What bad stories of a semi-apocryphal nature do you tell about your family tree? I have so many - my great-grandparents on my father's side were first cousins! I'm distantly related to Nancy Reagan! One time in the 1950s during a thunder-storm a bolt of lightning struck my grandparents' trailer and a ball of electricity rolled out of the wall socket across the living-room floor - my grandmother then had to lock herself and all of my aunts and uncles in the bedroom in the dark because my grandfather, who had serious mental health issues, went bat-shit about the end of the world and tried to murder them. Years later that same grandfather became convinced that eight-year-old me was having an affair with his wife, my grandmother, and I wasn't allowed to see him anymore. Fun stuff like that.
The story that really comes to mind when considering the themes brought up by Hereditary, the existentially unraveling new horror film starring Toni Collette - that story is one of the ones I personally experienced. When I was 10 we were taking a family trip to the local roller-coaster theme park. My father was driving, my stepmother was in the passenger seat, and I was in the backseat with my sister, my step-sister, and my cousin. We were barreling down the crowded weekend expressway, being kids, listening to music. I'm a roller-coaster fanatic and was pretty excited.
My father turned and made a goofy face at us. All of us laughed. It was a weird face. Twisted, like. And he kept making it. And he kept making it. It suddenly seemed as if the car was going faster? That's when my step-mother started screaming. Crawling across the seat. Screaming for me to help, to pry my father's hands off the steering-wheel. Our car began swerving, back and forth, towards the cars on either side of us.
It took me several moments, what looks like forever when I remember it now, to recall my father's epilepsy. It was a recent development - I'd only seen this face on him once before - as if written by an overly-dramatic novelist that was on the night my parents split up. He sat in a chair in the dark, I can picture him now half-cast in shadow, after they'd had a blow-out fight - he'd knotted himself up into an assemblage of skin and bones that only somewhat resembled a person. He found out that night he had epilepsy. From then on he took his medication dutifully, and that did the trick, until now, twisted up in the driver's seat, his hands locked viselike onto the steering wheel, his foot jerked fast onto the gas, three kids in the backseat screaming.
We survived. I climbed over and helped pry him off those places and things and we managed to get the car to the side of the road without killing anybody. But that was and remains the maddest moment of my life - the moment when the mask of sanity slipped, as Patrick Bateman puts it, or when David Lynch's camera crawls down through the pristine front lawns of Americana and watches the beetles writhe and scream. Death unfurls itself not just as inevitable, but everywhere, everywhere and always. The floorboards wrinkle up, the sands beneath the house shift, and the hell fires beneath there lick their dry pink lips. Bared gums, salivate with sickness, anticipation.
Hereditary has it out for us. It wants us to remember the bad places, the bad scenes, we've seen. The absolute worst ones. The personal spots inside of us that hurt when you poke them, with winces, so you look away, poke at the happier places instead, it pokes back, you poke elsewhere, it pokes back. It's a whirlpool of bad memories, bad feelings, bad bad stuff. Emotional psychosis, trumpets stuck on full insanity blast. It's you crying out "Mommy, Mommy," with nobody to hear you.
Writer-director Ari Aster and his gorgeous quartet of finely hugely unhinged performances, people disintegrating in front of you, writhing and screaming as hell-fires lick their faces, unhinge their heads, hold them out for you like a peace offering, fingertips blackened with black blood tar. Here, they say. Take this what you never wanted. The worst selves of you and everybody you've ever loved - a tapestry of skin and bones spread over the bed to keep your tootsies warm. There's no place like home, there's no place like home, there's no place like home, there's no place like home.