Hereditary and the Monstrousness of Creative Moms

Ari Aster’s horror film belongs to a long tradition of stories that see something sinister or unnatural about artistic mothers.

Annie Graham (Toni Collette) working in her home studio in the film 'Hereditary.'
Annie Graham (Toni Collette) working in her home studio in the film Hereditary. (Reid Chavis / A24)

This story contains spoilers for the film Hereditary.

As a mother and a cinephile, I’m always on the lookout for films about women who have children but also retain some separate sense of self. Hereditary, the horror movie that has been lauded as a modern masterpiece of the genre, is an interesting case. Ari Aster’s debut feature follows Annie Graham (Toni Collette) and her family as they cope with the recent death of Annie’s mother. While critics and viewers have focused on the supernatural evils (and emotional traumas) that the Grahams face, as a writer I found myself most intrigued by the film’s portrayal of motherhood and creativity.

The audience learns early on that Annie is an artist who works from home making elaborate miniatures. Of Hereditary’s many horrors, it’s something minor that touched me most acutely: the persistent interruption of Annie’s work by her family. Relatives, both living and dead, feel free to pop in to her studio and disrupt her whenever they like—to ask for her car keys, to announce dinner, or to leave nasty notes. It’s not clear whether the film finds these mundane disturbances as egregious as the demonic ones, but I did. They reminded me that, for women who want to create, a room of one’s own is often not quite enough. The myriad interruptions imply that there’s a world outside of the studio, and outside of herself, to which Annie should be attending—an idea that’s all too common in literature and pop culture about creative moms. By linking Annie’s craft directly to the eventual dissolution of her family, Hereditary suggests that art is something better set aside when the baby comes.

Depictions of bad mother-artists can be found in virtually every medium. Look to literature and you’ll find the cruel actress Irina, who taunts her son into a suicide attempt in Anton Chekhov’s play The Seagull, as well as J.M. Coetzee’s 2003 book, Elizabeth Costello, in which the titular novelist’s son recalls standing with his crying sister outside their mother’s locked study door. In cinema, there’s Elizabeth Taylor’s artist cum adulteress in Vincente Minnelli’s drama The Sandpiper. Even in the frothiest TV, there’s Friends’ Nora Bing as a Jackie Collins–style novelist, and Gossip Girl’s Eleanor Waldorf, a fashion-designer mom and a nasty piece of work who outsources maternal duties to her maid. These representations share the idea that despite becoming mothers, these women have unnaturally resisted the requirements of the role, failing to redirect their attention and emotional energies to the proper object.

Hereditary is more subtle in its depiction of Annie than, say, the 1981 docudrama Mommie Dearest, which explored allegations that the actress Joan Crawford abused her adoptive daughter, or the more sharply humorous iteration of actresses as terrible mothers in Mike Nichols’s adaptation of Carrie Fisher’s Postcards From the Edge. In their own ways, these popular based-on-a-true-story films imply that the successes of these moms came at a cost. The narratives frame famous creative women in relation to their domestic roles, rather than their artistic ones, rewriting their achievements as failures.

Unlike many of these works, Hereditary takes seriously the messy, often taboo feelings about parenting that many moms experience. In one intense dream sequence, Annie shouts “I never wanted to be your mother” at her son, Peter, before quickly explaining how much she now loves him. Another scene shows Annie shaken by the death of her daughter, Charlie, rocking back and forth on the floor like an animal, and later screaming at her son, whom she blames for her loss. Collette is fabulous throughout, giving an intense performance of the guilt, grief, anger, and abiding love that come with parenthood. In other words, Annie’s feelings distinguish her from the idealized images of mothers as nurturing domestic angels, like the one recently depicted in the post-apocalyptic horror film A Quiet Place. But while Hereditary grants Annie complexity as a mother, it doesn’t extend this empathy to her role as an artist, and instead offers a relatively one-note approach to her work.

Hereditary’s shallow depiction of Annie’s career quickly unwinds its more thoughtful considerations of motherhood. Throughout the film, artistic commitments undermine what should, in the eyes of many, be a mother’s primary allegiance. The movie begins with the funeral for Annie’s late mother, Ellen. At the service, Annie delivers a eulogy: “My mother was a secretive and private woman. She had private rituals, private friends, private anxieties.” On one hand, her words create an air of mystery and unease. On the other, they just paint an image of a woman who has kept part of herself separate from her offspring. Later, Annie discovers an ominous note when going through Ellen’s possessions: “Our sacrifice will pale next to the rewards.” Though Annie doesn’t understand the message yet—Ellen is later revealed to be a witch—it serves as an artist’s statement of sorts: Hereditary can be read as a cautionary tale about selfish women who sacrifice their family to their craft.

Ellen’s preferred form of creative expression is witchcraft, a practice that certainly deserves a measure of suspicion. But when Hereditary later portrays actual devil worship, it doesn’t look so different from the forms of women’s art often dismissed as “crafts”: candle-making, jewelry-making, decorative wood-carving, and interior design (albeit in the form of a blood mural). Though Annie is not her mother, her work is used to hint to viewers that perhaps she’s a bit off as well. There’s something cold and controlled about Annie’s miniatures. These meticulous facsimiles of her world are the art of someone drawn to detail and who wants things arranged just so.

Annie’s relentless and steely pursuit of her work, Hereditary suggests, hurts her family. Early in the film, Annie’s daughter Charlie dies in a grisly freak accident: As her brother, Peter, drives her to the hospital to treat an allergic reaction, Charlie sticks her head out the window for air, only to be decapitated by a telephone pole. While Steve, the father and husband, responds to the tragedy by trying to restore a semblance of normalcy, reminding the traumatized Peter about SAT-prep classes and taking on domestic tasks, Annie immerses herself in her work.

Finding Annie building a miniature model complete with station wagon and tiny decapitated head, Steve says, “Jesus. You’re not going to let him see that? How do you think he’s gonna feel if he sees that?” But Annie responds as an artist, not as a mother: “It’s not about him. It’s a neutral view of the accident.” Rather than reacting to familial need, Annie works through her own emotions with the help of a creative practice that looks increasingly ghoulish. Using the argument of art’s truth as a bludgeon, Annie dismisses her son’s feelings, offering an even harsher version of the neglect on display by the self-servingly deluded poet-mother in Augusten Burroughs’s memoir Running With Scissors.

In perhaps its most explicit account of the artist-mother as a danger to her children, Hereditary gives Annie a history of sleepwalking. In one scene, she recalls an incident that explains her troubled relationship with her son: One night, she wandered into her children’s bedroom, doused them in paint thinner, and lit a match, waking the traumatized Peter. Here, the tools of her craft directly menace the children she’s meant to protect above all else.

One could argue that Instagram and Pinterest are full of evidence that I’m wrong about the judgments people cast on artistic moms. These platforms are rife with inspiration for creative moms. But much of what we see on Pinterest is the kind of domestically oriented creativity featured in A Quiet Place’s homesteader fantasy, in which Emily Blunt’s Evelyn pours her energies into making her family’s farmhouse bunker a beautiful place to raise her children. Meanwhile, movies like Hereditary see something threatening about the artist-mother who is too individualistic and too rigidly professional, who creates for herself and the public while closing out her family.

Hereditary maps the disturbance caused by the improperly focused mother on to Annie’s artwork. The cinematography supports the sense that the Grahams’ home is coming to resemble the miniatures, suggesting that Annie’s aesthetic choices matter most for the way they imprison her family. The film opens with a view of a tree house from Annie’s window, and then pans to reveal one of her models: a replica of the Graham home. As the movie progresses, the camerawork—smoothly tracking across the soundstage-like rooms, lingering just outside of a room, or repeatedly depicting a scene in one long shot—gives viewers the bad feeling that the family is living in one of Annie’s models. Unfortunately for the Grahams, the miniatures only become more disturbing.

At Hereditary’s halfway point, Annie takes up her late mother’s craft and holds a séance that dooms her family. As the family makes its way downstairs to raise Charlie’s spirit, the camera slowly tracks up an art piece that has not yet received much attention. Annie’s work thus far has been meticulously verisimilar, bordering on minimalist, with depopulated nurseries and studios built of balsa wood. But this new model is something else: a modest family home stacked atop a spiraling series of nightmarish underground structures, all dark and twisted. During the séance itself, the film visually closes the gap between Annie and her scary art when the camera repeats the same slow track, this time up Annie’s body. The apparent message: Like the horrifying house, there’s something ugly beneath Annie’s surface as well.

What Annie unleashes results in total death—even the dog gets it. And though Annie’s perhaps not entirely herself at the end of the film, her artistic signatures have infected her world to horrifying effect. Hereditary’s final shot, of the family’s tree house, echoes the opening—only the wall has been taken off to display a final tableau of carefully arranged bodies. As the camera moves back to show the culminating horror as yet another one of the miniatures, it’s hard not to see that, one way or another, Annie has made this.

While the tree house of corpses is particularly macabre, it has something in common with Annie’s earlier miniatures: In all her work, the Graham matriarch draws from family experience, a trope that points to how limited the broader public imagination can be when it comes to female creativity. As much of the discussion about Greta Gerwig’s film Lady Bird demonstrated, when women make art, there’s a tendency to suspect that their source of inspiration is autobiographical. When that woman is a mother, as in Hereditary, the suspicion can become more accusatory: Annie’s final work makes the idea of turning one’s family into fodder for art horribly literal.

Hereditary is an innovative film in many ways, smartly written and filled with surprises for horror fans. But for audiences used to watching other female-coded genres like the melodrama or the tell-all biopic, the movie becomes predictable in its sidelining and eventual condemnation of Annie’s art. Whereas many of its predecessors show mistreatment of children as a side effect of a creative mom’s fundamental narcissism, Hereditary renders the relationship causal: Make art and destroy your family, whether you mean to or not. While such films might allow that expression is a human need, they also draw clear boundaries around it. When women create life, these depictions tell viewers, that should be enough.