On Grief: Or, the Difference Between Loss and the Payment of Debts

On Grief: Or, the Difference Between Loss and the Payment of Debts

Loss is a part of everyone’s story. Nothing protects us from it: neither wealth nor law, community nor solidarity. In real life, suffering is too random and piercing to be blunted by systems of order and safety that have taken shape under capitalism, and suffering will not end with the birth of any new political or social order. However, when we tell stories about grief, there are at play what Northrop Frye calls the “structural patterns and conventions which are found only in pictures”. In these cases, the meanings of loss, suffering, and grief change. Rather than speaking to the randomness of lived experience, tropes of loss and suffering establish narrative sites where the violence inflicted by social institutions on individual lives becomes visible. Moreover, the patterns and conventions found in stories often reflect understandings of social order that are suppressed by mainstream political-social discourse. While, of course, there is an extensive body of theoretical work on fascistic aestheticization of political issues and themes in art, these narrative conventions, or Frye’s “structural patterns,” tend to be more difficult to manipulate. As such, the political assertions formally embedded in narrative conventions are almost impossible to separate from the narrative content of conventions/tropes themselves. Loss and grieving may be part of every person’s life, but when they form part of horror narrative, these concepts take on a discursive power that lends them an ethical, even moral, salience. By examining how horror expresses and depicts grief, we can learn a great deal about our own society’s turbulent political unconscious, and the ways that politics exists as part of working people’s daily lives.

We will go about this study through a textual comparison, within the horror genre, of stories in which characters grieve. The practical question at hand is why characters do or don’t overcome (read: survive) their grief, and where their fates (again, as a structural pattern) place them symbolically in relation to the forms of power that the narratives invoke. Our first example is also the most recent: 2018 saw the release of Ari Aster’s critically and commercially successful horror drama, Hereditary. Following its release, many reviews in culture publications picked up on Hereditary’s engagement with themes of grief, loss and their consequences in an otherwise fairly convention-driven horror plot. For instance, take Jess Joho’s claim in Mashable that, “arguably, every instance of the paranormal can be interpreted as an eerily recognizable allegory for the agony of familial loss, disease, and destruction.”  Earlier on, she quotes Aster himself as saying that “what happens to the family is inherently horrific, even if you strip away all the supernatural elements”. I submit that both of these interpretations overlook clear themes and moments of the film, and that in fact there are moments in Hereditary that reframe the grieving and loss, and the “upset… on a deep level” that Aster cites as his hope for what the audience feels.

These aspects are the active role of the grandmother in setting Hereditary’s action in motion, and the ending of the film, by which time every protagonist has been brutally killed in service of a satanic ritual, itself orchestrated by the grandmother. To my mind, two questions arise: what role does the grandmother subplot play in creating a cohesive story, and why, narratively speaking, does the film end with everyone dead, rather than having (for example,) a hero overcome or survive such an awful family drama? The answers to these two questions are closely linked and may lead us to redefine Hereditary as something other than a “film about grief and loss”. Let’s begin with the second question: why does everyone die? To answer this, we should look at other stories where all or most of the characters die as well. Broadly speaking, one would immediately look to the slasher genre, where the trope of the ensemble cast that dies one by one finds its home. Friday the 13th (1980), You’re Next (2011), Final Destination (2001), Cabin Fever (2016), and Demonic (2015) all end in bloodbaths, many of which do not even spare the archetypal ‘Final Girl’ or equivalent. The last two films mentioned, while not neatly in the slasher category, are notable because they incorporate the ‘slasher’ convention of killing off the whole cast in ostensibly non-slasher horror films. In fact, what we find beyond the trope of the murder-happy slasher film, is that all subgenres of horror have stories in which all protagonists die, and others in which some or even all the characters survive. What this suggests is that the living and dying of characters (and the way that their deaths are framed) is determined by a different criterion than subgenre alone. I submit that for a number of reasons, one of the most important of these criteria is class, as coded through the language of film.

Let’s return to Hereditary to see how this might work. The size of the house, the location far removed from even a neighborhood, to say nothing of an urban area, and even the occupations of the parents suggest an upper-middle class, if not upper class family. Moreover, near the end of the film, Annie, the mother, finds a letter from her mother in a book on demonic rituals, on a page reading “the riches to the conqueror”. The letter itself ends by saying, “Our sacrifices will pale next to the rewards. Love, Mommy”. Aster’s screenplay notes that Annie is “mortified,” and throws the book back into a box. This of course likely lines up with the shock experienced by the audience as the grandmother is revealed to be the film’s true antagonist. The grandmother’s beliefs clash with not only our expectations of what a motherly figure should believe, but with any basic notion of empathy. What is clear at the end of the film is that what was important to the grandmother, as well as to the cult followers, is wealth and earthly power, as expressed when the cultists pray to the demon Paimon to “bring us honor, wealth and good familiars”. Annie, as well as the rest of her family, were sacrificed in exchange for these things, as well as the resurrection of the demon.

As we can see, this reading shifts the way we might place grief and loss in the film, and it may well answer why those grieving characters get no resolution for their pain. To refer to the title of this piece, I see Hereditary as less about loss and more about a payment of debts, a twisted comeuppance. The grandmother, like so many white ancestors, gave herself in to an ideology of gain. There is little difference between the statements of purpose of the cultists in the film and the guiding principles of capitalism. Regardless, the fact remains that in our own history, Europeans and their descendants have brought about genocide and chaos in search of wealth and power. Hereditary would not be the first horror story to suggest that there is something evil in the foundations of wealthy, privileged lives and spaces. John Carpenter and Debra Hill’s Halloween (1978) influenced generations of horror movies with its simple premise that the suburbs, that epitome of manufactured class, racial, sexually normative space, was not safe but eerie, not peaceful but covering over heinous acts of violence. Just as in Halloween, Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (1980), and Adam Wingard’s You’re Next, Hereditary’s terror comes from the revelation that the origins or foundations of a structure, be it a suburban town or a wealthy family, are rotten, and that for its seeming perfection, it was always doomed to collapse under its own weight. Although this narrative movement is not an unfamiliar one (a similar one undergirds Greek tragedy, for example), a story that represents a tragedy is not the same as one that explores its consequences.

For instance, neither Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook (2011) nor Karyn Kusama’s The Invitation (2015) show fully the tragic circumstances that set both plots in motion, but follow a cast of characters attempting to put the pieces of life back together. Contrasting these two stories is illuminating: of the main characters of each film, it is the single working mother and her rambunctious child in The Babadook who eventually succeed in subduing and making a tenuous peace with the titular monster, and are able to normalize their lives by embracing a more expansive definition of community and family. In contrast, Karyn Kusama’ depiction of a wealthy mother is driven into the arms of a murderous cult by the death of her child. The story of her and her ex-husband, who is the protagonist of Kusama’s film, is one of alienation and a lack of trusted support systems, supplanted cheaply by money and a cultish form of self-help spirituality, which itself is class-coded. Representations of deals with a “devil” in exchange for safety, wealth and power stretch back to Wilde’s Dorian Grey and Goethe’s Faust, and scholars such as Marshall Berman have written extensively on this narrative trope as a reflection on the fundamental bargain accepted by capitalists. In essence, what The Invitation and Hereditary share is a use of doom in relation to this broader grief narrative that also encompasses films like Babadook. What is clear is that when we look at who is doomed (or who has doomed themselves?) and who can save themselves, we find a strong anti-capitalist, anti-elitist trend, as wealthy characters are pulled down by their negative emotions, and working class characters manage to survive.

As mentioned previously, this should not be thought of as a sort of commentary on how real life is, or should be, in terms of mental health or family tragedies. Instead, I mean to suggest that, in narrative, the theme of family tragedy gains resonance at a level beyond that of the individual family; that these stories of loss, pain, and grief allow us to glimpse the corrosive and often violent ways in which social institutions shape our individual and communal lives. With this in mind we can see how Hereditary especially is not an exploration of grief or loss, but of one family’s destruction at the hands of its own greed and ill-gotten privilege. Horror stories tend to function similarly to fables, in that they express opinions and visions of the world through truisms and expressions of shared knowledge. In this context, a story like Hereditary points to the dangers inherent in engaging with capitalism’s desire for “creative destruction,” rather than individually deriding any particular person or group of people. Aspiring commentators on popular media have hung their hats on the discovery that grief exists as a theme in some horror narratives, but few, if any, of their pieces provide any indication of what work such a theme might be doing, both narratively and socially. This is why it matters how characters are marked and coded. To say that Hereditaryplunges about as deep into the abyss of familial loss, ensuing blame and paralysing sorrow as it is possible to go” means nothing. Is horror, and especially a bleakly surreal work like Hereditary, supposed to somehow be realist? As if the world’s biggest problems were really masked serial killers or haunted houses, and as if the deepest possible message in horror is, “being sad is scary and bad”? My issue with these thinkpieces is not a unique one: all media could be analyzed, (and often are by some very thoughtful people) in a more nuanced, coherent way. In the case of grief-related horror specifically, I think that it is worth thinking much more about what these stories do with grief, rather than simply stating its presence, like a clearly doomed supporting character, whispering that there is something hiding in the closet.


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