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Hereditary, A Quiet Place and the Horror of Grief

The latest thrillers dive headlong into the unthinkable.

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This discussion of Hereditary, A Quiet Place and some other recent horror films contains detailed references to their plots and badass endings. You should beware of spoilers.

It’s said that when you lose a parent you’re an orphan, when you lose a husband or wife you’re a widow or widower, but that when you lose a child there’s no word for what you are. It’s that unspeakable. It’s also the territory into which some of the most notable of our latest horror movies have charged relentlessly, unsparingly ahead. There’s always something eerily telling in our movie monsters, in whom they hurt and how they menace and haunt and devour. The boogeymen of our current moment make the hulking slasher film antagonists of yesteryear seem almost quaint by comparison.

“We just had our second daughter about three weeks before I read the script. And so I was already in the state of terror of keeping this girl safe.” —John Krasinski, in an interview about his film A Quiet Place

I was watching my girlfriend’s kids one time and noticed something wrong with the youngest’s ankle. Pulling a pant leg up revealed a rash the likes of which I’d never seen. It turned out to be an autoimmune issue—nothing immediately threatening and not the result of anybody’s actions. It cleared up inside of a month. I kept it together, and everything turned out just fine.

I can’t remember when I’ve been closer to actual panic. It was a fear that made me reflexively angry in the aftermath, at nobody and for no reason.

Krasinski and his real-life wife and possible actual valkyrie Emily Blunt have only a handful of lines in A Quiet Place, the thriller set in a blasted-out remains of an Earth ravaged by creatures that attack at the slightest noise. Their panicked faces tell the entire story throughout the movie, which begins by establishing the stakes as shockingly as possible. Their youngest son’s innocent lapse with an electronic toy—all inside of one unwatched moment—is all it takes for the whole family to witness him vanishing down the gullet of one of the creatures.

Even though a year passes between that fittingly chilling cold open and the rest of the film, it’s easy to recognize the oppressive silence Krasinski and Blunt’s family labors under. Grief is a time of silence and things unsaid—of holding things inside for fear they might burden your loved ones. For many people going through loss, it often feels like you’re expected to remain stone-faced and soldier on. There’s always something that needs doing. Crying about it won’t help. In the case of A Quiet Place, the feeling of danger at expressing those emotions is merely made all the more literal.

Every family member is wrestling with the aftermath of their loss in a different way. The other son, Noah (Noah Jupe), whose need for medical care in the opening scene incited the whole thing, seems to live in constant fear that his life will be cut short at the merest slip-up. Their daughter, Regan (Millicent Simmonds), believes her father blames her for introducing the deadly toy in the first place. And their mother puts on a brave face, but, the moment she discovers she’s in a safe room where she can’t be heard, she unburdens herself on her husband, relieving the tragedy that took her son from her and her own possible fault in it.

In one of the many clever details of the film, Regan is deaf, laboring under a defective cochlear implant that her father tries in vain to get working. It’s never stated—because this is the sort of film that treats its audience as if they are educated adults—but it’s entirely possible the only reason the family is so deft at surviving in the first place is that they all sign in order to communicate with Regan.

Ultimately, it’s the family’s ability to communicate—to express each individual member’s devotion to one another—that gets them through the apocalyptic horror of the movie. As scary as it is, the script feels neat and the ending almost joyous. There has been loss, but the family has come together to work as a team that has one another’s backs. It’s hard to feel bad about a movie that ends with Emily Blunt cocking a shotgun like she’s about to rip and tear Doom-style through the predators that threaten her family.

“I know people are calling it a horror film, but it actually isn’t just that. It has those elements but it’s a family drama, it’s a psychologically complex story.” —Toni Collette in an interview about Hereditary

In a lot of ways, A Quiet Place spares us the very worst of what it implies. We don’t see the kid die, we don’t witness the immediate aftermath. The movie cuts to nearly a year later, after the family has had time to process the immediate horror of the loss—even if they’re incapable of fully being able to do so because of freaking sound monsters. Hereditary, on the other hand, isn’t interested in sparing us any of that.

Just as A Quiet Place opened with the immediately alarming and foreboding chyron of “DAY 89,” Hereditary puts up the obituary of one of the women at the center of the plot: The grandmother of a family that seems uncertain how each should feel about her death.

Things don’t start truly going bump in the night until fairly late in the film, but everything leading up to it is layered on with the vicious tension and dread that comes with that same inability to truly process the depth of loss. The movie delivers its cruelest punch right about the midpoint, after we’ve been lulled into the assumption it will be about how the mother, Annie (Toni Collette in the latest great performance of a truly eclectic career), comes to grips with her mother’s death after the clearly abusive and manipulative upbringing at the woman’s hands.

But no. It’s way, way worse. Annie’s son Peter (Alex Wolff) wants to go get high at a party with the cool kids, but he’s badgered into taking his awkward and possibly neuro-atypical sister Charlie (Milly Shapiro) along with him. Describing the accident that ends in her death is too painful to write, and the sequence itself Just. Keeps. Going. Peter, unable to even process what he’s done, leaves the body in the car for Annie to find, and we witness nearly her every anguished cry.

Soon, she and the rest of the family (an underused Gabriel Byrne plays her husband) begin hearing and seeing things that can’t be real, and Annie tries to find solace in the use of séances to bring her daughter back.

Hereditary unleashes almost every uncomfortable and disturbing fear of family intimacy onto the audience, all while allowing them to piece together the conspiracy at its heart without a lot of the dumb-sounding exposition that so many horror movies seem to feel is necessary. Annie’s history of homicidal sleepwalking, her mother’s suffocating care of Charlie at the expense of Peter, her own visceral fear of motherhood and the feeling that she is to blame for her family’s long history of untimely deaths, are all made clear.

Almost as unnerving as the ghosts, women crawling along ceilings, and beheadings, are scenes of mundane family squabbles. All of it brings to mind two other deeply upsetting family horror films of recent years: 2014’s The Babadook (which I’ve already discussed) and 2015’s The Witch. Nobody wants to admit the feelings of resentment they have toward their own children, even as they remember their own childhood and how unfair it all seemed to be on the receiving end of it, but Annie’s explosion at the dinner table after Peter goads her into saying something, anything, feels exactly like the ultimate loss of control the parents in those two films suffer.

When families are truly dysfunctional and insular, they feel like cults. When families are dealing with such a catastrophic grief, it almost feels as if they turn all their suffering inward. It’s that isolation, that feeling that you’re actually going crazy, that you are the one to blame for your own anguish, that makes this latest crop of horror movies so damn unsettling.

What unnerves me most of all is that I think we’re experiencing this moment in horror because, as we turn inward and reflect on what’s shaped us, we don’t like what we see, and on some level we believe there’s no escaping it.


You can follow Kenneth Lowe at his blog or on Twitter, and you can donate to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence here.

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