What is Real Horror?

Genre and Ari Aster’s Hereditary

By Dante Simoncelli


Near the end of Jason Zinoman’s 2011 book Shock Value—dedicated to the horror directors of new Hollywood—he describes pitching a movie to a producer who, although Zinoman chooses not to name him, produced some of the highest grossing horror movies in history.[1] The movie he pitches is about a career woman who starts out with a typical bourgeois American life and proceeds to lose everything: her husband, her job, and finally her pregnancy. She in turn retreats to an old, spooky house and waits alone for her baby to be stillborn. While there many uncanny things begin to happen, leaving the audience to determine whether what they see on the screen is supernatural or just the heroine’s delusion. Pitched as a 70’s throwback, comparing the protagonist to Mia Farrow’s character in Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby, Zinoman reports the big-shot producer was unreceptive to his film, with his biggest complaint being that the miscarriage plot was too unpleasant for audiences. Readers of Shock Value are left to wonder how the horror genre managed such a revolutionary change between the innovative films of the ‘60s and ‘70s and the conservative films of the later twentieth century.


In a 2017 article for The Guardian, Steve Rose tries to introduce another radical split in the history of the horror genre by proposing a new term: post-horror.[2] For Rose, post-horror is a sub-genre in which serious, artful themes unafraid of tricky contemporary political issues thrive. He uses Jordan Peele’s Get Out, Trey Edward Shult’s It Comes at Night, and David Lowery’s A Ghost Story as examples. This distinguishes post-horror from a “traditional horror framework” too rigid to admit films with higher artistic aspirations than, say, the Paranormal Activity series. Rose’s article was met with derision from many horror fans. An unsigned article summed up the backlash nicely; under the title “Sorry, but ‘Post-horror’ is just another unnecessary elitist label,” the author claims Rose tried to create a new term so filmgoers who traditionally looked down on horror as a lowbrow genre could enjoy the post-horror films mentioned in the Guardian article without risking their highbrow cineaste credentials.[3] Further combatting Rose’s arguments, the anonymous author goes on to describe how horror has always developed serious themes addressing political and philosophical topics, citing films such as John Carpenter’s The Thing, Adrian Lyne’s Jacob’s Ladder, and George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead. In particular, the article criticizes Rose for saying mainstream audiences don’t react well to post-horror films, countering that even a “traditional horror framework” has historically proven to be too evolved for its contemporary audience; Carpenter’s The Thing was released in 1982 to critical and box office failure, but is now considered a major classic in the horror genre.


It is in the context of these two contested “breaks” in the history of the horror genre (first, the break between adventurous and conservative instincts in the twentieth century, and second the break between traditional and “post-horror” in the twenty-first), that Ari Aster’s 2018 film Hereditary can be properly examined. Aster’s first feature-length movie, Hereditary is filled with the supposedly highbrow themes of family, loss, mental illness, and abuse. Moreover, it stylistically wears its history on its sleeve, openly invoking past horror classics like Rosemary’s Baby and Tobe Hooper’s Poltergeist without making knowledge of those films a shibboleth for enjoying the present one. In short, Hereditary demonstrates that if contemporary horror films are carving a new path it is not one that parts with the traditional framework of the genre, but rather one that returns to the innovative roots of its nascent decades.

Hereditary follows the family of the Grahams in the aftermath of the natural death of their maternal grandmother, Ellen. Ashley Graham (Toni Collette)—the matriarch of the Graham clan and main focus of the film—is an artist who creates miniatures. The rest of the Grahams include her husband, Steve (Gabriel Byrne) who is a psychiatrist, 16-year-old Peter (Alex Wolff), and her strange 13-year-old daughter Charlie (Milly Shapiro). Ashley has mixed feelings about her mother’s death and decides to go to a support group to aid in her grieving. There she reveals a history of mental illness in her family, detailing how her father died when she was very young and her brother committed suicide when he was a teenager. With admirable attention to pacing, the movie slowly insinuates Ellen as the cause of these past tragedies due to severe mental/emotional abuse—we further learn Ashley didn’t talk to her mother after the birth of Peter, but reconnected when Charlie was born. Here the supernatural emerges in Ashley’s life; she sees Ellen’s apparition in a shadow and discovers Ellen’s grave has been desecrated.


But supernatural events are a kind of red herring—a sleight-of-hand trick where the magician shows you a ghost with her right hand while the left clutches a knife. Hereditary—like the great horror films of the past and the contemporary films that exemplify the genre’s renaissance—makes you afraid not of what is foreign, but instead of what is already inside your house. For this reason the most harrowing sequence of the film would feel right at home in a realist drama. [SPOILERS] When Peter is forced into bringing Charlie to a party after lying by claiming it was a school-sponsored barbeque, Charlie accidentally eats a cake containing nuts to which she is deathly allergic. Peter, high from smoking weed, drives his sister to the hospital in a desperate panic as she violently chokes; anxiety builds as the rapid ticking of the soundtrack accompanies shots of Peter’s headlights on an empty road. With a series of quick cuts, Aster expertly implies the simultaneity of two fateful events: Charlie rolls down her window and leans out in search of air as Peter swerves around a dear carcass in the middle of the road. After Charlie is decapitated by an electrical pole, Aster leaves us with an extreme long shot of the car at a dead halt idling on the highway, its silhouette barely visible in the gloaming. [END SPOILERS] This image, and its real threat to any family, will haunt the audience through the rest of the film more than any spook or specter.


Hereditary therefore blends the best supernatural elements of horror with the inherent terror native to a typical American family trauma. To say the film evokes horror classics like Rosemary’s Baby ignores the great debt it owes to more serious dramatic fare like Robert Redford’s Best-Picture winning Ordinary People, with a general plot of a middle class family breaking apart after the death of a child. Ordinary People shares a lead actor with another horror film about the loss of a child: Donald Sutherland plays the male lead in Nicholas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now, a film about a couple who travel to Venice to repair their marriage after the death of their daughter only for the mother to suspect that her dead daughter is trying to contact them. Likewise, although Toni Collette got her start in M. Night. Shyamalan’s supernatural thriller The Sixth Sense, Aster obviously capitalizes on the audience’s memory of her as the mother in Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris’s feel-good family drama Little Miss Sunshine (Milly Shapiro is even costumed at certain times in ways reminiscent of Abigail Breslin’s portrayal of Olive in that film). These cross-genre references do not mark a new turn in Horror, but rather serve as a connecting thread from Horror’s first moments to its resurgence today.


Hereditary will undoubtedly be remembered as one of the best horror films of the decade due its striking cinematography and Aster’s powerful juxtaposition of close-ups and unmotivated long shots. But it should further be celebrated for its underlying argument about the horror genre as a whole: that it finds its strength in a blend of real and supernatural terror, just as it has since its emergence in American pop culture in the middle of the twentieth century. Finally, Hereditary obviates post-horror as a descriptive term: we don’t know what will exist after horror because the best horror films of the present are of a kind with the films their directors grew up admiring.



[1] Jason Zinoman. Shock Value: How a Few Eccentric Outsiders Gave Us Nightmares, Conquered Hollywood, and Invented Modern Horror. New York: Penguin, 2011.

[2] Steve Rose. “How Post-Horror Movies are Taking Over Cinema.” The Guardian. 6 July 2017. Web

[3] “Sorry, but ‘Post-horror’ is just another unnecessary elitist label.” Cybercraft Video Productions. 2017. Web.