Explaining the Ending of HEREDITARY

As the title might indicate, this is going to be a big ol’ spoiler-filled discussion of what happened at the end of Ari Aster‘s family horror nightmare, Hereditary. We highly recommend you watch the movie first before reading this (duh). If you want our spoiler-free review of Hereditary, click here.

Hereditary is upsetting pretty much from the opening frames. It deals with grief and the fear of becoming like our parents whether we want to or not in a truly visceral and disturbing way. The drama between the family members–played by Toni Collette, Gabriel Byrne, Alex Wolff, and Milly Shapiro–is at the front and center of the narrative, but always in the background is the looming shadow of the family’s deceased matriarch. Sometimes literally.

The Family

The story is very clearly defined with the family’s struggle–and the stunted grief around the mother’s death and the deep and guttural grief with Charlie’s death–but the “plot” as it were might not be as easily picked up. Aster gives you just a few nuggets of important information and expects the audience to intuit the rest, through fingers clasped over our eyes of course. So what exactly happens in Hereditary that leads to the explosion of terror at the end?

A lot of the information about what’s going on is divulged via dialogue throughout the movie. Annie (Collette) talks at length in several scenes about her mother’s strange behavior; how her brother killed himself after claiming their mother was trying to put people inside him. After Annie refuses to allow her mother to have anything to do with Peter (Wolff), she softens a bit when Charlie (Shapiro) is born, and she wanted to have complete control of the way Charlie was raised, even insisting she, the grandmother, breastfeed the baby, and treating Charlie like a boy.

Paimon? Who’s Paimon?

This, of course, we find out later, is that the mother, being the queen of a death cult, was trying to create a perfect vessel for the demon Paimon to enter. Paimon needs a male host preferably, which explains Annie’s comment about her brother’s claims, and why she raised Charlie as a boy. Charlie is, for all intents and purposes, the spirit of Paimon put into human form, and when she dies in the movie’s most shocking moment, Paimon has nowhere to go, for a time.

Paimon, a Hell demon and a minion of good ol’ Lucifer himself, was named in several ancient tomes, such as Lesser Key of Solomon, an anonymous grimoire (spell book) on demonology, mostly made up of writings from the mid-17th century, as well as several other similar books from the period and after. Paimon is a demon who commands forces and legions and requires a host. In Lesser Key, he is described “in the form of a Man sitting upon a Dromedary with a Crown most glorious upon his head.” This imagery is used in the movie, both with Charlie’s decapitated bird-figure’s crown, and the crown that sits both upon Charlie’s head and later Peter’s as well. It is also said that Paimon is full of energy and loud noises and bright lights make him more active.

Charlie’s trademark noise is that strange tongue click, which Annie then hears when she first tries to summon her daughter’s spirit at the behest of the actually-evil Joan (Ann Dowd). It’s a heartbreaking reveal when we find out that Annie was so manipulated by her grief for poor Charlie that she essentially brings about her family’s own downfall. The *thok* noise is the harbinger of doom for the Graham family.

So the cult worships Paimon, and Annie and her family are unwitting pawns in her mother’s posthumous plan to bring about this particular demon. When we see the strange ring of light appear and disappear and move in front of Annie and Peter, this can be read as Paimon attempting to weaken or control them, as it indeed does on a couple of occasions, notably the scene with Peter in class, and with Annie at the end of the movie.

Fire and Heads

Annie is also throughout the movie, and indeed her life, tormented by Paimon. She has an estranged relationship with her mother–naturally! her mother’s a lunatic–and has tried to rationalize the behavior all her life. However, in her subconscious, she on some level must know the evil her mother intended for them, evidenced by the sleepwalking incident where she nearly incinerated her children and herself. Burning seems to be the only way to stop the inevitable from happening.

As the movie is called Hereditary, there are obviously familial ties at the forefront of everything. Charlie’s head gets cut off, so the body of the grandmother–placed in the Graham’s attic by the cult members–is likewise decapitated, and Annie, while possessed beyond hope, is seen floating in the rafters and cutting her own head off (the moment that’s given me the most nightmares). This is symbolic of the head actually being that of Paimon, with no other head required. When Peter jumps out the attic window after seeing these horrific things and the nude cultists, he effectively dies, allowing Paimon/Charlie to possess his body, moving the crown from Charlie’s head on the altar to Peter’s.

Hereditary is a movie where you’re never sure if the family’s going crazy or truly experiencing these demonic and ghostly occurrences. However once we do know it’s all true, everything happens so quickly and brutally that it’s a bit overwhelming. This is a movie we’ll be analyzing for a long time to come. Hail Paimon.

Images: A24

Kyle Anderson is the Associate Editor for Nerdist. You can find his film and TV reviews here. Follow him on Twitter!

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