In Hereditary (2018) a family disintegrates under pressure from external forces. It’s a force they’re unprepared for, unable to defend against. A force later revealed to be a paranormal entity. A power beyond their comprehension. An entity capable of extreme horror.

The tension is created by holding back on fully revealing the paranormal forces. The majority of the film plays out as a family drama. Most horror stories declare the paranormal connection relatively early on and rely on sudden frights to shock the audience. There are shocking moments in Hereditary. Moments of extreme violence. But the story is really about the mystery and suspense created by downplaying the paranormal element for a long as possible, making the audience believe the family is plagued by bad luck and mental health issues.

It’s an attractively shot film, visually alluring. One could easily see it as an art house movie masquerading as a horror film. The blurring of genre expectations, the low-key build up, the pervasive strangeness, and the stand-out moments of disturbing violence make it harder to fathom what kind of story are in. The ambiguity makes it unsettling.

Part of the creepiness comes from the horror of awkwardness. Comedy has long-championed awkward humour, but in Hereditary horror claims it back as its own. The horrific awkwardness is almost unwatchable when the son loses control of his body, experiencing violent spasms in front of his classmates. The mother, increasingly paranoid and desperate, is unable to contain her grief, unable to keep her family together – unable to work out what’s going on until it’s too late. The father watches on in disbelief. They are doomed by a force beyond their imagination. A force that is already inside their family (the enemy within). And when the paranormal forces are revealed they are more bizarre than anything we could have expected.

Like many horror stories, Hereditary is about ‘irrational’ forces. Our rational explanations, our logic and faith in science can only take us so far. The daughter in The Exorcist, for example, is investigated by psychologists and neurologists. They cannot help her. These ‘beyond logic’ horror stories undermine our belief in a rational, science-based understanding of the world – they reaffirm our fear and suspicion, our gut-instinct, that there are strange forces operating in the real world.

Hereditary plays with our delineation between a ‘weird coincidence’ and a suspicion that an occurrence fits into a recognisable pattern. The point at which random ill fortune can be blamed on someone or something. Our survival instinct is all about spotting danger within the ordinary. Horror films exercise this skill.

In their time, films like The Exorcist and Rosemary’s Baby took horror to a new level. Watching them now, although well executed, they are of their time. Hereditary takes the horror film genre back into that zone of uncomfortable viewing. The realistically depicted family characters, and the ordinariness of the domestic scenes drives the tension.

What does the story mean?

It is a warning of dark powers in the world, forces beyond the rational. This warning is echoed in stories like Barton Fink, and Mulholland Drive. It’s a story the audience can relate to, parents struggling to keep a family together, coping with the stresses of contemporary life, fitting in and not fitting in. The mother’s artworks hint at her semi-conscious awareness of the dark forces affecting the family, and her inability to confront them in real life.

The story plays with genre expectations like, Get Out, we wonder if it is a social drama about small town racism, a horror, or a science fiction story. Hereditary plays the same game, disorientating the audience.

What kind of story is this? This anxiety matches fears in contemporary society – disturbing events in our lives and on the news. What’s going on? What kind of story are we in?