ashes of their dead. These men do not last long, but Dani does, and here’s why:
Dani understands the culture around death in Hälsingland. She understands that to fully experience life one must fully experience death. One must witness it and feel disgusted at it. This is what happens when the yellow building burns at the end of this film, full of seven human lives. Dani feels disgusted about it, but she ends her story smiling, free. She ends her grief with a celebration of her newfound life.