Hereditary is a horror film by Ari Aster, his directorial debut. The film stars Toni Collette, Gabriel Byrne, Alex Wolff, Milly Shapiro, and Ann Dowd. The film is about a family that is haunted after the passing of the grandmother. While the initial events lead you to guess a straightforward storyline, the plot unfolds to expose the convoluted nature of evil. It is a well executed film along the lines of Kill List. Here’s plot and ending of the 2018 movie Hereditary explained in detail; spoilers ahead.
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Here are links to the key aspects of the movie:
I’m going to run through all the events in the plot linearly, while it removes the element of surprise, it makes it a lot easier to explain.
Hereditary Demon Explained: Who Is Paimon?
Paimon is a powerful demon. He is one of the Kings of Hell. He’s believed to be able to give riches and knowledge. Like most demons, he wants to be resurrected into our world. And the way this needs to happen is through the body of a suitable human. In Paimon’s case, for a stable resurrection, the body needs to be male, for no particular reason. That above is the seal of Paimon which you will see throughout the film.
Hereditary Meaning: What is the Hereditary element in the film?
Grandma Leigh’s family, the direct bloodline, are all suitable hosts for the demon Paimon’s resurrection. Hereditary, in the film, refers to the bloodline’s ability to bring Paimon to our world as a ruler.
Hereditary: Who is the Grandma? What was Grandma up to?
She is no ordinary Grandmother. She’s “Queen” Leigh. Ritualistically, sometime in the past, she was married to Paimon. We aren’t told how or why this was done. As the queen, she is the one who is heading the cult and the followers of Paimon, with the simple objective of bringing him into the world by offering the body of a male who is a direct blood relative (hereditary).
Why did Annie’s Father and Brother die in Hereditary?
Leigh eventually has two children. A son and a daughter (Annie). Leigh gets to work on her son to prepare him over the years to become ready to allow for Paimon to take over. In the film, Annie mentions that her father died from starvation when she was a baby because he had psychotic depression. It is likely that his depression was a result of whatever transpired from Grandma’s rituals on her son. Later on, the son (Annie’s brother) commits suicide. Annie mentions that when he was 16 he hanged himself and the suicide note blamed Leigh, accusing her of “putting people inside him”. As Leigh was preparing her son for Paimon’s arrival, he prematurely ended his life after what was happening to him. This put a roadblock to Paimon’s resurrection. In short, this family does not have a history of mental illness but were plagued by paranormal activity.
What was Grandma’s plan for Peter and Charlie?
Now that the only male host was dead, Leigh needed to wait for the next generation in the family. But by then, Annie and Leigh had become estranged. Annie eventually marries Steve, and her firstborn is a male, Peter. Steve’s family finally enforces a no-contact rule for Leigh, so she had no access to Peter. However, they take away that rule by the time Annie’s second child is born, Charlie. There on, Grandma Leigh prepares the next best conduit for Paimon. She prepares Charlie for the taking temporarily and plans to finally offer Peter. Although I’m not sure how it is possible, Grandma ensures that she even breastfeeds Charlie when she is a baby. Okay, so, lactation is a thing, I’m not sure if milk can be conjured like Paimon. Or maybe it can.
Hereditary: Annie’s Sleepwalking Explained
We’re told that Annie sleepwalks. This seems to be a general condition that she has like many people in the world. She is not possessed or being controlled. The only question is:
Why does Annie try to burn her kids while sleepwalking?
Well, it is possible that at a subconscious level, Annie feels that her kids are in danger. And that there is no real way of saving them. Like her brother, an escape from this is death. This is why, in her sleep, she has emptied a can of paint thinner on her kids and her self and tries to set them all on fire. But as she lights the match, she wakes up. So does Peter. After that, Peter becomes estranged from his mother. In a later scene, Annie explains that she wasn’t trying to kill them, she was trying to save them. This pretty much adds to the theory that she subconsciously knew that her kids are worse off alive.
How did the grandma die?
Well, though Leigh is the Queen and is married to Paimon and everything, she’s still only human and can’t dodge her aging body. Over the years her mind is wholly corrupted by Paimon, she ages, falls sick, and dies.
All of the events so far appear as backstory. This is where the film Hereditary begins – with the death of Grandma Leigh.
Hereditary Movie Explained: The Film Begins Here
We are introduced to the characters of the film – dead Grandma, Annie, Steve, Peter, and Charlie. Annie has taken up miniatures artwork and is creating the shrunk down version of her house for an upcoming exhibition. You can consider that this is an outlet for Annie to exercise power over things because she feels the rest of her life is entirely out of her control. Peter and Charlie are regular kids. The movie begins with the funeral for Grandma, and we are shown her wearing the seal of Paimon.
What’s up with Charlie?
Charlie is not possessed, she’s just your typical kid in that awkward phase of life. Okay, maybe not all that typical because since her birth, her Grandma has been preparing her for a demonic takeover. There is a statement later in the film about Charlie not having cried ever, even as a baby. She draws stuff in her notebook regularly and has a habit of making a click sound. But she’s not yet under the full control of Paimon at the start of the film.
Hereditary: Grandmother’s Letter
This is the letter that Grandma Leigh leaves for Annie:
My darling, dear, beautiful Annie,
Forgive me for all the things I could not tell you. Please don’t hate me and try not to despair your losses. You will see in the end that they were worth it. Our sacrifice will pale next to the rewards.
Annie doesn’t understand the losses that are referred to. She has no idea about the despair that awaits her.
Apparition of Grandma Leigh
After Annie tucks Charlie into bed, she happens to go to her workroom and switches off the lights. She sees her mother. When she turns the light on there is no one. This is to indicate that shit’s about to hit that house.
Hereditary: Writings on the walls
Annie, through the film, notices that there are writings on the walls. Now, these are writings from the invocation spell that are sprinkled all over which is readying the house and the people within to be taken by Paimon. While we are shown a few words, there are possibly writings in places hidden behind furniture.
The Call from the Cemetary – Grandma’s Body
Steve gets a call from the cemetery a week after the funeral saying that Grandma’s grave has been desecrated. This is probably the cult that has dug up her body as it is a vital part of the ritual for Paimon. Steve doesn’t tell Annie about this as he thinks it will make her feel terrible.
Annie decides to join a support group to try and cope with the loss of her mother and her feeling of lack of control. She doesn’t tell her family though, she lies saying she’s off to the movies. Here, we hear her talk about the mental conditions of her brother and parents. We can understand how Annie feels that she too might become mentally sick. But remember, no one in her family had mental issues. It was Grandma Leigh’s acts that were driving them crazy.
Charlie and the Pigeon
Earlier in school, a pigeon flies into the classroom window and dies. Charlie decapitates the pigeon and takes home the head. She sits at home and uses the head of the pigeon to make a weird figurine, a pigeon-headed creature with a crown on its head. This is a foreshadowing of things to come. What Charlie is doing is what will happen to her. We’ll get back to this at the end.
Hereditary: What was the light?
At various points in the film, we are shown a blue light that passes by which certain characters of the film can see. This light indicates Paimon’s control over the person. At this point, we see it for the first time. Since Charlie is the only one who is currently set up for Paimon’s takeover, she’s the only one who can see it. Paimon temporarily takes control of Charlie as she heads outside in a trance. She sees Grandma Leigh at a distance surrounded by fire. Again, all of this is part of the preparation. Charlie is now Paimon’s.
Hereditary: Charlie’s Death Explained. What was on the road?
Peter lies to his mother saying that he’s going to a barbecue event and asks to take the car. Annie sees Charlie wandering off and stops her and takes her home. She forces her to go to the party with Peter. You can see that Annie is frustrated with Charlie’s inability to socialize. At the party, Peter leaves Charlie to mingle and have cake while he joins a girl he fancies to smoke up. The cake happens to contain nuts. We’re told earlier in the film that Charlie is allergic to nuts. The cake causes Charlie’s throat to inflame and she struggles to breathe. Peter rushes out with her and drives her towards a hospital.
He sees a dead animal and loses control of his car. Just then Charlie pops her head out of the window trying to get some air into her lungs. Her head smashes into a pole and is decapitated. I’m not sure how exactly, but this turn of events leading up to the decapitation is the work of the cult. The cake, the dead animal, and nicely timed pole (the Paimon’s symbol is drawn on that pole). As I mentioned about the pigeon before, it was a foreshadow of what was to happen to her.
Why didn’t Peter tell his parents?
Peter is in shock, and he realizes what has happened and is scared to peek into his rearview mirror. He drives home, parks the car, goes up to his room, and lies down in disbelief. In the morning, his parents find their beheaded daughter and are devastated.
Why didn’t Peter go to jail?
Well, Peter didn’t murder Charlie. It was a freak accident. She had an allergic reaction to the nuts in the cake, and he was speeding to get her to a hospital. Nothing for the cops to get suspicious of Peter. However, this does put further distance between Annie and Peter. In the days to come, Peter lives in fear and guilt. He smokes up a lot and hallucinates – feeling his throat swell and seeing apparitions of Charlie.
Who is Joan? What is her plan?
Joan is the second in command in the cult. She and Grandma seem to be pretty close considering the pictures in the album which we are shown towards the end. Grandma has set up the pathway for Paimon, and Joan takes over. Joan’s objective is to gain the trust of Annie and get her to chant the spell to enable Paimon. Annie tries to go back to the support group and there she meets Joan who introduces herself to be someone who has lost her son and grandson. She gives Annie her number and asks her to call in case she needed someone to talk. Joan is lying about her sob story to win Annie’s confidence.
Joan’s Door Mat
Later, Annie goes over to Joan’s place to talk. Outside, she sees a doormat much like what her mother Leigh had made for her. Annie then tells Joan about her dead child and also about the prior incident of her sleepwalking and trying to ignite her kids.
The fight at dinner
That night at dinner, Annie and Peter fight about how it was each other’s fault that Charlie was dead. Annie is unable to forgive Peter because of what he had done, and Peter retorts saying that Charlie would have been safe at home if Annie hadn’t forced her to go with him.
Joan tells Annie about the “medium”
Later, Joan meets Annie outside a store and tells her about a person who enabled her to talk to her grandson. Of course, Joan is lying. There is no medium, there is no dead grandson. She takes Annie back home with her and demonstrates a conjuring of her grandson. She acts like she’s talking to his spirit. In reality, this is Paimon. Joan and Paimon put on a grand show for Annie, and she goes back believing that she can conjure Charlie. The spell she has is meant to enable Paimon into their home, into Peter.
The Nightmare and Ants
Annie has a nightmare where she sees Peter with his head bashed in and being eaten by ants. The dream continues to reveal how Annie never wanted to have her first child and tried to miscarry, but nothing worked. Then both of them are doused in thinner, and Peter lights up. Annie wakes up. These are Annie’s guilt playing out as nightmares.
Annie chants the spell
Annie wakes both Stever and Peter up and takes them to the living room. She has already tried conjuring Charlie using her drawing book. She now says that they have to do it together like a family. The conjuring begins, and we see the glass move, and candle gets manipulated. While we are led to believe that this is Charlie and that she is angry, this is Paimon. For a brief moment, Charlie does enter Annie and is confused as to what she’s doing back in the house. Remember, Charlie is who Paimon is latched on to. It is through her that he will enter Peter. Steve throws water on Annie’s face and causes her to snap out of it.
Hereditary Spell: What language is even that?
Looks like a rendition of the ancient Indian language – Sanskrit.
Annie finds the truth about Joan
Annie goes to meet Joan, but she’s not at home. She notices the doormat again at Joan’s place and gets suspicious. The audience is shown a glimpse of the inside of the house which has a table with Peter’s picture and a bunch of things – including that figurine that Charlie was making. Annie goes back home and scans all of her mother’s belongings to pull out photo albums. These albums show Joan with her mother going through rituals. Annie also finds books with passages related to the conjuring of Paimon.
Peter gets consumed by fear and believes that Charlie’s vengeful spirit is out to get him. He dreams of a pair of hands trying to rip his head off. Peter hears the click sound that Charlie used to make and also sees more apparitions of her. He dreams of Annie trying to pull on his head. At school, Peter sees Joan at a distance calling out to him after which she says “I expel you! Zantany! Dagdany! Aparagon! Peter! Get out!”. This is her chanting the spell to make room for Paimon to enter Peter.
Burning Charlie’s drawing book
Annie believes that she has conjured an angry spirit and thinks she is the one who can end it. She throws the drawing book into the fire. But as the book begins to burn, her hand is on fire too. She pulls out the burning book and puts it out, and the flames on her hand disappear. Annie believes that the book is bound to her.
Grandma Leigh’s dead body in the attic
Annie heads to the attic which is filled with flies. There she finds the headless body of her mother and sees the seal of Paimon drawn on the wall with blood. She freaks out but doesn’t go to the cops.
Peter sees the light
Peter goes into the school and sees the same blue light that Charlie sees. As before, it’s an indication that Paimon is now able to take control of Peter. And on cue, Peter sees his reflection smiling at him. His arm gets raised in the air, and his face is bashed into the desk.
Hereditary: Why did the father burn?
Steve comes home with Peter who is sedated. He’s immensely angered when he finds the corpse in the attic. Steve makes a conclusion that it was Annie who dug up the body and brought it to the attic (but it was not her, it was the cult). Based on the previous pattern of the book burning, Annie assumes that she is the key to stopping what’s happening. She believes that if Steve tosses the book into the flames, she will burn up and die and the entire haunting will come to an end.
Annie couldn’t be further away from the truth. In fact, there is nothing she can do to stop what is happening (other than maybe kill her son); Paimon has taken control. Metaphorically they are as helpless as the dolls in the miniature house. Steve believes his wife is extremely sick and her mental condition needs her to be institutionalized. He refuses to listen to anything Annie has to say, and as a result, she tosses the book into the fire. Unfortunately, Steve is set on fire, and he dies as Annie watches helplessly. Firstly, there is no hard connection between the book and Annie. Secondly, Steve is not part of the bloodline and is expendable. He is not required for the conjuring and merely is burned away.
The Possession of Annie. Who are those naked people?
RIght after, the blue light passes over Annie, and she is possessed by Paimon. Peter wakes up in the night and is wondering what’s going on. He doesn’t see Annie crawling past behind him and goes to the hall where he sees his burnt dad. We see Annie on the ceiling behind him. We also see a naked man – he is one of the cult members, not a ghost. All the members of the cult have assembled at the house because it is time for the arrival of Paimon. Annie then chases Peter, and he escapes into the attic while she bangs at the attic door with her head.
Annie cuts her own head off
Inside the attic, grandma’s body has been moved and a photo of Peter sits in its place. The other members of the cult are also present in the shadows. Right then he sees Annie levitating and cutting off her head. Completely freaked out, Peter does the only thing he can – jumps through a window and falls to the ground.
Hereditary: Did Peter Die?
Well, no. Any body is good for a possession only if the person is still alive. For instance, Paimon could not possess Annie’s brother because he kills himself. So, no, Peter did not die from the fall. Besides, it was a short fall into soft mud. Right after he falls to the ground, we hear a thud which indicates that Annie has beheaded herself. We see the blue light appear and center in on Peter. He wakes up, the ritual is now almost complete. Charlie’s spirit, which is possessed by Paimon, has now entered Peter and has control of his body.
Why does Peter click his tongue like Charlie?
Remember, Charlie is the first conduit prepared for Paimon’s resurrection. He takes control of her soul first. Once Charlie dies, her spirit possessed by Paimon is in waiting. Now that Peter’s body is ready, her spirit enters him with Paimon who can finally transition permanently in the male body that he needs.
Hereditary Ending Explained: What Happened?
Hereditary: Why the heads cut off?
Throughout the film you see people getting beheaded and you’re probably wondering what’s the obsession with decapitation. Well, go back to the picture of Paimon. You see those three heads that he has on the side? Looks like the ritual is completed once three heads are offered. First was Grandma Leigh, second was Charlie, and the third was Annie’s.
The Shrine of Paimon
When Peter (Charlie, Paimon) gets up, he sees Annie’s body float up into the treehouse. He goes up there where all the members of the cult are bowing to Paimon. We see a large wooden figurine with Charlie’s head mounted on top with a crown (much like what she had made with the Pigeon head). In front of that, we see the two headless corpses that are bowing – grandma Leah’s and Annie’s.
Right next to the figurine, we see a picture of Grandma Leigh which reads “Queen Leigh” finally confirming to the audience that she was married to Paimon. Joan approaches Peter and puts a crown on his head and welcomes Paimon saying the following:
Charlie, You’re all right now. You are Paimon, one of the eight kings of Hell. We have looked to the Northwest and called you in. We’ve corrected your first female body and give you now this healthy male host. We reject the Trinity and pray devoutly to you, great Paimon. Give us your knowledge of all secret things. Bring us honor, wealth, and good familiars. Bind all men to our will, as we have bound ourselves for now and ever to yours. Hail, Paimon!
Paimon has been successfully resurrected. The cult has succeeded. The poor family was slaughtered.
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Barry is a technologist who helps start-ups build successful products. His love for movies and production has led him to write his well-received film explanation and analysis articles to help everyone appreciate the films better. He’s regularly available for a chat conversation on his website and consults on storyboarding from time to time.
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