One of my favourite podcasts at the moment is Show me the Meaning, which does deep dives into the themes of popular movies. (It was a big influence for my podcast Deconstruction Junction.) Even when I disagree with them, I still find lots to think about. Recently they were discussing Hereditary, a pretty awesome but polarizing horror movie. They mostly took issue with a pivotal moment in the film where the plot shifts from psychological horror to supernatural. I want to zero in on this moment because it reveals a lot about perspective and how the viewer treats the camera as an “objective” point of view.
(Before I continue I’m gonna make a spoiler alert here. If you haven’t seen Hereditary then I strongly suggest watching it before reading this because I’m gonna be discussing some plot details, especially w/r/t the climax and conclusion. You’ve been warned!)
For those of you who’ve seen Hereditary, the moment I’m talking about is when Annie (Toni Colette) is banging on Joan’s apartment door. The camera pulls back to reveal a plethora of occult materials, basically confirming that something supernatural is going on. Up to this point the film has been ambiguous as to whether this is has all been a figment of Annie’s manic breakdown. The Show me the Meaning crowd took issue with this reveal because they enjoyed that ambiguity. I loved that Hereditary went all in with the occult, and not just because I love supernatural horror, but because it felt like the movie disrupted that sense of an objective POV. There is no space between the characters and the viewer; you are now directly experiencing Annie’s breakdown.
Hereditary begins by pulling into focus of a dollhouse. The perspective settles on a particular room and, without breaking, the characters begin moving. The camera never pulls out again, as if to say from here on out we’re inside this diorama. The film continues to build on this motif, with Annie, the protagonist, working on similar dioramas as part of an art exhibit. Thus from the very beginning, the film is disrupting the “objective” POV of the camera and telling the viewer that we are are essentially inside Annie’s perspective.
This is crucial because Hereditary‘s thematic core is mental illness and the impact it has on families. Moreover, it asks to what extent we inherit these issues, be it by nature or by nurture. We learn that Annie’s family, by way of her mother, has had its share with mental illness. The revelation that Annie’s mother was the head of a cult worshipping Paimon that was using her children as a form of offering is an objective correlative for Annie’s breakdown.
Disrupting the camera’s objective POV is therefore important because it puts the viewer inside the character’s experience. We don’t just see Annie’s breakdown, we feel it.
The scene in Joan’s apartment reminds me of the scene in The Shining where Jack is stuck inside the freezer and the door opens for him. Until that point, the viewer was unsure whether the hotel was actually haunted or whether the characters were just going crazy. From then on out the movie descends into madness. What I love about The Shining is the subtle ways Kubrick plays with the camera’s POV and the deteriorating mental state of the characters. Throughout the film, the camera moves in illogical ways, not enough to directly grab our attention but enough so that we feel a intangible tension, which ultimately explodes in the third act. People didn’t call Kubrick a genius for nothing.
Thematically, as well, I would say Hereditary and The Shining and similar insofar as they use the supernatural as objective correlatives for mental illness in families. Much as I describe with Hereditary above, The Shining, puts the viewer within the perspective of a family that is terrorized by an abusive, manic father. Using the haunted Overlook Hotel as a setting is the means by which Kubrick (and Stephen King) shows us how it feels to be in that situation.
And that’s why it’s important to push beyond that initial experience of ambiguity and firmly into the supernatural. It erases that us/them binary between viewer and character. Every great work of art should aim to show, not tell. We should feel what it’s like to be experiencing what the characters are. Their horror must be our horror.