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Explaining the End of Hereditary

Alex Wolff in Hereditary. Photo: Photo courtesy of A24

Major spoilers below for Hereditary.

So you’ve made it through Hereditary. Well done! But are you feeling a little overwhelmed by that final scene? The tricky thing about Ari Aster’s chilling debut feature is that he keeps viewers in the dark for so long. So the big tree house finale scene — in which Peter (Alex Wolff), possessed by the soul of his dead sister Charlie (Milly Shapiro), who was carrying the spirit of hell-demon Paimon inside of her, is finally crowned by the cult of followers who have been terrorizing his family — is a little confusing on first watch.

That confusion you’re feeling is by design. As Aster told Vulture in a recent interview, “I kind of wanted to make a conspiracy film without exposition,” meaning that the viewer is not meant to be omniscient, instead learning about the plot along with the Graham family. “We are with these people who don’t know what’s happening, and we’re with them in their ignorance.” Fortunately for you all, our job here at Vulture is to make things as clear as possible, so we’ve got your question-and-answer guide to the mysteries of Hereditary.

Is Paimon a real thing?
He is! Well, real in the sense that if you believe in hell and the Devil, Paimon is an actual entity that people do worship. Across various sources, he is designated as “a great King,” “one of the chief demons,” and “one of the most significant Angelick Rulers.” He pledges intense fealty to Lucifer, and is often rendered riding atop a camel (as we see in the movie).

There are conflicting points of view on whether or not Paimon and the demon Azazel are the same. According to the Black Witch Coven, “He is one of the demonic princes overseeing the four cardinal directions, West being his domain,” which is why Joan (Ann Dowd) and her minions “looked to the Northwest” to summon him in the movie. According to the Joy of Satan Ministries, “Paimon gives the power to influence and control others,” and that seems to scan with how he operates in Hereditary. However, the Ministries also describe the hell king as “full of energy. Loud noises and bright lights tend to make him more active. He is very colorful and very friendly.” Maybe the “party naked” side of him just got left on the cutting-room floor, because that guy seems like a downer.

What are the “rewards” Annie’s mom wrote to her about in that note?
In the Invocations book that Annie pulls out of her mom’s box of things, a photo opposite the image of Paimon shows a person sitting atop a mound of treasure that says “Riches to the conjurer” in a caption beneath. When Joan speaks to Peter/Charlie at the end and crowns him, she asks Paimon to give her and the other followers “knowledge of all secret things, honor, wealth, and good familiars.” She also asks that he bind all men to them, as the worshippers have bound themselves to Paimon.

Those sound like “riches,” and what with a king of hell being resurrected, being recognized as one of his privileged followers will probably be a lot safer than, well, not. In a description of his abilities, Satan Ministries says Paimon “teaches the arts and sciences” in addition to providing “good familiars and gives one position and honor. He can reveal anything about the Earth and one’s mind.” At least some rulers recognize the necessity of science education!

So is Peter Charlie? Or is Peter Paimon?
It’s likely that Charlie never knew she was imbued with the spirit of a king of hell, but as Annie says in her grief-counseling group, her mother got “her hooks” in the young girl from the time she was a baby. (Annie’s mom, Ellen, even insisted on feeding baby Charlie — and one of the miniatures depicts grandma offering the infant her exposed breast — which is probably the most unremarked upon insane thing that happens in Hereditary!) As we learn in the opening eulogy, Annie’s mom had “private rituals” and “private friends,” a lot of which probably revolved around putting Paimon into Charlie.

Clearly, though, the long game was to get Paimon into Peter, since Paimon desires a male host, and Charlie sure didn’t seem like she knew she was a preferred underling of the Morning Star! So Paimon was bound to Charlie, and when that little light flash dissolves into Peter’s limp body after he pitches himself out of the attic window at the end, that’s the spirit entering him. With the transfer complete, Joan seems like she’s ready to let Charlie (in Peter’s body) know about everything that’s been going on, and who she really is.

Remember, too, that Annie’s brother hung himself at the age of 16, leaving a note behind saying that his mother had been trying put people inside of him. Ellen failed to secure her son as a host, and she missed her first shot with Peter since Annie had excommunicated her, so she used Charlie as a temporary vessel until the ritual was able to be completed later on. As Aster told Vulture, “The film is about a long-lived possession ritual that is seen from the perspective of the sacrificial lambs.”

With that in mind, you can think of the movie’s sinister events as being carried out by an invisible hand, of sorts. That sigil painted above grandma’s headless body in the attic? It’s the actual symbol of Paimon, and it was also carved in the utility pole that tore Charlie’s head off. The leafy bit that Annie brushed off her lip when she was drinking tea at Joan’s apartment? Probably a witches brew of some kind (or another red herring, because by now you’re paranoid!). Peter feeling his throat close up and taking the posture of Charlie’s decapitated body before ramming his head into a desk? His body was being primed for a spiritual takeover. Those scrapbook photos of Ellen wearing a white dress and a veil as she’s being showered with gold coins? That sure looks like a wedding ritual, once you see her framed portrait in the satanic tree house, which has a placard with “Queen Leigh” fixed to the top. Does that mean grandma was spiritually married to her granddaughter and therefore breastfed her husband-grandchild when she was an infant? It seems like it!

Did Annie do any of those weird things — decapitating her dead mom’s body, spying on Peter outside his window — or was it the Paimon cult?
Aster told Vulture that, “The audience is supposed to suspect that it might be Annie (Toni Collette), but it is the cult of which Ann Dowd is a very significant part. But you are supposed to feel through the film that there are people on the periphery that are watching this family and are hovering just outside.” Therefore, Annie’s sleepwalking was not resulting in her exhuming bodies and cutting their heads off. It was a red herring! Aster laid a sort of bread crumb trail throughout the whole movie, tipping the audience off that the Grahams were always being watched by associates of Ellen and Joan: the man who smiled at Charlie at Ellen’s funeral, all those “new faces” who mourned her death, the woman waving at Charlie across the street from her school, the person breathing in the dark outside of Peter’s window — all of whom we probably saw naked in the tree house during the finale.

What was with that book setting people on fire?
It seems like a safe bet that the book was bound to protect itself. The cult did demonstrate they had a pretty long reach when it came to influencing events, and they even stashed a whole headless body in the Graham’s attic when no one was looking. When Annie tried to destroy the book, it protected itself, but Annie was also essential to completing the possession ritual, so she couldn’t just burst into flames and die. We’ll call that a warning shot by the book.

But Steve (Gabriel Byrne)? He had to get out of the way, and the moment he died, Annie stopped being Annie and started being an agent of Paimon, much like when she channeled Charlie into her own body during the previous seance. When that ring of light flashes over her, that’s Paimon beaming into a new host, as Collette explained to Vulture, “Ari was standing to the side, and he let me watch this person be on fire for a while [laughs] and then he said, ‘Okay. Now, Paimon, the light, is going to enter you.’ We never talked about what that would ever look like or be like. I just did one take and that was it.” And that, ladies and gentlemen, is called acting.

What about Annie’s sleepwalking, then?
Go with us on this one. What if the sleepwalking was Annie’s subconscious way of fighting her mother and the ritual? She tried to set Peter and Charlie on fire once before, but snapped out of it, right? And then in the dream we see where she admits she wanted to abort Peter but her mom wouldn’t allow it — and so she tried to force a miscarriage — she screams at him, “I wasn’t trying to kill you! I was trying to protect you!” Somewhere in Annie’s subconscious, she must have known her children were in danger, and just as her brother had to kill himself to escape Ellen’s clutches when he was a teenager, Annie must have known deep down that as long as the kids were alive they were existentially threatened.

As Collette told Vulture, in that moment Annie is surfacing what’s in her subconscious, which “allows the audience to know that this is a kind of murky, not entirely understood, gray area about the safety of her children and the intention behind the creation of them — and how her mother was involved, right? So it’s still not entirely clear, but there is an indication of some concern there.” Annie realizes after it’s too late, though, that she part of that threat, and must die if she wants to protect her kids. But by that point the toothpaste is out of the tube, and it just isn’t going back in.

Are the decapitations part of Paimon-related lore?
Not really. Aster added that element himself, and he’s not into explaining why. As he told Vulture, “I think it would be disingenuous for me to give any sort of intellectual answer. I feel like there are a lot of really good reasons and I like all of them, but uttering them kind of robs them of something. But I do like all the things that they might provoke in somebody.” As for Collette, she has formed her own theory about all the rolling heads. “We’re so attached to our bodies, we’re so attached to the brain and the mind. They’re like the control center, and that once you lose that metaphorically, you become nothing, and therefore you are able to give yourself over to this greater force?” Speculate away!

So why did he use Paimon?
No special reason, really. Aster said to Vulture that he just didn’t want to deploy Lucifer again, and hey, that’s fair. If you need a more substantial explanation than that — just let it go. Sometimes creepy is enough.

Explaining the End of Hereditary