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Women’s work: Spiritualism, Satan, and Hereditary

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Ari Aster's Hereditary has been called the most anticipated horror film of the year, compared to 1973’s double whammy of genre classics, both The Wicker Man and The Exorcist. The film begins as Annie Graham (Toni Collette) buries her mother, the difficult relationship between the two women becoming increasingly more central to the drama that unfolds. With her husband Steve (Gabriel Byrne) and children Peter (Alex Wolff) and Charlie (Milly Shapiro), the unbearable tragedies the family endure in the film's first half make the increasingly unambiguous arrival of a supernatural storyline almost a relief; a pressure release for the unwavering onslaught of all-too-realistic human suffering we witness up-close in devastating intimacy up until that point.

To delve too deeply into what precisely those supernatural components are would destroy much of the film’s often deeply perverse pleasures – even for hardened horror film aficionados, much of the experience of Hereditary is the shock of discovery. Suffice to say, the first real glimmer of the exact terrain the film treads is flagged early on where Annie discovers a book on Spiritualism gifted to her from her mother, packed away in storage. Of all the horror subgenres to examine, the séance-centric is a wise selection for an art-horror movie for Aster to select. In recent years we've had witches, boogeymen and body snatchers galore. Yet the subgenre selected here is one spawned from a complex history that is much more significant – and enigmatic – than simple iconographic diversity might suggest.

A young girl floats above a bed as two priests perform an exorcism in a darkened room

'The Exorcist' (1973)

In large part, this relates heavily to the gender politics of both Spiritualism’s own history and to that of Hereditary’s contemporary moment. As a religious movement that peaked internationally throughout the nineteenth century, it was – and remains – a belief system predicated on the conviction that the spirits of the dead can communicate with the living. As a religious movement, by the late nineteenth-century Spiritualism in the United States and Europe alone had an estimated eight million adherents, almost all from an educated, upper and middle class demographic. Of these, women played a crucial one.

Ann Braude’s 1989 book Radical Spirits: Spiritualism and Women's Rights in Nineteenth-century America is a foundational work that considers religious history through a gender political lens, arguing that Spiritualism was a primary way that the ideology of the women’s rights movement spread through America in the mid-nineteenth century in particular. Spiritualism was from its earliest days associated with women, and figures such as Emma Hardinge Britten and Mina Crandon were felt broadly to be more receptive to the task of mediumship than their male counterparts. For Braude, “spirit mediums formed the first large group of American women to speak in public or to exercise religious leadership".

An illustrated depiction of three table-turnings led by women

An illustrated depiction of seances from a French magazine published in 1853

The story of women's centrality to Spiritualism is not just about that movement itself, but, more importantly, part of the history of women and power in the United States and their taking up positions of authority in public speaking roles especially. Attempts to dismiss these women, Braude suggests, undermines more than Spiritualism, but the empowerment of women to stand up and be heard more generally: “taking Spiritualism seriously as a religion means that the cadre of female mediums who spread the movement should be seen as religious figures, rather than as impressionable dupes”.

By the late 1880s, the credibility of the Spiritualist movement had weakened due to accusations of fraud: famed Spiritualist Etta Wriedt was revealed to be a fraud, more a talented ventriloquist than gifted interdimensional conduit. New York's Fox sisters Leah, Margaret and Kate were central figures in the formation of the US Spiritualist movement, the latter two confessing in 1888 (but later recanting) that their experiences were a hoax, dying in poverty less than five years later.

A black and white illustrated portrait of the Fox Sisters

The Fox Sisters

At stake here was much more than simply the exposure of a few possible charlatans; there was a broader dismissal of women’s public voices – ‘exposed’ almost always by male sceptics – that had a broader ideological mission of putting women back in their perceived place and quelling the broader achievements of the women’s movement at the time. Of great relevance to contemporary horror film, even in the mid-nineteenth century there is much documented evidence that seeks to align Spiritualism with Satanism, making the granting of a forum where women held tremendous power somehow inherently demonic. In 1857, Pastor William Ramsay of Philadelphia’s Cedar Street Presbyterian Church published the relatively self-explanatory diatribe Spiritualism: A Satanic Delusion and a Sign of the Times, arguing that Spiritualism was the "work is of the Devil".

Which leads us back to horror film. Some of the most intriguing scenes in Hereditary involve séances, an enduring motif in the genre since its earliest days. For reasons of timing alone it is perhaps unsurprising this would be an enduring trope in movie history; the first Ouija board was patented in 1891, launching the séance as a casual parlour game in the same decade that cinema itself was flung out into the popular mediasphere with the moving image experiments of Georges Méliès, Thomas Edison, and the Lumiere Brothers.

In horror cinema especially, séances are much more than a mere plot device or opportunity for some cheesy special effects. Rather, they materially permit explicit communication between the past and the present; allowing the inescapable influence of the latter to make its voice heard in a movie’s diegetic moment. Whether it is as individuals, nations, or entire cultures, we are often haunted by a past we cannot escape, and the very title Hereditary renders this unambiguously the subject of genuine horror. 

Sigmund Freud once wrote about “the return of the repressed”, where the things we try to bury and deny find a way to bubble up whether we like it or not, and horror critics and scholars have for decades utilised this as a key concept when thinking through the genre’s power for social critique. With the séance, the repressed is literally is given a physical forum to return – a table-top, a glass, a Ouija board. Across horror film history, the scenarios may change but this privileging of the séance as a space where the voice of the past can be heard and have often direct influence on the present is a constant.

Steve, Peter and Charlie Graham sit at a messy dining table while Annie Graham stands behind them with a suspicious expression

The Graham Family

This is demonstrated not only in movies like Hereditary, but across horror film history. Pioneering horror filmmaker Tod Browning featured séances in his 1925 film The Mystic and 1929’s The Thirteenth Chair, and over the following decades séances would appear steadily in films including Supernatural (Victor Halperin, 1933), The Devil Commands (Edward Dmytryk, 1941), The Uninvited (Lewis Allen, 1944), Blood Orgy of the She-Devils (Ted V. Mikels, 1973), Gothic (Ken Russell, 1986), and Night of the Demons (Kevin S. Tenney, 1988). Well beyond famous instances like The Exorcist and franchises like Witchboard (1986-1995) and Ouija (2017-2014), séances would become a familiar trope in horror well beyond the UK and the US, appearing in films from countries including Italy, Mexico, Japan, the Philippines, and Hong Kong.

But it is in Hereditary where the gender history of Spiritualism is made most explicit. Talking about the birth of her daughter in 2000, Braude wrote of the allure of Spiritualism to grieving women in particular in a later reprint of her influential book; "I appreciate in a new way how connection to another human being could be so fundamental to one's existence that one would pursue any available avenue to continue it". What Hereditary ultimately says about this history is in practice open to interpretation: is it a good old fashioned rebooting of the monstrous feminine trope, an epic trolling of greedy Baby Boomers more generally, or – as the title suggests – part of a long, ingrained history where issues of power, autonomy, and gender are messy and complex with outcomes almost impossible to boil down to a single moral pronunciation? The answer will have little effect on the experience of watching what in terms of popcorn-and-choc-top-ice-cream-guzzling is a rollicking good horror ride. But the histories of Spiritualism and its close relationship to the mobilisation of women’s power that Hereditary riffs on are both real and important, a can of worms the film seems consciously determined to leave open to us to interpret.

- Alexandra Heller-Nicholas