Hereditary premiered in 2018, forever ruining treehouses, miniature art, and cluck-ing sounds for everyone who saw it. Part occult horror and part domestic drama, the movie follows a family grappling with the traumatic death of its youngest member and the dark traditions that haunt its bloodline. The movie has been praised as an impressive debut from writer/director Ari Aster—whose subsequent works include Midsommar (2019) and Beau Is Afraid (2023)—and a highlight of the new golden age of horror.
While some viewers likely wish they could scrub Hereditary from their minds, others may be curious to learn more about it, such as what inspired it, how the cast was convinced to sign on, and what the director really thinks of that scene. If you belong to the latter camp, read on for facts about the film.
1. Ari Aster’s disturbing shorts got the studio’s attention.
Hereditary was most fans’ introduction to Ari Aster, but it wasn’t his first work of cinema. Prior to his feature film debut, he had directed some noteworthy shorts. The Strange Thing About the Johnsons, Aster’s graduate thesis at the American Film Institute Conservatory, is the most prolific—and strangest—of the bunch: It tells the story of a father being sexually abused by his son. Despite the disturbing subject matter, the 30-minute short was an official selection at both the New York and Slamdance Film Festivals.
His short film Munchausen also infuses family dynamics with horror elements, with the plot following a mother who poisons her son to stop him from leaving for college. Both films caught the attention of the indie studio A24 and convinced executives that Aster could write and direct a twisted family drama.
2. Hereditary was inspired by another unsettling movie.
Aster’s vision for Hereditary was inspired by a few horror staples including Carrie (1976) and Rosemary’s Baby (1968). But there was another, more obscure source he drew from when crafting his movie. For those who are unfamiliar with Peter Greenaway's The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover, the 1989 film starring Helen Mirren and Michael Gambon, it centers on a woman having an affair with a man at her abusive husband’s restaurant. Like Hereditary, it’s more than the straightforward drama it appears to be on the surface. The unrated film is noteworthy for a host of controversial elements including explicit sex, defecation, and cannibalism. As a guest on the CineFix Directors Series, Aster said that he snuck the movie out of his local video store around age 12 after learning that it had upset his stoic father. “I regretted watching it for many years,” Aster said.
3. Toni Collette was hesitant to take the lead role.
Toni Collette’s performance as Annie is rightly lauded as a highlight of Hereditary, as well as a highlight of her acting career. But the role almost went to someone else—not because that’s what the director wanted, but because Collette was hesitant to sign on. She doesn’t consider herself a horror fan, and at the time she was approached with the script, she was only interested in doing lighter films. “I reallllllly wasn’t looking to do anything this heavy,” Collette told The Daily Beast. But after reading the script and realizing it wasn’t a typical horror flick, she couldn’t resist saying yes.
4. Aster avoided calling Hereditary a "horror movie."
Any movie that has as much satanism, decapitation, and creepy kid content as Hereditary does automatically falls into the horror genre. But when he was initially pitching the film, Aster was reluctant to use the label. “The film is a horror film, it's unabashedly one, but as I was pitching it, I was describing it as a family tragedy that curdles into a nightmare,” Aster told NPR. “I wanted the film to function first as a vivid family drama before I even bothered attending to the horror elements.”
Aster’s plan worked: The movie relies on classic horror tropes, but by bringing in elements from other genres, Aster convinced studios—and critics—to take it more seriously.
5. Sets helped create a dollhouse aesthetic.
From the opening scene, the director makes it clear that he wants you to view the characters like figurines in a dollhouse. But Annie’s career as a miniaturist isn’t the only way Aster conveys this information. To achieve a “dollhouse” aesthetic, all the house scenes were shot on a set on a soundstage. That way, the crew could remove ceilings and walls and film the actors from farther away than they would have been able to shooting in an actual house. The unique perspective is meant to evoke the feeling of looking at a scene in a diorama.
6. Alex Wolff offered to break his own nose.
Alex Wolff not only shot Peter’s creepy desk scene without a stunt double, but he was willing to slam his face into a real, solid desk. “I said to Ari when that scene was coming up, ‘I will do it on a real desk, just tell me,’” Wolff told The Wrap. “And he said, ‘I love you and thank you but that is definitely not allowed, definitely an illegal thing to do so we’re not going to do that …’ break my own face.”
To make the situation safer, the production team brought in a cushioned prop desk, but according to Wolff, it was still hard enough to hurt. And he was really bleeding in that scene, but not from his nose: He had injured his knee after banging it against the desk.
7. The trailer scared a lot of kids.
Even before Hereditary hit theaters, the film was terrifying audience members—unintentionally. In spring 2018, an Australian movie theater accidentally screened the trailer before a showing of the family film Peter Rabbit. The theater was packed with at least 40 children, and they were understandably upset. The cinema gave out free movie passes as an apology.
8. That scene is Aster’s favorite.
If you remember any part of Hereditary, it’s likely the gut-wrenching car accident scene that sets the horrifying events of the film’s second half in motion. Aster is well aware of how effective it is. “That’s probably my favorite sequence in the film,” he told Vanity Fair, “everything that’s happening around those 15 minutes.” It’s probably the best sequence in the film, but favorite maybe isn’t the term we’d use.
9. That scene was almost more gruesome.
The same production design team that created the miniatures for Hereditary was also responsible for some of the gorier props used in the film. In an interview with The Verge, model and makeup effects designer Steve Newburn said that Hereditary’s most unsettling moment could have been much worse. In reference to **SPOILER ALERT** Charlie’s decapitation, he said, “It’s toned down significantly [...] We had built entire puppets that the heads came off of, and squished, and blood went in every direction. It was all shot. It was pretty brutal to watch.” Fortunately for squeamish viewers, Aster decided to go with a “less is more” approach in the final cut.
10. Hereditary was partly inspired by Aster’s real life.
When writing and directing the most personal moments in Hereditary, Aster drew from his own life experience. He told the Indo-Asian News Service that he and his family endured a series of traumatic events over the course of a few years, with circumstances becoming so grim that he dubbed it a “curse.”
"I'd never want to baldly dramatize any of the suffering that I or my family had gone through, so by taking the idea of a family being cursed and then literalizing that, I was able to put a lot of those feelings through a horror movie filter, where the canvas demands a high level of catharsis,” Aster said. What exactly those events were the filmmaker hasn’t revealed, but it’s safe to assume the satanic possession portions of the movie were fabricated.
11. The cult’s symbol is hidden throughout the movie.
Observant viewers will notice many references to the film’s ending sprinkled throughout Hereditary. One of these is the symbol of the cult that terrorizes the family. Annie’s mother can be seen wearing it as a necklace at her funeral, but it also shows up in unexpected places, **SPOILER ALERT** like on the telephone pole that decapitates Charlie.
A version of this story ran in 2019; it has been updated for 2023.