Heredity or A Dog’s Life

The fate of animals in any horror movies is a prickly subject. What does it mean for animals to die in horror movies? Most of the time the audience knows that the furry bell weathers are often the first to go. Films like Halloween or the Friday the 13th franchise occasionally play with the audiences feeling of safety by how they treat animals. The film Hereditary gives us an interesting take on this phenomenon. The family dog plays such a sporadic role in the film, as a signal of domesticity and a warning that bad things are about to go down. But the appearance of the family dog is so strangely spaced that we wonder where in fact the family’s best friend has been and then why, we see his ultimate demise.

Symbolically, pets are meant to create a living indicator of domestic tranquility and security. As domestic creatures, dogs are mainly the animals shown in horror films. They are pack animals and therefore offer a great symbolic punch to the concept of the domestic sphere being attacked by an outside force or in some cases from the inside. As a possession picture, Hereditary is a clear indication of the trope. Throughout the film we see Annie’s (Toni Collette) character creating and recreating trauma, miniaturizing it in graphic scenes of a diorama as if to shrink the horror of what these particular instances mean within her life. Throughout the film we see these grotesque model in fact elevate the horror and create scenes that escalate the tension in the film. The domestic tranquility of the family is attacked because the dark roots of trauma are minimized, placed in a room, used as mere artifice.

The children are infected with the kind of sinful past, a deal with the devil that plays itself out through the rest of the film. The issue of domesticity is under attack here, but not simply the dissolution of the family unit, but more like the transformation from a more traditional form to an alternative, menacing group. Even the oddball death of Charlie (Milly Shapiro), is founded on the story of Peter (Alex Wolff) striving to find another social family, moving out of the creepy, yet tasteful house of his parents and forming other bonds. Charlie is the strange little girl, maybe mystical, maybe possessed who is constantly doing strange things, a red herring for the audience. Her death is almost comical. It seems pretty hard to believe that Roman Polanski would’ve had Rosemary Woodhouse killed off by peanut allergy. Yet the strange death fits with the fear of the body, that someday our own sense will encounter an outside force that turns our own life sustaining systems against us and leads to us figuratively or literally losing our head. The way Charlie dies, her head sticking out the window, ironically mirrors the action of the family dog. A shaggy dog story that is more gruesome than anything. What is the center of Hereditary and what does it have to do with the few appearances of the dog?

Early in the movie we see the dog barking, the watchdog who is doing its job, alerting the family something is going on. After that instance, we see only occasional sightings. Once Peter jumps out the attic window, only to be reanimated by the demonic spirit Paimon do we catch a glimpse of the family dog dead, another victim of the group of devil worshipers who have either decapitated members of the family or possessed them. What does the dog’s lack of prominence say about the context of Hereditary? The family is under attack, by forces from the inside and yet the watchdog, the voice of comfort and domestic tranquility and protection is silenced by its absence. The dog is an interesting symbol for now, a domesticated creature that operates at our pleasure, who’s life is there to aid and comfort, to ameliorate our fears and swipe away anxiety as easy as drawing a hand across fur. Yet Hereditary tells us that comfort is peripheral at best and easily destroyed.

The title Hereditary is interesting for what it includes as what it excludes. The genes hint at what is innate, something out of our control, a thing deeper than bone. Yet in the confines of the movie, the demon seed is planted not because of a gene, but because of a poisoned relationship. The familial bond between mother and daughter has mutated. The progression of passing down genes to the child has been transformed into begetting a black divinity into the world. In this way the connotation of the term Hereditary is funneled into not an evolutionary process, but a blood rite. Our poor friend the dog is symbol of pack loyalty denied, of domesticity obscured and the reordering of family, not by breed, but by a bent spiritual architecture.   

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