Hereditary emerged from the Sundance Film Festival in January heralded as a surprise horror event, a singularly dark psychothriller that one critic fondly called life-ruining. The movie, starring Toni Collette as a woman who suffers a series of devastating losses that literally haunt her and her family, is filled with upsetting twists and unnerving details that many viewers may be too fried to fully process the first time. So we called Ari Aster, the movie’s soft-spoken 31-year-old writer-director—making his feature debut—to discuss every wonderfully awful moment in spoiler-filled detail. He shared his thoughts on the devil, how audiences are reacting to the movie, and the art of decapitating preteens on screen.
A Slate editor told me he met you at Sundance just before the movie premiered, and when he said it was nice to meet you, you said, “We’ll see if you feel that way after you see the movie.” Does everybody hate you now? Is your family afraid of you?
Ha, my family hasn’t seen it yet. My mom saw an early cut, and she liked it, so let’s see. The nice thing about a horror movie is that people go in looking to be unsettled. I always knew that I was making a film that was potentially very alienating. If anything, it’s been surprising to see it be so warmly embraced by so many people. I was expecting it to be a little more divisive.
One question people will have is whether the movie is all a metaphor for mental illness or if these people just think they’re mentally ill because a Satan crony is trying to possess their kid.
The film straddles both sides, right? I wanted it to function as a serious meditation on grief and trauma and the difficulties of navigating loss. There are clearly references made in the text to mental illness, and there’s meant to be some ambiguity whether the film is about a family following each other into madness or whether it’s, you know—
That’s how I read it, too, but I also thought the movie came down on a pretty clear side of that question.
The movie is trying to have it both ways. Then in the end, there are some clear-cut answers that will either disappoint or satisfy the audience. I think there will be a lot of people who will likely be disappointed by that ending because it’s maybe not ambiguous enough, it’s too clear-cut. I know a lot of people who hate the ending of Rosemary’s Baby and wish that it was left ambiguous.
Those people are wrong.
I can’t imagine Rosemary’s Baby without that ending. I do love the ambiguity in certain films, and then I appreciate the maximalist approach to genre filmmaking as well. Sometimes I just want maximum catharsis at the end of my movie, and by my movie, I mean the movie I’m watching.
At what point do you say to yourself, “I’m going to decapitate the 12-year-old in my first movie,” and then say to yourself, “and I’m going to show a close-up of her severed head covered in ants”?
Well, that was actually the first image that came to me.
There were two images that kind of hit me before I started even thinking about how to build a movie around them. It was that image of what happened to Charlie, and then an image that occurs later in the film, which is basically a mother harming herself in the same way that her child was harmed. I knew I wanted to make a film about grief where the family is basically eating itself in its grief.
Even given that, the scariest part of the movie for me was the sound design and foley. It tore me apart.
There’s a dream sequence where mother and son are talking to each other, but we took out the room tone in the setting so that you only hear their voices. And that was something that was actually in the script, but that’s something that ended up working really well. I know that there is also something that’s actually in the score, but I feel like people will ask about it when they are referencing the sound design—this sort of stark space drone that when you first hear it, sounds as though it may be coming from the theater next door. It’s like this rumbling that you feel in your stomach more than you hear it, and that’s something that I really had fun bringing up in the mix.
We also played a lot with placing sounds with different parts of the theater and in different speakers so there’s a lot of directional sound. There are certain clicks that happen not in the front speakers, but it’ll be one click in the back right or in the mid left and then bringing those down just enough to sound as though they could be happening in the row, in the theater.
And that’s something that will be lost when it’s watched at home
How did you land on Charlie’s tongue-clicking sound? I was listening to the Janelle Monáe song “Make Me Feel,” which has a similar sound, the other day, and now it always gives me chills.
Ha, yeah. It honestly was just a device in the script that has become more of a thing than I expected. The story needed a quick auditory reminder of that character, so it’s not a very juicy answer, but it’s something that came to me pretty quickly, and I’ve been happy to see it’s become embraced, maybe more than I intended.
The movie’s demon, Paimon, is from actual mythology and is evidently a very obedient servant of Satan. How did you find him?
Well, I didn’t want to do the devil again, so it was a matter of me diving into some research and wanting to find something that’s still rooted in some reality. Paimon just came to make sense as I was doing that research.
Did you take from the actual mythology to build out the movie?
Yeah, I did, but I was pretty liberal about what I threw away and what I kept, and I’m sure that will bother some occultists out there. I ultimately have no ties to the occult—
Good to know!
—but there is an etching of Paimon in the book that she’s going through near the end of the film that I actually drew. That is a variation on images of I’ve seen of traditional Paimon representation.
What made you want to tell a satanic panic story now? Most horror movies that touch on it now tend to be more nostalgic, nodding back to the 1980s.
Well, ultimately I wanted to make a movie about, among many other things, how trauma can utterly transform a person, and usually not for the better. For me, the possession movie—somebody becoming a host to something alien, something invasive—that works for me as a metaphor. That was my way in to basically telling a painful story about suffering and at the same time hopefully making a cathartic and satisfying genre movie.
This movie is filled with miniatures—of houses, of naked grannies, of decapitated preteens.
What is it that’s so scary about those things?
Well, I’m glad you feel that way. I think there is something just inherently uncanny about miniatures. Not only in the miniatures but in the production design, we built the entire house on a stage. We built everything interior in the house on the stage, and that was because we were chasing a dollhouse aesthetic so we could remove walls and get the camera far back enough that we could basically warp these people in their environment. And it was also so that we could move the camera in a way that we want to film because most houses don’t have the spaces to really accommodate athletic dolly moves. We had this brilliant miniaturist in Toronto named Steve Newburn who also often did the prosthetics part of the film. He had been replicating these spaces as perfectly as he could.
Nice to know the big severed head and tiny severed head came from the same place. Did you ever expect the movie to be released so widely?
No. But hey, look, it’s my first film. It’s just been a dream come true, and I’m extremely fortunate.
The movie has been rapturously praised by critics, and I think most hardcore horror audiences will love it, too, but there’s something about putting a more cerebral horror movie like this in 3,000 theaters that sometimes has led to mainstream audiences reacting badly. Are you anticipating that?
I’ve been anticipating the backlash for a long time, and whenever there is excessive hype about anything, the pendulum has to swing the other way. This is a film that has on its poster “the scariest film since The Exorcist.” That’s not something I said, and that’s not even something that was on the movie’s mind, but at the same time, I’m grateful for that quote because it’s helped A24 in marketing the film, and it’s piqued interest. But people are coming with expectations that are maybe unfair to any movie, because now they are walking into a film saying, “OK, let’s see if this is the scariest film in years.” Ultimately, I just wanted to make a very good horror movie that told a sad story as honestly as I could without neglecting the genre. It’s been really wonderful to see a warm side of the film industry, but I’m expecting a wave of something else as well.