Rev., Jan 12, 2018.
In writing of Hereditary (2018), there are various themes to be worked through. Yes, it is about witchcraft; yes, it tracks pretty closely over the plot of the Paranormal Activity movies, with WASPy grandma being the head of a coven who wants a woman’s child; yes, all that is true, and more, but I will start with an aspect of a movie that might well be its secret formula of success. Last summer, reading Jennifer Larson’s Greek Nymphs (2001), I asked, seeing pictures of the genre votives consisting of Caruso cave models (400 BC), why? why would people having made a night’s incubation in the cave not just leave a regular votive, but go to the trouble to have the artist at hand do a small scale dollhouse model of the cave? I was, for a time, nonplussed. The economy of exchange of a regular votive is well known: you have a disease, you go to a site of incubation either to have a dream or an epiphany contact with the god, then, you are cured, and if you are cured, you have the artist make a simple votive depicting the relevant body part and place it there, with testimony, to let others know this whole system works. It is a simple tit for tat
that is, subject with diseased body part encounters the agentic array, with the focus on converting the diseased part into a wish, which is made to the cult god, for him to cure it; and if he does, you then have to have made a votive to make this result concrete, to thank him, and also to tell others, it works, it worked for me, it will work for you. This is the votive path to the god, an indirect epiphany.
But, at Caruso, and at present I assume there was incubation there, same thing, but a different structure.
that is, incubation in a nymph cave is an “experience,” framed in whole by the cave itself as the embrasure of an entire agentic array. You have to, therefore, concern yourself with initiatory events or demands, then you can go in and make your wish, but then the encounter with the nymph or the god they serve might have a strong element of fear, meaning that some apotropaic impulses block things in your mind. At this point, contact is made with the god, an epiphany happens, as Platt defines it, and it is THIS, not an even tit-for-tat trade, but a whole experience is measured as to whether or not it was of any good to the self, and then you leave. It is at this point that you have a votive made to thank the nymphs, but it is a “genre votive”, a miniature cave model, which speaks to the whole experience, and since some aspects of the experience were scary, its miniature status, outside looking back in, as I have worked it out, serves as a precipitate of a push-pull dynamic, you thank them, but you also say no thanks to any more of that, that was enough; you are grateful, but you also say that some of it was a bit much, no more of that, so it forms a nexus.
The complicating factor is the involvement of sleep and dream, things that the nymphs did to you in your sleep, whether or not you saw the god in your dreams, if you remember any of it, and, then, coming out. The uncertainty is involved in the passage of the experience of the array of agency from the vigilogogic, an altered state but still conscious, to sleep and dream, or unconscious. This means that the whole experience is bifurcated along the passage from waking to sleeping, so the array reforms itself in mirror form on the other side of the gap, and a model fashioned there will help you cope or deal with what happened that you can’t quite remember. Thus, a genre votive actually is rendered as the miniature cave in full so that it can as a model include the events but also acknowledge all that was forgot, say thank you for the good things recollected, but say no thank you to the possibly terrifying things you would rather do without. And that is why it is, in keeping with a mental characterization of the nexus space between vigil- and hypnagogy, the wobbly line between awakeness and sleep, this is a model of the gap
what this nexus insertion into the model made me realize is that there is a twisting dynamic in the experience of dreaming, and as it relates to life, and this thus involves turning of the nexus, or flipping, to make things happen. And I also now also argue that it is this little circulation, that, like a buffering-loading symbol on the computer, BUFFERS the experience and in that space creates a little wiggle room for reflection–which is the essence of a more mature, deep seated and thoughtful art. Indeed, I have argued that a kind of doubletalk is part of art, you are making your art, but always, at the same time, though never consciously or self-consciously, commenting on the making of your art, and the commentary often runs counter to the making, and it is the push-pull in that nexus that gives to the work a certain irreducible human quality that makes it art of the highest kind. Thus, reagency (or exoreagency, if advanced) is the element that suspends the art and makes it feel like an experience, and it is this quality that elevates art to a higher level. I have been looking for ways to articulate the little something in a space that makes something alive and agentic, as opposed to dead and rationalistic, reflection might be the most basic one, below even the uncanny, or the frisson, or any of the other words I have used to characterize the special buzz of life of agency.
In addition to this, and following from this, I began to ferret out the turned-around telescope formation, and the triple loop spin of dysmetropsia by which nightmares can lead, in sleep, to seeing the truth, with what I call “ophthchthony”, but I also saw that this very structure is physicalized in good horror movies by a certain Nexus room, or Strange Picture Room, and that this room in effect becomes the clearing house of the haunting, as in Cthulhu Mansion (1992), and I also saw this form in Aline Bouvy’s installation (see previous posts).
So, it is almost fortunate that I was not able to see Hereditary last summer, because, seeing it at the same time I was trying to figure out why genre votives manifest as miniature models of caves at Caruso might’ve caused me to lose it. But, now, my memory is such that I didn’t even put two and two together until later in the movie. But, here, this is what I want to cover. I believe that the movie stepped up to the higher level of contemplation by creating a nexus structure in which to reflect upon its movement from dream into a nightmare new reality.
It starts early, as we find out that Annie makes her living as an artist in miniatures, or in making models for architectural firms. Her house is filled with her vision.
but right away, the movie zeroes in on the model, to full screen, to create a visual equivalence between the house and the model.
only, then, also from the get go, this is not the model, but Peter’s real room, Byrne walks through the door
and the fact that at the funeral she has nothing nice to say about her mother, and is even confused as to who all the people at her funeral are, indicates right away, but I did not make the connection, that even if her art is autobiographical, it is also an escape hatch zone, where she buries her feelings about her real home life, because at life size, things are not going so well.
And it is also to be pointed out, that, as in keeping with a visual trope going way back, now, more than 60 years, the dead space between her at the podium and the picture of her mother is marked as depleted and ersatz by a French impressionist painting of Paris
and signifying that the daughter, Charlie, is even more out of it, more depleted, she stands at back, with an Utrillo, and, maybe, a witch
and it is Charlie alone who sees the amulet on her grandmoher’s chest.
and Charlie alone who sees strange gestures being made to her grandmother’s mouth (some argue that Charlie is possessed by Paimon at this point, I am not so sure).
It is also by way of Charlie’s alienation from the family that we are first introduced to the odd treehouse right out front of the house
And Charlie is sleeping in it, even in the ice cold, without heaters.
back home, the home life-size begins to come apart, as Annie sees a strange graffito on the wallpaper in the corner of her daughter’s room, this is a clue that I suspected, seeing it, It turns out that, according to the internet, ‘Satony’ is a word used in a Ritual of Necromancy (communicating with the dead), ‘Zasas’ is a word used by famed British occultist Aleister Crowley when summoning a demon called Choronzon and ‘Liftoach Pandemonium’ is a combination of a Hebrew word meaning ‘open up’ and the familiar word pandemium, which in the context of Milton’s Paradise Lost referred to a place where Lucifer and the fallen exist.
then she gets the usual Posthumous Surprise trope, that everything in her life was more than meets the eye (by Satony it seems that grandma even inducted her granddaughter into the cult without Annie knowing about it).
then in her workroom, she sees her mother, but only in the dark (I forget what other movie made it so that you only saw the ghost in the dark)
at that, in a move I simply associated on first viewing as an incidental “arty” element of the mis en scene, without even really thinking of the dollhouse trope, which is quite common, going way back, as a place to nexus the reality of things, we see the grandmother in a slightly less haunting, but still haunting form, but coming the other way at us, in a model so real is makes one think she might come back to life, in an autobiographical model that Annie made in love, but really to work out her negative feelings and push it all back into the past, the nexus emerges
(in the more specific scene, after she sees the ghost, she sees the model
the two portals suggest seeing through the darkness, that is, continuing nightmare
the vignette seems to be set at a time when she was a girl, and lived there, the mother saying goodnight to her
but she turns it to the wall, and leaves. And then the next time there is a nexus shift is when Peter and Charlie are at the party, and it is profiled and reflected upon by this shot of the grandmother in model form, in the door of a room in the model, but with light coming through her legs, even to her crotch, to as if make her haunt as on a gown prowl in the years of her youth
at this point, Annie is well aware of the fact that there is something strange going on with all this
The fact that Charlie can’t breathe, at the party, it is implied, by synchrony, that this is a spell
this then leads to the accident which finally destroys their family life, and it is soon after, after the brutal way in which Peter let his mother discover the truth of the situation, by not dealing with it, just like she did not deal with it, we also see that Annie is much more likely than anyone else to use the in-between zone created between the house and Annie’s models, no doubt modelled by her model, she has rather selfishly created a grown up heated treehouse for herself for her to sleep in if she needs to get away from everyone in the family, now, she needs to get away, THIS is in fact the nexus room, comparable to the nexus room in Cthulhu Mansion (1992)
she sleeps in grief, in the red light
but, even before the accident, and the shock of it, extraordinarily, we find that the accident too was somehow planned by a controlling force, as the sigil of the cult is inscribed on the phone pole, in the middle, so this is also part of it
later, after one of her first sleepwalk nightmares, in fact, sleep paralysis, we see in passing that there is also a “work of art” based on Annie’s profession, at the bottom of the stairs
and there is a house on top of that, this is seen a few times, always to signify distance between family members (profiling the bannister slats house as prison trope)
then see how much more crazy Annie is getting with the model making
as she has made a model of the accident, including the head
Steve says, Jesus, Annie, and walks out.
and the magic words are even penciled in small on her exact replica models
so, up until this point, we have had a constant oscillation between what Annie is experiencing and what she is thinking about it, reflecting on it. She is a woman who tends to express herself obtusely and silently in meticulous work, and not in the open, with people, so there is her problem, the building pressure. But what has been slowly happening is that the movie is sinking down into hypnagogy, the borders between wakefulness and dream are becoming, in their grief or their haunting, which is it? blurred. The emphasis on the wallpaper in the models tends to increasingly blur them with the dreams, entering in by way of the entoptic zone, so you don’t know first off which is which, the nexus is breaking, settling down into to become the lattice form in hypnagogy.
the movie strangely makes use of the age old trope of the séance, though in a self-service form, to I suppose communicate in a traditional way that the cult is of old people. But the structural thing about her attempts to stage it at their house is that by this point she is thought to be mad by the family, Peter takes it as torture, and, even more disconcerting for that line between dream and reality, everything that happens in the sleep paralysis sleep walk she just had is recreated in the séance. Byrne protests because she is given a script that is in no known language, which gives another element of disorienting glossolalia to the proceedings, further spinning things into the daemonic. In this shot, in the nightmare, she is making Peter cry, a fire is coming up at her, and she is wet, that cannot only be sweat.
In the séance, the flame shoots up, so there is the fire
and Steve or Peter throws water on her, she is confused, but it breaks the spell, so there is a recursive, back and forth dynamic taking over the house, she is the medium for this.
and then, with a phone call from her gallerist, whoosh, she breaks, it all crashes down
as we see that her modelling has been increasingly contaminated by her dreams,
that is, she is now documenting the dreams, which is mad.
Charlie, as a spirit, then, returns to the house, to serve as the trouble-maker that will further close the gap. She comes in in one of the oldest tropes in horror, the Bounced In Ball, she is now here, causing trouble.
this then causes a full on hag attack on Peter, trying to choke him, it might be Charlie, but he thinks it is Annie, his mother, so there is more of her being spun around in her crazy mood, we no longer know what’s what
and this means that now things in the house are as in the models haunted through and through, and she finds out that she is now living in magic space, but in a magic space turned against her, where everything she does to try to fight the magic comes back at her, against herself, so the scene in the fireplace, when in fact she burns herself, not the book, this is a quite rare rendering of this state, the whoosh circulation, in fact, of the first dream state.
but now she is aware that things are turned upside down, and so begins her second nightmare, she goes tries to find the woman who put her into a séance situation, realizing now that she had been duped, she is pictured, as, perfectly timed, all upside down
at the bottom of this nightmare is the realization that all of this is black magic to, for some reason, try to get Peter. There is, in the woman’s rooms, a whole ritual set up, and picture voodoo, a spell attacking him
now the witch calls to Peter at school, really a shocking coming out of the situation, trying to explicitly drive him crazy
this second nightmare scenario starts with the full on assault of Peter (it did for half a second occur to me that the strange contortions of his body in the attack in class was also recursive, a revisiting upon him of the elements of the crash that killed Charlie)
This nightmare section ends with a nicely staged, and perfectly placed, Research Section, also as a crisis eureka, telling her the truth, and this is what opens up her eyes to the nature of the threat, and to the fact that her mother was a witch, she reads this
it lays out the whole thing, it opens her eyes, they are after Peter, to make him the host for Paimon
she sees, in a very strange shot, the riches that will come to whomever enacts the conjuring required (this prefigures her in the attic in the last scene she is alive in)
then, she sees down through, to the truth, is this ophthchthony? well, I am not 100 per cent certain. She is clearly awake, though maybe in a highly haunted and suggestive state, she might be hypnotized and made less clear in her rational judgements by all this, but she looks, with a close-up
if the photo album shows her that this nice woman who was befriending her was part of it, a good friend of her mother, if this is the gaze of truth, it amuses me that it is paved in its descent in really terrible landscape pictures, symbolic of depleted spirituality
another one, framing her taking a more leadership role, she wasn’t just a follower, but part of the leadership
and then the splat of shock at the end of this is seeing by a picture that her mother was the queen of the coven, and she was lavished with riches, which probably accounts for their nice big house, and all of Annie’s life, which is why she felt so alienated from it all, this MIGHT by the truth shot
but, more likely, this is it, that her mother, in order to accept all this power, had to sacrifice her family to the cult, and also, however, set aside one of them to become the next queen or king, so they focus on them at some meeting, this is all coming clean with the bargaining. I feel fairly certain THIS is the truth shot
occulty placed, hidden in incidentality in the bottom of a box in the bottom of the movie, like this
and, in close-up, I cannot help but see this as a descent through a funnel lined with landscape paintings bespeaking spiritual depletion, one
and ending with the mother showing the nonsplat successful passage into dream, and then the “truth shot” at the bottom of this, the family shot, on the wall of a gathering, projected as a slide (this is very well done, even if unconsciously done).
I, therefore, tentatively believe that this triple loop nightmare structure, if rendered a bit more discursively in the mis en scene of the movie rather than as simply a series of three nightmares experienced by a dreamer, can serve to give logical form to the haunting
And in an effect little noted, a camera pan effect when the school calls to tell of Peter’s latest incident–which echoed on an event in my parenting life, so it was uncomfortable–the camera pans across the house, behind the walls, this is a shot that I saw in Get Out but prototypically in Frankenstein (1931), and it signifies that there is no safety anymore in the house, the horror resounds now through the whole of the house
Now, all this is swell, and you stop now, and you have a solid, if somewhat formally conventional horror movie.
But, then, the movie has more in store for us, and this is where the last reel comes into play as one of the most unnerving bottom-drop-out sequences in recent, or perhaps even all horror. But, what is the structure? End of part one.