HORROR AND DIAGNOSIS: ON ARI ASTER
Ari Aster, writer-director of last year’s Hereditary and this midsummer’s Midsommar, has made a splash using horror filmmaking to explore bereavement, intergenerational trauma, and other everyday disasters. Like his colleagues Jennifer Kent and Jordan Peele, the second of whom praised Midsommar as an “ascension of horror” with “some of the most atrociously disturbing imagery [he’d] ever seen on film,” Aster draws on horror’s essential permissiveness — its tendency to push the edges of the permissible, stretching a yes as far as it will go — to tell stories too fraught or pessimistic for social realism or melodrama.
The permissiveness is aesthetic and thematic both. Aster certainly relishes the dissonance between his “atrociously disturbing imagery” and the gorgeousness of their surround: delicate symmetries, languid zooms, well-tempered palettes, severed heads. But he cherishes horror’s thematic openness no less than its aesthetic license: “The beauty of the horror genre is that you can smuggle in these harder stories,” he said last year. “What may be seen as a deterrent for audiences in one genre, suddenly becomes a virtue in another genre.”
These “harder” stories showcase Aster’s grim commitment to the American family’s annihilation, figuring mental illness as the means, metaphoric or real, of the family’s disordering. In 2018 interviews, Aster repeatedly stressed his desire to convey the world-ending immensity of grief; the witches, demons, and abrupt beheadings followed his impulse to depict a family corroded by loss. He describes his filmmaking process being “root[ed] in the suffering of these people and then allowing all these horror elements to grow out of that.”
But what happens to suffering when it serves as horror’s soil? Throughout Hereditary, psychiatry and the supernatural vie for hermeneutic priority: which system of belief — the medical or the occult — better interprets “the suffering of these people” in the wake of calamity? Aster not only specifies characters’ psychiatric diagnoses, he makes them central to the film’s unfolding terror. Hereditary begins with Annie Graham burying her mother, Ellen. Ellen’s severe Dissociative Identity Disorder is conflated with and, as the narrative unfolds, symbolically displaced by her secret life as a witch. Midway through the film, Annie’s daughter Charlie is killed in a gruesome car accident, but even this devastation proves surrogate to the supernatural: we learn that Ellen’s coven actually brought about Charlie’s death in order to transfer the demon trapped within her to its proper vessel, the body of her brother Peter. When Annie goes to group grief counseling, she lies to her husband, telling him she’s off to the movies; in so doing, she consolidates the metaphor. In group, she names not only her mother’s diagnosis but her father’s (Psychotic Depression – he starved himself to death) and her brother’s (Schizophrenia – in his suicide note, he accused his mother of “putting people inside him”). Retrospectively, each diagnosis seems a placeholder for possession, as if the medical verbiage itself were voided, filled with evil. Eventually, Annie confesses to her husband that their family is cursed; he insists on professional intervention, insinuating that Annie, addled by mourning, is finally manifesting her mother’s illness. Naturally, he is a psychiatrist.
Whether Hereditary’s supernatural twist neutralizes or reaffirms its many diagnoses is, crucially, a matter of interpretation. Aster employs genre conventions to boldly articulate the most devastating and least palatable impacts of severe mental illness, but in doing so he risks disarticulating illness altogether. Does diagnosis become a legible pretext to be unnaturalized, with horror overwriting psychiatry’s counterfeit prescriptions? Or might there be a more subtle relay between these different forms of “treatment”? Could the grammar of horror give mental illnesses shape, weight, and texture inexpressible in other genres, or does Ellen’s ruthlessness in sacrificing her family merely confirm the ableist conviction that those with mental illnesses are monstrous?
Surprisingly, Midsommar clarifies these questions. Although Hereditary more explicitly engages the perils of being-in-family, going so far as to grant them titular status, it’s a mistake to assume Midsommar abandons them. A “breakup opera” (the term is Aster’s) that stages a couple’s dissolution amidst escalating pagan rituals, Midsommar risks our forgetting its beginnings in the family plot, so taken do we become with the dazzling, sun-drenched grisliness of its final third. But within the dark opening sequence — literally dark, a midwinter prelude to the film’s relentless brightness — Aster reveals the continuity of his vision. Dani (a psychology graduate student, in keeping with a theme) learns that her long-suffering sister Terri has killed herself and their parents, running carbon monoxide through long orange tubes from the garage to the bedrooms of their childhood home. Like Peter, the last living member of the Grahams, Dani must contend with the loss of her entire family. But the tragedy is radically abbreviated: as if in elaboration of an idea, Aster transposes the final sequence of his first film onto his second film’s first. While the remainder of Midsommar follows a classic folk horror plot (Dani’s boyfriend is named Christian; things don’t go so well for him) it renders too, and captivatingly, the working through of Dani’s unbearably repressed pain.
A final detail further conjoins both films: Terri, Dani’s sister, has Bipolar Disorder. The diagnosis is noteworthy because it is gratuitous. Briefly mentioned, narratologically unwarranted, it draws attention to itself as both excess and insufficiency: insufficient as it tells us almost nothing, excessive as it pretends to tell us everything. Where the diagnoses in Hereditary resonate in their relay with the supernatural, ripening perhaps to the point of their own decay, nothing is asked or expected of Terri’s diagnosis — it is a symbolic dead end, the orphan detail in Dani’s orphaning.
In bringing both films together, we can register Aster’s drift away from characters already diagnosed and his fixation on their (as of yet) undiagnosed next-of-kin. Perversely magnetized, protagonism and diagnosis tend towards but never touch each other. Annie once doused her family in kerosene while sleepwalking; Peter smokes weed but has no other tools to cope with Charlie’s death; Dani is chronically anxious, relying on Ativan and therapy long before her sister’s ghastly final episode. Each is baffled by loss, each lives in dread of becoming their scars, each makes extreme or irrational decisions, but none is ever stamped with the medically sanctioned, reassuringly discursive, symptomatically discrete language of diagnosis.
What Aster gives them instead — what he is moving through horror to find — is a bare and brutalized territory beyond order and disorder. Peter gets possessed moments after witnessing his mother’s death; Dani joins the very cult that has been murdering her companions. Both characters find, or figure, a queer and troubling power in their wanton arrivals. Peter’s body is now vessel to Paimon, the Eighth Prince of Hell; Dani Ardor is crowned May Queen and executes her bummer of a boyfriend. Each, prince and queen, is garlanded with profane sovereignty. For both, horror’s cathartic final act gives them an out, an arrival through and after diagnosis, a transformative state beyond family and social relation as we know it. For Aster, coming “through” the intramural world of the family — with its complexes and disorders — is blistering; it breaks us. But the breaking is ecstatic, and even sacred.
By chasing this terrain, Aster overlooks other stories well worth his imaginative vigor. While both of his films savour the symbolic vibrancy of illness, neither investigates the inner lives of characters with disabilities or diagnoses; this is a rather striking contradiction. In Hereditary, every person diagnosed is already dead. In Midsommar, the cult-members derive their scripture from the paintings of a young man “unclouded by normal cognition” — but Ruben, the unclouded one, is more sight gag than prophet. In a sharp essay recounting horror’s origins in eugenics, Emma Madden argues that visibly disabled bodies serve as “shorthand” for horror in toto. (See “Midsommar’s ableism resurrects the dark history of eugenics-inspired horror,” https://www.theguardian.com/film/2019/jul/10/midsommars-ableism-resurrects-the-dark-history-of-eugenics-inspired-horror-ari-aster) Ruben’s face — which elicited gasps at Madden’s screening, nervous giggles at my own — is understood to speak for itself, leaving his interiority unspoken.
A final story foreshortened in Midsommar is that of its only African American character, Josh. Played with nerdy intensity by William Jackson Harper, Josh is an anthropologist in training, his dissertation a comparative study of midsummer festivals in Sweden, England, and Germany. Curious and driven, Josh is the film’s most fascinating invention. His blackness inverts the too-seminal Conradian plot of white travelers discovering horror (“the horror!”) deep in the colonial interior. Well, no, Josh would invert this plot if the film would give him any freedom to do so. Instead, he is the first character attacked on-screen, enacting one of horror cinema’s laziest and most violent tropes. Never quite naming or interrogating the cult’s implicit white supremacy (Christian is deemed a perfect “astrological match” to mate with one of the cult’s young women, but he is also the only blue-eyed outsider), Aster turns race into scenography, the ornamented backdrop to his drama.
This drama, however transporting, nevertheless relies on its origins in the white, suburban, American family and the fantasies of wellness that fortify it. This starting point coordinates and constrains much more than it permits. Aster has found a cruel and keening somewhere beyond, and through, the family plot; imagine where he could go if he started somewhere else.