Spoilers for Hereditary (2018), of course.
Ari Aster’s Hereditary (2018) was exceptionally well-received upon its release, with critical praise focused on the nuanced and sensitive portrayals of a dysfunctional family dynamic. I also very much enjoyed the film when I watched it, finding the tension between the generations of women within the family to be the highlight, dredging up old memories of my own complex familial relationships. The issue is that I watched it with my boyfriend, Ata, who spent most of the movie asking me what was going on and declared at the end that it was ‘white people shit’, a concept I found highly intriguing and decided to pursue further. This essay is going to focus on his perspectives. He’s not much of a writer, more of an artist, but he was keen to get his point across through me, hence why I’m narrating this essay and he isn’t.
Ata watched this film and found it scary in the generic way that horror films are scary. However, he totally missed out on understanding what the film was supposed to be about. He was raised in an entirely Māori household with the exception of his stepmother, and it was only through observation of his stepmother’s family that he had any frame of reference for the events of Hereditary. Māori households and Māori society in general tends to be non-nuclear and feature high levels of interaction from extended family, with a focus on respectfulness and status within the larger family groups. Indeed, many of the phenomena of the natural world are explained through the concept of whakapapa, the knowledge of genealogy that stretches back generations and is passed by oral tradition. Ancestors such as Māui and Kupe are responsible for creating the place we live in now, and if you move back far enough in your lineage, you are related to all things, living and not living. Ergo, nuclear families are antithetical to core Māori beliefs.
The nuclear family and the dynamics found within are key drivers of the conflict in Hereditary. The way I interpreted Hereditary was by viewing it as a story about the male line and about how women suffer to maintain this male line. Almost every male member of the family has died of unnatural causes, and Ellen, the grandmother, is forced to hedge her bets on Peter, much like how male children in real life families are unfairly burdened with the expectation of carrying a family legacy. As such, the movie’s focus on the agony of the relationships between Annie, her mother Ellen, and her daughter Charlie is a good exploration of how poisonous their nuclear family structure has turned out to be. The power of this film thus comes from the transplantation of a familiar family dynamic into a supernatural setting. But what does it mean when these family dynamics are not familiar?
To confirm my own belief about the story hinging on the familiar nuclear family, I read through three different mainstream reviews of the film, one of which was made by a white New Zealander. All three reviews discuss different facets of the story, and are comprised of a mixture of positive and negative thoughts, but they all state that the strength of the film falls in its portrayals of complicated social relationships, and the weaknesses lie in the horror aspect, which was apparently hit-or-miss. The reviewers seem pretty comfortable with the idea that the relationships and family dynamics portrayed within this story are relatable and have the ability to inherently connect with the viewer. But if these elements are not relatable to the viewer, then the film is left with the hit-or-miss horror aspect and a whole lot of confusing waffle, which seems to be what Ata was experiencing.
I’m not going to claim that Hereditary is an inherently white story, since my sample size of people I’ve discussed this with is much too small, but I will say that Hereditary is not a Māori story at all. Ata and his family are far too aware of the dangers of angering supernatural beings to ever end up messing with dark entities or allowing said dark entities to keep infecting their descendants. Such a thing is tapu, to say the least, and in Ata’s words, messing with demons like that is white people shit. I have often heard it complained by African Americans watching horror movies that the lack of respect that white people have for dangerous social and supernatural situations is culturally specific, and that other cultures have a better handle on their spiritualism and know not to fuck with dark magic. I don’t think anyone was trying to claim that this film was definitely and indisputably a Universe Human Experience, but reviewers engage with it as though the relatability of the family dynamics portrayed within is a given fact.
Horror films that do utilise Māori perspectives are rare, even with New Zealand’s penchant for filmmaking. We like making horror movies, and we especially enjoy making horror comedies, since we don’t take things too seriously, and we don’t mind making the occasional film from the perspective of the Māori, but these rarely overlap to create a horror film that uses the Māori cultural perspective when formulating the raw essence of the film. From what I can tell, the film that comes closest is Taika Waititi’s What We Do In The Shadows (2014), which was created by and stars Māori people, but it focuses on European mythological concepts such as vampires and werewolves. Ata likened it to how Jordan Peele’s two original horror films, Get Out (2017) and Us (2019) not only star black characters but explore black perspectives on life in America to craft a uniquely flavoured story; no such horror movies exist for the Māori.
The assumption by reviewers and other audiences that Hereditary is a universal story of family conflict goes to show a certain kind of cultural naïveté or tunnel vision exhibited by white people towards other societal structures, and even the NZ review read above does not take the potential alienation of Māori audiences into account. It seems strange that an agonising tale of abuse and dysfunction within a nuclear family should be seen as so widely relatable to so many people, and without going into it in any detail, might shed some light on the dysfunction of the nuclear family system as a whole.
Cool movie, bro.
- Māori: the original settlers of Aotearoa/New Zealand, once hailing from Pacific Islands further north.
- Tapu: sacred, protected, restricted in a spiritual sense (related to the Fijian-to-English loanword tabu or taboo).
- Whakapapa: lineage, descent, the memory of ancestry. Essential to the Māori social dynamic.