What the 2018 Horror Film, Hereditary, Can Teach Us About Mental Health and Psychotic Cults!

Written by: Matthew Sabatine

The symbol for the cult of King Paimon!

The following article/post represents only the views of the author and not everyone at Common Issues.

Many have suggested I watch the 2018 horror flick called Hereditary, written and directed by Ari Aster. They all stated it has an arresting plot twist and that it really scared them. I was hoping for the same, considering that horror films have hardly scared me since high school.

Warning! If you haven’t seen the film before reading this, you may want to see it first as this likely contains spoilers. I feel inspired to discuss what I think are hidden, subliminal messages of the film. Anyone is welcome to correct any of my misinterpretations.

This film is about a family who loses their grandmother, also said to have been a matriarch, named Queen Leigh, in charge of a cult worshiping King Paimon. The mother, named Annie, played by Toni Collette, appears to not be grief-stricken by her mother’s passing. She even asks her husband, Steve, played by Gabriel Byrne, “Shouldn’t I be sadder?” He responds, “You should be whatever you are.” Her grief doesn’t become truly evident until she starts attending group therapy sessions where she speaks about the psychosis, depression and schizophrenia that runs in her family.

Annie is a miniaturist, making delicate, three-dimensional, life-sized displays of people, houses, and various other objects. The beginning scene includes a miniature house imitating theirs that is situated in a beautiful forest.

The camera slowly and creepily scans the room before zeroing in on their son’s bedroom. The father wakes the son from sleep while throwing his apparel on his bed, telling him to get ready for the funeral.

Annie delivers the eulogy from a microphoned podium, but delivers it stolidly, as if her mother’s living or dying didn’t make much of a difference for her, but she talked about how her mother was a good but private woman, because Annie wants to be polite. We don’t recognize the manifestations or symptoms of what I think is trauma until she sees her mother in the darkness of her workshop and then switches on the light to have the apparition disappear. Annie brushes it off as nothing as she climbs into bed with her husband, Steve.  

We can see mental derangement in the 13-year-old girl, named Charlie, and played by Milly Shapiro, who was disobedient to her father’s warning about catching pneumonia from sleeping in her treehouse in cold weather. She uses bizarre objects for toys. Instead of becoming discomposed by a bird slamming into the classroom window like the rest of the pupils, she decided to steal the teacher’s scissors and sever its head later. This was followed by her seeing a woman waving at her from across the street, a woman whose significance we would not realize until the end of the film. She loved to walk outside, shoeless. And of course, Charlie was drawn to that female human figure sitting beside a humongous fire in the family’s backyard, something that Annie was totally oblivious to as she chastised Charlie and forced her to go back inside.

The really malefic stuff doesn’t begin until the son, Peter, played by Alex Wolff, is accidentally responsible for Charlie getting decapitated by a pole on a desert road while hanging her head out the window of their car that was racing her to the hospital to save her from anaphylactic shock caused by eating peanuts at a drinking party. Peter is left gripping the steering wheel of the stationary car on that dark and dirt-filled road, totally petrified as to what he’ll see once he investigates the backseat of the vehicle. The family’s sharp sorrows brim over at this point.

Steve tries to console his wife as she is writhing and ululating on their bedroom floor, “Oh Charlie! I can’t do this. This hurts so bad!” To make the scene even sadder, Peter is standing lifelessly, quietly, and cryptically outside of their bedroom, listening to the shrieks and shrills of his mother. His demeanor is something I would imagine myself to suffer if I had survivor’s guilt.

Apparently, it’s Annie and her son, Peter, who are taking the brunt of the family’s grief. The husband isn’t showing much. He seems to be rather detached from much of it, and is rather frustrated with his wife’s bizarre behaviors and delusions. We don’t see much desperation from him until during the climax where he is seen ingesting two blue pills from an orange bottle, suggesting that he is taking more than what is prescribed. Later, he is seen crying while sitting in the family car at a stoplight, taking his son home from school where Peter smashed his face and broke his nose on his classroom desk after posing like a demonically possessed contortionist.

For the entire time that Steve is alive he thinks his wife is out of her mind. Perhaps she is out of her mind if she admits to a history of sleepwalking, and it started worsening the night she following a vomit-inducing ant trail from her bedroom to Peter’s bed where she found him like an ant-covered dead body, which she probably also hallucinated. It looks like a hallucination if Peter awoke saying, “Mom, what are you doing?” and then the critters disappeared.

Steve’s frustration culminates at the second to the last scene when Annie is beseeching him to go into their attic to search for her mother’s blackened, distended, decapitated, fly-covered corpse. One must wonder why he can’t believe her a bit more, at this point, after an earlier scene where the family performed a séance to contact their deceased Charlie and the glass on the table moved, untouched by human hands, and the flame from the candle spontaneously rose to the ceiling. Instead, he decides to assume she desecrated her mother’s grave, exhumed the body, and stored it in the attic, thinking she did this during all those nights when she was pretending to go to the movie theater.

After all, being in his shoes, it would be hard not to feel frustrated with Annie. She is now frenetically trying to fit together the pieces of the family’s puzzling situation in a way symptomatic of apophenia, which is mistakenly finding random connections and patterns in places where they actually don’t exist or belong.

Apophenia was a term coined by Klaus Conrad in the 1950s when discussing the initial stages of schizophrenia. It’s amazing what the mind does. Right? In the moments of desperation, to make sense of a series of life-altering events, you think you are successfully connecting the dots, but to everyone else you are failing, and your insanity is as clear as day.

 First, she thinks that her mother’s corpse in the attic is connected to Joan, a redhaired woman she met at therapy group, because she found an unearthly design painted in blood on the wall imitating the King Paimon’s symbol, something that Joan wore around her neck as well as being worn around Ellen’s neck while lying in her casket. Then, Annie says she tried to burn Charlie’s book, but her arm caught fire because she is linked to it.

The queen was not given her proper respect, so she wanted to come back with a vengeance!

The hysterical Annie shows her husband her mother’s old photo album where Joan is seen. This is hair-raising! Joan told Annie about losing her son 4 months ago, that helped the two ladies build rapport and trust. Joan stated she was a complete skeptic about necromancy, but her eyes were opened when she tried it and got great results. Annie thought Joan was doing her a selfless favor, but now realizes that the séance Joan taught her is part of a conspiracy. Annie thought she was contacting her dearly departed, but unbeknownst to Annie at the time, she instead opened a portal to possession and a pact with the other side. Annie states that pact incurred a curse that is targeting their son, Peter. Annie believes at this point that the only way to cut off their connection to the open portal is to burn Charlie’s book in which the poltergeists have been drawing pictures of Peter.

It is obvious that Steve is struggling to empathize with his wife’s mental condition, even though movie reviewers and critics have identified him as a mental health professional. He is an unbeliever in her superstitious delusions until the very end, where, before throwing the book into the fire, he says, “I’m not going to do this with you anymore. No, no, its not helpful for you. You are sick, Annie. I need to call the police.” Of course, he had to pay the price of dying by becoming spontaneously engulfed in flames after Annie tried throwing the book in the fireplace. Unbelievers always must be punished for their skepticism. Right? Just as there were inquisitionists targeting heretics centuries ago, there must be punishers in the spiritual realms targeting the skeptics in the here-and-now.

The conspiracy is finally understood at the end as we remember Annie reading from her mother’s spiritualism books, one of which depicts King Paimon as a mysterious humanoid figure mounted on a camel, with a staff in hand and three human heads dangling from the side of the camel. The text reads that King Paimon seeks a male body in which to make his abode.

Annie opens her mother’s photo album to be stupefied by Joan standing with Ellen in the pictures. There are multiple pictures of them together, showing that they were very close throughout many years. These were pictures of Joan and Ellen attending gatherings together and participating in rituals where Ellen was dressed in ceremonial white garb. She knew Annie’s mother all along and never informed her! What a great deception!

This kind of maelstrom reminds me of post-bereavement trauma. Hallucinatory experiences are said to occur in 30% – 60% of elderly widows. [4] First of all, Annie is not a widow here, but I don’t see why this can’t also apply to anyone bereft of their children. Though post-bereavement hallucinatory experiences (PBHEs) can very seldom be negative or unpleasant (e.g. some people might hear their loved one saying harsh and insulting things), most bereaved victims report pleasant experiences and they hallucinate about their loved ones, unlike Annie who is seeing supernatural events all around her, more than just images of her mother and daughter.

It is common for bereaved people to hallucinate visions of their deceased loved ones.

Compare Annie to Canadian singer, Celine Dion, who lost her husband in 2016 and reportedly has felt her husband’s presence, heard his voice, and has talked to him. [5] Really, the two ladies are unparalleled as Celine Dion has not reportedly become violent nor chased after her loved ones nor performed seances nor lost all voluntary control of her body and climbed the wall like a spider. But that is what exactly happens to Annie.

As if the movie doesn’t already have enough surprises, Annie becomes fully overtaken by diabolical forces and is spying on Peter in his bed throughout the night. He awakes to go searching for his parents, but finds the living room in shambles and his father’s charred cadaver on the living room floor before seeing the apparition of a grinning naked man standing in the doorway and his mother’s possessed body chasing him up into the attic. Peter unravels into infantile fear, pleading for his mother to stop terrorizing him. “Mom, stop! Please stop, Mommy. I’m sorry.” He screams while trapped in the attic and Annie is on the other side of the door, upside down on the ceiling, bashing her head on the door with a sound similar to the rapid noisemaking of a broken washing machine.

Now, the feelings of helplessness are enormously piling on as Peter looks around the attic to find lit candles and horseflies everywhere, signifying that a ritual or séance took place. His picture is lying on the wooden floor, where his grandmother’s corpse used to be, but now there are lit candles and dust outlining her shape. He looks up to the ceiling to find his mother’s body hanging from an invisible noose and her hands slowly moving a wire back and forth to lop off her head. Three more apparitions of naked people appear in the attic, one of which looks like Annie’s group therapy leader, and another that looks like the woman who waved at Charlie from across the street earlier. That was Peter’s breaking point for finally and impulsively jumping through a glass window and landing on the ground outside.

As the audience member, you are seeing everything that you don’t want to occur for the poor boy. You want a happy ending with his family coming back to life or at least get himself out alive to visit a hospital, visit a therapist, and reside with others who will keep him safe, maybe. If you were in his shoes, imagine all the trusted people in your life being overtaken by conspiratorial agencies, and your final hope is that they will show you some mercy after preying on you in their hellish prison.

Poor Peter! A black mist leaves his body and a white glow lands on him. His mother’s headless body is levitating soundlessly up into the treehouse where Charlie once slept.

Peter gently rises from the ground and climbs the ladder to enter the treehouse himself. Why not, anyway? Is there anywhere else to hide?

He reaches the top to find many people, who I don’t recognize, but include Annie’s headless, bloodied body and Ellen’s nightgowned, blackened, headless body, prostrated before Peter with a black and white picture of Ellen on the wall that reads “Queen Leigh.” An old woman puts a wacky orange crown on Peter who is standing gripped and spellbound as she says the final spine-chilling line of the movie “Oh, its all right, Charlie. You are all right now. You are Paimon, one of the age kings of Hell. We have looked to the Northwest and called you in. We’ve corrected your first female body and give you now this healthy male host. We reject the Trinity and pray devoutly to you, great Paimon. Give us your knowledge of all secret things. Bring us honor, wealth and good familiars. Bind all men to our will, as we have bound ourselves for now – and ever – to yours. Hail, Paimon! Hail, Paimon! Hail!”

In an interview with Thrillist, filmmaker Ari Aster discusses his desire to include a real occultic character in the film: “One source leads to another. You start with the obvious things like you look up Anton LaVey and Aleister Crowley, and then it gets very disturbing. I’m not tied in any way to the occult, so the research was disturbing, but I knew that I had to go there and I knew that I wanted the ritual elements of the film, which are held at a distance and you only get pieces of them, I knew I wanted them to be rooted in something real. I was led to witchcraft manuals that are instructing people on how to cast spells and this and that.” [1]

This is in fact true about King Paimon whose name goes back centuries, is worshiped by some, believed to be biddable to Lucifer, and is mentioned in the 17th Century grimoire titled The Lesser Key of Solomon. Furthermore, he is stated to be “the ninth spirit in the Goetia, and the twenty-second spirit in the Pseudomonarchia Daemonum and Dictionnaire Infernal. In the Liber Officium Spirituum, he is first listed as the sixth spirit and later as the third king.” [2]  

Sacred sources are said to describe him as the teacher of science, arts, and “secret things” pertaining to the earth, winds, and water. He can expose “hidden treasures,” he can know the events and dealings of the world, and he can “bestow dignities and lordships.”  It is now no wonder that the cult victimizing this family used them as the means by which to claim their victory. As mashable.com tells us, the writing was on the wall, literally. [3] Do you remember seeing the cryptic terms written on the house walls? “Satony,” “liftoach pandemonium,” and “zazas” are occultic terms. Annie even included them in her miniatures long before she got possessed.

Charlie was their effective tool for the cult and its schemes as evidenced by the fact that Ellen was rather obsessed with Charlie and loved her in weird ways based on her insistence to breastfeed Charlie herself. Although, she had wished that Charlie had been a boy instead, because, again, King Paimon needed a male host. Charlie sufficed as a host since her birth, until the transfer could be made to Peter.

As mashable.com informs us, Charlie’s death was planned, seeing that King Paimon’s symbol was engraved on the pole by which Charlie was decapitated and the decapitations of her relatives followed hers.

Maybe Annie didn’t feel too disturbed by her mother’s passing but had moved closer to the edge of madness without knowing it. Then, the sudden demise of her daughter, so soon after her mother, put her over the edge.

There are many facets of a traumatized psyche that can be read into Annie’s character: 1) Difficulty sleeping caused by a nightmare-filled brain that is always on high alert 2) a stubbornly hyper-aroused nervous system that leaves one very panicky 3) a nervous system that repeatedly sends you false alarms as you spot nearly everything as a possible threat, meaning that anything that could look shadowy or spectral out of the corner of your eye, becomes a long, drawn-out, exaggerated experience of seeing more than you actually had. [6]

Imagine if Annie was a character in real life and could tell us her story as to what happened during her post-bereavement experiences. It would be an elaborate tale, indeed. In that context, why would she believe that all of this happened to her? This setting for her would go above and beyond the experience of just mind tricks and a wild imagination. Perhaps it would be an unintentional, remarkably gross distortion of the past. Traumatized minds who are trying to escape and make sense of their past are extremely susceptible to these embellishments. Correct me if I am wrong. This is the stuff that legends and lore are made of and then mistaken for true historical accounts.

About the author: Matthew is interested in discussing social psychology, neuroscience, anthropology, sociology, human biology and anatomy, mental health disorders, philosophy, the psychology of religion, and the history of religion. Matthew loves his friends, his family, and his dog named Sampson. You can contact Matthew at commonissues.contactus@gmail.com.

Disclosure statement: I am not a licensed therapist nor doctor. My intention is to not pretend to be either. The information contained in this article is not meant to be accepted instead of a doctor or licensed therapist’s advice. All information contained herein is based on my interpretation of the books and articles I read. My hope and desire is that any troubled person reading this would feel encouraged to get help from a licensed practitioner.


[1] https://www.thrillist.com/entertainment/nation/hereditary-movie-ending-explained

 [2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Paimon#Rank_and_relation_to_other_spirits

[3] https://mashable.com/2018/06/14/hereditary-ending-explained-everything-you-missed/

[4] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/26254619

[5] https://theconversation.com/sensing-the-dead-is-perfectly-normal-and-often-helpful-81048

[6] https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/think-act-be/201609/21-common-reactions-trauma

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