How Hereditary Produces Extreme Anxiety Before the Actual Horror is Revealed…

At the narrative (diegetic) level the 2018 film Hereditary produces anxiety and dread in the viewer in many ways before the actual horror is revealed. Firstly, anxiety is produced when Charlie is unsupervised at a high school party in Utah and eats cake containing nuts, which she is allergic to, and falls into anaphylactic shock. Here, there is anxiety instilled in the audience at a narrative level. We are concerned that Charlie’s brother Peter will not get her to the hospital in time and she may die or pass out before that in a horrific manner, perhaps from suffocating or running out of oxygen from the allergy to nuts.

During the following sequence, Peter hastily drives Charlie to the nearest hospital on a secluded road and Charlie sticks her head out the window for air, much to the chagrin of the viewer, as there is a growing fear and anxiety for her life and safety. There is anxiety for her life and safety because the car is going at such a high speed in nearly pitch black (no street lights), with the cars high beams only illuminating a very small portion of the road in front of the car with objects and telephone poles nearby. This builds anticipation that something horrible or terrifying will happen, such as her dying with her head out the window.

Secondly, anxiety is produced when Annie arbitrarily hears Charlie’s clicking sound loudly in her car. This clicking noise is used as a motif throughout the film as Charlie always made a strange clicking noise as a form of communication (instead of verbal communication) and as a self-soothing mechanism. But after Charlie has died and her mother is driving away from Joan’s house, Annie hears the clicking noise loudly on an empty city road. In this scenario, there is anxiety that through Annie and Joan’s Séance (when objects start to move as a form of communication) they realize they may have brought Annie back in a metaphysical form and there is a fear and anticipation that she may return in monstrous form.

Lastly, anxiety is produced when Annie walks into her house’s attic in search of books or clues on the demon “Paimon” and covers her nose in disgust to a bad smell. We as the viewers obviously cannot smell anything, however, the character Annie appears to be in discomfort Thus, there is anxiety at an explicit level that Annie might stumble upon something decaying or horrific in her own home. In addition, several flies come out of the attic once the door is open which also indicates something old or decaying is there before any of the horror is actually revealed.

At the filmic (non-diegetic) level Hereditary also produces anxiety and dread in the viewer in many ways before the actual ‘horror reveals.’ One way that horror is produced at the filmic level through low lighting. Appropriately, low lighting is used in Hereditary to instill fear in the viewer, particularly, when Annie and Joan’s complete a Séance in Joan’s single-floor apartment home and try and resurrect Joan’s granddaughter in a metaphysical form. In this scene, the room is very dimly-lit because the only light source is a single lit candle on the center of the table that the two characters are sitting at. This darkness creates a chilling and frightening atmosphere at a non-diegetic, implicit level. This is because there is a fear and unease for the unknown. Annie and Joan do not know what may happen when they attempt to communicate with ghosts, especially while in a barely visible room.

The low-key lighting suggests what the viewer may be looking at, but they don’t actually ever see it, only a silhouette of a figure. Thus, there is an anticipation of seeing something horrible or terrifying that will emerge out of the darkness, or implicitly, out of that which we do not know or see (the unknown). At a filmic level, light or lack thereof is a buildup that makes the viewer nervous for what lies ahead, as it may come in a monstrous form. With the help of the filmmakers and lighting designers, another layer is added to both the film text and to the narrative. Fittingly, there is a build of tension and anticipation that Annie and Joan may summon something monstrous or terrifying that does not want to be woken. They are tempting fate in a dangerous way and the dark room is a reflection of them doing something dangerous or something they should not be doing. This lets the viewer emotionally invest in Annie’s traumatized state of mind as well.

Another instance at the filmic (non-diegetic) level where Hereditary produces anxiety and dread in the viewer before the actual ‘horror reveals’ is the cinematography used in the scene where Peter is in bed and sees Charlie in the corner of his room making her clicking sound. This is especially horrific because she has already passed away at this point in the narrative. The cinematography is very useful and impactful in this scene because the POV shot of Peter is a “Dutch tilt” type of shot. This type of camera shot is an oblique angle where the camera is set an angle on its roll axis so that the shot is composed with vertical lines at an angle to the side of the frame, or so that the horizon line of the shot is not parallel with the bottom of the camera frame. This creates a viewpoint similar to tilting one’s head to the side. In filmmaking and cinematography, the Dutch angle is one of many cinematic techniques often used to portray psychological uneasiness or tension in the subject being filmed.

Suitably, Peter feels a sense of situational uneasiness which is already set in motion with this tilted shot. When we see Charlie from Peter’s point of view, we subconsciously think Peter is the one tilting his head in discomfort and confusion, although it is just the camera trying to communicate Peter’s emotion and actions on a filmic level. This is effective because the camera work here in the darkroom reflects Peter’s current uneasy state of mind after accidentally beheading his sister. This builds an anticipation of Charlie doing something horrific to Peter or harming herself.

Another impactful use of the camera in this sequence is not a Dutch tilt, but rather a stagnant shot of Peter’s point of view, showing the corner of his room as he’s waking up at night. In this shot, the camera/screen starts out blurry, much like Peter’s vision as he is just waking up, and his vision slowly becomes clearer as he sees Charlie in the corner, right before the intense Dutch tilt shot is revealed. Here, through the use of editing and filmmaking, the camera department also effectively reflects Peter’s physical state as it shows him just waking up and puts it on-screen from his point of view.

The fear, in this case, is that something may attack or harm Peter before he is even fully awake or fully conscious, as he is still waking up with blurry eyes and in a groggy state. This blurry shot is also used for Peter to see the silhouette of a dark figure in the corner of his room at night when it is not very visible yet, depicting Peter’s fear of the unknown through the slow blurry fade and the use of the Dutch tilt camera shot afterward in this scene.

Lastly, anxiety and dread are produced in the viewer before the actual ‘horror reveals’ at a filmic (non-diegetic) level through the set design and cinematography during the scene where Annie frantically knocks on Joan’s apartment door and no one answers (1:31:30). In this sequence, we first see Annie knocking on Joan’s door with the curtains covering the door and then we see the inside of the home. The cinematographer here uses a slow dolly, beginning from the inside of the door and backing up down a narrow hallway in Joan’s home. This set design of a very narrow hallway in this home implicitly boxes the viewer in, giving them an uneasy feeling and making them feel trapped in this dangerous room.

This feeling of anxiety is achieved through the set design of Joan’s tight doorway and house, which makes you feel like you are walking right into the danger and you have a narrow chance of escape. Also, the feeling of anxiety is achieved through the dolly camera movement, which slowly uncovers the horrors that lie ahead for Peter and Annie. This is a horror that the viewer would like to look away from, but the slow dolly grabs the viewers’ attention and forces them to pay close attention to what lies ahead when the camera stops moving. This camera move slowly reveals the horrific fate of Annie’s family, before any of the horror or monsters are even revealed. As the camera continues to dolly back into the main living room, we see the brilliant iconography and set design that set the stage for the horrific events that lay ahead. As the camera-dolly continues, we see several lit candles throughout the home, much like the ones Annie and Joan used in their séance. When the dolly finally stops at the circular kitchen table, we see elements of the set design.

There are several small decapitated animals (birds) on the table, a very small photo of Peter on the back counter, and a larger photo of Peter on the table with surrounding sticks. There are also streaming curtains on the walls. This backward dolly along with this set design of strange symbols resembling the demon Paimon tell us that something horrific lays ahead. This implicitly shows that the cinematographer and the set-designers create fear and anxiety in the audience before anything horrific actually happens. Similarly, there is also frightening foreshadowing through the set design of the realistic smaller-scale structures that Annie builds, as they are a prelude for horrific actions that occur later in the film.

Film Critic based in Toronto, Canada

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