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The Sub(urban)altern: Spatial and Temporal Refractions of Normativity and Ari Aster’s Hereditary (2018)

The Sub(urban)altern: Spatial and Temporal Refractions of Normativity and Ari Aster’s Hereditary (2018)

Marcus Prasad   |   December 2020

In its thematic exploration of the darker flipside to the development of suburbanization, the suburban gothic characterizes a specific branch of horror films whose narratives centre upon the peculiar social and physical space of postwar America. Foregrounding the manifold latent concerns surrounding the unprecedented housing growth within suburban neighbourhoods at this time, this subgenre includes films such as Carpenter’s Halloween, Hooper’s Poltergeist, and Craven’s Nightmare on Elm Street, all of which hone into the notions of mindless conformity, rampant materialism, and oppressive familial roles that these emergent neighbourhoods had come to embody. The resulting exposure of suburbia’s utopic attributions as such began to distinguish this wide-scale national housing movement as fraught and foundationally misguided. While this subgenre has specifically commented on the postwar period, I am interested in the persistence of its implications and its extension to horror film in and after 2010.

The questions I am considering throughout my investigation include but are not limited to an examination of how postwar ideals surrounding the structure of the nuclear family and home have persevered, given the continued desire to own a house in the suburbs by the white middle-to upper-class. More specifically however, I am interested in the ways in which the subgenre possesses a critical acuity toward the notion of suburbia by its conflation of danger and fear as situated within the perceived comfort and safety of the home. The valence of these concerns increases when we consider the deep-seated relationship between suburban development and the formation of national identity amidst the postwar climate. With the suburban gothic’s distinct attention to foregrounding the destabilization of familial and domestic space, it becomes apparent that the subgenre aims to critique these developments and their induction into the dominant mode of North American culture. In the resulting dissolution of these suburban values, it is necessary to consider and question what might take their place. Attempting to respond to this inquiry, I intend to mobilize queer theory for its focus on spaces of alterity and otherness to illuminate the tears within the fabric of the nuclear family by a new light. The process of othering familiar domestic space by a distinct temporal and spatial mechanism in these films signals a rupture of the normative framework it has come to emblematize, insinuating that forms of alterity such as queerness have been existing just beneath the surface, ready to erupt at any moment.

Rather than falling back onto a conception of queerness as monstrous or abject however, as many queer analyses of horror film have, I intend to reorient my focus to the productive nature of its inherent difference, as a force of destruction that carries with it a restructuring potential. As Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick notes, ideology and sexuality in kind epitomize and influence broader social relations of power, and each mediate between myriad structures of social experience.1 Adhering to such a methodological parallelism between ideology and sexuality, my exploration will be premised upon the impetus to reformulate sociological interpretations of suburban space through the perspective of non-normative sexuality.

An immense amount of cultural production has latched onto what we might consider to be a suburban gothic ethos. Several modern and contemporary artists have dedicated their work to engaging with similar questions surrounding the idea of the suburbs and the promotion of allegedly idyllic postwar housing developments. One canonical example is Dan Graham’s 1966 work, Homes for America (figure 1), which explores the alienating effect of these spaces and exposes an inherent unsettling contrast to their supposed desirability. Similarly, Gordon Matta-Clark’s Splitting (figure 2) from 1974 explicitly critiques the mindless replication of American domestic space by slicing through an old frame house in New Jersey – a transformation that he calls “anarchitecture.” Extending these concerns decades forward, Gregory Crewdson’s Twilight series from 1998 and Holly Andres’ The Fallen Fawn from 2016 (figures 3 to 6) similarly investigate the psychological underside of the American suburban vernacular, confronting the normal with the paranormal and the secretive, and transforming the suburban landscape into a space of anxiety. Discourses adhering to a gothic mode in their thought-provoking representation of domestic space are rife amongst modern and contemporary artists through a variety of media including sculpture, architecture, and photography. My aim with this project is to investigate how a related inquiry into the spatio-temporal realm of suburbia is occurring via contemporary horror film, by looking specifically to Ari Aster’s 2018 release, Hereditary. Critically acclaimed for its gut-wrenching portrayal of the dark-sided qualities one might inherit from their family lineage, Hereditary presents a refreshing reappraisal of many classic suburban genre tropes and conventions.

Figure 1: Homes for America, Dan Graham, 1966-67
Figure 2: Splitting, Gordon Matta-Clark, 1974
Figure 3: Twilight (series)
Figure 4: Gregory Crewdson, 1998-2001
Figure 5: The Fallen Fawn (series)
Figure 6: Holly Andres, 2016

Aster’s narrative begins with the death of Ellen Taper Leigh, matriarch of the Graham family, whose funerary service is led by a seemingly ambivalent eulogy presented by her daughter, Annie (Toni Collette). Annie confesses her confusing and often times tumultuous relationship with her dementia-ridden mother, claiming that she was a private individual who held many secrets and never shared anything about her interpersonal relationships. A mother to thirteen-year-old daughter Charlie (Milly Shapiro) and sixteen-year-old son Peter (Alex Wolff), Annie spends the course of the film inadvertently exposing the dark secrets of her mother’s life while simultaneously navigating the process of mourning with and without her family.

Annie Graham is a practicing artist signed to an upcoming exhibition with an art gallery in New York. Her practice involves the creation of miniature dioramas of houses, buildings, and even exterior settings, all depicting poignant yet seemingly random vignettes from her life. She builds meticulously mimetic reproductions of salient settings including her own home, most often representing scenes of her family members interacting. At her first session of group grief counselling, Annie reveals that her brother and father had suffered from mental illnesses that both resulted in their suicides, blaming Ellen for leading them to their deaths. Annie explains that her fraught relationship with her mother had stemmed from these familial misfortunes, and forced her to enact a no-contact rule when she gave birth to Peter. Guiltily, she allowed Ellen to help raise Charlie as a consolation, but she immediately latched on and began to alienate her from her own daughter. This further emaciated their relationship and preceded Ellen’s extreme dementia and consequent death.

Following the sudden and accidental vehicular decapitation of Charlie by Peter, Annie and Peter’s already rocky relationship becomes more tense, while Peter begins to be followed by Charlie’s ghostly presence around the house. Confused, depressed, and more hopeless than before, grieving the loss of her mother and now her eleven-year-old daughter, Annie meets Joan (Ann Dowd), a fellow support group member, who recently lost her son and grandson. In their time spent together, Joan encourages Annie to conduct a séance, as it helped her connect with her recently deceased family members. Skeptical at first, she follows her recommendation, but Annie’s supernatural contact with Charlie leads her to believe that her spirit has become malevolent. Annie then discovers that Joan and her mother had actually been close friends while she was alive, finding evidence of inexplicable rituals they conducted together while foraging through her mother’s photo albums. Adding to her shock, Annie uncovers books about invocations and occult philosophy alongside the albums, revealing that her mother and Joan had been invested in conjuring a demon named Paimon. Paimon’s spirit manifests through familial sacrifice and offering, and seeks to inhabit the body of a male host. Annie searches the attic in a confused frenzy for more information, only to find Ellen’s decapitated body with their family crest – the same symbol attributed to Paimon – drawn on the wall in blood. Annie admits her findings in a panic to her husband Steve, begging him to kill her, as she believes her own death is the only way to stop the influx of evil occurrences in their home. Steve however thinks her behaviour is merely indicative of her family’s history of psychosis and pleads that she gets help. When she eventually decides to immolate herself on her own, Steve bursts into flames instead, and Annie becomes immediately possessed.

Peter awakens to find his father’s immolated body in the living room while now-possessed Annie glares at him from the ceiling, defying gravity. She chases him into the attic, which is now mysteriously littered with candles and occult imagery. Levitating to the highest point of the room, Annie beheads herself with piano wire while staring directly at Peter. He jumps out of the window in fear and as he lies on the ground, a light enters his body and he wakes up. He sees Annie’s headless corpse levitate into Charlie’s treehouse and follows it, revealing a group of coven members bowing toward a mannequin holding Charlie’s crowned, decapitated head. Joan, the coven members, and the beheaded corpses of Annie and Ellen now bow to Peter, as Joan swears an oath to him as Paimon. Bestowing a crown onto his head, Peter is initiated as the proper host for the eighth king of hell, as the film ends in a resounding chant, “hail Paimon.”

The thrust of my investigation pertains to Aster’s distinct representation of the house in this film, which is peculiarly fractured into three architectural instances – the Graham family home, Charlie’s treehouse, and Annie’s dioramas replicating multiple domestic spaces. Following this approach, it is clear that Aster presents a reconfiguration of the traditional suburban gothic setting compared to narratives that center on a singular house or home. The symbolic valence that the suburban house has accumulated throughout the history of the subgenre is now refracted into a tripartite representation in this film, a formal and conceptual splitting of space and time that is echoed by the narrative’s bifurcated focus on three generations of Graham women and their bloody decapitations. The questions I therefore intend to address throughout this investigation might appear as such: How does this three-pronged architectural inquiry surrounding the representation of the house suggest a reconfiguration of the temporality that has come to constitute suburban normativity and the nuclear family? How does the demonic realm of Paimon and the ulterior temporality attributed to him force itself into the social fabric of the home? And finally, what does the intertwining of ulterior and normative temporalities aim to suggest moving forward? By positioning these three spaces as a networked representational harbinger of the protagonists’ imminent demise, I intend to highlight the significance of the house not only as an evocative setting with an extensive cultural legacy, but also as an active agent in the mobilization of a continued postwar American paradox. Historically situating the development of suburbia and the critiques that forms of cultural production have leveraged against it, I will explore how an interpretive shift or break in temporality that constitutes suburban normativity is expressed in Hereditary, and how its ultimate emphasis on a temporal mode that had been deeply repressed emerges to incite a violent reconfiguration of our dominating societal structures.

Aster’s opening scene immerses viewers into a particular engagement with each of these three architectural spaces, allowing us to question the relationship between each setting and introducing us to the temporalities they adhere to respectively – a distinct framing of time and space that will come to characterize the entire film. The sequence begins with a shot from inside the main house centered on the wooden treehouse, shown perched precariously amongst five skinny tree trunks, and framed by a window pane. The camera zooms out ominously, tightening the window’s frame around the outdoor structure momentarily, until panning slowly around the room, indicating that we are situated in Annie’s studio, inside the Graham’s home. The space is littered with architectural dioramas in different states of process or completion, accompanied by floor plans, ancillary documents, and artistic materials including brushes, glue, and paint. Stopping at an architectural reproduction of the Graham’s house, the camera dollies forward, slowly centering on one of its rooms. The camera proceeds to simultaneously zoom and dolly ahead until entering the space of this room entirely, which becomes the setting of the film’s first instance of character action and dialogue – the narrative begins at the onset of this illusory shift (figures 7 to 10). This scene visually operates to situate its audience between these three architectural spaces, all of which iterate a specific notion of presence and bear some connection to a conception of homeliness. Charlie’s treehouse, the main Graham house, and Annie’s reproductions of the house are represented as integrally linked via this sequence, though participating spatially and temporally in different realms.

Figure 7: Charlie’s treehouse in Hereditary (2018)
Figure 8: Annie’s studio in Hereditary (2018)
Figure 9: Annie’s diorama of the Graham house in (2018)
Figure 10: Annie’s diorama becoming Peter’s bedroom in (2018)

Expressing temporal separation and disjunction as such recalls Gilles Deleuze’s distinction between automatic or habitual recognition and attentive recognition in Cinema 2: The Time Image. Automatic or habitual recognition is defined as the passage from one object to another and according to a movement that is horizontal or constituted by associations with images. Addressing a pre-constituted repository of symbols, shapes, and signs, this automatic process specifically relates to memory and a past association with similar forms that begin to build a particular perception of an object informed by these engagements. While this movement of association occurs, Deleuze argues that the process remains on one single plane.2 As such, the logical trajectory along which this understanding is formed remains singular, guided by previously established memories and past encounters. Attentive recognition, by contrast, abandons this extension through association by an impossibility. The movements that would have constituted automatic or habitual recognition now revert to the object in its unique physicality. Instead of an addition of distinct objects remaining on the same plane and adhering to the singular process of association, we see the object itself still staying the same, but now passing through different planes.3 While the object remains unchanged, its inter-planar diffusion incites a new form of engagement with the object, one that is not governed by memory or a pre-established repository of images. This engagement is pure and untouched, enabling a perception that hones into the specific contours and physical nature of the object itself, unembellished by subjectivity.

As consumption came to frame the American idea of normalcy in the postwar environment and its according cultivation of home life, the suburban gothic was growing and crystallizing its arsenal of critical tools. The dream of an all-white community of monogamous, heterosexual families that had the power to buy whatever was needed to construct a universal notion of homeliness formed an unstable foundation upon which the suburban gothic staked its destructive philosophy. The subgenre specifically exploits a set of contradictory attitudes, which Murphy outlines as a set of binary oppositions. It rests between two poles; the suburban dream, articulating the utopic hopes of a well-adjusted and comfortable space for the family to be nurtured, and the suburban nightmare, a revelation of the darker realities of conformity, consumption, and isolation underlying this same agenda, locked in a space of liminality.16 This bifurcation creates an ideological link to the actual geography of suburbia as existing physically and philosophically between the urban and the rural, in what Beuka calls a borderland space.17 The wider gothic tradition asserts that fear and anxiety often emerge from the gaps between what something is and what it is not.18 Suburbia can accordingly be positioned within this indeterminate gap both literally and figuratively, as infinitely contending with the dream and the nightmare. The subsequent indeterminacy of suburbia’s physical and conceptual existence gives it a porous texture, its fabric permeable to a multitude of shaping forces.

Deleuze further characterizes this distinction between automatic and attentive processes as a sensory-motor image versus a pure optical and sound image. The sensory-motor image is made present by automatic or habitual recognition, a process that relates the perception of the object through a collection of images already encountered. Understanding the object therefore occurs by its relation to the senses and memory, a familiarity with forms similar to the object construct its ultimate perception in the sensory-motor image. The pure optical or sound image conversely directs attention to the object itself. Focusing on the integral components that constitute the object and its image – namely, optics and sound – this kind of image creates a new description outside of the process of association by negating an extension of perception along established lines.4 In this way, the object is diffracted into several planes by means of transcendence. It does not follow the singular logic of memory, but rather dislodges itself into a realm of liminality, directing attention to the optic and sonic constituents of the object exclusively as the only grounding force for the formation of its perception.

In relation to the opening sequence of Hereditary, we can envision these three iterations of the house as an object moving from a sensory-motor image to a pure optical or sound image. The repository of associations a viewer has with the symbol of the house and its cultural valence is now reconfigured into a new conception that diffracts this space into three directions. Transforming the process of object engagement by attentive recognition as such disrupts a previously established notion of temporality and space that one might have attributed to the house through automatic or habitual recognition. The figurehead of the traditional suburban house is maintained by the representation of the Graham’s main home, but is now surreptitiously rendered anew by the existence of the treehouse and the diorama, which consequently incites a temporal shift from within the suburban house. Annie’s dioramas are ostensibly born of this house, and the treehouse can be reconciled by a similar understanding – it is merely a smaller version of the main house, the space in which the archaic order ultimately emerges in the narrative. The ambiguity of temporal sequence as it pertains to these three spaces in the opening scene raises particular questions about the “where” of the narrative. Does it take place in the actual house, or is the entire film set in Annie’s diorama? And what is their relationship to the treehouse, which appears visually as a smaller replica of the main house? Such intentional uncertainty is exacerbated by the induction of the house and its accompanying representations into a methodology of attentive recognition, moving away from the automatic or the habitual.

Masked as temporal or spatial inconsistencies and uncertainties, the opening scene of this film endows the proceeding narrative with a characteristic ambiguity toward the conception of space and time. As a result, the setting of the house is illuminated through a new, more active perception. Refusing a notion of the house as an object that moves along a single plane reinforces its diffraction into three spaces. The object is now amenable to a passage into different and multiple planes; the house and its conceptual extension to the treehouse and the diorama. Mirroring the narrative and thematic structure of the film, this division into new planes through a refracted architectural representation relates to the violence of emaciating three bodies, as well as the split between three generations of the Graham family. This fracture amongst the film’s represented spaces and wider themes symptomatically extends to the fabric of the family and home that becomes torn by the ultimate conclusion of the film. Though generally abstract and unknown throughout most of the narrative, the demonic realm that Paimon harkens through the figure of Peter emerges through the tears in this fabric. Carrying a wealth of ulterior forces with it, the dominant social composition of the nuclear family becomes effectively threatened. As Annie continuously uncovers the secrets of her mother’s invocation of this demonic, archaic entity, its oppressive nature persists by unabashedly deteriorating the structure of the Graham family until reaching its definitive point of dissolution. It is through this final fracture that Paimon spawns, extending his reign into the real world through the destroyed nuclear family.

In its unique grappling with familial structure and its relationship to the space of the home, Hereditary can be situated in relation to an extensive legacy of suburban horror films, a subgenre that is part of the wider gothic tradition dramatizing the myriad anxieties emerging from suburbanization, which usually features suburban settings, preoccupations, and protagonists. Robin Wood asserts that the gothic genre broadly consists of a three-pronged thematic core. Normality, figured by the dominance of heteropatriarchal capitalism, the other, figured by a threatening antagonistic force, and the relationship between the two.5 A mechanism reminiscent of Freud’s theorization of the uncanny is integral to this interplay of normality and the other, and is amenable to the invocation of a queer reading which intends to disrupt the heterosexual status quo. As such, queerness, positioned as that which is unfamiliar, sets in motion a questioning of that which has been established as normal.6 The rampant promotion of suburbia as the foundation of postwar normalcy placed the suburban house and its embedded social network in the crossfire of the gothic mode, and consequently opened itself up to a disruptive queer potential.

Reflecting the notion that a neighbourhood of identical houses, white picket fences, and well-manicured lawns is hiding a terrible secret, Bernice Murphy asserts that such a negative outlook on this space emerged from the rapid change in lifestyle that accompanied its development, forcing residents to break ties with old patterns of existence classifying everyday experience during and before the war.7 One facet of this was the simultaneous rigidification and disempowerment of the nuclear family’s constitutive roles. The breadwinning father was now subject to additional hours of commuting, leaving the mother in charge of a house of unruly children, and forming a wealth of emotional and psychological problems as a result. Robert Beuka explains that the movement toward the suburbs in concert with the baby boom created an entrapping space for women of the postwar years, forcefully relocating them to isolated and child-centered environments. This resulted in a sense of dislocation and purposelessness, even as the culture at large was celebrating them as the central symbols in a new cult of domesticity.8

A second facet of this break from old patterns was the notion of the white middle- to upper-class fleeing from the urban center, which entailed an inherent escape from and consequent repression of identities considered to be deviant or other. Lizabeth Cohen notes that while extreme housing growth in new suburban areas accommodated the influx of veterans after World War II, they were distinctly geared toward white families, leaving 53 percent of married black veterans to double up housing with relatives, to live in trailers, or in small, rented rooms.9 Emergency facilities such as the Veterans Affairs (VA) mortgage insurance program required vets to initially qualify at private banks and loan associations, which were known to discriminate against black folk on several fronts. As such, black families were relegated to specifically delineated “red zones,” which were usually urban, old, and perceived as deteriorating simply by virtue of hosting predominantly minority residents.10 These practices of red-lining formed barriers around the suburban neighbourhood and insulated white families from contact and interaction with members of the black community that hoped to buy within these areas.

The negative implications of such an emphatic domesticity, as well as the notion of escaping the city which itself was rooted in ostensibly racist imperatives, articulate two of the many concerns that come to threaten the integrity of suburbia as a space of equal opportunity, a utopia for all. Driven by a deep-seated fear of otherness, the motivations fuelling the nuclear white family and their newly deployed home space became troubled, allowing the repressed alterity to emerge through a wealth of family problems in the resulting sociological formation of normativity, exclusive to the suburban neighbourhood. This destabilization had far-reaching effects on the level of cultural production, and was responded to by a lurking anxiety waiting to be mined by the gothic mode. The shift allowed the source of fear emerging from the other, which was characteristic to the gothic tradition, to be repositioned however, to a place closer in proximity to oneself. Fear and danger were now thought to come from one’s own family and home, rather than from external threats.

The purpose of such a historical delineation is to outline the ways in which forms of cultural, artistic, and filmic production adhered to the gothic mode to articulate the many transformations occurring in the American socio-economic realm at this time. Levittown, just outside of New Jersey, is one of the most famous suburbs that sprang up in a notoriously short amount of time, welcoming a growing population of Americans. Designed and built by the real estate firm Levitt & Sons, the innovation of this development was attributed to their implemented assembly line method, constructing two-floor, two-bedroom houses quicker and more efficiently than any housing initiative that preceded it.11 Between 1948 and 1958, 11 million new suburban homes were established in America – 83 percent of all population growth during the 1950s took place in the suburbs.12 The 1946 architectural plan of Levittown in New Jersey was key to creating a visual lexicon of American futurity, as developers across both nations followed its inaugural structure in the development of subsequent suburban neighbourhoods (figure 11). The living conditions in North America were undergoing a seismic shift by the rapid onslaught of modular housing, which was establishing its own role in the formation of national ideology equally as fast.

Figure 11: Levittown, New Jersey, 1948 (photo: Levittown Public Library)

National ideologies surrounding the American everyman were specifically developed through a lens that heavily encouraged consumption on the homefront. Cohen notes that the central importance of consumption to the smooth operation of the home meant that women, who were now perceived as the main thrust behind purchasing under the guise of “homemaking,” gained a new political authority in America as the war came to a close.13 At the same time, businesses argued that a flourishing of a mass consumption economy with a newly competitive and unregulated pricing of new cars, new suburban homes, and new products to fill them would better protect the general good than the state controls currently in place. A higher and more equitable standard of living for all derived from economic growth was argued to be the best route to the fulfillment of the nation’s longstanding commitment to equality and democracy.14 The convergence of personal and national fulfillment via consumption accordingly incited the intertwining of postwar purchasing power on the homefront with a national and political identity. This was exacerbated by a shift from the preliminary gendering of the consumer during the war as specifically female to the notion of the couple after the war, as men returned to their families.15 A consequent consuming unit was formed, constituted by the heterosexual couple that was encouraged to purchase a house and products for it, under the idea that together, through a consumerist ethos, they were simultaneously staking their claim and contributing to the greater good of America.

As consumption came to frame the American idea of normalcy in the postwar environment and its according cultivation of home life, the suburban gothic was growing and crystallizing its arsenal of critical tools. The dream of an all-white community of monogamous, heterosexual families that had the power to buy whatever was needed to construct a universal notion of homeliness formed an unstable foundation upon which the suburban gothic staked its destructive philosophy. The subgenre specifically exploits a set of contradictory attitudes, which Murphy outlines as a set of binary oppositions. It rests between two poles; the suburban dream, articulating the utopic hopes of a well-adjusted and comfortable space for the family to be nurtured, and the suburban nightmare, a revelation of the darker realities of conformity, consumption, and isolation underlying this same agenda, locked in a space of liminality.16 This bifurcation creates an ideological link to the actual geography of suburbia as existing physically and philosophically between the urban and the rural, in what Beuka calls a borderland space.17 The wider gothic tradition asserts that fear and anxiety often emerge from the gaps between what something is and what it is not.18 Suburbia can accordingly be positioned within this indeterminate gap both literally and figuratively, as infinitely contending with the dream and the nightmare. The subsequent indeterminacy of suburbia’s physical and conceptual existence gives it a porous texture, its fabric permeable to a multitude of shaping forces.

Foregrounding the primary tenets of nuclear normativity and the malleability of its foundation, the force of alterity that pushes against the perceived dominance of its social structure assumes a particular visual representation – or rather, a lack thereof – via Aster’s mobilization of the gothic mode. While many suburban gothic narratives articulate the antagonistic force as visually distinct from the normal, well-adjusted family and house, Hereditary carefully conceals visual clues that might suggest the existence of the supernatural. Paimon and the ulterior realm he embodies remains unseen and unknown, and therefore persists uncontrollably – the power of the other is made stronger by its definition as a force that is inescapable. This idea of fatedness is key to the critiques that Hereditary leverages by situating its narrative within the discourse of the nuclear family. Annie, Charlie, and Peter are presented as unknowing pawns in a larger scheme spearheaded by the recently deceased Ellen, lacking complete control of their fate, and operating entirely outside of their realm of understanding. They are consequently unable to escape this unstoppable machine, which seems to address the imminent demise of suburbia and its utopic attributions, as the series of injustices and exclusions that have defined its development expose the falseness of its universal claims. In what appears to be a return of the repressed, the issue of red-lining minority communities and the fears surrounding the consumption-oriented space of mindless convention that the household and the wider suburban neighbourhood had been premised upon, rise to the fore – suggesting that what was once excluded in order to fulfill a fabricated dream was never fully eradicated, and has now come back with a vengeance and certainty. As such, fatedness presents itself in this film by an inevitable assault on the normative social structures of whiteness, heterosexuality, consumption, conventionality, and conformity that nuclear families, like the Grahams, have come to emblematize from the postwar era. Brought to an extreme by the bloody decapitations that drastically and violently destroy each node of the family, what is left is the detritus through which Paimon, the figurehead of an archaic, pre-normative socius, is reborn. This is further articulated by a similar beheading or fracturing of home space and time into its three iterations, all at different scales. The respective yet ambiguous temporalities that each space of the main house, the treehouse, and the diorama pertain to not only perpetuate a destruction of suburban ideals as they have been expressed since the postwar period, but simultaneously suggest a general temporal fracture of the singular, nuclear suburban home by presenting it as injured and disembodied, inviting Paimon’s ulterior temporality to enter and spawn.

In such a tripartite engagement with space, I introduce Bourdieu’s habitus as a methodological underpinning to envision the production and reproduction of normative social structures within space, as well as deviations from it. Considering the ways in which Hereditary fragments its engagement with home space into three realms, the social structures produced by the singular suburban house fall under a distinct form of critique by this division. Bourdieu asserts that the habitus, a system of durable and transposable dispositions is produced by structures that constitute a particular type of environment. The habitus is seen as a principle of generation and a structuring of practices and representations which can become objectively regulated.19 By this specific constitution of normativity, the operations of the habitus visually manifest themselves within the singular suburban house, which privileges the social practices, embodiments, and movements of the heteronormative, nuclear family. Endowing the domestic space with this particular form of normativity accounts for one of the fundamental effects of the orchestration of the habitus – the consensus on the sens or meaning of practices and the world, and its continuous reinforcement.20 Following this logic, the social dynamics of the nuclear family become the practices that perpetuate and reinforce the form of the habitus, all of which fall under the architectural emblem of the suburban house.

Recalling the postwar environment in which these normative structures of the nuclear family were formed, the histories surrounding the suburban enclave reveal how particular performances and embodiments have come to constitute normativity – namely, a white, middle-to upper-class, heterosexual subjectivity. The deliberate exclusion and red-lining of minority communities was integral to the ethos of suburbia, as well as the positioning of the monogamous heterosexual couple as primary consumers on the homefront, which itself was built upon an oppressive inequality of household responsibility between men and women. Both of these collective alignments directly informed what it meant to identify as a contributor to the greater good of America amidst the murky postwar climate, and articulated that a specific performance of nuclear normalcy – produced exclusively by the white middle- to upper-class family – was key to achieving a widespread utopian aspiration of human experience.

Bourdieu is however adamant in pointing out that the objective structures producing the habitus and the concept of normalcy are themselves products of historical practices, and are constantly subject to reproduction and transformation.21 In what appears to be a lapse in the creation of a normative structure emerges the critical potential of suburban gothic film in this context. A disruption within the continuity of producing normativity suggests that these forces of alterity that are characteristic to the suburban gothic have a shaping role in the system that reproduces these practices. Hereditary expresses this disruption by spatial and temporal fracture, insinuating that the emblem of the suburban house and the normative practices it embodies are split into three ambiguous yet legible parts, maintaining its connection to the wholeness of this emblem but simultaneously leaving itself open to reconfiguration. Sedgwick similarly notes that a break from the formulation of normativity as such creates a contingent space of indeterminacy

– a notion of place that shifts over time in which the boundaries between the political and sexual become a fertile space of ideological formation.22 Characterizing this space of repressed alterity as encompassed by a variety of non-normative sexualities and identities that hinge upon what is considered to be normal, the potential for the development of non-normative frameworks emerges. The represented division, abstraction, and ultimate obfuscation of domestic space made visible by the film’s fragmentation of and between the house, the treehouse, and the diorama, directly threatens the habitus of nuclear normativity that had been established by the social practices and embodiments of the heteronormative family within the singular suburban house. Within the narrative, Annie and her children are constantly threatened by elements of the supernatural realm that impose themselves violently into their family. The resulting dissolution of the heterosexual couple governing this nucleus, suggested by the film’s ending in which Annie herself ends up killing Steve in their living room in order for Paimon to spawn, insinuates a break with the objective structures of the habitus governing the social space of the home.

The disbanding of the perceived dominance of the heterosexual couple as such draws parallels with Michel Foucault’s discussion surrounding the increasing privatization of sex throughout the nineteenth century and forward. He explores how the repression of sexuality within heterosexual familial constructs has actually resulted in its production by an arrayed refraction. Modern society has attempted to reduce sexuality to the heterosexual, and therefore the legitimate couple, but he asserts that there are equal grounds for stating that this specific legitimation has created and made to proliferate groups with multiple elements and a circulating sexuality.23 Questioning the definitive nature of the monogamous space of the nineteenth century family, Foucault posits that familial space, in its incessant promotion of heterosexuality as normativity, actually created a network of pleasure and power linked together at multiple points and according to a variety of transformable relationships.24 In the specific construction of the family house, heterosexuality and monogamy figured prominently by the deliberate separation of space for grown-ups via the polarity between children’s and parents’ rooms as well as the segregation of boys and girls. By prohibiting and rendering secret the dangers of masturbation, promoting the importance of puberty, as well as implementing methods of surveillance by parents, Foucault suggests that the supposed heteronormativity attributed to housing architecture in fact implied that the family, when brought down to its smallest dimensions, was revealed to be made of a complicated network, saturated with multiple, fragmentary, and mobile sexualities.25 Encountering the twofold valence of the family house as such, a similar diametric opposition appears in Foucault’s analysis as Murphy’s, suggesting that the represented setting of the house in gothic film engages simultaneously with a notion of a suburban dream – a space of monogamy, heterosexuality, and non-deviant sexual activity – as well as a suburban nightmare – a space of refracted sexual performances and identities – that counter the intended formulation of social normativity. By this split act, the threatening presence of deviant sexuality has been visualized by the suburban gothic as a space of alterity that presses against the façade of the nuclear suburban enclave, which has historically prioritized the heterosexual couple.

The notion of spaces of alterity hinging upon the dominant mode of sociality can be further expanded upon by turning to Elizabeth Freeman’s work on queer temporality. She introduces a video work called K.I.P by Nguyen Tan Hoang to articulate how the medium of video can produce a specific form of sexual disorientation (figure 12). The way in which this piece fragments its depicted sequence of intercourse is argued to possess the ability to open up gaps in the sexual dyad.26 Hiccups in sequential time as such can connect groups of people beyond monogamous couplehood, and Freeman suggests that this awareness is crucial to revitalizing a queer politic and theory that focuses on time and temporality. The fragmentation of time, represented in this short film by visual glitches and unexpected lapses in sequence, exposes how time itself binds a socius. Also working from Bourdieu, Freeman inaugurates the concept of chrononormativity, outlining how the body is bound into socially meaningful configurations through temporal regulations.27 Chrononormativity can be further understood as a technique by which institutional forces come to seem like somatic facts – things like schedules, calendars, and time zones constitute hidden rhythms of temporal experience that seem natural to those that they privilege.28 Mobilizing the concept of chrononormativity for this analysis can begin to account for the temporal aspect inherent to constructing and perpetuating the habitus and its operative reproduction of normative social structures.

Figure 12: Still from K.I.P, Nguyen Tan Hoang, 2002

Freeman lists a series of experiences that counter or exist outside the dominant temporality, including mourning, maternal love, domestic bliss, romance, and even bachelorhood, all of which entail sensations that move according to their own beat.29 Specifically, in regard to domesticity and the development of such an ideal, love, security, peace and harmony were figured as timeless and primal. They were experiences that were exclusive to the home while simultaneously being located in an emanating from the psyche’s interior. She argues that emotional, domestic, and biological tempos are, though culturally constructed, somewhat less amenable to the speeding up and micro-management that increasingly characterizes industrialization.30 Positioning the domestic outside of dominant temporality as such recalls the spatio-temporal gap Murphy addresses, asserting that the gothic gains its power from the liminality of suburbia’s geography as situated between the urban and the rural, as well as phenomenologically, and by this understanding, temporally, between its perceived aspirations and lived reality. As suburbia emerged from a modern shift in temporality characterized by the postwar environment, Freeman posits that sexual dissidents did as well, possessing a temporal ethos that is equally aligned with the forces of modernization. She stresses that the moment of late nineteenth and early twentieth century industrialization was identified as a double-time, which evoked signs of fractured temporality.31 Queer identities and those that are considered to be non-normative are consequently products of this temporal wound, acting as agents of these seismic cultural shifts. Where queer theory aligns itself here with deconstruction, the play of signifiers, and the possibilities of understanding identities as relational and constructed, Freeman encourages us to see that traumatic experiences, perhaps brought by significant shifts in temporality at an individual or larger societal level, can productively bolster new epistemological modes of knowing, being, and existing.32

Aligning the potentiality of queer analysis with temporal fractures and shifts is precisely the perspective through which I have intended to guide my analysis of the three primary architectural spaces in Hereditary. As each realm possesses a unique yet unclear form of temporality integrally linked to the main house and the chrononormativity it adheres to, we now encounter the original temporality that has constituted suburban normativity as fractured and refracted in new directions. Leaving this temporal fabric wounded, the archaic temporality and socius that Paimon embodies is granted entrance through the resulting cracks, initiating these new spaces as liminal, hybrid engagements with both the normative and the ulterior, or the heteronormative and the queer. The treehouse and the diorama therefore maintain a critical stance toward the domestic roles that have constituted postwar suburban normativity by their harkening of the nuclear family’s demise. In the film’s privileging of these new spaces, grounded in the architecture of the house yet preserving a sense of difference, Aster ultimately hails the entwining of the ulterior realm with the normative as a means to restructure the dominating, chrononormative social framework of human experience.

The interdimensionality of the supernatural realm tangled with the real therefore produces a new body of social relations within the home that is marked by alterity. A wealth of implications begin to present themselves by this mechanism: Positioning the suburban house as a visual and social structure of the habitus and the chrononormative, the embodiments, movements, and performances of the nuclear family have been shown to reproduce and perpetuate a specific form of social normativity established by the heterosexual couple. The reinforcement of this particular socius was integral to the construction of national ideology in postwar America, whose inherently fraught utopian notions of everyday life placed the white, heterosexual, product-consuming couple on a pedestal. As artists and filmmakers mobilized the gothic mode to articulate their critiques of the suburban neighbourhood, a repertoire of negative attributes to this perceived perfect space emerged, including the dissolution of the heterosexual couple and family, which had built its reputation on a myriad of social disenfranchisements including the red-lining of minority communities and the transformation of domestic existence into a realm of non-stop consumption. By positioning the feared other in the assumed safety and comfort of the home, Aster taps into a particularly suburban gothic ethos to suggest that repressed forms of alterity, specifically those that challenge the cultural dominance of heteronormativity, are closer than perhaps previously anticipated. This is articulated specifically by the harkening of a new form of existence that Paimon embodies, a realm that threatens the spatial and temporal constitution of the suburban house to insinuate the deconstructive potential of non-normative identities that are emblematized by this ulterior space. Another series of questions that have emerged throughout my investigation might appear as such: What effect does the subversive nature of Hereditary and other suburban gothic films have on the habitus of the home? Does its disruption of these normative patterns put ulterior forms of sociality into play, inducting them into the generating scheme of normativity? And what implications might this have for the social structure and the normative temporalities of the home moving forward? The normativity that the home had once represented is now threatened by an unknown other, whose ulterior socius builds a foundation for the reproduction of non-normative practices to enter and challenge the dominant mode. Hereditary therefore uniquely encompasses a poignant ethos that many contemporary gothic films contend with – the exploration of the threat of alterity on the dominant order through the obfuscation and fragmentation of the heteronormative house and its symbolic valence..29

1 Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Between Men: English Literature and Male Homosocial Desire (New York: Columbia University Press, 1985), 13.


2 Gilles Deleuze, Cinema 2: The Time Image (Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press, 1986), 44.


3 Ibid, 44.


4 Deleuze, Cinema 2, 47.


5 Harry M. Benshoff, Monsters in the Closet: Homosexuality and the Horror Film (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1997), 4.


6 Ibid, 5.


7 Bernice Murphy, The Suburban Gothic in American Popular Culture (Hampshire: Palgrave MacMillan, 2009), 2.


8 Robert Beuka, SuburbiaNation (Hampshire: Palgrave MacMillan, 2004), 18.


9 Lizabeth Cohen, A Consumer’s Republic: The Politics of Mass Consumption in Postwar America (New York: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, 2008), 170.


10 Ibid,.


11 Alexander Garvin, American Cities: What Works, What Doesn’t (New York: McGraw Hill, 2001), 397.


12 Murphy, The Suburban Gothic, 6.


13 Cohen, A Consumer’s Republic, 77.


14 Ibid, 101.


15 Ibid, 147.


16 Murphy, The Suburban Gothic, 3.


17 Beuka, SuburbiaNation, 14.


18 Murphy, The Suburban Gothic, 7.


19 Pierre Bourdieu, Outline of a Theory of Practice (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1977), 72.


20 Ibid, 80.


21 Bourdieu, Outline of a Theory of Practice, 72.


22 Sedgwick, Epistemology of the Closet, 15.


23 Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality, trans. Robert Hurley (New York: Vintage Books, 1990), 45-46.


24 Foucault, The History of Sexuality, 46.


25 Ibid,.


26 Elizabeth Freeman, Time Binds: Queer Temporalities, Queer Histories, (Durham: Duke University Press, 2010), 3.


27 Ibid,.


28 Ibid,.


29 Ibid, 5.


30 Freeman, Time Binds, 7.


31 Ibid,.


32 Ibid, 10.

Marcus Prasad

Contributing Writer

Prasad is a recent MA graduate in Art History and Theory from the University of British Columbia. His research explores representations of space and temporality across postwar American art and contemporary horror film, for which he was the recipient of a federal scholarship from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada, the Ian Wallace Award in Art History, and the Patsy and David Heffel Award in Art History. Marcus is Academic Programs Assistant at the Belkin Art Gallery, and Editor-in-Chief at SAD Magazine.

Benshoff, Harry M. Monsters in the Closet: Homosexuality and the Horror Film. Manchester:
Manchester University Press, 1997.

Beuka, Robert. SuburbiaNation. Hampshire: Palgrave MacMillan, 2004.

Bourdieu, Pierre. Outline of a Theory of Practice. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1977.

Cohen, Lizabeth. A Consumer’s Republic: The Politics of Mass Consumption in Postwar
America. New York: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, 2008.

Deleuze, Gilles. Cinema 2: The Time Image. Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press, 1986.

Foucault, Michel. The History of Sexuality. Translated by Robert Hurley. New York: Vintage Books, 1990.

Freeman, Elizabeth. Time Binds: Queer Temporalities, Queer Histories. Durham: Duke University Press, 2010.

Garvin, Alexander. American Cities: What Works, What Doesn’t. New York: McGraw Hill, 2001.

Murphy, Bernice. The Suburban Gothic in American Popular Culture. Hampshire: Palgrave MacMillan, 2009.

Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky. Between Men: English Literature and Male Homosocial Desire. New

York: Columbia University Press, 1985.

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