Person who doesn't really like horror movies, finding out that I do like horror movies: "Oh, have you seen Hereditary?"

Me, being polite: "Not yet."

Them: "It's so good. I don't even like horror movies, but that was so scary."

If the core of what we fear is the unknown, the unknown at the heart of religion is intentionally wrapped in the certainties of faith in order to protect us from that terror, the fear of what is beyond the veil of death. Films that twist the certainty of faith into a nightmare have an impact on a population weaned on Christianity either directly or through the osmosis of a society infused with Christianity (that is to say, the U.S. white supremacist patriarchal capitalist state machine that has co-opted Christianity into a tool of indoctrination and control). You will regularly find The Exorcist at the top of "Scariest Movies of All Time" lists.

What I am getting at is this: I get it, but religious horror doesn't do it for me the way it does it for so many others. The trappings of Ars Goetia (etc.) are evocative and interesting to me, but they don't hold the depth of horror for me as they do for others. I prefer to the nightmare heat of cannibal Texas butchers or the real life unknowns of unsolved serial murders to the heresies and dogmas of cults, organized religions, or Satanism. I appreciate the aesthetic of it--from Kenneth Anger to The Witch to Blood on Satan's Claw--but it does not leave me shaking, disturbed, or unnerved.

So this did not live up to its reputation as a terrifying darling. Its other two reputations are that of being a great performance by Toni Collette and of being an intriguing investigation of mental illness.

I am afraid that while I love Toni--and she was good here at times--the over-the-top performance didn't move me. She delivered, no doubt, what the filmmakers wanted, but the performance was tilted toward a film I have no interest in. In fact, it's a film I find offensive, which brings us to the third reputation:

This portrayal of mental illness is infuriating.

What we have here are depictions of abuse and mental illness that is not served by the divergence into Satanic witch cult, nor truly understood in the storytelling. The performance is all histrionics, mood swings, and violence. The portrayal of mental illness as a cornerstone of horror does not work when the mental illness is portrayed as evil, the source of gore and death, or the consequence of the supernatural.

Even when a film attempts to infuse ambiguity into its portrayal--is it mental illness or black magic?--the message is offensive, damaging, and distracting from the real causes and impact of mental illness. When it is this explicit--either the mental illness and traumas are caused by the witch cult or a cover for them in this case--it's much worse. I'm not demanding a movie about summoning Paimon be nuanced and insightful about mental illness here. I'm demanding it not bring it up at all. You can be one or the other: an exploration of mental illness or a Satantic cult movie. Combining the two should be left to competent writers.

There simply is no meaningful exploration of mental illness, trauma, or the impact of either. The family dynamics are horrifying to behold on their own. The litany of mental illnesses in Annie's family are used as a shock tool, and nowhere does anyone suggest the problem is anything but mental illness itself (until the demonic parts). Instead, we're left with a film that treats DID, schizophrenia, and depression as acts of violence, not conditions that can be treated, not results of trauma and capitalist alienation, not something that normal people deal with on a daily basis.

It's demonization. It's stigma.

Mental illness, I can attest, is a pain in the ass in a society that is cruel and unforgiving. It is difficult to cope with when you've no resources. It can be deadly, but 99% of the time, mental illness is deadly only when exacerbated by the harshness of a system that demands green paper tribute for your life. We die because there is no place for us, no support for us, under capitalism. And this film and almost every other ignores that.

It ignores, too, that abuse is not hereditary (see what I did there). It is learned behavior. It is learned because it is rewarded behavior. This film instead dwells in the realm of "trauma begets trauma," leaving out the crucial pieces of that non-puzzle. This film perpetrates misinformation about mental illness and trauma in the name of cheap scares and atmosphere, and then it throws all of it away in favor of the witch cult.

It's frustrating, because the witch cult plot was far more interesting. It's frustrating, because the tone set by the sudden. graphic beheading early on is much more suited to the witch cult than the mental illness bait-and-switch. It's frustrating, because this could have been a better film without the pretend-depth of the family dynamics.

But at least, as my roommate points out, the effects were good.

Sally Jane liked these reviews