The ending of Ari Aster's feature film debut Hereditary owes as much of its ending to horror movies like Rosemary's Baby and The Omen as it does to Greek mythology and mental health. That said, it's not especially cut and dry, so cue the complicated layers of interpretation.
In Hereditary, Annie Graham (played by Toni Collette) is an artist whose mother has just passed away. And though her son Peter (played by Alex Wolff) and husband Steve (played by Gabriel Byrne) appear to be mostly indifferent towards her death, Annie's daughter Charlie (played by Milly Shapiro) seems especially troubled. This kicks off a brief exploration into Charlie's peculiar tendencies (clipping off the head of a dead bird, crafting abnormal creatures out of scraps, being completely nonchalant over the fact that her late grandmother used to breastfeed her) before a series of seemingly insignificant events leads to her untimely death. From there, the movie edges suddenly into the supernatural, introducing séances, ghosts, and the occult into the mix. However, whether or not the specters that appear to be haunting their home are real or just heightened projections of grief, there is very clearly something malevolent inhabiting this grief-stricken family; and whether or not the conclusion of Hereditary feels especially satisfying depends on whichever interpretation of horror the audience feels inclined to follow.
Throughout the movie, Peter's high school English class continually nods to Greek tragedies, drawing obvious parallels to his family's current trauma (in one scene, a Sophocles quote reads, "Punishment also brings wisdom"). So, as their strife eventually reaches its inevitable boiling point, the morbid warnings were already laid on thick. Even with the occasional levity (which is an achievement in and of itself, considering that it follows one of the most traumatic scenes in the history of movies), any shot at hope is dashed away. This movie savors punishment - not only for its characters, but for its audience as well - and the ending alone delivers Hereditary its most unforgiving blow.
- This Page: Hereditary's Ending Explained
- Page 2: A Deeper Look at Depression and Mental Illness
Hereditary's Literal Interpretation
By the end of Hereditary, it's revealed that Annie's mother was deeply involved in the occult - namely as a devout worshipper of the demon Paimon ("one of the eight kings of Hell") - and per the cult's mission, she was tasked with helping Paimon manifest the body of a human child. She had attempted to use Peter as a host when he was born, but Annie was far too territorial, inadvertently prompting them to use Charlie instead. However, given that a male host was preferred, Charlie's death (whether coincidental, serendipitous, or somehow divinely induced) worked to the cult's benefit. This prompted the transferring of Paimon's soul into Peter's body, and it required some mortal assistance, which explains the company of fellow cultist Joan (played by Ann Dowd).
What's more is that Annie, who had done her best at keeping her family tethered up until the final few moments of the movie, becomes possessed herself, not only aiding in Peter's death, but in Paimon's resurrection. (Maybe she should have seen this coming, considering the demon's symbol was littered throughout the movie - namely on her and her mother's own necklaces.) Having been tricked into summoning the demon, Annie is sadly revoked of her matriarchal title (a title she only managed to hold onto for a few tragic months, following the death of her mother), and cuts her own head off as a final sacrifice for the greater good (the "greater good" being evil in this case). In fact, the recurring decapitations in this movie suggest that Charlie's death (by way of decapitation) was no coincidence after all, especially given the fact that Paimon's symbol is etched onto the very telephone pole that ends up removing her head.
So, in the end, the villains win. The Graham family is invaded by demon worshippers, Annie's mother successfully brings about the resurrection of a demonic being, even in death, and Paimon's spirit inhabits Peter's body (which is visible by the Jason Goes to Hell-esque light orb entering into his body). All of this echoes heavily of the aforementioned Rosemary's Baby and The Omen vibes, with evil edging out good. That said, the literal interpretation of Hereditary is just as potent as the one that delves less into the supernatural than it does mental health.