Here’s a guide to what you missed while watching through your fingers.
Since its Sundance debut, Hereditary has earned a reputation as a movie that sticks with audiences long after the credits roll. First-time writer/director Ari Aster has described his film as a “family drama that dissolves into a nightmare.” His is a movie that relies on creating feelings of dread, helplessness, and bewilderment to frighten audiences just as much as it does on jump scares and gore. When it is not too busy being off the walls bonkers, Hereditary captures the horrible feeling of being stuck in a cycle of tragedy, where one hardship seems to invite another and another until it can feel like your life has been cursed.
This feeling is all to justified for Annie Graham (Toni Collette). Her life as a successful miniature artist and mother of two teenagers begins to peel at the edges when her estranged mother, Ellen, passes away. Her mother’s death is a catalyst for an avalanche of heartbreak, horror, and painful loss from which Annie and her family will be unable to recover. For a full breakdown of Hereditary’s ending and the events that lead up to it, continue reading below.
And now that we are past the spoiler-free zone of this article I can safely let you know that Charlie lives! (sort of). Earlier in the film, we believed that Charlie, played by the wonderful Milly Shapiro, now one of my top three Milly’s, was gone forever. Her accidental decapitation via her unfortunate decision to stick her head out of the window of a speeding vehicle as her brother veered too close to a telephone pole left her family guilty and drowning in grief. Her mother, Annie’s desperate attempts to call her back from the grave and reunite her broken family infected their lives with further terror. Only when it was too late did Annie realize that she was being manipulated by her own mother, Ellen, from beyond the grave, in order to unwittingly carry out a horrific plan with unthinkable consequences.
It is not until we reach the film’s hysterical ending that we realize what Ellen’s evil conspiracy was in the service of. It was all for Charlie. Charlie, you see, is not Charlie at all, but the demon Paimon.
According to Medieval demonology and occult tradition, Paimon is one of the Devil’s many demon servants. He is traditionally depicted riding a camel (fun) and often grants wealth and knowledge in exchange for an offering. Annie’s mother Ellen was the leader of a cult devoted to Paimon and before her death, she launched an elaborate scheme to offer up her own family to the demon. We figure out that before the events of the film began, Ellen used her own granddaughter, Charlie, to host the demon’s spirit. However, Paimon does not enjoy being a thirteen-year-old girl (who would) and demands a male host instead.
It is at this point that Ellen dies and the remaining members of the cult get to work carrying out her dream. They use Paimon’s power to bring about Charlie’s death and release Paimon’s spirit. The cult’s new leader, Joan (Anne Dowd) then befriends Annie in order to convince her to hold a séance for her daughter.
Her trickery works and Annie contacts Charlie (really Paimon) from the great beyond. By doing so, she inadvertently sets in motion an elaborate ritual that will allow Paimon to use her teenage son Peter (Alex Wolff) as a new host. When Annie discovers her mother’s headless corpse in her attic, arranged in a ritualistic way, she realizes that she has been had and tries to burn Charlie’s sketchbook in order to sever the connection she opened to the spiritual plane.
Unfortunately for Annie, Paimon has other ideas. When Annie burns the sketchbook her husband Steve (Gabriel Byrne) spontaneously bursts into flames and she herself becomes possessed by a dark force.
Here is where Hereditary’s deranged ending begins. Peter wakes up to discover that he is alone in the house, which is now filled with a putrid smell. He follows the smell and finds the charred body of his father in the living room, along with a nude cult member lurking in the hallway. While he is distracted by the scary naked guy standing in the hallway (who wouldn’t be) Annie attacks him. Her possession has allowed her to go full blown spider-mom and she crawls up the walls as she chases poor Peter around the house.
Peter runs into the attic to hide, only to find a throng of naked cult members and his mother, Annie, levitating in the air and decapitating herself with a wire (yup). Peter jumps out of the window and his unconscious body lands in the hedges. A mysterious light enters his body and he stands up, completely unharmed but no longer himself. As he finds his bearings, his mother’s headless body floats out of the broken attic window and into the treehouse (yup, yup).
Peter climbs the treehouse ladder and finds that a party of sorts has been arranged for him. Charlie’s severed head (now wearing a crown) has been placed on a shrine and the headless bodies of his mother and grandmother are arranged in front of it, prostrated as if in prayer. Also kneeling before the shrine are the senior members of the cult, including Joan, who greets Peter as Charlie and places a crown on his head. Joan explains to Peter/Charlie that they are the demon, Paimon and now that they inhabit a suitable male host, the world is theirs for the taking.
Brutally killing off a child in your first act is a risky move, and it is a tribute to just how emotionally affecting Charlie’s death is that her demonic revival at the film’s conclusion is not only demented, but also strangely comforting.
Now that we have the ending figured out, I would like to officially petition A24 for a fun and heartwarming Hereditary sequel where our plucky hero must juggle the perils of high school with the responsibility of being one of the eight gods of hell. With so many nude seniors counting on you, and the SAT’s on the way, goofy and terrifying hijinks will no doubt ensue. Good luck Charlie.