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gender roles in horror films

Gender roles, witches, demons and Hereditary. A film essay and review.


Gender roles, witches, demons and Hereditary. A film essay and review.

An opinionated and biased essay ahead, perfectly imperfect. This writer is aware of said biasses and welcomes your ideas respectfully. Proceed. Also, my spell check looks terrible on this one - I'll fix that later. *facepalm*

Halfway through his movie, I turned to my husband and said, “I think we might need therapy when this is all over.” I’d like to start with a caveat that we are a household that loves horror movies. In my opinion, horror is an under-appreciated genre. I'm not talking about franchise horror films, of which we are not a fan, with the exception of Insidious. I'm talking, The Shining, Blair Witch Project, Suspiria, Mommy, Let The Right One In, Babbadook. Classic horror tales and the like. Greek tragedies, even Shakespeare. I have a lot to say about this one. So fair warning, this essay is long. 


I grew up reading Steven King, Bram Stoker, Mary Shelly, Edgar Allen Poe, Anne Rice and Mark Danielewski. I would argue that even my favorite fantasy and science fiction writers like Tolkien and George R.R. Martin borrow from the horror genre. 

What solidified my interest in horror was actually a class in Chinese and Japanese cinema and art history. I enjoyed studying the nuances of the culture through the stories they told. Most of which were ghost stories. Ancestral worship is part of their culture. When visiting someones home, you might find a shrine to their passed loved ones. Ghosts are a normal, everyday part of their spiritual life. So too are their ghost stories. 

This connection to the dead is apparent in many cultures. The Celtic festival of Samhain, The Buddhist Obon, Dia De Los Muertos, Chuseok in Korea and Gai Jatra in Nepal. All have ceremonies and celebrations that honor ancestral spirits. Essentially, the ghosts of your family. I joke that even the Bible is one long ghost story. Full of death, rebirth, angels, demons, spirits, voices and apocalyptic visions. But where eastern religions and ancient cultures differ is around the premise of fear. Specifically spirits.


Take, for instance, the Buddhist Obon and Del Dia De Los Muertos. Celebrations designed to honor the people who came before you, invoking the spirits of your ancestors come back to visit the living. One would light lanterns or lay a path of flowers to guide those spirits back to earth for the celebration. You are literally inviting ghosts to come and have dinner with you. These rituals are not fear based spiritual practices. You will find no children running away in horror from the ghosts of great granddad. They are beautiful rituals full of dancing, prayer, and community.  

I grew up going to Church for a large part of my life, so my religious experiences of adolescence are based on my experiences with the Christian church. Here notes my personal bias. I have no such memories of honoring my ancestors in a such a way from the Church. In fact, anything involving something seance-like would have been viewed as the devil. The dead are mourned in quiet reverence but one must be careful in creating any false idols. The only ghost that is ok to invoke, is the holy ghost. It's still very old testament thinking when it comes to this one. 

I have a vivid memory of sitting on a picnic bench at Jesus camp, 13 years old, sobbing uncontrollably. I just listened to a fiery sermon about hell and I was truly conflicted. I was already "saved," having said the prayer and done the ritual at 8 years old. But my father was not. He was an atheist. I didn't want him to go to hell. I was terrified and felt guilty. My counselor at the time kept pressing me to call him. She wanted me to "get him saved," right now. 

As an adult, I see how flawed that moment was. I did not call my father that night. I couldn't understand how my Christian peers thought less of me for doing so. I thought for sure that God would understand my compassion. My father and I had already discussed his feelings. He always respected my right to choose a religion, and I liked that, so I respected his. Fear of hell was used against me in this instance and it stuck with me for a long time. That is not to say that I didn't experience good things during my time in Church but eventually I grew up, moved away and formed my own relationship with faith and beilief. 

I could give many instances of examples of why I feel that Christianity is a fear based religion, but I am not defending that point for this essay. Let's assume that it is. 

I think it's interesting that our writer for Hereditary uses Goetia as it's religious influence. Goetia, an ancient Greek word that literally means sorcerer, get's its roots from the 16th century. Later, during the Renaissance, it became dubbed "black magic." The backdrop for the ending of the film and it's 17th-century Greek influence, we will explore later. But culturally, I think it's worth looking at this film through an American lens, of which, most of the population is Christian, making the comparisons I make relevant. Hereditary is an American film, written by an American writer. So I don't think he is trying to say anything specific about religion, other than to use it as a horror construct. This writer is obviously aware of his audience and is using that within his film. 

We like horror films about evil, possession and ghosts almost as much as we like superhero movies. That classic good versus evil fight. We love it when the lines are drawn in the sand and the tension is clear. We don't get that kind of clarity in life. In fact, life is made up of many unknowns and gray areas. Those two, a cause of our fear and anxiety. 

Hereditary doesn't put this idea front and center. Which is why I love it. The supernatural takes a back seat up until the second act. It dives head-first into the gray areas to establish our characters and keeps us in the deep-end with our worst fears. 



Hereditary is brilliantly written and performed. If I were awarding Oscars, I would give one to the writer and one to the lead actress. The writing and specifically Torri's performance is award worthy. It is visually stunning and draws from some of the best ancient storytelling techniques of the ages. Its greek tragedy influence is what makes the whole story so strong. Stand out moments occur in the long takes, the timing of the edit, the absence of music and truly breathless performances. 

But I would argue that the best thing about Hereditary is what it doesn’t explicitly say. Like a Greek Tragedy, it’s about the things that take place in-between the lines that make it so terrifying. It’s a spiritual horror film that speaks to our fears of inheriting the tragedies and traits of our ancestors. It’s about secrets between parents and children. Grief and it’s emotional manifestations. How tragedy can transform a person. If you are looking for a nice bow-tie ending, you won’t get it. You are more likely to walk away going, “huh?”

I loved the ending, but I think it will turn a lot of people off. 

The best thing about the movie, in my opinion, is about women, spirituality, possession, and emotion. Which leads us to the essay below. I won’t be diving into Greek Tragedy or deconstruction of its uses in horror films. That’s for another day. I think it’s been widely documented in reviews thus far. I’d like to take a look at Gender, Christianity, Religion and how this film plays with those larger social constructs. 



Gender roles in horror films are one of my favorite things to pick apart culturally. (If you want to dive in more, this is an excellent place to start. ) Women in horror films have a long history of being gas-lighted by the male characters they interact within the plot. They are scorned with male “logic,” that the things they are experiencing aren’t real. Usually, they are tortured, shallow characters that look pretty and scream on cue. Often viewed as “crazy,” and spend most of the plot running from danger. This isn't always the case, there are a few standouts. But for the most part, I think the above is true. Women are either victims or "witches," in the majority of horror films. I also think it's interesting how we treat women who are having spiritual experiences. In our stories, we are uncomfortable with female emotion. Therefore, if someone is having an extremely emotional experience, we are likely to view them as scary.

We are at our roots a Puritan nation. One whose fear of “the devil,” allowed us to pillage “savage Indians,” in the name of that fear. Europe during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries persecuted thousands of witches. Whole villages of Swiss women were wiped out in the hysteria.

In America, we have the Salem witch trials. 

I recently got to visit Salem Massachusetts. I read this fantastic book before I went called,A Delusion Of Satan, The full story of the Salem Witch Trials, by Frances HillWhich outlines in more context the conditions and beliefs that lead to the "witch hysteria.” Today, those Puritans have received their Karma. Salem is a joke. It’s become a tourist Halloween town. Complete with haunted houses, tarot readers, and hippie spiritualists. The “devil,” they so fought to destroy has won. I laughed thinking about the righteous judges jumping through time to see children running around in witch costumes pretending to put spells on each other in their beloved village.  


The story of Salem became a cautionary tale of the dangers of religious belief. But the book attempts to take it one step further in outlining the gender roles of women, power dynamics between men and women and femininity, creativity and inspiration. Unlike the modern telling of the story like “The Crucible,” the book deliciously researches connections from historical records. The trials were meticulously documented. Which may be why the story has been passed down to new generations and became taught in schools. But the book makes some connections for me that my 5th-grade classroom reading of The Crucible didn’t. 

Life was hard as a puritan and men made all the rules. Imagination was stifled among children. Art was functional. Creativity was not encouraged, survival was. Sexuality was almost exclusively prohibited as a sin of the flesh with the exception of procreation. Pleasure was not allowed. Expression among women was silenced. These are all feminine values. Women who express extreme emotion are “crazy,” while men who express themselves in extreme ways are “passionate.” Soon “crazy,” became “a witch.” Any outburst of extreme emotion and a woman could be accused of being possessed by the devil. Witch hunting thus became inherently female and while anyone a could be accused of being a witch, most of the persecution was of women. 

As a little girl, I played a lot in an imaginative space. I experimented with all kinds of storytelling and play acting. As a teenager, I was emotional and dramatic. I guarantee if I had been observed by a Puritan priest, they would have convinced the town that I was possessed. I think most artists would have been accused of witchcraft in that era.

These tropes still exist today. We still silence women. We write stories where they are silenced by others. In a large majority of our horror films, women are either the victims or for lack of a better term, "witches." As time moved on, we stopped persecuting witches and started locking women up in asylums for misbehaving.  Thus replacing "witch," with "crazy."

I’m sure at some point, we have all thought our mothers to be “crazy,” through this lens too. Extreme imaginative outbursts or expressions of emotion are squashed in our society. We can barely handle a crying baby on an airplane let alone a woman who cries in public. 

And here marks the line of spoilers people. If you wish to continue, do so at your own risk. I am about to talk about the details of the story. 




Hereditary begins with our main character, Annie, in the midst of working on her art. She creates model dioramas. It is implied as the story chugs along that these dioramas are her emotional outlet. This is how she processes grief, anger, and fear. The tension between imagination, memory, and reality play nicely here. Why in the world would someone make a miniaturized model of the death of her mother? 

I enjoyed the duality of the models with life. The idea that I could take memories and tragedies out of my head and examine them as real-life objects. To see if I could make sense of them, process them differently. This process appears painstaking in the film. The details are fussed over, our main character possessed with the idea of recreation. A rebirth of her pain. Nicely done. 


Next, we meet Charlie. Charlie is different. She makes you uncomfortable but we trust her slightly more because we assume it’s a mental disorder. The play on gender here is masterfully done. Our young actress is phenomenal but I question the casting choice. We love to put our humanly different in horror films and this borders exploitation for me. It's akin to pointing at her and calling her "freak." I get that we are establishing a long line of mental health issues for our characters, so I'll leave this one be. But do better next time. 

Next, the shocking tragedy that propels our characters into some of the best moments of the film. Personally, I did not see that one coming. The car accident begins our true emotional terror. 

Annie experiences real grief for the first time in the loss of her daughter. She was relieved when her own mother died, having been released from the burden of that relationship only to be thrust forward into the guilt of playing a part in her own daughter's death. Grief is not handled lightly here. Our main character moves through hysteric fits. She retreats. She creates twisted dioramas of the accident. All the while her husband grows more and more suspicious of her behavior. Her husband literally acts as men have throughout history. Questioning the intensity of her emotions and wondering if he should send her away. If we are sticking with our horror metaphors, Annie is possessed by grief. 

My favorite scene to illustrate this concept is at the dinner table. Tensions mount in the household to an emotional breaking point. Our male characters confront our female lead and claim that she isn’t being truthful about her feelings. They invite her to express herself. 


She does. This eruption is the best scene in the film. Rarely do we get to experience female emotional flow on the screen. The sight of a woman in full emotional and visual expression makes our male characters physically retreat from the scene. The very thing they invited her to express is the very thing they can not handle and rather than applaud her completion of this expression, they squash it. The men refuse to join her and instead they persecute her almost as if saying, "burn the witch.’ The refreshing length of the shot and the stellar performance by the actress is noteworthy. They do not shy away from the complexities of extreme emotions. 


I think all of us are afraid that if we let go on some level, what comes forth would be bad. Tapping into our emotional flow is scary. So scary that as a society we can’t handle people doing it in front of us. We tell each other, “don’t cry,” when comforting one another. We tell our men, “crying isn’t manly.” And when we see our lead actress express herself on screen, we too as an audience are scared. We question her sanity, if only for a moment. Can we pause for a moment to admire the cinematography choice here? It's like an 18th century painting. 


I mean, look at that still shot above. Gorgeous terrifying women in full power feeling herself fully. Just hand her the Oscar, please. This scene is fucking amazing. I applauded Annie's capacity to let go and laughed when the men wouldn't join her. Granted, it has taken me a long time to be ok with my own extremities of emotions but now that I am, I was praising this goddess on screen. I honestly can't think of another on screen performance that accomplishes this as well as Hereditary does. 


Emotions escalate as the film begins introducing the supernatural to the plot. Annie, meets with a new friend in her grief group, this friend conducts a seance to bring back the spirit of her grandchild. It seems to work and despite her reservations, she tries it. This triggers the climax of our film and leads to its ultimate resolution after discovering that her mother had a secret spiritual life. Spirituality “literally," kept in a box and hidden away until the very end of the film. I think spirituality is what our writer wants you to infer as the "hereditary trait." It’s the thing that our lead character doesn’t want to inherit from her mother. Her secret life. Her mental illness. Her spirituality. One might even say, she demonizes her mother.😉 




The gender play with Charlie is also worth noting. At the conclusion of the film, we learn that Charlie is a male demon reincarnated into a female body. His name is Paimon. His reincarnation into Charlie was a mistake, as we learn at the conclusion of the film. The whole film is a plot to correct this mistake. Charlie referenced as she presents more like a tomboy with an androgynous name. While women are often “Witches,” in our scary stories, men are painted as “Demons.” 

I always wondered why this trope existed in our storytelling. Sometimes I think it's about dominance and submission, Witches serve Demons. Women subserviant to men. Demons are usually powerful creatures in our stories. Females are usually the victims of demon possession, either used for literal possession or for impregnation. But it wasn’t always that way. In the pre-Christian era, demons were both male and female. Much like the ancient polytheistic religions that had many gods and goddesses, so too was the gender spectrum of demons. It’s Christianity that spun the gender roles and made them sexless. Technically, Christian demons are fallen angels, as referenced in the Bible. They are sexless beings whose purpose is to test human beings on their faith in God and lead them to sin. 


"For such men are false apostles, deceitful workmen, masquerading as apostles of Christ. 14. And no wonder, for Satan himself masquerades as an angel of light. 15. It is not surprising, then, if his servants masquerade as servants of righteousness. Their end will be what their actions deserve.” —2 Corinthians 11:13–15


I always wondered, why then do we paint demons as masculine throughout history? See that winged creature demon up there - - - what sex do you infer when observing it? For context, the above painting is Dante and Virgil in Hell - William-Adolphe Bouguereau, 1850. It’s a scene from Dante’s inferno, in which there are several biblical references used to describe the journey into hell. This painting is terrifying in person btw. It’s the size of a billboard and you can see the demons eyes staring at you from all angles. Notice the color palet and the lighting on the main figures in the foregroud. Remind you of any shot from before? 

Back to Hereditary … 

Why does Paimon need a male body? Why is he unhappy in a female body? Paimon is supposed to be a Prince not a Princess. If you don’t know who Paimon is … you aren’t alone. I had to look it up too. He’s one of the kings of hell with Goetic orgins, also referenced in Persian and Iranian stories. The “King," denotes man right? 

Paimon is referenced in a demonology spell book called Lesser Key Of Solomon. Therein lists 72 demons of which, one is Paimon. Each demon has a symbol, which was a clue in the film. Annie wears one around her neck. Guess she should have googled the symbol before wearing it. 



So essentially our demon "man-king," is pissed because he was born a woman and his followers work to correct the issue. Wow. Talk about some gender issues right? The wiki page for Paimon also gives us a hint at a sequel btw… go read it if you like.

Also, loved the irony of the husband going up in flames. Guess he should have belived her huh? 

Also, loved the irony of the husband going up in flames. Guess he should have belived her huh? 

SO have you made it this far? 

If you have, cheers to you. Welcome to my geekery. I spent a lot of money on my education in art history, English and film critique. Literally wrote a paper a day for 4 years. I’m still paying off the bill. Blogs are more refreshing though, I don’t have to worry about being perfect or getting graded. I can just share my passion for picking apart social and cultural references in storytelling. 

That said, if Hereditary made me spawn a long essay like this, imagine what it might do for you. I will warn you, my husband is still having nightmares from the visuals. Which I didn’t even get a chance to geek out about here. That said, I do think that our tales of horror are the most interesting things to look at in society. Our relationship to fear or lack thereof is still taboo. Last year marked the first time a horror film was nominated for an Oscar, and I think to Get Out was nominated more for its cultural relevance and discussion of race in our time. I’d love to see more from this writer. I was seriously impressed. It’s well researched and smart with an excellent understanding of pace and emotional landscapes. 

So just like our movie, here ends my essay. I’m not going to neatly tie this up.

What did you think of the film?