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The real-life horrors behind the ending of Hereditary

How the Satanic Panic of the 1980s has become an unlikely indie horror influence.

Milly Shapiro in Hereditary
It doesn’t have much to do with the bird.
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

Warning: Major spoilers for the film Hereditary follow. I’m going to talk extensively about the film’s third act, so turn back if you don’t want to know!

As it cruises into its final moments, director Ari Aster’s blistering new horror movie Hereditary seems to settle any “Is it real, or is it metaphorical?” questions about what’s really going on in the movie with, “Oh, you better believe it’s real!”

Where the first two-thirds of the film live in an uncanny space that could best be described as “In the Bedroom set in a haunted house,” the last third goes full-tilt into supernatural horror, with cultists, strange beams of energy, and Ann Dowd shouting, “I EXPEL YOU!” across a crowded highway at a boy she hopes to possess with a demon.

When the movie finally ends with Dowd’s character calmly and pleasantly explaining to the now-probably-possessed boy that he is “Paimon, one of the eight kings of Hell,” then a whole bunch of naked people calling, “Hail Paimon!” you’d be forgiven for thinking the movie had completely shredded whatever slow-building tension it had mounted throughout its first two acts. (I would violently disagree with you, but I would forgive you.)

Now, I would maintain you could still read this final act as metaphor, as one final snap from reality occurring in the head of the film’s protagonist, Annie (Toni Collette), who has clearly been on the very edge of mental stability all movie long. There’s a rich, metaphorical reading of Hereditary that treats everything that happens as a kind of empathetic tale of a mother who finally has enough and takes her own life and that of her husband (possibly sparing her son — but to a life in which he’s accidentally killed his sister and seen both of his parents die).

But let’s not treat this movie as metaphor. Let’s talk about those final scenes as if they really happen. And let’s talk about why the movie’s devil cult has less to do with our reality and more to do with the way horror movies briefly influenced our reality in the 1980s and ’90s.

Let’s talk, in other words, about the Satanic Panic.

How the Satanic Panic has influenced the indie horror movies of the 21st century

The Witch
2016’s The Witch also has elements of Satanic Panic.

One complaint about Hereditary that I have some sympathy for (expressed best in what I saw as a subtweet of the film by Vanity Fair’s K. Austin Collins, one of my favorite film writers) is that the devil-worshipping cult pulling strings is very much a cult straight out of a movie, not the more mundane horror of a real cult, which strips people of their connections, their means, and often their lives. Movie cults are boogeymen that leap out of the shadows in the third act and reveal their dark intentions for the protagonist.

Yet I can’t entirely shake the cult in Hereditary — or the very similar cults in other indie horror movies of the 21st century, like Ti West’s 2009 House of the Devil or Robert Eggers’s 2016 release The Witch — because it feels, to me, like a throwback to the Satanic Panic, a very real, completely unfounded fear that gripped America in the 1980s and ’90s, leading to very real unjust convictions and the infamous McMartin preschool trial.

In brief, the Satanic Panic was a belief, driven by a wide variety of not particularly scrupulous sources, that the United States had become infiltrated by a large number of Satanists and other practitioners of the dark arts who were conspiring to abuse and assault the nation’s children, commit human sacrifices, and turn the country over to the dark lord.

The idea was ridiculous on its face, but it had deep, deep roots in the US, stretching all the way back to the Salem witch trials, and we’ve never quite been able to shake variations on it. What is the Pizzagate conspiracy theory, if not the Satanic Panic dressed up in 2010s clothing?

What was vaguely remarkable about the Satanic Panic was how it felt as if it had arrived in our reality straight from a horror movie. When you look at some of the “true accounts” of devil cults on the evangelical Christian circuit in the ’80s, many of them sound less like anything that could really happen and much more like the third acts of movies like Rosemary’s Baby, The Exorcist, and The Omen.

Much like the way reports of alien sightings in the wake of Close Encounters of the Third Kind became more likely to depict gray-skinned beings with big black eyes, the devil-worshipper movies of the ’60s and ’70s solidified within the American subconscious a very specific idea of what was going on behind closed doors in seemingly harmless suburbia. (Surprise: It involved bathing in goat’s blood and trying to get demons to possess children.)

This is, of course, how horror often works — in a feedback loop with reality. Our real-life horrors (in this case, a millennia-old belief in a dark being constantly trying to turn humanity against its better natures) get translated into horror tales, which get translated into real-life scares, which later become other horror tales.

My colleague Aja Romano, for instance, showed just how The Exorcist drove real-life scares around Ouija boards, which were later translated into horror movies about Ouija boards. Fear begets fear begets fear. It’s one of the things human beings are good at.

And so it is with the Satanic Panic. The directors of these recent indie horror movies are of the perfect age to have been cognizant of either the initial wave of Satanic Panic reports or a smaller wave of them in the ’90s, to say nothing of a small wave of dark horror tales of Satan’s misdeeds that arrived in the ’80s and ’90s (such as the 1987 horror film The Gate or the 1995 X-Files episode “Die Hand Die Verletzt”). And when you hear these dark and gruesome stories, it’s only natural to wonder, hey, what if they really happened?

House of the Devil does the best job of zeroing in on a fairly straightforward depiction of the Satanic Panic, while The Witch turns the idea of rejecting God in favor of Satan into a weirdly twisted act of feminism. But Hereditary goes one better than both of them by making this cult of devil worshippers simultaneously incredibly terrifying and strangely hilarious.

The entire third act of the film walks a razor’s edge between terror and ridiculousness. Perhaps I like it so much because it reminds me of all those years I spent reading “true” stories of Satanists in my evangelical Christian childhood home. You laugh, if only because you want so desperately for none of what you’re seeing to be happening.

But it is happening, right? Hereditary and its indie horror cousins capture brilliantly the way that Americans have always found ways to fill our dark corridors with satanic beings and low-level demons. “Paimon” is a real thing from the odder corners of Christian mythology, and if we take the Satanic Panic at face value, then somebody out there is trying to resurrect him right now.

They aren’t, of course. Or at least I hope they aren’t. I’m sympathetic to the idea that a movie like this devalues the very real horrors of cults. But a movie like this can also help us stare at a particular strain of American darkness and find a way to laugh at it, before running away screaming.