Hereditary and Family Demons
Well-regarded movies about the demonic should have us all sitting up and taking note. Hereditary is just such a film. It's proving to be the horror darling of 2018, currently enjoying a 90-percent approval rating at Rotten Tomatoes and having earned the biggest box-office debut ever for distributor A24.
The less revealed about the plot, the better. Suffice to say, the film opens with Annie (Toni Collette) and her family burying Annie’s estranged mother. In his English class at school, Annie’s son (Alex Wolff) listens to his teacher talk about the narrative form of tragedy, in which characters ignore every warning sign along the road to their inevitable downfall. Sure enough, evil begins to consume the family in ways they might have seen coming.
An early scene finds Annie at a support group for grieving relatives. Encouraged to talk about her mom, Annie blurts out her family's history of mental illness, including depression and dissociative identity disorder. We also learn that Annie herself has long struggled with mental health issues. But as the film progresses, it becomes clear something even more sinister is at work.
Cultures throughout human history and around the globe have versions of possession stories: malevolent spirits that taunt, afflict, or even take control of living persons. The result is a form of theft. Even when possession is willing, it brings about the destruction of the possessed person. The deep psychological horror of Hereditary creeps upon us as we witness characters losing themselves to something else. (Mental illness? A demon?) Director Ari Aster subjects us to long, scoreless tracking shots that force us to bear witness to characters battling hopelessly against that thing within them that feels so unlike who they want to be.
Mental health problems are only just beginning to be taken seriously in the larger church. Far too many Christians still attribute mental illness to demonic possession or spiritual weakness. People with disorders and chemical imbalances need real help—both counseling and medication—not exorcisms. So isn't Hereditary, in which possession becomes literal via the legacy passed down to Annie and her children, essentially an exploitation film? Are we wrong to consume these thrills and chills at the expense of people who are really suffering?
For Christians, Hereditary is an opportunity to offer our own context into the discussion. The movie’s possession narrative insists that we are victims of the family legacies we inherit. But Jesus' Incarnation—Christ become flesh—reveals how we are ultimately healed. By taking on human likeness and dying on the cross, Jesus paved the way for the healing of all creation, including our minds.
People with disorders and chemical imbalances need real help, not exorcisms.
Now, critics might point out that the language of Incarnation and salvation sound suspiciously like possession. Paul claims in one place, “I have been crucified with Christ, and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me.” Elsewhere, he describes the Good News as a glorious mystery which is “Christ in you, the hope of glory.”
Yet the Christian life is no possession story. St. Athanasius understood Paul to refer to the process of sanctification—how God continually forms us in his image. For Athanasius, the Incarnation was key to God rescuing us. God took on human flesh so that he could die for us and invite us into the divine mystery of the Trinity. As Athanasius said, “He became what we are that we might become what he is.”
In New Seeds of Contemplation, Thomas Merton observed that the self with which we engage in the world is a false self, constructed out of fear. “A life devoted to the cult of this shadow is what is called a life of sin. All sin starts from the assumption that my false self…is the fundamental reality of life to which everything else in the universe is ordered.” Spiritual freedom, for Merton, is found when we allow God to show us the truth of who we are: “The secret of my identity is hidden in the love and mercy of God. ...I cannot hope to find myself anywhere except in Him. Ultimately the only way that I can be myself is to become identified with Him in Whom is hidden the reason and fulfillment of my existence.”
Demonic possession, then, is an inversion of the work of spiritual formation. (As Augustine warned, evil is always and only a perversion of the good.) Where Jesus seeks to restore us to our true selves (the self hidden with Jesus in God), the demon seeks only to steal, kill, and destroy us. Hereditary leaves no doubt that the possessed characters are doing what they do not wish to do, the demonic forces within them at odds with their human desires. These images of evil prove to be far more terrifying than any jump scares, perhaps because they illustrate so clearly the power of sin.
When it comes to mental illness, we who take Incarnation seriously ought to make several confessions. First, we ought not quickly conflate demonic possession and mental health, any more than we would blame a broken limb on a demon. Second, we must affirm that our bodies, including our brains, are good gifts from God; while they may be warped by sin, there is no more shame in seeking out professional healing than there is in seeking out physicians to treat our breaks, burns, and sprains. Lastly, we must proclaim that Jesus came to heal all of us. Our churches ought to be in the business of anointing the mentally ill as well as those who are physically suffering.
If we are to take anything from Hereditary (other than sleepless nights), perhaps it should be that mental illness is often a devastating plague on whole families, one passed from generation to generation. The Church is called to be an extended spiritual family for those suffering from mental illness, offering the sort of healing and hope against which the gates of Hell don’t stand a chance.