The Word in “Hereditary”
The film draws the viewer’s attention to the primacy of language.
The world is made of language. The word is primary, more primary than the speed of light, more primary than any of the physical constants that are assumed by science to be the bedrock of reality.
— Terence McKenna, Shamans Among The Machines
Terence isn’t denying the facts behind the physical world as they’re known to science. He’s suggesting, rather, that the sub-structure of our lived experience is defined primarily by the words we use to describe it.
One of the Hero’s most powerful tools is the language he or she uses. The careful or careless selection of words shape our lived-in realities and determine our individual and collective fates.
The words we choose can make, or quickly break relationships. The bondages of trust that hold a family or group of people together are often dependent upon the quality of communication.
A few simple words saved Odysseus and (some) of his men from being chomped on by the Cyclops — “I am nobody.”
The language between Annie and Peter is often circuitous as they “answer” each other’s questions with more questions. A dinner scene later in the film highlights the tension that has been building up underneath a routine of evasive and indirect words — words that lack any true capacity for expression.
At a group therapy session, Annie references a phase of bickering she got into with her son.
It’s clear that the two characters never overcame this phase, as they struggle to form an understanding between each other throughout the story.
Language gives expression not only in image, feeling, idea, resonance, but also in what remains unexpressed.
[ It ] is a channel of communication between humans, but by means of prayer and invocation it is the means of communication between the individual and the ‘godhead’. It is the instrument of divine intelligence.
Closely connected with traditional knowledge is the twofold symbolism of ‘the gift of tongues’ and ‘the confusion of tongues’ — the result of a spiritual befogging which directs the gradual passage from unity to multiplicity.¹
The Devine entities that are invoked by prayer include classic hero figures, such as Hercules, Thor, or Christ. They called up to appear at moments of crisis and chaos to slow or reverse the descent. They bring with their personalities a structuring function, translating the lower instincts into higher, more conscious forms.
Peter’s baser impulses — towards Bridget (his crush), for example — are refined by the “hero” into patience, self-restraint, and wit. However, the natural strain inside of Peter isn’t being resolved by any form of deep awareness or self-mastery. His personality’s tenuous control over his ‘animal’ body is inherited from the standard cultural norms of behavior that surround him.
He is capable of a modest dampening of his impulses, but he is not creative. In fact, he seems to persistently carry a drowsy, unresolved inner tension throughout the first act of the movie, which is intensified by the trauma guilt he experiences after Charlie’s death.
Throughout the film there are multiple appearances of unknown language and cryptic words used in invocations and casting spells:
Annie writes “Satony”, a word used in ritual necromancy, on the wall in her diorama of Charlie’s room. The words “liftoach” (meaning “open”) and “pandemonium” (“chaos”) are scribbled in several places throughout the house (according to various blogs and Reddit posts), and also appear in her dioramas.
Joan uses such language to “cast a spell” on Peter towards the end of the movie.
Joan’s spell is meant to “expel” Peter’s feeble ego — which, under better circumstances, might have developed into an identity more capable of warding off such intentions.
She is priming his mostly vacant mind for the arrival of the much more potent personality of Paimon (the demon), for whom Charlie was a temporary vehicle.
Charlie is reluctant to speak at all. Words must be dragged out of her. Otherwise, she simply emits a “clicking” noise.
Perhaps a “click” of the tongue signifies language reduced to a most basic sound, a sound that can hardly be attributed to the human spirit.
“Om” — a sacred word that refers to the Atman, or the “inner Self” — is also a simple, yet fundamental sound, and is used in a number of Eastern religious practices. Charlie’s click could be seen thematically as the embryonic voice of Paimon mimicking or even mocking “Om”.
Both “Om” and Charlie’s “click” are the most basic of sounds that can be emitted by any creature. One, though, is expressed from the depths of the gut, while the other comes from the mouth alone.
The script doesn’t make any direct reference to such an idea. However, the word “click” is used several times to express the sound of a phone hanging up, which links Charlie’s sound to the termination of language.
Peter takes Charlie to a house party.
The music is blaring in the background — the standard beats and rhythms heard at such parties. The choice of music in this scene is an obvious nod to the debasement of language.
The lyrics are… perverse.
They blare in the background, and become more crude as Charlie starts to turn purple and her throat starts to swell.
A wide shot of the kitchen is centered on three girls, one of which is about to be furiously chopping a heap of walnuts. Two windows on the rear wall appear to be sleepy, or weary eyes.
The screenplay calls for an “ECU (extreme close up) of the nuts being brutalized”.
Of all the nuts that could be used in the scene to trigger Charlie’s allergic reaction, the director chose the nut that looks like a brain.
The girl dicing them up into little bits foreshadows the shattering of Annie’s mind after Charlie is killed in a freak car accident, and is referent of the wider theme of deteriorating mental health.
Upstairs, Peter smokes marijuana with the girl he’s been ogling in class. Another kid on the bed asks if his sister is ‘hot’.
Peter ignores the inane question.
Charlie appears suddenly at the doorway, surprising her brother. She tells him that her throat is ‘getting bigger’, as a severe anaphylactic reaction to the walnuts sets in.
The swelling of Charlie’s throat can be seen as a metaphorical birthing of Paimon after incubating in her body. The demon is emerging as sound, or as a “word”, in a kind of twisted echoing of the all-creating “Word of God”.
The significance of the Mouth
Earlier, at the funeral home, while Charlies is eating her chocolate bar, Ellen’s lips are anointed with oil. These actions in parallel bring attention to the mouth, and highlight the importance of what goes in and what comes out of it.
The mouth is the symbol of creative force and, in particular, of the insufflation of the soul. As the organ of speech and of breathing, it also symbolizes an elevated state of consciousness and the power to control through use of reason.
The two chief characteristics of the human race are the use of speech and of fire. Both derive from psychic energy or MANA.¹
Like fire, what comes out of the mouth is the sometimes creative, and sometimes destructive power of the spoken word.
While grieving for her daughter, Annie sits with Joan at her dining-room table. This is where Joan will teach her the invocation that invokes the now free spirit of the demon, which must be spoken out loud and are in an unknown language.
Sitting across from Joan, Annie finds something in her mouth. It happens very fast and is easy to miss, but she “pulls a BLACK HERB from her mouth”, as the screenplay specifies. This image also parallels a hallucination Annie has while she is sleepwalking, in which insects appear to pour out of her son’s mouth.
The black herb is mentioned again:
“Annie’s mother guides a baby bottle into BABY CHARLIE’s mouth. The bottle’s milk is polluted with black herbs.”
What comes out of the mouth are words, but what goes in is Milk. For Charlie, it was the breastmilk of Ellen Leigh.
1. The Penguin Dictionary of Symbols
All images from https://movie-screencaps.com/
The Word in “Hereditary”