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Season of Spooky: The Filmography of Ari Aster and Terror Inescapable · 3:06pm Jun 23rd, 2020

Horror changes.

A few years ago when I was still actively blogging for this site, I wrote a series of essays about my thoughts on some old horror saws within the fandom. I think the first few I picked up were "Cupcakes", "Rainbow Factory", and Silent Ponyville. I did this because i was and still am a big fan of Japanese pop culture (read: weeb) and the idea of blogging about horror - usually an autumn-thing in the US, where I'm from - in the middle of summertime felt like a fun change of pace. If you've ever read the original Higurashi sound novels you probably know where the impulse came from, and the aesthetic I'm talking about - horror through the lens of unbearable summer heat and the ever-present noise of cicada.

Since I'm back, at least for a while, I wanted to do some more writing - stick my oar back in. We're halfway through pride month and I want to do something for that as well, and I might. But for now, I just want to talk about the fact that for most of my adult life, I've dealt with creeping anxiety and depression, and I feel like horror movies are getting way better at addressing that.

If you are into horror films - and I don't just mean you like the classics, I mean if you are invested in what's coming out right now - Ari Aster's film Hereditary has been inescapable.

Seemingly coming out of nowhere and proving that Aster and his collaborators were masters of the craft, Hereditary owned my life for months after I first saw it. It introduced me to a huge range of talent either new to the horror world or who I hadn't encountered yet. There's Aster himself of course, but also composer Colin Stetson, a jazz musician whose score haunts the film and who I'm very excited to know will be soundtracking Adult Swim's upcoming Uzumaki adaptation. Looking at the cast and crew, Toni Collette kills as Annie Graham, the protagonist, and Jennifer Lame and Lucian Johnson (the editors) deserve special credit for their work as well. If I listed everyone who deserves to feel proud for their work on this film, I'd literally have to include the entirety of the end credits.

If you know horror, you know this film. If you don't, I urge you to watch it for yourself. It's streaming on Amazon, but if you can find a physical copy that's absolutely worth it. You owe it to yourself, and I know most of you are still stuck at home more than you'd want to be anyway, now's a great time to binge films.

What struck me about Hereditary, which I will be very loosely summarizing because I want you to watch this film for yourself and it's worth watching without being spoiled, was that it captured something I experience in a smaller way all the time. While the film has plenty of occult scares and spooky moments of a more traditional variety, much of the atmosphere comes from being trapped in uncomfortable situations with the characters. A funeral for a relative you have a strained relationship, a fight with your mother at dinner that escalates into a screaming match, a group therapy session which is uncomfortably hijacked.

Hereditary is a movie about anxiety, guilt, and shame. Ari Aster has described the film in interviews as being an occult film "from the perspective of the sacrificial lamb", and the general mood he seems to think is most core to that experience is hypervigilance.

Here's a comparison: watching Hereditary, to me, gives me the same feeling that I have whenever I'm in a room of other people and not sure which ones are comfortable with me existing. I feel a little unsafe constantly. I'm always checking over my shoulder, trying to make sure that nobody is staring. It doesn't matter if there's a transphobe in the room, they might all be lovely people. What matters is that there might be, and that gives me a sense of intense paranoia. Sometimes it's helped me avoid what would be awkward or terrifying confrontations. Most of the time, it's been crippling. I've felt that less and less as I've progressed in my transition, but it's not a feeling you soon forget.

Aster followed up Hereditary with perhaps my new favorite horror film, Midsommar.

A riff on the folk horror genre1, Midsommar follows college student Dani Ardor after she receives news that her unstable sister has committed murder-suicide, deliberately suffocating herself and both of their elderly parents. With her boyfriend Christian barely able to remain emotionally present to comfort her, Dani begins to sink into depression. It's at this moment that exchange student Pelle invites Dani to accompany Christian and his group of friends home to Sweden with him for the summer, to observe the midsummer rites of the Harga - the nature-worshiping commune he was born into.

Look I don't need to tell you that the Harga turn out to have an elaborate midsummer ritual requiring human sacrifice. You know that from the title of the movie. Hell, you know that from the first scene of the movie. This is because the film opens on the image of a hanging tapestry which roughly, in stylized form, spells out every plot beat in the film - in narrative order, no less. It holds on that shot for a full minute. If you stream the film or watch it on Blu-Ray at home, it seems to dare you to just pause and study it. Go on, the film taunts you. I don't care if it's obvious.

And it's right. When I saw this film in theaters, I was hypnotized. It was the Fourth of July at night in a nearly-empty theater - I think Cyne and I might have been the only two there - and I could not stop staring. I was never surprised by what happened, necessarily. The movie takes place during midsummer in Sweden, meaning every scene not indoors is in blinding daylight. You are given ample clues in every scene's beginning to let you know exactly how it will end. If you pay attention to a few lines of scattered dialogue, you can even predict the exact way in which characters will be murdered.

I couldn't stop obsessing over it for months. I still haven't stopped.

Midsommar takes the openness and the awkwardness of Hereditary to its obvious extreme. Every scene is laid bare. Every element of the story falls into place as if nothing else could possibly have happened. In interviews with Aster the film has been compared to a fairy tale and I completely understand. It's spellbinding.

I don't want to over-glorify this film. I'm at best ambiguous and at worst suspicious about some of Aster's choices as a director. In both Hereditary and Midsommar, mental illness is used as a shorthand for danger and instability. Dani's sister is identified as being bipolar, a diagnosis I was given before a therapist bothered to check whether or not I displayed traits more obviously belonging on the Autism/ADHD spectrum - and this is the only reason given behind the murder/suicide. The unspecified dissociative mental illness of Annie Graham in Hereditary is used to build her as a suspicious and untrustworthy figure, to the point that when she does fall under the influence of dark powers in one scene it's almost a bit of a relief because at least you know where she stands now.

I'm not even going to touch using a person with what appears to be some version of down's syndrome as spectacle at various points in Midsommar and showing them committing violence against a neurotypical person because that's just super not how that power imbalance normally goes down.3

In spite of these creative choices, I'm in love with Aster's films not because they represent perfection, but because they represent a kind of horror uniquely suited to the moment in history I live in.

For my generation, born into the era of the twenty-four hour news cycle, we are always aware of the danger around us. Whether the latest development of the global pandemic, the murder of an unarmed black woman in her apartment by police, the crushing and slow existential terror of climate change; all of us know everything terrifying that's about to happen in the world. As a trans person living in this world, I also have a special kind of hypervigilance because certain things other people take for granted ranging from the right to receive medical care to the right to use a public restroom without suspicion or harassment could be taken from me within a single executive order or court decision.

Horror like Aster's films speaks to me because it's raw. It's open. It's just there. It captures the feeling of being trapped in a place and a time that is slowly picking away at your sanity. The world is in danger. We know why it's in danger. We even know who's doing it. We know the names and faces and the addresses of an entire class of people who are disproportionately responsible for the perpetuation of the system. And yet it feels like there's nothing we can do.

I can't predict what horror will look like in twenty years. But if I had the ability to choose a direction for it, I know what I'd pick.

But do not wallow in despair. Do not succumb to the paranoia.

There is power in us yet.

Join me next time when I talk about the monster as empowerment.

1If you don't know what that is, think The Wicker Man. 2
2No, not that one. The other one. The one with Christopher Lee as the villain, from the '70s. That one.
3Wait I think I just did touch on it. Damn.

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Comments ( 7 )

Unrelated, but now I'm wondering about the Venn diagram of horror films and films where the villains win in the end.

Oh hey

I think my favourite video I've done is on Hereditary, because you recommended it

I think one of the things I found most interesting about it is that the visual language it used most heavily came from romantic comedies. Most of the tension was. What I loved most about it is it took the same tension that romantic comedies build and then cut through to make a punchline, but then didn't make the punchline. The tension just stays, and lingers, unaddressed.

Since I made that video, the other half of my thoughts here ended up being found in Hannah Gadsby's "Nanette". I highly recommend that too.

Love to see the return <3

Both are films I've loved as pieces of horror and filmmaking. I've only watched Midsommar once (because I really want to watch it with friends a second time, but then COVID happened), but I've seen Hereditary multiple times, and it never fails to unnerve me and make me tense. I'm really looking forward to whatever Ari will do next, and to see where horror in general goes.

I was just thinking 'man, I should probably resume reading the Higurashi VNs' yesterday, and now this blog post has all but reinforced my gut instinct to get back into it.

Horror media where paranoia is the focus is the sort of horror I find the most interesting to engage with especially considering how hyper conscious I can be towards everyone I interact with as well as myself. I'm certainly going to have to give those movies a watch sometime soon.

Join me next time when I talk about the monster as empowerment.

- hm, it will be ineteresting read, looking at your previous posts.

As a trans person living in this world, I also have a special kind of hypervigilance because certain things other people take for granted ranging from the right to receive medical care to the right to use a public restroom without suspicion or harassment could be taken from me within a single executive order or court decision.

- I hope not, at least if ppl_around_you mostly ignore absurd regression in law text ...

I think I joined trans forum here on fimfiction, need to check 'my' thread there, may be you already commented in it .... I might be up to some kind of surprise ..... :ajbemused:

EDIT: thread I was talking about .... you are welcome ...

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