As a series of terrible events is visited on Annie and her family, watching them go through the emotional wringer is gruelling enough, but eventually the film’s more supernatural elements do bubble up and impose themselves on the protagonists and audience. Why, I wonder, in our godless times should occult elements still have such a terrorising impact on us?
“Maybe because it is such a godless age,” suggests Aster. “It’s a reminder that we are living in sin.” This applies even to non-Christians. “I’m a Jewish person. I wasn’t raised with Heaven and Hell. I don’t believe in Heaven. There’s something silly about it, right? But somehow Hell is such a powerful idea that I’m still afraid of it.”
On this we agree, and it strikes me that this is an almost comically pessimistic Jewish response to the Christian concept of a dualistic afterlife. Suddenly we are two Jews enacting what could be an old Yiddish joke. “Heaven...? Meh, sounds too good to be true,” I suggest. “But Hell...?” Aster doesn’t miss a beat: “Hell? That’s bad enough to be maybe real.”
It is worth noting that the three most notorious examples of Christian-occult horror were all directed by Jews — Rosemary’s Baby (Polanski), The Exorcist (William Friedkin) and The Omen (Richard Donner). Aster’s name may soon be added to this list. Can this be coincidence? “Maybe we can play with it more freely because it’s not sacrosanct in the same way for us,” Aster muses. “It’s something that we can actually abuse a little bit and then it’s going to affect other people in a different way because they were raised with it.”
However, for the young film-maker himself the motivating force is something more personal: catharsis. “What draws me to the horror genre is I’m very neurotic and hypochondriacal. My imagination immediately goes to the worst-case scenario... so it’s very easy to write material like this,” he says. “Instead of inflicting all this horrible shit on a projection of my future self, I can just invent some characters and do it to them.” A problem shared, it seems, can be a hit movie.
‘Hereditary’ is on release in the US and is released on June 15 in South Africa.