Hereditary starring Tony Collette and Gabriel Byrne

What Is the Horror Movie Hereditary About?

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**Spoilers for Hereditary ahead.**

Hereditary is getting stellar reviews, but its advertisements, featuring a static family, don’t explain much about the horror movie’s plot. Let’s investigate what’s going on, without giving away all its secrets.

Here’s the thing: I am deathly afraid of horror films but also long intrigued by the genre. I want to know about the movies that are making waves, and I want to help prepare viewers like me who might not know what they’re going into beforehand.

Thus, I have assembled this Hereditary run-down. Depending on your film tastes, it will either whet your appetite or send you running for the hills. (Be careful in those hills.)

The movie, which is currently 92% fresh on Rotten Tomatoes, is getting some incredibly enthusiastic notices. It stars Toni Collette and Gabriel Byrne, both excellent actors who surely enhance the script from writer-director Ari Aster, who makes his feature debut. Milly Shapiro (Matilda on Broadway) and Alex Wolff are also receiving praise for their performances as the couple’s children.

Heredity is partially produced and distributed by A24 Films, the top-notch entertainment company that also worked on movies like Lady Bird, Moonlight, The Witch, and Ex Machina—so I’m inclined to go into this one trusting A24’s taste.

The movie’s synopsis from Rotten Tomatoesreads:

When Ellen, the matriarch of the Graham family, passes away, her daughter’s family begins to unravel cryptic and increasingly terrifying secrets about their ancestry. […]

Ari Aster unleashes a nightmare vision of a domestic breakdown that exhibits the craft and precision of a nascent auteur, transforming a familial tragedy into something ominous and deeply disquieting, and pushing the horror movie into chilling new terrain with its shattering portrait of heritage gone to hell.

As exciting and completely terrifying as this sounds, that’s still a whole lot of question marks around the plot and the kind of scares in store. So, let’s see what the reviews have to say.

“Here’s a haunted-houses movie for the ages,” writes the Wall Street Journal. Great, now we know the house is haunted! Excellent.

“Anyone who tells you that Hereditary will leave you with nightmares presumes that you’ll actually be able to sleep again—it kept me awake long after I saw it,” says Pajiba. Um, okay, great?

KXL gives us more of a plot overview—here’s a good chunk that doesn’t spoil too much:

Aster avoids predictable things popping into view from off-screen with a loud musical note. Instead, he freaks you out with great performances and a subtle plot. Several of the film’s deepest and most frightening scenes come without dialogue. […] Until the climax the ghostly going ons are minimal. Most of the horror comes from a family unable to deal with the death of [a family member].

“For filmmaker Ari Aster, though, the scariest thing in the world is family. Or, more specifically, a family changing,” explains the Globe and Mail, calling Hereditary “a terrifying, pitch-black kind of horror movie that takes up residence in your mind for days, even weeks later – but it is also a family film,” and pointing out, “who hasn’t dealt with ‘difficult’ relatives before?”

The Globe and Mail suggests that it is actually better to know less about Hereditary going in. Perhaps this is why so much of the movie’s marketing has skewed mysterious:

The less audiences know about the exact turning points of Aster’s script the better. While anyone who’s seen The Exorcist or Rosemary’s Baby can see where Aster’s influences lie, it is quite another feat to predict just where his narrative instincts will swerve.

Family is a unit presented in horror movies with the potential for as much terror as ghouls and ghosts; it’s often a particular feature of horror made in America, perhaps because of the cultural value we have historically placed on the nuclear family. (Also, children can be creepy as hell, and parents can be evil and an evil influence.)

Look at The Shining, The BroodDon’t Look Now, Carrie, Halloween, The Texas Chainsaw MassacreThe Babadook, The Witch, and Get Out to name just a few in a big pool—and it seems as though Hereditary has played this trope to great effect. Citing The Exorcist and Rosemary’s Baby would appear to give us even more clues about where Hereditary may be heading.

All I know is that I’m about ready to head for those hills. What about you?

(image: PalmStar Media, A24)

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Kaila Hale-Stern
Kaila Hale-Stern (she/her) is a content director, editor, and writer who has been working in digital media for more than fifteen years. She started at TMS in 2016. She loves to write about TV—especially science fiction, fantasy, and mystery shows—and movies, with an emphasis on Marvel. Talk to her about fandom, queer representation, and Captain Kirk. Kaila has written for io9, Gizmodo, New York Magazine, The Awl, Wired, Cosmopolitan, and once published a Harlequin novel you'll never find.