The House in “Hereditary”
A closer look at the symbolism used in the film
A rationalist might say: “Demonic possession is just mental illness”,
A religious person might say: “Mental illness is just demonic possession”.
In “Hereditary”, an inherited demon is slowly destroying a family of four. The demon, in this case, looks like a powerful bend towards schizophrenia, as well as a host of other cognitive disturbances.
Despite her family’s long history with these mental illnesses, Annie seems to be quite healthy and stable. She has a home, a family, and a career as an artist. She is, in fact, the master of her own world and, as such, the master of her own mind. She builds dioramas for her art exhibition, called ‘Small World’.
The movie opens with a view of a treehouse. It appears to be supported by four trees, some of which have been cut down to level in order to hold up the structure. A closer look, though, reveals that what’s holding the treehouse up isn’t immediately clear. It almost seems to be floating.
The camera slowly pulls away from the window and into a room. A fly meanders in the shot.
The setting is revealed to be Annie’s art studio where she creates her dioramas. The first model we see is a miniature of the very house her family lives in, the house that the viewer is already inside of.
The viewer moves closer to the house and into one of the bedrooms where we encounter the main characters. Is the viewer enormous, or is the family tiny, like dolls in a dollhouse? Nevertheless, this opening suggests that the entire film takes place in a ‘small world’ that Annie has constructed.
The house is a feminine symbol in the sense of being a sanctuary, the mother, protection or the womb.
According to Bachelard the house signifies the inner being, and its floors, from CELLARS to attics, symbolize different states of the soul. The cellars correspond to the unconscious, the attics to spiritual elevation.
The outside of the house is the human mask or appearance; the roof is the head and the spirit, controlling consciousness; the lower floors denote the level of the instincts and of the unconscious; kitchens may well symbolize the place of alchemical transmutations or psychic transformations… Similarly, one may move from one room to another on the same floor or go up or down stairs in the house, thereby expressing a stationary or stagnant phase in psychic development or a developing phase, which may be either progressive or regressive, towards spirituality or materialism.¹
Already, a strong synergy forms between the description of the symbol ‘house’, and the use of the house in the film. The viewer is in the attic and looking inside the house that Annie has built. Annie is not with the viewer, though. She is inside the model, along with her family.
Views of the house later in the film show it to be quite isolated and surrounded by a forest. Imagining a forest can produce some polarizing emotions. On the one hand, comfort and relaxation in nature and away from the hustle of more populated areas. The other, fear and angst of being lost.
Annie and her family are simultaneously protected by the darkness of the woods, and threatened by a monster concealed in the trees.
…the darkness of the forest and the deep roots of its trees symbolize the unconscious… and the terrors that linger there.¹
The house serves as a strong metaphor for the inside Annie’s mind. It is a stronghold she has erected to defend her children from the monsters that she has inherited from her own mother. Though other members of her family have succumbed, she will remain grounded and balanced.
- The Penguin Dictionary of Symbols
- All images from https://movie-screencaps.com