Ari Aster’s 2018 film Hereditary is one of the seminal films that launched the discussion of “elevated horror.” Toni Collette was lauded for her performance as the Graham family matriarch Annie, and the film as a whole was praised by critics and audiences alike for its themes of grief paired with shocking imagery.
Hereditary is packed with stunning cinematography and beautifully constructed shots, but perhaps its most upsetting moment is its most simple: the shot of Peter Graham (Alex Wolfe) as he listens to his mother as she discovers the dead body of his sister, Charlie (Milly Shapiro). This shot showcases how fear can be created simply through sound. You do not always need to see the gory aftermath to understand a tragedy.
Before this scene, Annie forces Peter to take Charlie to a high school party. While he leaves her alone to smoke weed and impress his crush, Charlie eats a piece of cake that contains nuts. She is deathly allergic to nuts and begins going into anaphylactic shock. Half-stoned and fully terrified, Peter grabs her and begins speeding to the hospital. But, between Charlie leaning out of the car to gasp for air and Peter driving as fast as he can, he loses control and swerves into a pole. Charlie’s head meets the pole and tragedy strikes.
In a state of shock and in a marijuana-induced haze, Peter floats to bed after the accident without telling his parents what happened. He silently eases himself into bed as if this is all a bad dream. He soon discovers that this is, unfortunately, reality. While the internet has turned Peter’s immediate reaction after the accident into a joke, his traumatized facial expression hours later is not the stuff with which memes are made.
The scene begins with a crossfade from a wide shot of Peter getting into bed, to a medium close-up of his head on the pillow, his face staring blankly out of frame. Light now fills his bedroom, so time has obviously passed and the sun has risen, but by the stunned look on his face, Peter didn’t get any sleep. Here the camera remains, glued to Peter’s expressionless gaze while another scenario unfolds outside.
Quietly, the audience can hear Annie announcing she’s going to the store as she heads to her car. Both Peter and the audience know what she’s about to discover, which adds to the shot’s unbearable tension. We hear her footsteps, we hear her opening the car door, with every second feeling like an eternity as we wait for a sign that she has found Charlie.
Even worse, there’s nothing anyone can do about it. All we can do is watch Peter’s face as he prepares for the inevitable guttural shriek his mother lets out as she opens the car door and finds something awful. As she releases that shriek, Peter’s expression remains the same and the camera stays focused on his face.
In this shot, we are not meant to witness Annie’s pain or a gruesome discovery—we’ll get more of that throughout the rest of Hereditary and even in the shot immediately after this one. Rather, this is about Peter’s horrifying realization about what he has done and the looming consequences. His expression is one of absolute horror that has passed from turmoil to totally shut down as a coping mechanism. The camera aligns the viewer with Peter’s perspective at this moment, forging an emotional connection between the two to encourage sympathy for Peter. This isn’t just a story about Annie navigating grief; it is also about Peter navigating guilt.
Importantly, this eerie moment is quickly shattered with a cut to Charlie’s mangled head on the side of the road covered in ants. These two shots happening back-to-back represent the tension that exists throughout Hereditary, one that walks the line between introspection and disgust. Having such a grotesque moment after such a simple shot makes it all the more shocking and upsetting; the audience thought they were escaping the terrible reveal when really, Aster was setting them up for something worse.
The shot of Peter’s face is more than just a harrowing marriage of camerawork and sound design that illustrates gut-wrenching regret. It is a moment of transition where Peter’s bedroom, a haven of teenage boyhood, becomes hellish and anxiety-inducing. Hereditary begins in Peter’s room as he’s woken up for his grandma’s funeral. He is shown fast asleep in a nest of blankets and pillows among a disheveled cave of clothes. Later, he is shown lounging on his bed, playing guitar and smoking weed; this is a place of peace, a place where he can retreat from his weird sister or his overbearing mother.
However, in this integral shot, his room is no longer his own. Here his place of respite becomes a hotbed of anxiety and nightmares. The screams of his mother and his blank face seem to mark a swift shift of this previously comfortable space. Peter’s room is not protected from the horrors of the world as proven by the sound of his mother’s grief drifting through the windows. Now, when laying in bed, Peter sees ghostly images of Charlie behind his chair. He feels his mother attack him in his sleep. He senses a presence climbing along his bedroom walls. The one place sacred to a teenage boy has become terrifying and unsafe, exposed to the rest of the world.
Hereditary may have multiple scenes involving decapitation, but their horror pales in comparison to Peter’s half-stoned face staring off blankly into nothingness as his mother screams over her daughter’s dead body. It is a shot that is beautiful and awful in its simplicity, illustrating that old saying, “less is more.” While Aster’s stories are sprawling tales of trauma, his cinematographer, Pawel Pogorzelski, knows where to pull back and linger on facial expressions to both tell a story and set the viewer up for a shocking reveal. This small moment encapsulates the power of cinematic horror storytelling and the multiple layers even a single static shot can contain.