Tuesday, June 30, 2020

Pride in Paimon: A Queer Male Reading of Hereditary

(Every month, I choose a horror film to shine a spotlight on and dig into. For the month of June, I selected my favorite film from 2018, Hereditary.)

Since its original theatrical release on June 8, 2018, Ari Aster's film Hereditary has been the subject of much discussion. One area of focus around the talk about the film is its screenplay and the potential hidden meanings that Aster may have laid within the film to mine. There are several fan readings, including speculating if there really is a cult, or if mother-son protagonists Peter and Annie were both suffering from a hereditary mental illness and imagining the events film in their collective delusions. Another analysis views Aster's feature as a socioeconomic commentary, with it being noted that Annie's mother Ellen and her friends of the same generation specifically engineer the downfall of the younger generations of Ellen's family, perceiving it as metaphor for the increasing economic gap between generations in America. However, there is one reading of the film that has been delved into briefly, but not popularized at large by Hereditary's fandom: Taking the queer sensibilities of the film and making something out of them. One YouTuber named Nyx Fears has an analysis of the film as a metaphor for coming to terms with being transgender through the character of Charlie. However, I seek to use Heredtary's queer connotations to craft a reading of the film as a variant on the queer male coming out narrative, specifically through the character of Peter.

The amazing Alex Wolff as Peter Graham in Hereditary (2018)

So, before going any further, what exactly does the formula of the coming out narrative typically entail? TV Tropes's own analysis for this, simply titled "Coming-Out Story", describes the usual formula that the coming out narrative follows: A queer character, one that is often (but not always) gay or lesbian identifying, reveals to one or more people that they are whatever sexuality they identify as and not heterosexual. Traditionally, with younger queer characters, the coming out narrative will revolve around coming out to one or more family members, usually a parent or guardian. The reactions from those being coming out to can vary, but there are two common reactions in media: One is positive, in which the queer character will get unconditional support from another, who will help them adjust as they finish the coming out process. The other is negative, in which the queer character will experience rejection from another, who makes it known that this coming out will not be accepted or tolerated. There are other optional components, which include the use of a hate crime or other queer-targeted violence somewhere in the story, as well as having a specific event trigger the queer character into directly realizing they are not heterosexual (referred to as a "root" by the 1999 film But I'm a Cheerleader). However, the coming out narrative usually has a more narrow scope than other stories revolving around queerness due to its personal nature.

So, now that the pieces that make up the formula for the coming out narrative in media has been explained, the question now becomes: How can one read Hereditary as following the coming out narrative? Isn't that just, to paraphrase the book Flaming Classics: Queering the Film Canon, experiencing "Something akin to delusion" to try to interpret Aster's film in a non-heterocentrist fashion? Well, one must apply the coming out narrative's traits to the film to mine its queer connotations out from the film's denotation. Or, more simply put, we read between the lines of the film to figure out how this specific analysis can be formed. To begin with, for the coming out narrative to be germane to Hereditary, there has to be an event within the film that can be read as a coming out to begin with. I propose that the "coming out" within the film is actually one of the most buzzed about sequences within the film: The accidental death of Charlie. As denoted in the film, Peter gets into an accident while driving with Charlie, who is having an allergic reaction to ingesting nuts, and Charlie, sticking her head out the car window in an attempt to aid her breathing, gets decapitated by colliding head-first with a telephone pole. Peter, in shock, refuses to properly address what he has done and instead drives straight home, lying in bed awake until his parents awake the next morning to discover what happened to Peter and Charlie.

What are the queer connotations of this sequence? First, if we are choosing to read Peter as a queer male character, the discovery of Charlie's causality and his parents's reactions to what he has done would be the perfect moment to choose as it, on simplest terms, a major revelation. Going further, it can be argued that Charlie can be read as symbolic of Peter's queerness: This can be seen throughout the first forty minutes of the film before Charlie's denotative death, and Peter's connotative coming out to his parents. One example is the film's rhythm: Whenever we get a scene with Peter trying to express romantic interest in his classmate Bridget, it's always followed by a scene with Charlie. When we see Peter in his classroom in the scene that introduces Bridget as a potential romantic interest to Peter, it is immediately succeeded by Charlie in her classroom. Later, during the fateful party that Peter is forced by Annie to bring Charlie with him to, when Peter goes off to be alone with Bridget, his attempt to get closer to Bridget is interrupted by Charlie, who is beginning to have an allergy attack. Basically, whenever Peter attempts to express romantic interest towards Bridget, his connotative queerness disrupts and prevents him from achieving .

Peter, interrupted

Thus, after the reveal of Charlie's causality, Peter's connotative queerness goes from concealed to revealed. As a result, Peter's parents, Steven and Annie, fall in line with the responses those come out to have as presented by the coming out narrative. Throughout the film, Steven is shown to be a supportive, albeit somewhat passive, father and has a caring rapport with Peter that's shown literally from the beginning of the film when he wakes up Peter to get ready for his grandmother's funeral. He even, at multiple points, scolds Annie for disturbing their son with her behavior, including exposing him to violence and disturbing content, such as during the sequence where Annie leads her family in performing a ritual that she believes is a seance. Ultimately, the supportive and passive nature of Steven is why he is murdered by the evil forces: His support of Peter, but refusal to actively remove Peter and himself from the negative environment results in Annie's seemingly inadvertent murder of him. What sticks out about Steven's death as intriguing is that he is killed by being set on fire when Annie tries to destroy an art book she used as a talisman in the "seance" ritual, as flames, or rather the term "flaming", is something that is considered a connotation by many with male queerness. It's almost as if Steven is being purposefully punished by Annie for his supportive behavior towards his queer son with something tied to male queerness.

Steven Graham, literally flaming

Annie, as already inferred, becomes the non-supportive figure, whose loaded tension with Peter that the movie hints at early on becomes full-on animosity and hatred after the coming out occurs. Annie's connotative queerphobia can be found in several scenes, most prominently in another of the film's signature scenes where Annie confronts Peter after seeing a vision of his head engulfed by ants. After Peter asks her what she's doing in his bedroom, Annie then goes on to discuss how she never wanted to be Peter's mother and that she did "everything" to try to end her pregnancy with him, but nothing worked. While the scene's denotative meaning is clear, that Annie knew what Peter was going to be used as a vessel for since her pregnancy, one can also apply a connotative meaning that Annie always knew that her son was queer since her pregnancy and that her queerphobia made her attempt to end her son's life repeatedly. Which is something that not only pushes Annie into the mold of the rejecting figure, but also is the first in a pattern of violent acts she commits towards Peter, thereby adding in queer-directed violence section of the coming out narrative into Hereditary's own. Also of interest is that, like Steven, this scene ends in flames. Once again, the film repeats the association of male queerness and destructive flames, only this time, it is a connotation that foreshadows the destined destruction of Peter and Annie's relationship.

The mother & son drama of Hereditary

If it wasn't already clear, the recurring use of fire as imagery is one of several symbols with a queer male connotation that is used in Hereditary. Others include one used during a scene when Peter becomes briefly possessed in class. His hand is raised in a position that emphasizes his limp wrist. Limp wrists are something that has long been associated with male queerness to the point where a popular meme this year depicts various people and characters, most often one of Spongebob Squarepants, with their wrists limp while asking "Is he...you know?" Another more obtuse one can be found when Peter gets a text from one of his male friends telling him to "bring his dick" to a party, which can be seen as a joke, but also can be read in another more specific manner. In addition to these, there is also the character known widely as "The Smiling Man." Smiling Man only appears in two scenes: One in which he appears behind Charlie, smiling at her knowingly near the beginning, and another at the climax in which he appears to Peter, naked and giving the same knowing smile before Annie tries to attack Peter. His denotative meaning is, once again, pretty visible in that he's one of the knowing engineers of the Graham family's downfall, but on a queer connotative level? One could argue that he represents the aspects of male queerness perceived to be unattainable, which includes happiness as an openly queer male, as well as being sexually liberated, hence his nudity in his second appearance right before Peter is attacked for the final time by Annie. 

Some queer male connotations, courtesy of Hereditary

Speaking of the Paimon cult, though, I think that while the cult is a denotative danger to the Graham family, it is possible that, once again, going on a queer connotative level, they can be read as a safe space for Peter after the destruction of his family. Possibly even a queer collective themselves as, when they are shown in their full glory, there are lit candles everywhere, delivering a potential payoff to the fire imagery throughout the film as Peter joins them. To heterosexual characters such as Annie, or to characters trying to present as heterosexual as Peter is fresh after his coming out, the cult appears frightening and dangerous. However, when alone with Peter at the end, we see cult leader Joan genuinely trying to comfort him to the best of her abilities and the rest of the cult no longer act in aggression. Interestingly, since Joan is also shown to be associated with fire as she introduces the ritual to Annie by beginning with lighting a candle, This reading implies that Joan, herself, could potentially be a queer character like Peter. Which gives more meaning to Joan's comforting of Peter and her explanation of the group's purpose to him, as well the cult's assurance of acceptance to Peter among their ranks. It is a concluding development to the story that also completes the film's connotative adherence to the coming out narrative.

Joan and the cult doing their part to contribute to Hereditary's connotative fire imagery

To restate the above, there has been multiple fan readings of Ari Aster's film Hereditary since it's original release two years prior. These include interpretations of the film as imaginations conjured by the potential shared mental illnesses of the main characters, as a commentary on socioeconomic despair among younger generations caused by an older one, and as a metaphor for being transgender. In addition to these, one can make a reading of the film where, through the analysis of its queer sensibilities, it can be viewed as a queer male coming out narrative. Using connotations and an analysis of the formula of coming out narratives, one can argue that the film can be seen as the character of Peter coming out as queer and facing conflict from his mother, while being supported by his father, and then unexpectedly embraced by a queer collective upon the dissolution of his family in the wake of said coming out. When one reviews all of this, said reading of the film in a non-heterocentrist fashion gains validity and adds another layer to an already multi-layered and complex film.

No comments: