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Ari Aster’s Moral Horror

America's most intelligent young filmmaker is obsessed with the collapse of fatherhood and the return of paganism.

This summer, the indie-movie company A24 published an annotated and richly illustrated screenplay book for its 2018 horror feature Hereditary. The book opens a revealing window into the creative mind of writer-director Ari Aster—for my money, the most intelligent American filmmaker working today. Aster has devoted his still-young career exclusively to horror, and I pray he never turns away from the genre. 

His supernatural thrillers so far, Hereditary and last year’s Midsommar, have been feasts for the mind, showcasing ideas almost entirely missing, if not outright forbidden, elsewhere in mass culture. Aster is obsessed with the idea of the pagan and the steady re-paganization of modern life, owing to the erosion of the monotheistic and paternalistic principles.

His films are also just plain terrifying. I recently texted a prominent critic to enthuse about Aster’s work, and the critic replied that he couldn’t even finish Hereditary. “It was too scary.” Indeed.

I caught it in the theater the summer it came out and spent the two hours practically sweating spinal fluid. At the dénouement—a teenaged boy is chased through a darkened house by his own possessed mother and a cast of dead-but-reanimated cultists (more on that later)—I found myself on the verge of breaking into a kind of nervous, insane laughter. A fervid anxiety seemed to grip the whole audience, occasionally finding release in audible gasps and quivering little outbursts in tandem with the tortured, discordant score. 

The most effective horror has two essential features. Aster takes both of them very seriously.

The first: the scariest bogies are those barely seen and only half-explained (at best). So much of the terror that radiates from Aster’s images takes place in the subtlest dislocations of shadows: the slightest glimpse of a recently deceased relative in a mirror; a twisted reflection of a character’s own face, again, barely seen; a demonic entity caught in the corner of his field of view—or not: it’s just a harmless household object misapprehended in the dark (or is it?).

The second feature of truly great horror is the one that especially concerns us here: namely, that the supernatural evils somehow reflect—or extend or, better yet, infiltrate—the natural, oft-unspoken tensions and anxieties of ordinary family life. It is at this level that Aster’s work rises to profound social critique, even if most viewers flock to his movies merely to be spooked out of their minds.

There is, as I say, a great revulsion at the pagan (as a principal adversary of monotheistic order) at work in Aster’s films. And this horror is somehow related to the fall of the father figure, his emasculation, domination, and erasure at the hands of an overbearing or distorted femininity, represented, variously, by priestesses of strange gods and dark queens, witches’ covens and female fertility cults, satanic matriliny. These sets of oppositions supply the thematic key to Aster’s body of work and render it utterly countercultural in our moment.

*     *     *

Consider Hereditary (and forgive the spoilers). We begin with a funeral. Miniature dollmaker and mother of two Annie Graham (Toni Collett in an Oscar-worthy-and-unjustly-denied turn) is eulogizing her mother, Ellen, a woman, she says, with “private rituals” and “private friends.” A host of creepy strangers attends the ceremony, and it isn’t until the end that we learn these are members of a coven or cult led by Ellen. The cult’s mission is to help the demon Paimon inhabit a human body. 

At the outset, Annie’s 13-year-old daughter, Charlie (Milly Shapiro), carries the spirit of Paimon, which presumably explains her distant look and odd behaviors like beheading birds at school. Ellen, Annie says, “got her hooks into” Charlie ever since she was born; bizarrely, Grandma even breastfed Charlie. Ellen also insisted on raising Charlie (note the gender-ambiguous name) as a tomboy. This is because Paimon really would prefer a male body; the choice of Charlie as the initial host was necessitated by the fact that Annie barred Ellen from her life when she was pregnant with her son, Peter (Alex Wolff), now 16.

The whole plot thus revolves around the quest to banish Peter’s spirit from his body—to make room for Paimon. This, I think, is a persistent theme in Aster’s movies: a perverse feminine desire to use the male body for its own purposes, be it to produce necessary offspring within a matriarchal social structure (as we will see with Midsommar) or, in this case, to further pagan and occult spiritual ends.

Either way, the male isn’t a complementary subject capable of, or needed for, complementary love, but a mere biological vessel, endowed with necessary seed and the necessary organ. The obverse phenomenon, of course, is men’s age-old objectification and domination of women. Yet Aster is doing something highly subversive by suggesting that female-dominating lust is both real and equally a distortion of the vision of harmonious complementarity found in Genesis. 

Once the transfer is complete, and Paimon has overtaken Peter’s body, the coven offers a shocking prayer to the demon:

We have looked to the northwest and called you in. We’ve corrected your first 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 and all mysteries of the earth; bring us honor, wealth and good familiars; and bind all men to our will, as we have bound ourselves for now and ever to yours.

 Where is Peter’s (and Charlie’s) father in all this? Steve (Gabriel Byrne) is a decent dad. He’s a practicing psychiatrist, urbane, tolerant—but finally weak, precisely because overly urbane and tolerant. An excess of fatherly liberality: at various points, one yearns to see Steve truly lose his temper and re-impose order amid his family’s descent into literal demonic madness. Yet he never quite manages to do that. 

Peter is a teenaged pothead, and this pot predilection gives the coven the opening to realize its plans. Forced by Annie to take Charlie to a party, Peter leaves her alone among the older kids, so he can hit the bong with his high-school crush. Charlie, who has a nut allergy, succumbs to the nut-laden chocolate cake; she gets beheaded, like one of her birds, in a horrific accident with an inebriated Peter at the wheel racing to get her to a hospital.

Yet Steve is unaware or indifferent to the marijuana problem that serves as a proximate cause of one of his children’s death and the demonic possession of the other. One can imagine an upper-middle-class dad like him learning about his son’s habit and murmuring to himself, “Well, we all go through phases.” The most he can muster by way of paternal discipline is the occasional mumbled question, “Hey, did you remember to sign up for that SAT prep course?” 

After Charlie’s death, Annie projects all her maternal guilt and resentment onto Peter. She even recreates the scene of his car accident using her miniatures. A true father might have grabbed the damned thing and dumped it in the trash, lest it retraumatize his son; Peter just mutters curses under his breath.

Steve fails to protect his son, and the pattern, it seems, has taken hold long ago. In a bone-chilling sequence, Annie confesses to Peter that “I never wanted to be your mother. . . . I tried to have a miscarriage. I did everything they said you weren’t supposed to do.” This conversation takes place in a nightmare, but Annie is clearly telling the truth, and Aster suggests that Peter simultaneously had the same nightmare.

On the first viewing, Annie might appear as a hapless victim of her mother’s demonic machinations. But repeated viewings, never mind the film’s title, reveal her to be something closer to an unconscious accomplice. Whatever her conflicted state of mind—and Aster sets up mental illness as a major factor in the family history—her actions suggest Annie somehow wants the transfer to go through. She wants to further her mother’s designs.

In an especially cruel scene (in a movie full of them), Annie performs the spell that summons Paimon into the family’s house; she intones the conjuring formula on the belief, impressed upon her by a member of Ellen’s cult, that they would summon the dead Charlie. As the cultic voodoo works its effects, and household objects begin to fly and a candle flame inexplicably rises like a column of fire, poor Peter is absolutely petrified.

Yet Annie is indifferent to her son’s anguished tears. She insists on going through with the process. Her loyalty to her witches’ lineage, combined with her barely hidden hatred of Peter, overpowers her conscience. With the slightest gestures and scene-setting eye movements—and this is a testament to Collett’s prowess as an actress—Annie makes clear that she long ago mentally aborted Peter, even if his body survived her attempts to miscarry. All along, Steve, the impotent father, objects. But not strongly enough to change the course of events.

*     *     *

Aster explores these themes more explicitly in Midsommar. Like in Hereditary, we begin with family tragedy. The mentally ill sister of psychology grad student Dani (Florence Pugh) commits suicide by carbon-monoxide poisoning, taking their parents with her. With a very few shots (did I mention Aster’s supreme economy as a filmmaker?), the director establishes the parents’ home as a place of suburban barrenness: one of those moderately affluent Nowhere/Anywhere towns, where an abyss of meaning and solidarity lurks just beneath the seemingly solid ground. Here, paternal failure needn’t be drawn out slowly—it is established brutally by the murder-suicide. 

Dani’s own grad-student milieu, too, is populated by selfish, unmanly men. They’re horny but not virile or potent: young men in whom one can’t even begin to detect signs of future husbands or fathers—starting with her boyfriend, Christian (Jack Reynor). Before the murder-suicide, when Dani calls Christian about an ominous e-mail from her troubled sister, Christian tells her that he “just smoked some resin with [a friend], and now we’re getting pizza” (notice a pattern?).  

Christian is done with Dani’s neediness, with her professions of “I love you,” with her unspoken demand for commitment. But he can’t bring himself to break up with her, or to set her straight and bring order to their life, or to fully embrace her procreatively, as a man. Instead, the two just float, like so much flotsam and jetsam on the directionless stream of American youth. They’ve been dating for four years. And anyone familiar with the lives of the Western university class knows such couples might go on for a decade or more before the man decides, in good time (his late 30s), that really, he isn’t sure about the relationship and wants to move on. 

Christian’s fellow anthropology grad students are, if anything, more immature and unmanly than he, content with onanistic fantasy and puerile talk, with psychedelic shrooms and languid days spent on the couch, barricaded from each other by screens and headphones. They aren’t unambitious, mind you. They strive for academic and career success. But one can’t imagine any of them giving a straight answer to the question: What is your life’s task—what is it you’ve been handed that you, in turn, must hand down? 

None of that is true, however, of Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren), Christian’s somewhat enigmatic Swedish friend. Pelle has no doubts about his life’s task: it’s to ensure the preservation and continuity of his native commune, Hårga, in remote rural Sweden.

For this purpose, Pelle invites Christian, Dani and two other friends to Hårga for the midsummer festival of the movie’s title. Hårga represents the distilled essence of the pagan (with more than a dash of genre-picture elements mixed in, of course): loyalty to place and particularity; a cyclical view of human life (mirrored, on a macro scale, in cosmic and liturgical cycles); reverence for and fear of nature in equal measure.

To give the pagan (in Aster’s version) its due, it has a certain honor and seriousness; not for the people of Hårga are the floating, unbound, purposeless lives of their American visitors. There are babies everywhere, cooing and crying all the time, as if to remind the visitors of the fecundity of this community—in a noticeable contrast to the childless, sterile world of the grad students back home. There is a law, and that law is ordered to nurturing communal life. 

The Hårga people also practice Ättestupa, the Nordic pagan tradition of ritual senicide or elder suicide. Once they reach the age of 72, Hårga elders jump facedown off a crag and onto a rock below that shatters their skulls and smashes their brains. The Americans are horrified, Dani especially, owing to the recent senicide in her own family. But the Hårga communards make the case. “Instead of getting old and dying in fear and shame, we give our life,” explains the matriarch, Siv (Gunnel Fred). 

The pagan takes care of its own, in its own way. “My parents burned up in a fire,” Pelle tells a distraught Dani, 

and I became technically an orphan. So believe me when I say that I know what it’s like, because I do. I really, really do. Yet my difference is, I never got the chance to feel lost, because I had a family here, where everyone embraced me and swept me up. And I was raised by a community that doesn’t bicker over what’s theirs and what’s not theirs. That’s what you were given. But I have always felt held. By a family. A real family. Which everyone deserves. . . . Dani, do you feel held by [Christian]? Does he feel like home to you?

That’s as withering a critique of soulless modern individualism as Americans are likely to encounter anywhere, and it happens to be leveled by a Hollywood version of occult paganism.

Of course, the pagan and the occult are ultimately sinister, in Midsommar as much as in Hereditary, and Aster suggests that these forces can easily overwhelm deracinated moderns. In Hereditary, the imbalance of power between the pagan and the modern is underscored by the profound loneliness of the family: who do these people have to lean on, really, amid their ordinary troubles, let alone the extraordinary and supernatural ones? We never see any neighbors, and Annie’s grieving-support group is about as artificial and alienating as the very name suggests; it ultimately supplies the opening Ellen’s cult exploits to recruit Annie.

In Midsommar, meanwhile, the moderns are quite literally trapped in a pagan space, and Aster makes a point of showing how quickly they succumb to many of its very real attractions. Young men and women whose lives are utterly devoid of liturgical enchantment and discipline are bound to be enrapt by maypole dances, elaborate paring and mating rituals, cultic rites of passage and so on. And even murderous rites.

Arriving as a would-be anthropologist of religion but lacking any definite moral or religious commitments of his own, Christian quickly learns to justify the monstrosity of Ättestupa in the positivist and relativist patois of his academic discipline: “Yeah, that was really, really shocking,” he tells Dani. “I’m trying to keep an open mind, though. It’s cultural, you know? We stick our elders in nursing homes. I’m sure they find that disturbing.”

And he has half a point. Had they not been murdered, would Dani’s parents not likely have been subjected to a long, drawn-out Ättestupa—thrown away and sedated in front of a television in a suburban nursing home, where a saccharine-smelling cleaning spray barely masks the reek of urine? Aster’s modern men are C.S. Lewis’s “men without chests” personified. Having lost their own, Judeo-Christian traditions of living and dying well, and their own humane rites, they can’t bring themselves to condemn senicide and human sacrifice. 

That is, until it’s too late, and they themselves become the sacrifice.

Not to put too fine a point on it, Pelle has brought Dani, Christian, and the rest to his commune, because his people need ritual victims—and because they also need the occasional infusions of genetic diversity, lest too much inbreeding sap their communal vitality. One by one, the visitors are dispatched to grisly deaths—that is, save for Dani and Christian. Channeling all her anguish into the maypole dance, Dani emerges as the surprise May Queen and becomes a member of the “family,” perhaps as a future partner for Pelle. And Christian is led to his designated role as inseminator to Pelle’s sister Maja (Isabelle Grill).

What follows is one of the most disturbing sex scenes since Salo (yet with none of the bloody gruesomeness of Pier Paoli Pasolini’s highfalutin 1975 snuff film). Drugged and paranoid, Christian enters a large hut where Maja lies on her back, a come-hither look on her face. A phalanx of Hårga women, young and old and middle age, stand over her. They’re there, we soon learn, to narrate, as it were, the copulation. And they supervise the action, directing Christian’s movements and offering extra erotic impetus as needed.

Christian is in no way in control of what’s taking place. It’s intercourse as various feminist visionaries of the 19th and 20th centuries imagined it: initiated, directed, dominated solely by the female partner. For the Hårga women, intercourse is mainly a semen-extraction procedure, and when the deed is done, a naked and vulnerable Christian is more or less discarded and left to his own misery and confusion, while Maja lifts her legs to her chest and rolls to the left and right: “I can feel the baby inside me!” 

Paganism is cyclical. New life is sown, old or unwanted life is taken (or offered as a “gift” to the new). At midsummer, the Hårga people sacrifice nine: four of their own, four outsiders and one victim to be chosen by the May Queen, who this year happens to be an outsider. Dani is given a choice: would she sacrifice a randomly chosen member of the cult—or Christian? Dani picks her lousy, distant, morally noncommittal cheat of a boyfriend, and as he burns in a specially designated hut while stuffed into a bearskin, she smiles mysteriously, and we fade to black.

The much-commented-upon smile, it seems to me, burns with the contemporary American’s subdued rage at weak, absent men and fathers. There is in it, too, and in Aster’s work as a whole, something of the biblical prophet’s revulsion at the ways of the pagan gentes.



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