The Real Story Behind 'Hereditary'

Let’s take a look at the occult history that inspired Ari Aster’s terrifying debut feature.

Hereditary
A24

Real Stories is an ongoing column about the stories behind the movies and shows. It’s that simple.


Ari Aster’s Hereditary is not based on an alleged true story per se, but the film’s occult elements are rooted in demonic mythology that some people do believe in. King Paimon, who possesses Peter Graham (Alex Wolf) in the film, is considered one of Satan’s most devoutly loyal servants in Luciferian lore. Let’s take a look at his history, and how the demon informed Aster’s tale of terror.

Paimon isn’t a household name in horror cinema, but he has appeared in several books about black magic and spell incantations dating back to the 1600s. The spells in these books have been practised by real-life scholars of the Dark Arts, such as Aleister Crowley, who also translated The Goetia: The Lesser Key of Solomon, which is perhaps the most famous text of the bunch.

The other magical texts — also known as grimoires — include the Book of Incantations, Munich Manual of Demonic Magic, Clavis Inferni, The Discoverie of Witchcraft, Key of Solomon, The Magical Calendar, The Book of Spirits, and many others. If you want to summon demons for your own nefarious purposes, give these books a try. For now, though, let’s focus on Paimon.

There are different interpretations of Paimon in the texts, but here are some of the most common facts about him. According to the lore, he is one of the kings of Jinnestan, a fairy land and the realm of the djinn. Those of you who’ve seen Wishmaster know that the djinn grant wishes to those who summon them, but they demand something in return. That’s similar to Paimon, as he usually expects a sacrifice in the form of a human body — especially children.

In Hereditary, Charlie (Milly Shapiro) and Peter are essentially the cult’s human sacrifices and vessels for Paimon. There’s nothing in the demonic mythology that requires children to be decapitated, so that infamous scene in the film is a product of Aster’s twisted imagination. However, the movie incorporates some of the real occult elements into its narrative, creating a few incredible horror sequences as a result.

Paimon also commands a legion of more than 200 angels. When he appears to people, however, he boasts an effeminate face, wears a crown, and rides a camel. His arrival is usually preceded by a musical score, which is referenced in Hereditary courtesy of the use of Colin Stetson’s “Reborn” theme during the demon’s coronation at the end. In some instances, Paimon also appears as an angelic spirit with a flaming sword. It is said that he has a hoarse voice, and he’ll only speak plainly if those who summon him require him to do so.

The demon possesses all kinds of knowledge in regards to the arts, philosophies, sciences, mind, earth, wind, sea, and secrets about the universe. With these expertise, he helps those who summon him embark on a path to greater things, and binds them to a familiar spirit to do their bidding. He also reveals hidden treasures and possesses the ability to bestow people with great power, status, and authority.

That said, actually summoning Paimon is a difficult procedure. As documented by The Cut, witch and demonology expert Sarah Lyons gave instructions on how to performer the ritual, per The The Key of Solomon. Lyons also noted how Aster’s film is admirable for the way it gets some of smaller details right.

“One of the things that you’re supposed to do specifically with ‘The Key of Solomon’ is that you have a magical circle drawn around you, and you have a triangle set up just outside of that, and you’re wearing the sigil of the demon you’re trying to summon, and you’ll put that sigil into the triangle as well, and the demon is supposed to appear within that triangle. If you do it really, really right — I have not gotten to this level of badass — supposedly you’re supposed to see a physical form appear in front of you. You should physically see a demon at some point. I cannot comment on that, but that’s allegedly what happens.”

Of course, that’s just one belief in regards to summoning Paimon. The other texts provide different instructions, so if you decide to give it a try because you want power and wealth, bear in mind that this could be the wrong approach. And it also requires years of mastering the Dark Arts, which is not a skill that can be learned over night.

Dr. Alexander Cummins, a historian who also spoke to The Cut, claims that summoning Paimon is complex, given that he’s demonic royalty and won’t appear to just anyone who figures out how to use a spell book. In order to gain access to Paimon, one must go through a demonic bureaucracy, and the practitioner must command all kinds of spirits and hellspawn beforehand.

While Paimon is regarded as a demon, he supposedly isn’t all bad. In an interview with Den of Geek, magician Greg Bismarck revealed that he’s only a demon to those who “demonize him.” That means if he’s summoned for the right reasons and treated with respect, he might not be so bad.

Hereditary is a great movie, and I appreciate how it tells the story from the perspective of the sacrificial lambs. The ambiguous qualities regarding Paimon are also a huge part of the film’s brilliance. At the same time, I’d love to see more horror movies where this demon is more at the forefront, riding camels and granting wishes to evil magicians.

Kieran is a Daily Curator for the website you're currently reading. He also loves the movie Varsity Blues.