Warning: Major spoilers ahead for Hereditary.
Hereditary is the kind of film you need to sit with.
It’s not just that it has a lot of shocking twists, though it does, or that the scares linger in your psyche, though they do. It’s also that Hereditary is dense with details that only reveal themselves upon closer examination and careful thought… or at least a deep dive into an explainer like this one.
Here’s everything you missed in Hereditary.
1. Yes, King Paimon is real
And people really do worship him.
To be clear, Paimon is “real” in the sense that he was not invented by writer-director Ari Aster for this film. Whether you think he’s actually, literally real depends on whether you believe demons and spirits are real. For what it’s worth, mentions of Paimon go back centuries – he’s even included in the 17th century grimoire Lesser Key of Solomon.
“I’m not tied in any way to the occult, so the research was disturbing, but I knew that I had to go there and I knew that I wanted the ritual elements of the film, which are held at a distance and you only get pieces of them, I knew I wanted them to be rooted in something real,” he said to Thrillist. “I was lead to witchcraft manuals that are instructing people on how to cast spells and this and that.”
2. Charlie has never really been Charlie
From the moment we meet her, it’s obvious there’s something off about Charlie. What exactly that is takes a while to reveal itself.
Early in the film, Annie (Toni Collette) explains that when her son Peter was born, she kept him away from her mother, Ellen. When her daughter Charlie was born, though, Annie relented and “gave” her to Ellen. Ellen doted on Charlie, insisting on breastfeeding the baby girl herself, even as she made it clear she wished Charlie had been a boy – because, we later discover, Paimon prefers a male host.
Nevertheless, Charlie’s body proved good enough until the cult could transfer Paimon to Peter’s body. Speaking to Variety, Aster confirmed that not only is Charlie “the first successful host for Paimon,” but that Paimon was inside Charlie “from the moment she’s born.”
“I mean, there’s a girl that was displaced, but she was displaced from the very beginning,” he added. All along, the girl everyone (including us) knew as Charlie was just a vessel for Paimon.
3. Peter isn’t Ellen’s first attempt to find a male host
Peter is the first male host that Queen Leigh (a.k.a. Ellen) has been able to deliver to Paimon, but he’s not the first male host that she’s tried to offer up. Annie mentions in the movie that she had a brother who died by suicide after claiming that Ellen had tried to “put people in him.”
Annie apparently assumes this was a symptom of his schizophrenia. In retrospect, it seems obvious that Ellen was trying to give him over to Paimon. When asked by Variety whether Ellen had had kids just for the purpose of those rituals, Aster agreed that the film “suggested” as much.
But why does Ellen make such a fuss over her son and her grandson, when there’s another healthy male body – her son-in-law’s – right there for the taking? The title seems like a clue: It’s hereditary. Steve is not related by blood to Ellen, and therefore unsuitable in some way for the Paimon transfer.
4. The writing was on the wall the whole time
Throughout Hereditary, the camera draws our attention to mysterious words scratched into the Graham house walls, including “satony,” “liftoach pandemonium,” and “zazas.”
The film never explicitly explains what the words mean. However, “satony” seems to be a word used in necromancy; “liftoach” is Hebrew for “open”; “pandemonium” could be understood as its common definition (“chaos”) or as the capital of Hell in Paradise Lost; and “zazas” seemingly refers to a demon who’s frequently conjured by Ouija boards.
If only we’d been able to understand the words while watching the movie. We’d have been tipped off to its twists and turns much earlier on.
5. Charlie’s beheading is by the cult’s design
Charlie’s death is one of Hereditary‘s most startling twists, and it’s all the more upsetting because it feels like one no one could’ve possibly seen coming. Not the Grahams, who just wanted Charlie to have a nice time at a party, and not the audience, who were primed by the marketing to see Charlie as a lead character.
But it’s not entirely random, as confirmed by Aster in a Q&A. “That was not as much of a freak accident as it might seem when you’re watching it for the first time,” he said, according to Inverse.
Looking back, the clues were all there. The symbol that we later learn is King Paimon’s is emblazoned on the pole that decapitates her. It’s also notable that Charlie’s beheading is echoed by her female relatives: Annie is also beheaded later on, and Ellen’s head is removed from her body by the cult members who dig up her grave.
6. Steve has professional experience with mental illness
Whereas Annie’s experience with mental illness is personal (it runs in her family), Steve’s is also professional: He’s a therapist. His choice of career corresponds to his role in the family as well. While everyone around him is falling apart, he’s the one trying to provide stability and emotional support.
That connection was clearer in earlier versions of the story. Collette told The Washington Post that originally, the idea was that Annie was once Steve’s patient. However, that detail was eventually cut from the film.
Still, it’s easy to see that queasy dynamic at play in their relationship in the movie – or understand how, as Aster put it, it might lead to Annie feeling “not quite comfortable in her role as a mother or a wife.”
7. The cultists tried to get Annie through the mail first
Ellen’s friend Joan is the one who ultimately gets Annie involved in the cult’s dealings. But that was actually plan B. Earlier in the film, we get a shot of the Grahams’ mail slot. There’s a stack of envelopes, indicating that the post office has already come by. Then an unseen someone slips a pamphlet on top of the pile.
The pamphlet advertises a psychic medium, and encourages skeptics to come check out the phenomenon for themselves. The Grahams don’t give the pamphlet much thought – so Joan becomes the one to deliver the message. She “accidentally” bumps into Annie at the craft store, where she gushes about the séance and pushes Annie to try it herself.
8. The Grahams have a lot in common with their miniatures
Throughout Hereditary, Aster employs various tricks to make the Grahams look like figures in one of Annie’s dioramas. The camera might zoom into a dollhouse that transitions into the Grahams’ home, or sink below the ground to make the Grahams look like they’re inside a terrarium.
According to Graham, that’s meant as “a potent metaphor for the family’s situation.” He told The Washington Post: “They have no agency, and they’re revealed over the course of the movie to be like dolls in a dollhouse, being manipulated by these outside forces.”
And they are outside forces, to be clear. Although audiences might suspect at first that Annie is the one tormenting her own family – perhaps while in a sleepwalking fugue – Aster confirms it’s Joan the cult that are pulling the strings. “You are supposed to feel through the film that there are people on the periphery that are watching this family and are hovering just outside,” he told Vulture.
9. The Grahams were always headed for this fate
To Annie, Steve, and Peter, the events detailed in Hereditary seem not just unforeseeable, but completely unthinkable. In actuality, Aster said, “This is absolutely inevitable, the family has absolutely no agency.” He added, “Any control they try to seize is hopeless.”
We are all products of families we didn’t choose, histories we don’t know, and circumstances we can’t control.
That helplessness extends to their apparent screwups. Annie’s decision to cast the spell may move the cult’s plans forward, but “it would’ve happened anyway,” said Aster. “We’re seeing one of the ways it could play out.” In other words, even if she’d avoided that trap, her fate would’ve caught up with her in some other way.
As Aster sees it, Hereditary is “a story about a long-lived possession ritual told from the perspective of the sacrificial lamb.” The Grahams are props in a scheme they can’t grasp, set into motion years ago by forces outside their comprehension.
Which sounds dark at first – but in fact, just makes them like us. After all, we, too, are products of families we didn’t choose, genes we didn’t select, histories we don’t know, circumstances we can’t control. All we can do is hope that our grandmothers haven’t promised our bodies as vessels for demon kings addicted to beheading.
With research and additional reporting by Jess Joho.