Grief and Coping: The Films of Ari Aster

Guess who’s baaaaaaaaack. It’s me, your favorite rambling, dad joke making, horror fanatic. I’ve been MIA for a while, I know. Lots of things happening, so let’s get the rundown of where I’ve been out of the way. In the past few months I have:

  • Started a new job.
  • Welcomed my second child to the world, Kieran Elliot.
  • Changed medications {successfully killing my creativity for months}.
  • Begun working on a cross country move, packing up myself, my wife, two children, and four animals.
  • Just in general been SUPER FUCKING BUSY.

So, with all that out of the way, here we are now. Your boy is back, the creative juices are flowing again, and I have enough caffeine and built up ramblings on horror to power a limited series on AMC. Today’s post is going to be a look at grief through the lens of Ari Aster’s films. Sometime in the next week I plan on compiling two “Best of” lists- one for 2019, and one for the past decade. These will go over horror experiences as a whole, not just film or television, and what I loved about them.

The usual spoiler warning is in effect for the rest of this page: if you haven’t seen Midsommar or Hereditary, turn back now. Stop what you’re doing and WATCH THESE FILMS. And awaaaayyyyyyy we go.

Death is the universal thing that unites us all. No matter your race, religion, social status, or income, you’re gonna fucking die one day. Unless you’re Walt Disney’s frozen head. Or The Walking Dead {Just end it already y’all, come on}. But your death or mine isn’t the end of our time here on earth, so to speak. We leave behind a memory. This memory is going to be shared and mourned over by our loved ones for days, weeks, years, sometimes decades after we’re gone. This grief is where everyone differs in how they handle death.

Ari Aster has put out two films in two years. The moody family drama of Hereditary, and the sun soaked cult horror of Midsommar. The two films contrast greatly in atmosphere, but they both deal with similar themes of grief, coping with the loss of family, and finding those that support you when it seems nobody else does.

Now, let’s get this out of the way: Toni Colette was robbed of an Oscar nom because the Academy doesn’t recognize horror and that’s bullshit. Florence Pugh was also robbed because she KILLED IT.

There, now that that part is over: the two films deal largely in the aftermath of death. Hereditary with the death of, initially, Annie’s mother. The fallout from this one is only felt in the first thirty minutes or so and seems like more of a relief to everyone in the family, as old gram gram is hinted at being overbearing and (generally) super fucking weird. The film then moves into the death of Charlie, the youngest child of the family, in a freak car accident. Now, Charlie was also super fucking weird, but it’s a little more accepted when it’s a small child and not a grown adult.

Midsommar, by contrast has three deaths that take place in the opening scene and hang over the entire movie. We see that Dani, our protagonist is obviously struggling with anxiety and also dealing with her sister’s depressive episodes. Cut to the reveal that her sister has killed herself and their parents by running a hose from the car exhaust into their bedroom, then taping one to her own face. It is BEYOND fucked up, and one of the most effective openings of a film I’ve ever seen.

The theme here comes with how Annie and Dani respectively deal with their grief, and this is what makes them each one of my favorite movies from their respective years. Annie quickly begins to externalize her grief, placing blame on her son Peter for Charlie’s death. While Peter does have a hand in it, it was very obviously an accident that could have happened to anyone. Everything starts to culminate with a heated screaming match during dinner where Annie squarely places Peter in her line of fire, telling him how it is his fault, she blames him, and Charlie never should have died.

Dani, on the other hand, blames herself for the deaths of her family. The entire movie is spent on Dani wondering if she was the reason her sister committed the heinous acts she did, and if there was anything Dani could have done to prevent them. What if she had called earlier? Reached out to them? Told her parents about the email from her sister? The entire movie is Dani searching for that one sign that she did all she could and nothing could have saved them.

Annie takes things a step further, looking for any signs that Charlie is still out there and dabbling in spiritualism. This opens doors that should ahve stayed closed, bringing unholy retribution down on the family. This brings us to the similarities in the two films: the support systems.

Dani and Annie both have no support during this time of grief. Annie’s family all deal with it in their own way, with her husband becoming distant and her son blaming himself. Dani by comparison continually gets made to feel like she’s overreacting to her family’s death, that she should just move on and go about her life. This is because Dani’s boyfriend is actual garbage that lacks human empathy, as are almost all of his friends.

When Dani meets the cult, she truly finds the support system that she needs. When she has a complete breakdown at one point, every girl around has a breakdown with her, with the explanation that “When one hurts, we all hurt”. For a crazy Swedish murder cult, they really have a lot of empathy, right?

While Annie is the driving force behind the grief in Hereditary, Peter is the unsung protagonist and ultimate subject at the end. Peter, much like Dani, blames himself for the death of his family. He was driving the car when Charlie was killed. He swerved causing her to hit the lamp post. Yet, in the end he is the one that finds support through the coven of Paimon, revered and loved by the cult as he embodies their god, and in doing so, learns to forgive himself for what happened.

Dani comes to terms with hers in much the same way, after partaking in the ritual of dancing with the other girls of the commune and becoming their Spring Queen, Dani makes the call to sacrifice her boyfriend in the name of the cult’s beliefs, putting an end to her grief and her blame. She has found a group that loves and supports her, allowing her to love and forgive herself in turn.

While both movies end in an entirely fucked up manner, they both have glimmers of hope for their respective protagonists. Each one ends with Dani and Peter looking on at the people that are now adoring them, content with where they have landed in life, each wearing a crown that their newfound family has adorned them with. They have made it through their grief, they have found the light at the end. They have survived.

This is the overall message. While others die, we go on. When we die, others will go on. The best thing we can do for others and that they can do for us is to go on living, being our best selves and not holding on to the blame of it all along the way. We have to survive. We have to thrive.


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