Be aware there are spoilers for the ending of Hereditary.
Ari Aster’s Hereditary is deeply disturbing and also a bit complicated. It weaves in its mythology in such a way that you’re never completely sure how much is happening and how much is just the characters’ deteriorating mental state. But there is a supernatural element to the story and that element is key to understanding the film’s twisted ending.
Before we try to make sense of the ending, let’s just recap briefly what happened. Peter (Alex Wolff), now possessed by Paimon, one of the eight kings of hell, is worshipped by the cult of Paimon that his grandmother, declared “Queen Leigh” by the cult’s followers, formally led with Joan (Ann Dowd) as her top lieutenant. The decapitated bodies of Peter’s parents have been positioned into a worshipful position, and Peter, who is now addressed as Charlie (Milly Shapiro), because he also has his sister’s spirit, is told that the trinity (presumably the Holy Trinity of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost) has been destroyed and that Paimon now reigns. Hail Paimon!
So what exactly led to this conclusion? The biggest clue is the name of the film—Hereditary. There’s something particular to this bloodline, and while the title also refers to mental illness, the real thing that the supernatural aspect stands in for, in the case of the film itself, there’s something special in Leigh’s bloodline that she needs to summon Paimon, who will bestow riches upon his followers as long as he’s in the body of a male host.
Annie (Toni Collette) has spent her life trying to keep her mother’s influence away from the family, and especially the male members. She tried to abort Peter and she didn’t want her mother to even touch Peter. This harkens back to the “schizophrenia” suffered by Annie’s late brother who said that his mother was “trying to put people inside of him.” We later learn that Paimon needs a male host, hence why Annie was okay with her grandmother being close to Charlie.
But wasn’t Annie in on the whole thing, or at least responsible through her sleepwalking state? According to Aster, it was actually the cult pulling the strings the whole time, although we’re meant to think it might be Annie. Aster tells Vulture, “The audience is supposed to suspect that it might be Annie, but it is the cult of which Ann Dowd is a very significant part. But you are supposed to feel through the film that there are people on the periphery that are watching this family and are hovering just outside.”
Charlie eventually became the host for Paimon, but Paimon still needs a male host of Leigh’s bloodline to bestow her riches (which is why she didn’t go after Annie’s husband, Steve (Gabriel Byrne)). When Charlie dies, Joan uses this as an opening to use the séance as a way to transfer Paimon from Charlie to Peter. Paimon is still able to use his influence to burn Steve alive and have Annie chop her own head off, but the cult of Paimon still needs the demon to have a host. When Peter throws himself out the window, this provides the opening for Charlie/Paimon to inhabit his body. The cult wins and Peter gets to spend the rest of his days as a host for a demon that murdered his family. It’s the feel-good movie of the year.
Of course, the real story of Hereditary is about the scars of family we can’t escape whether that be mental illness or massive tragedy. Aster uses the supernatural aspect to better illustrate what could have also been told in a story without supernatural influences—the death of a family member or the impact of a family member with mental illness and how they permeate our lives. Even without the Paimon stuff, Hereditary would still be a deeply sad and disturbing movie about a family in a state of decay through no fault of their own. That’s the real horror of Hereditary.