'Hereditary' Director Ari Aster Describes Disturbing Occult Research and His Horror Movie's Original Pitch

Hereditary, in theaters now, has already been heralded as one of the most terrifying movies ever made (read our review), but there's much more to it than fantastic scares. Hereditary is also a dark family drama and one of the most unique movies about the occult in horror movie history. Interpenetrating its narrative with powerful symbolic imagery—including ants, mysterious magic words like "SATONY" and an omnipresent sigil—imbues Hereditary with a haunting and lasting power. It's a hard movie to shake. Which is why it made me feel a little better to speak with writer and director Ari Aster about what scared him and how he pushed his occult research right up to his own breaking point.

Aster spoke with Newsweek about Hereditary's original pitch, what made him depressed about watching E.T., his thoughts on horror movies and his "No Pentagrams" rule.

The following Q&A doesn't have any obvious spoilers for Hereditary, but does dive into some elements from late in the movie.

A poster for "Hereditary" A24

Why open with an obituary?

Well, the movie is very much about death and loss and navigating grief, or attempting to navigate grief. So it struck me as a fitting way to open the film. It's actually something that occured to me in editing, it wasn't in the script, but it was an idea I had when we were first putting together my director's cut.

So much of Hereditary takes place just outside the movie—there's this whole past history and even mythology—but it never feels ornate. The script is very efficient. There's not any infodumps. So what was the writing process like? Was there a lot of cutting down extraneous stuff?

One of the ways I first described the film when I was taking it around and pitching it was as a conspiracy movie without exposition, told from the perspective of the people being conspired against. There are, to be honest, scenes where I cheated. And there are a couple exposition moments that I hope happen just when the audience wants the information most.

I tried to riddle the movie with clues, and ultimately you're only given shards and fragments of the whole story, but I wanted to make sure you had enough to figure out what happened.

There's this visual shorthand horror movies have built up around the occult, so people know what's going on as soon as 666, or a magical circle, or something like that pops up. But one of the really cool things about Hereditary is how different its occult elements are. To the point where certain words and symbols may not have immediate meaning to the audience, but you still get across how much it means to some of the characters.

I did want to avoid certain clichés and the obvious symbols. The first thing I told the production design team as we started to look for what the symbology would be is no pentagrams, no upside-down crosses.

Annie's occult experiments quickly get out of hand. A24

But this is an unabashed horror film that I hope is in dialogue with other horror films. It's part of the joy of genre filmmaking that you're ultimately trying to breathe fresh life into a dead horse.

Ultimately, all of those words that you're reading on the wall in the house and the sigil that becomes a recurring image, those are all actually drawn from research. They are real. I ultimately have no ties to the occult and the research was kind of disturbing for me. I had to separate myself from the research after a point.

You bring up upside-down crosses and it strikes me just how little the horror imagery in Hereditary takes from Christianity, which has become such a standard set of symbols. All except one sort of beatific image at the end...

The allusion in that last scene is definitely intentional, but maybe the lack of Christian iconography and stuff like that has something to do with the fact that I'm a Jewish guy. It makes it easier to play with that demonic stuff when it's of no consequence to me, because I wasn't really raised with that stuff.

I've always been bothered by the idea of hell, I'm not a superstitious person, but as a neurotic worrier I've always found it enticing to take the idea of hell seriously, while sort of laughing off the idea of heaven.

I am a neurotic guy whose imagination tends to go straight to the worst-case scenario. And I think that's what ultimately drives me to work with darker materials. It's therapeutic to act out these worst-case scenarios on these characters instead of future projections of myself.

In some ways, Hereditary builds scares like any other horror movieslowly ratcheting up the tension, until you're just aching for the relief that comes right after the scare. But then, instead of a jump scare, you'll sort of hold the note and transform it into this ongoing, agonizing moment. What was your approach to building individual scares?

Ultimately, as a filmmaker, you're just relying on one's instincts and one's judgment and ultimately one's taste. I don't like jump scares. I find them kind of annoying. There are a few jump scares in the film that I couldn't avoid, but I felt okay about them because I couldn't avoid them. They felt honestly implemented.

The films that really bothered me as a kid were films that gave you upsetting images and then looked you right in the eye. Carrie, I saw when I was very young and there were images in that film I ended up projecting on to dark walls in my childhood. I would have rather give myself bladder problems than leave bed in the middle of the night to go to the bathroom, because of Carrie, really.

You have all these recursive elements, where the family members aren't just individuals, but weird versions of each other, like how Charlie's own artistic output mirrors her mother's. What did that mean to you?

There is a potential insidiousness to family ties. These are the people to whom we are the closest, so obviously they can do the most damage to us. And these relationships are forever. So if they're compromised in one way or another, or if they're not taken care of (sometimes it's not up to us, sometimes something happens to fracture those ties), it's not something we can just leave behind.

Charlie (Milly Shapiro) working on her own, very strange, art projects. A24

This is ultimately about a family who is delivered a series of blows, making it impossible to recover. When I first wrote the script, I received a lot of criticism from different script readers and people who I was sending it out to. And it was always about how the family at the beginning of the film was already troubled. The criticism was they had nowhere to go. So when the film catalyzes further unrest, it doesn't hit us as hard as it should.

Look, I love the films of Frank Capra just as much as anybody, but I watch the movies, and even films that capture the "messiness" of home life, like E.T.—that's another film I love, I adore E.T.—but I am depressed when I watch these films, and it's because I don't recognize the world that I live in or I perceive. There's something about that Norman Rockwell vision of Americana, that idealized vision of the family in harmony, that feels very false. And I think it strikes a lot of people as false. I want to make a film about a family that I would recognize. That is struggling for things and has a history. They all love each other, but sometimes life invades and makes it hard.

Hereditary is in theaters now.