Essays · Movies

The Familiarity of Grief in ‘Hereditary’

Notes on the elements of maternal grief in ‘Hereditary’ and how it harkens back to that of Sofia Coppola’s ‘The Virgin Suicides.’
Hereditary Grief
By  · Published on June 12th, 2018

It’s said there’s nothing more heartbreaking than the loss of a child, and this nightmare has been the grist for an entire genre of films. Movies examine the various stages of grief, but more often than not these movies look at a mother’s sadness and how this transfers to the children left behind. Ari Aster’s psychological horror movie Hereditary looks at the legacy of motherhood and trauma through Toni Collette’s Annie. But Aster’s grim tale parallels to another highly divergent movie: Sofia Coppola’s 1999 drama The Virgin Suicides. Hereditary’s Annie Graham holds many commonalities to Kathleen Turner’s Mrs. Lisbon in Coppola’s feature, both in their misguided attempts at moving on and the stain it leaves on their surviving offspring.

Warning: The rest of this article includes spoilers for ‘Hereditary.’

Aster’s Hereditary revolves around the legacies of motherhood in its tale of a family attempting to deal with life after the family matriarch has passed. Toni Collette’s Annie is the daughter left behind after her mother’s untimely passing. Annie attempts to deal with her lack of sympathy over her mother’s death but it’s evident their relationship was one already steeped in damage. Annie details a life of death and suicide, leading the audience to question whether Annie has inherited her family’s strain of mental illness. Like the Lisbon sisters of The Virgin Suicides, Annie is haunted by her mother’s skewed depiction of “love,” yet has seemingly come out the other side with a husband, a successful job, and two children. Coppola’s drama about a group of sisters struggling to assert their identity despite oppressive parents in the wake of their youngest sister’s suicide relies on aesthetics, asking if someone is fine just because they look a certain way. As with Annie, the neighbors assume the girls will be fine and their sister “was just going to end up a kook.” Yet it’s impossible to separate this “kookiness” as a means of negating the mental issues that plague the girls. Hereditary’s point is to show that, despite a happy facade, the scars from our parents linger, and the death of her daughter, Charlie (Milly Shapiro) breaks Annie’s already fraught mental state. It destroys the woman she is and unleashes the woman she hoped never to become.

The Virgin Suicides and Hereditary question the nature of maternal protectiveness that manifests through grief. The mania that comes from losing a child leads to all manner of responses in a way that feels like a form of insanity. Mrs. Lisbon’s overprotective nature is already evident from the opening scene, as she instructs daughter Lux (Kirsten Dunst) to cover herself when a boy comes over for dinner. Mrs. Lisbon fears her daughters’ sexuality, exacerbated by the free love era of the film’s 1970s setting. Mrs. Lisbon is described as “very strict,” and though she wants her daughters to bond, she expects to oversee it, such as allowing them to have a co-ed party supervised by herself. Annie, similarly, wants to assimilate the awkward Charlie. When her son, Peter (Alex Wolff) mentions he’s going to a party, Annie demands he take his sister, regardless of whether Charlie wants to go. This is no different than a parent compelling their child to interact with other children, but it illustrates Annie’s need to keep an eye on things; she hopes that by sending Charlie along the two will keep each other out of trouble while simultaneously forcing Charlie towards social interaction.

A parent’s need to let go and give their children independence turns into a nightmare, proving each mother right about the horrors of the outside world. For Mrs. Lisbon, her acquiescence to allow the girls to go to prom goes against all her principles, including letting them ride in a car. Lux’s failure to return home on-time proves Mrs. Lisbon right – the world is a frightening place – and though she fails to see how her own daughter’s suicide happened in the presumably safe confines of her own home, Mrs. Lisbon divorces the girls from life for their own “protection.” For Annie, Charlie’s death is a curse. Annie’s own mother attempted to “get her hooks” into Charlie, and her death so soon after her grandmothers almost seems fated. Annie is also the one to discover Charlie’s body, as she did with her brother when they were teenagers, emphasizing the legacy of death and destruction in Annie’s lineage.

For Mrs. Lisbon, she completely isolates her daughters, keeping them in a bubble far beyond a parental need to preserve their childhood or their virginity. She removes them from school and socializing completely; she forces Lux to burn her rock records after a “spirited church sermon;” she won’t even let them stand outside despite Lux’s pleas that she “can’t breathe” in the house. Her maternal grief turns into a smothering madness to control and protect. For Annie, her resentment of Peter, her surviving child, manifests both verbally and physically. She dreams of telling Peter she never wanted him, and in fact, tried to induce a miscarriage. During an uncomfortable dinner she tells her son she doesn’t blame him for what happened to Charlie but feels this absolution prevents him from showing remorse for what he did. Her grief only brings out the long-buried tensions she has towards her children and the guilt she carries from being resentful of them. When the film’s climax arrives Annie’s grief turns inward, her pain manifests on herself physically, and she becomes the mother she tried so desperately to run away from, culminating with her own suicide. Meanwhile, her children are melded into one entity dominated by anguish as Charlie inhabits Peter’s body, both of which are the doorway for a demonic entity.

It could be said that both mothers start out with good intentions, but their actions are the result of ingrained fears and traumas – Mrs. Lisbon’s terror at losing her daughters to independence and Annie’s at the horror of becoming her mother. As each tries to course-correct they go overboard, leaving their children far worse than they started out. Motherhood can be its own reward, but not for the children of these two.

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