This story analyzes the ending of "Hereditary," so major spoilers below.
After scaring the crap out of audiences at Sundance earlier this year -- where it was revered as "a new generation's The Exorcist" and "the most traumatically terrifying horror movie in ages" -- Hereditary is finally in theaters. Which creates a new kind of terror for writer-director Ari Aster.
"I'm waiting for the backlash," Aster admits to ET when asked if he was at all concerned early reviews might lead to overhyping. "No film can stand up to that kind of hyperbole, and never does with me whenever I go into a film with those kind of expectations. It is really exciting to have people using superlatives like that for the film and I'm so grateful for it, but I am waiting now for the pendulum to swing in the other direction."
Suffice it to say, the movie will still prove plenty frightening. Though, for the first two thirds of Hereditary's runtime, the movie is a dramatic slow burn where any supernatural is held at bay, instead following the Graham family -- artist Annie (Toni Collette), her husband Steve (Gabriel Byrne), teenage son Peter (Alex Wolff) and 13-year-old daughter Charlie (Milly Shapiro) -- as they grapple with the death of Annie's mother, Ellen. That, Aster explains, is by design.
"I'm not affected by a horror film unless I am invested in the characters and the people to whom all of this stuff is happening," he says. "I knew that it was important to me to make these characters and their relationships and their suggested history as vivid as possible. So then when the movie does hit the gas, these things that are happening actually serve as betrayals to an audience."
The first betrayal comes when Charlie is being rushed home by Peter after suffering an allergic reaction at house party. Gasping for air, she sticks her head out the car window and is brutally decapitated by a telephone pole. Soon enough, the Grahams are facing naked cult members and demonic possessions as each is picked off in increasingly gruesome ways: Steve spontaneously bursts into flames, Annie decapitates herself while hanging from the attic ceiling.
Which leaves Peter. After jumping out the attic window, he wakes up and is drawn to Charlie's treehouse, where he is met by Joan (Ann Dowd), an enigmatic figure who, it is revealed, is part of a cult lead by Ellen, or "Queen Leigh" as a placard with her photograph states. Joan and the other cult members are gathered around a gold mannequin, arms outstretched, with Charlie's decapitated head on top wearing a gilded grown. Annie and Ellen's headless bodies are bowed before the figure.
Though Aster settled on the ending of the film "very early" on, what you see on screen is not what was originally scripted.
"It didn't used to be in a tree house, actually," he revealed. "There used to be an epilogue that happened in somebody's apartment instead of actually happening in the treehouse." -- Joan's apartment, he confirmed -- "In the original, he goes up to the treehouse, we fade to black and then the dialogue that comes from Ann Dowd is delivered, like, two weeks later."
That dialogue Dowd delivers as Joan acts as an explainer for everything that came before it. She first refers to Peter as "Charlie," implying that Charlie's spirit has moved from her body and into Peter's. As Joan places a crown on Peter/Charlie's head, she also recognizes him/her as Paimon, the so-called "Eighth King of Hell," and announces that the cult is bound to Paimon to reap their riches.
"I don't want to go too deep into that, because I want people to take what they take from it," Aster demurs of interpreting the ending. "But I will say that I think a key to the film is that it is a film about grief and about trauma and about how that can completely transform a person and not necessarily for the better." He lets out a laugh. "I think that's a key to understanding what I'm doing."
So, who is Paimon? And what does it all mean? Paimon is named in texts such as the Lesser Key of Solomon and Dictionnaire Infernal, a spirit obedient to Lucifer. His symbol -- a series of interconnected arches -- appears several times throughout the film, notably on pendants worn by both Ellen and Annie. Seemingly, Queen Leigh had been grooming her bloodline for who knows how long in order to provide a vessel for Paimon, resulting in a darkness surrounding the family (we're told Annie's brother previously committed suicide) and explaining away the eponymous inherited horror. Ellen made a deal, not with the Devil, but with Paimon, and the sacrificial ritual to manifest him unfolds over the course of the film.
As for why Charlie, well, that's more nebulous. Earlier on, Hereditary notes Ellen was obsessed with Charlie as an infant, so perhaps Charlie was predestined for possession and Annie unwittingly birthed the demon into the world, Rosemary's Baby-style. We are also told Paimon prefers a male host, hence Charlie switching over into Peter's body. The thing is, none of them had a choice, because their grandma sold their souls for some walking-around money. And you thought your family had drama.