Brent Vickers
10 min readJan 14, 2023

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THE THEOLOGY OF HEREDITARY

OVERVIEW:

Hereditary was released in 2018 to roaring critical and box office reception.
The film stars Toni Collette as Annie, a woman grieving the loss of her mother
in the beginning of the film and the reigning matriarch of her family now.
Co-starring Gabriel Byrne as her sensible husband, Alex Wolff as her
eldest child, Peter, and newcomer Milly Shapiro as her daughter, Charlie.

As the film progresses, it goes from a family drama centering around mental
illness and how to cope with extreme grief into a supernatural occult thriller
with horrifying tenacity. While off-putting to many theater-goers, the (literally) psychotic and tumultuous ending of the film has captured everyone who saw it--whether it was sold on them is another discussion.

SPOILERS FOLLOW:

Beginning and ending with a funeral, the first act of this film plays out almost like a sort of grief-porn, family drama. Riddled with dialog referencing trauma and mental illness, the film sets itself up--one may even say from the title alone--as a film about the horrifying consequences of hereditary mental diseases. In the film they are specifically DID (Dissociative Identity Disorder), bipolar disorder, psychosis-induced depression, and somnambulism. The set-up of course is to lend to the film being interpreted either literally, or as
a metaphor for hereditary mental illness--it should be no surprise that the movie is best read through both lenses.

While beginning with the funeral of Annie’s mother, the end of the first act
is a jerk of tension and subverted expectations. The film’s distribution company, A24, purposefully marketed the piece as a spooky little kid movie, however with the closing minutes of the first act we get the death of Charlie, the supposed spooky daughter, in a jaw-dropping asphyxiation and decapitation scene. The process of grief has been heavy throughout the film, but after this scene it is apparent that the real awfulness pervading the movie has only just begun.

Marking exactly through the halfway point, we are given our first real glimpses of the occult, however the symbolism of the rituals have been featured subtlety in a litany of scenes preceding this one. The character of Joan (played masterfully by Ann Dowd) is a calming presence in Annie’s life whom she met in a grief counseling group therapy session. Joan convinces Annie that she no longer has any grief as she is able to communicate with her dead grandson through a seance, and that she can show and teach Annie the seance so that she may speak with her mother or, more specifically, her daughter.

The first seance scene is driven with tension as well as hopeful tears--and a fair amount of scares. Joan sets Annie off with a candle and instructions on how to perform the ritual herself (which we’ll get into a bit further down) with terrifying results following. After a number of atmospheric and tension-driven scenes, we arrive to the resolution and denouement of the film which spiral out of control into an occult nightmare reminiscent of Rosemary’s Baby or more recently, The VVitch. Annie slowly devolves into madness while the mystery of the supernatural occurences of the film slowly unravels into a nightmare for their entire family, but more than anyone it is the son, Peter, who is mentally and physically assaulted until, like the aforementioned films, the occult comes out on top with their mission and a new vessel for which
to worship their demonic master, King Paimon (pictured below).

KING PAIMON:

Paimon appears in myriad grimoires and occult texts dating back to pre-Abraham Islam. Originally a djinn and god of the desert, Paimon appears as a demon most notably in The Lesser Key of Solomon, an ancient text broken into 5 books detailing demons, angels, and all things occult in Abrahamic religion. While generally appearing as a man with the legs of a bird, usually a duck or an owl, Paimon also appears sometimes with the head of an owl or other bird as well--while also riding a camel--which explains the many bird motifs and Charlie’s obsession with birds. Notably, the scene in which Charlie cuts the head off of a bird that flies into her classroom window in order to use as the head of one of her many statues that she builds, later revealed all to be statues of King Paimon..

Paimon appears as the ninth demon in the Ars Goetia section of Solomon’s Lesser Key and is described as follows:

“...a Great King, and very obedient unto LUCIFER. He appeareth in the form of a Man sitting upon a Dromedary with a Crown most glorious upon his head. There goeth before him also an Host of Spirits, like Men with Trumpets and well sounding Cymbals, and all other sorts of Musical Instruments. He hath a great Voice, and roareth at his first coming, and his speech is such that the Magician cannot well understand unless he can compel him. This Spirit can teach all Arts and Sciences, and other secret things.
He can discover unto thee what the Earth is, and what holdeth it up in the Waters; and what Mind is, and where it is; or any other thing thou mayest desire to know. He giveth Dignity, and confirmeth the same. He bindeth or maketh any man subject unto the Magician if he so desire it. He giveth good Familiars, and such as can teach all Arts. He is to be observed towards the West. He is of the Order of Dominations. He hath under him 200 Legions of Spirits, and part of them are of the Order of Angels, and the other part of Potentates. Now if thou callest this Spirit Paimon alone, thou must make him some offering; and there will attend him two Kings called LABAL and ABALI , and also other Spirits who be of the Order of Potentates in his Host, and 25 Legions. And those Spirits which be subject unto them are not always with them unless the Magician do compel them.”

Within the context of the film, Paimon functions more or less like any other demonic entity in film, but to little detriment to the overall story. The purpose of the cult is exactly what is outlined in the above passage: they simply wish to harness a male vessel for Paimon in order to exact riches and knowledge from him. Once he is pleased with their tribute and their work is complete, they will be rewarded. Given the ending of the film, we are only led to believe that this will work exactly how they intended, though we are given no indication on how Paimon has received their host and tributes.

While it is never specified in the movie, the three heads of the three women serve no real historical significance with Paimon that I could find, but instead appear as simply a great framing motif for the closing moments of the piece. Alternatively, they could be explained away as tributes or sacrifices, which keeping in custom with the occult, most greater entities in these scenarios would require some sort of offering in order to commit fully to the ritual and in return give offerings of their own. In fact, the rituals themselves play out either as usual Hollywood supernatural scenes with elements of hidden layers and meaning, however most of it through a theological or anthropological or even a linguistic lens is all gobbledigook.

RITUALS, PHRASES, AND LANGUAGES:

As an occult horror film, Hereditary relies on its rituals and archaic languages to meddle with the audiences fright and to add a sense of legitimacy to what we’re seeing. In reality, a good 50% of what we see in this film, we’ve seen in other films, and these rituals are pretty by the book in terms of amateur conjurings. However, the other 50% of what we’re given are invented specifically for the universe in this film and would likely not result in a conjuring whatsoever (if you believe in this sort of thing).

The phrases in the film are filled with references to past Abrahamic religious languages, and it’s probably no coincidence that all of the languages used in the film come from countries where Abrahamic religions originated. As stated above, Paimon comes from an ancient pagan religion in Persia that predates Islam, and he was co-opted into the Abrahamic mythos as a demon and one of the kings of Hell. There are also references to numerous other languages that fall within this umbrella of religious influence.

The phrase spoken by Annie to invoke the conjuring of Charlie is “Satony, Zazas, Liftoach Pandemonium” which sounds fancy and spooky, but really is nothing but nonsense. Let’s break it down:

Satony: While this word doesn’t have any true meaning that I can find, the only real reference that is known of this word is within that of Necromancy. This word is one of many said in a spell to dispel a ghost or spirit from its host when completing a necromantic conjuring. The exact spell is: Go, Go departed shades by Omgroma Epic Sayoc, Satony, Degony, Eparigon, Galiganon, Zogogen, Ferstigon. I License thee to depart unto thy proper place and be there peace between us evermore (found at this angelfire site (among other sources such as the Grimorium Verum) that is somehow still operational). Given the spell, one can surmise that this is the name of a necromantic entity, though little else is available on the origins of the words from what I could find. Further and likely more difficult research is absolutely required.

Zazas: This word brings us inevitably to Aleister Crowley, as this was a word he would commonly use in his invocations, as well as a word he would use to sub out for various demons’ names that he may be conjuring. The source is likely from Pazuzu, who if you are familiar with horror films was the demon featured in the Exorcist, and is also one of the demons in the Ars Goetia as well as a pre-Abrahamic pagan god. The story goes that he conjured a specific entity called Choronzon using the invocation of “Zazas Zazas Nasatanada Zazas,” however it is well-documented in Crowley related texts that he used this word to invoke many different elementals, spirits, and other various occult entities. For more on this specific subject, I highly recommend the Last Podcast on the Left’s episode on the Left Hand Path of Magick.

Liftoach Pandemonium: This phrase is linguistic nonsense as the first word is Hebrew and the second was created by Milton in his epic poem Paradise Lost. The word “liftoach” roughly translates to: “to open or unlock” while “Pandemonium” is where Satan Lucifer creates all the beings demonic like himself in Hell. The phrase somewhat coherently translates to “open for all the demons” which works within the context of the film, however it’s just one demon we’re opening for, and that demon wants his male vessel: poor Peter.

PETER’S DEVOLUTION:

Let’s get the on-the-nose references out of the way: Peter is the rock. Peter is a saint. The Peter of Hereditary is neither of those things at first, but in hindsight he is both the rock on which the entire conjuring of Paimon lies and he is greatly humbled by the end of the film, just as Peter was humbled before his untimely death. It is
unfortunate we didn’t get a dope upside-down crucifixion, but I assume the film had no real motives of naming him Peter other than the vague biblical reference.

In the beginning of the film Peter is a typical teenage high schooler: he disassociates from his parents and his school work, he loves getting stoned, and he pines after the girl in his English course. Interestingly, they are studying Euripides in the English class, but this has little to do with our discussion here. It is only after the accidental beheading of his sister that Peter begins to unravel and follow suit with his mother in becoming increasingly unhinged and hysterical, though Peter’s devolution is much more subtle and nuanced than Annie’s leading performance.

Peter serves as a true foil to Annie in the process of their grief over Charlie. Both had some part to play in her death, with Peter being the one who drove the car while she was killed, and Annie forcing him to bring his sister to a party she didn’t want to be at, equipped without an Epi-Pen, where she began to have an allergic reaction that would have likely resulted in her death regardless. In an infamous dinner scene, Peter and Annie have a convincing back-and-forth, both shoving blame on the other and neither accepting their part in the tragedy. This scene perfectly displays Peter’s foil to Annie as Wolff plays Peter solemn, quiet, and despondent while Collette’s performance is focused and manic. Both have the exact same tragedy to grieve over and both do so in compellingly opposite ways. Then of course there’s father Gabriel Byrne who is the everyman stuck in the middle of all this chaos and just trying to make sense of it all before being burned alive.

Peter becomes increasingly adolescent throughout the film as Annie’s mania increases. He goes from independent stoner, to sobbing like a child, to eventually uttering two fantastic final lines: “Mommy, mommy, mommy…” and “Wake up, you’re dreaming, wake up…”

In just under two hours we have seen this character fall from affable shithead teen into his most infantile state, mumbling to his mommy and slapping himself in the face as his only means of defense, only to have him fling himself out of a window and become the next vessel for King Paimon, who finally has the male host he has so desired.

FINAL THOUGHTS:

My initial viewing of this film left me shell-shocked and wanting more. I saw it three times within two days in the cinema. I hailed it as a masterpiece of horror cinema and said it will be looked back on as one of the greatest films in the genre, especially from this century.

Just over one year out and I stand by this assessment. Gabriel Byrne could’ve been utilized much more but it wouldn’t really have added anything to the overall plot. Suspension of disbelief is very much required for this one. I wouldn’t call it as scary as I would unsettling. I still highly recommend it.

8.5/10

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