Joined by our friends Captain Nostalgia and Black Nerd Magic of the Victims and Villains Podcast, Ghouls talk about Ari Aster's Hereditary. How does the film hold up when we wear our media-analysis glasses and how does it make people feel about inheriting mental illnesses?
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Creator: Ari Aster
Summary by IMDB: A grieving family is haunted by tragic and disturbing occurrences.
Hereditary: Inheriting Mental Illness & Becoming Your Mom
by Gabe Castro
RED: Quotes, someone else's words.
It’s not a secret that the Ghouls have a rough relationship with Ari Aster. Specifically his film Midsommar which we’ve covered twice. It’s a wonder we hadn’t covered Hereditary yet considering how much we liked it. When we first watched it, we went to our friend, Debbie’s house. (She is in our episode about David Cronenberg!). We had a spooky moment in her house before watching the film! Her house is huge and beautiful. She has these large paintings her husband has done all over the house. On her fridge, she had a photo of herself in front of one of the paintings. I grabbed it to ask when it was taken when we heard this loud crash. We all ran to her living room to find the real painting from the photo had fallen off the wall! It was wild. We ended up watching the film with her, her husband, and our friend Ariel (from our Black Women in Horror episode) in her upstairs room on a projector. It was quite the experience to watch it together. Back when it was normal to gather in each other’s homes to watch films together.
In this second watch wearing my media-analysis glasses, I can’t say I loved it as much. Specifically looking at the mental illness representation, I am once again upset with Ari Aster. Remembering that during this series we want to explore two questions: Does it appropriately represent the horrors of a mental illness? And does it inspire empathy & compassion towards an individual with this mental illness?
This film wants you to fear hereditary mental illnesses. As if anyone who is at risk of inheriting certain mental illnesses aren’t already worried, they now have to watch this film and feel triggered. So yes, in a way it does represent the horrors of a mental illness. However, it does not inspire empathy and compassion towards individuals with mental illnesses but that’s just Ari Aster’s MO.
Ari Aster really be like, “White people be in cults.”
Throughout the film we see Toni Collette’s character slowly becoming her mother. She goes from lingering over the diorama of her mother lingering in her doorway to herself lingering in her son’s doorway at night. She has an emotional dream in which she admits to trying to abort Peter (probably due to her fear of passing on the illnesses her family has suffered). The overall theme, hinted at by the discussion about Heracles and his doomed fate, that no matter how aware you are, no matter how many signs and foreshadowing moments you catch, you are doomed to this fate - you will become your mother.
In an article on Esquire, Hereditary Taps Into the Unique Terror of Inherited Mental Illness by Emma Dibdin, they explain how Hereditary taps into the mental strain of someone aware of the lingering possibility of mental illness and how even being precautious only contributes to the fated end,
Constantly watching yourself for warning signs is draining, and destabilizing, and can become a self-fulfilling prophecy—which is one way to read the increasingly surreal and horrifying events of Hereditary. In worrying that she will lose her mind, Annie drives herself insane; in worrying that her inherited madness will destroy her family, she destroys them herself.
Even Hereditary’s gore is psychological; several characters die by having their heads separated from their bodies, the most physical possible representation of a severance between mental state and physical reality.
The most viscerally terrifying idea in Hereditary is that no matter what you do or how far you seem to have come, your genetics actually do control your fate.
Ultimately, this is a horror film through and through. The goal of horror is to provide the viewer a glimpse into a truly horrifying experience. At the end of the day, it does bring to light the horrors of the impending doom someone who may inherit a mental illness may feel. We discussed in the Undone episode about how Alma was on edge from the getgo because she is aware of the looming possibility. I think it shows a flawed, stressed family that doesn’t know how to handle each other. They’re all wary and afraid not only of themselves but of even trusting the others. In that, I find this film effective.
Inheriting Mental Illness: Preparing the Next Generation
by Kat Kushin
RED: Quotes, someone else's words.
To start today’s facts section I wanted to explicitly state that I do not have a personal experience with Schizophrenia and express that I am presenting information that I don't have personal context for, and hope that nothing I say is inaccurate or damaging. I know that oftentimes with mental illness classifications, or honestly anything that happens with the brain, that the definitions or blanket interpretations of an illness can be damaging or contrary to the feelings or views of individuals who actually have said mental illness. I also grew up within western society, and process daily how much of what has been taught to me is inaccurate or skewed to benefit capitalism and white supremacy, so if there is anyone who has had a different experience with Schizophrenia, either culturally or personally and they want to let us know so we can know better, please don’t hesitate to send us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org
What are Hereditary Mental Illnesses?
In 2018, a Bustle article listed 10 mental health issues “that are more likely to run in families”: it listed schizophrenia, anxiety disorders, depression, bipolar disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), ADHD, eating disorders, postpartum depression, addictions and phobias as illnesses that could be passed down.
What are some of the things someone with Hereditary Mental Illnesses encounters?
I think a big thing we consistently encounter is the media portraying Mental Illness poorly and creating fear and stigma towards it within society. I can only speak to my experience on this. I have a history of mental illness in my family of different varieties, some diagnosed, and some only theorized. There’s a history of suicide in my family as well, which is thought to be the result of untreated mental illness. I do worry about this fairly often, sometimes for myself, but also for my potential future kids. On ghouls I joke about the fact that “no one asked to be alive” because I feel that a lot of the time. There are many times throughout my life where I felt really upset that I was born, that I didn’t ask to be here, and that’s for a lot of reasons, that are probably deeper than just being at risk for a million things, and definitely extend heavily into my feeling of being a ‘burden’ or ‘unwanted’ when I was a kid. As I’ve gotten older though I think there are lots of reasons I'm happy I do exist, and others that I find really frustrating, but I think this is something. I’ve also fluctuated on whether or not I wanted to have kids for this reason. I think I do though, because as hard as existence is I think my experience with mental health and how it’s impacted those I love make me feel like I don’t want them to ever feel like a burden for having something different about them. So I think I’ll be good at making them feel loved for that reason.
Obviously others might have a different experience or feel differently. In my research there were a lot of different viewpoints and honestly the science for it always has the capacity to change to indicate different things. There are people who feel this inevitability towards it, and others who feel like their personal experience gave them the power to be a better support to others. This film...The second time watching this film, it did hit me differently. It felt like Ari Aster was suggesting that people with Mental Health Issues shouldn’t have kids, honestly extending further than the reality that folx with mental illnesses may question this, but with the ending how it was it seemed like it was saying that if Toni Colette’s character just didn’t have kids then this all could have been avoided. Which is f’d, in the grand scheme of things. That’s just my interpretation and I didn’t really appreciate it. It was kind of like having your fears or like negative thoughts about yourself be confirmed by the genre you love which felt gross.
But I think a big thing with dealing with having Hereditary Mental Illnesses is being hyper aware of your mind and it’s health. Questioning your sanity and reality, and how you exist in the world. Which can be positive and damaging at the same time, and is a challenge and worry. I at one point didn’t want to have kids for the same reason this film presents, but have changed my mind. I think a big piece of the reality it presents you with is figuring it out for yourself.
How do you manage Hereditary Mental Illnesses?
In an article called Challenging the Inevitability of mental Illness written by Lindsey Phillips on Counseling.org, it goes through preventative measures, of protective factors in facing this kind of inevitably that is often felt with Hereditary Mental Illnesses.
When patients are confronted with a physical health risk such as diabetes or high blood pressure, they are typically encouraged by health professionals to adjust their behavior in response. Shuck, a member of the National Society of Genetic Counselors and its psychiatric disorders special interest group, approaches her clients’ increased risk of mental health problems in a similar fashion: by helping them change their behaviors.
Returning to the mental illness jar analogy, Shuck informs clients that they can increase the size of their jars by adding rings to the top so that the “contents” (the genetic and environmental factors) don’t spill over. These “rings” are protective factors that help improve one’s mental health, Shuck explains. “Sleep, exercise, social connection, psychotherapy, physical health maintenance — all of those protective factors that we have control of and we can do something about — [are] what make the jar have more capacity,” she says. “And so, it doesn’t really matter how many marbles we’re born with; it’s also important what else gets put in the jar and how many protective factors we add to it to increase the capacity.”
Techniques that involve a calming sympathetic-parasympathetic shift (as proposed by Herbert Benson, a pioneer of mind-body medicine) may also be effective, Douthit asserts. Activities such as meditation, knitting, therapeutic massage, creative arts, being in nature, and breathwork help cause this shift and calm the nervous system, she explains. Some of these techniques can involve basic behavioral changes that help clients “become aware of when [they’re] becoming agitated and to be able to recognize that and pull back from it and get engaged in things that are going to help [them] feel more baseline calm,”