Hereditary: Where Things are Not What They Sound Like

Still from “Hereditary.”

Colin Stetson is a hunter. He is also the artistic presence behind the enthralling, unsettling musical score that sustains much of the fright of Hereditary, the hit debut film by young writer-director Ari Aster.

Stetson described the sound and scare of his stalking hobby in an April interview for the on-line publication Consequence of Sound:

“I spend a lot of time in nature, around running water and in deep forest. In the fall I bow hunt, which requires that I take long walks up in mountainous forests in the dead of night before any sign of light, and walking slow enough so as to never break a sweat while hiking uphill with gear. I remember the first night I did this was completely overcast, not a speck of light coming from anywhere, and the phenomenon of sound as taking over all sensation was incredible. The quiet out there is astonishing, elevating the minutiae to the foreground in massive ways. Dirt and leaves underfoot became deafening, the variable thumping of my heart beat in my ears as I occasionally paused to slow it down, to slow down and quiet my breathing. And the tiny sounds made huge, in this forest with no light to give it shape, I found it all truly scary. An illogical fear, to be sure, but palpable and thrilling.”

From a quick survey of Stetson’s output as an avant-garde player of reed instruments (besides various clarinets and saxophones, from the bulky bass model on up, he plays French horn and trumpet), one would be unlikely to guess that his ear has been sharpened by the sounds of the natural world, from the infinitesimal to those so ubiquitous and overwhelming that they disappear into themselves. The technological appurtenances crucial to his craft—from throat mikes to a slew of studio tools and tricks—might suggest a musician alienated from nature, not micro-tonally attuned to it.

Alienation, after all, is as old as writing and thinking about music, indeed might be thought to be a prerequisite for the aesthetic category of music as something distinct from nature: without such solipsistic self-awareness there would be no fateful separation of the songs of birds from those of men. Ever since Plato described the Harmony of the Spheres, scores of philosophers and theologians have puzzled over why humans are deaf to this perpetual, encompassing sound of the universe in motion. Enslaved to their earbuds, they now seem deaf to the world all around them.

Sometime man of the woods Stetson knows that the impact of sound is relative:  it’s a matter of scale, and I’m not talking about the Do-Re-Mi type of Julie Andrews yodeling on a sunlit Austrian Alp. Connecting to the harmony and—more crucial for a horror film—to the disharmony of our earthly sphere requires, as Stetson reminds us, tuning into the blind reality of ants underfoot and bats overhead in the simultaneously vast and claustrophobic forest.

In Hereditary the scale of sound and sight are artfully linked by image and music. At the outset we read on screen the perfunctory obituary—white letters and a black screen, the dark mirror of a newspaper notice—of a beloved mother and grandmother. Before we hear any voices or witness an action, we are given inchoate sound: not music exactly, but a subliminal upwelling searching to become music. That sound lets us know, or perhaps just sense, that the departed was far from loved and is certainly not resting in peace.

Aster’s camera begins to zoom inexorably in on the cross-section of a house that appears to be a tiny diorama of a suburban community.  We continue to draw closer until a miniature bedroom fills the screen, and a human—the deceased’s son-in-law Sam (Gabriel Byrne) walks in to wake his son for grandma’s funeral. In this virtuosic opening shot the scale moves from the miniscule to the “normal.” We may now experience the world of the film according to accepted cinematic dimensions of live action. But the memory that our setting is introduced as a micro-world continues to haunt the full-sized folly of what follows, this shift of frame stoking the intensity of action and feeling, while reminding us of the characters’ irrelevance and impotence in the face of larger, malevolent forces. There is a playful theatricality to this move, too: all the world is not a stage, but a dollhouse, with invisible hands moving us around from one room—and one horror—to the next. The clever, self-knowing acknowledgement that this is entertainment only makes what follows more riveting and more delectably unpleasant.

Stetson’s score conveys this sense both of scale and of outsized forces: elemental, sonorities—sometimes enormous, sometimes barely audible—envelope the little lives of the characters who hear nothing of the sounds that are all around them.

These ingenious games with perspective are born of story. The main character Annie (Toni Colette), daughter of the deceased, is an artist who makes miniature worlds. Her current project is a complex suburban setting that, as that opening anti-establishing shot suggests, seems to perpetually lapse back onto her own life.  Thus when a terrible auto accident leads to another death in the family, she begins obsessively recreating the mortal scene with balsa wood and exacto knife. But the kind of control required for such meticulous tasks cannot hold against the curse of heredity. Psychological and spiritual menace encircle Annie on two generational  fronts, the legacy of her mother outflanking her in the form of her thirteen-year-old daughter, Charlie (Milly Shapiro).  Annie’s relations with the males in her life are less fraught but still divisive: husband Sam is stoic (except when he’s not), and son Peter (Alex Wolff) is seemingly just a pot-smoking teenager, who sparks (sometimes literally) generic maternal worries and passing spats.

As in so many American horror films, the house is a character too. Our all-American family calls home a neo-Arts and Crafts bungalow-cum-mansion despoiling an otherwise pristine Utah hillside. The driveway up through the woods is paved and, the two late-model Volvos out front, spotless. The place is as perfect, and as prison-like, as one of Annie’s models, but whereas her creations are in proportion, this house is far too big, and with too many dark and rarely-visited corners. No wonder critical moments of the film take place in the shake-sided tree-house nearby, itself a dwelling big enough to host satanic sleepovers.

There is no other human habitation in sight.  It is the kind of dwelling whose tasteful interiors scream alienation, from the Van Earp lights, to the quarter-sawn oak mantel piece, the endless glass fronted cabinets, brass doorknobs, and that retro trapdoor step-ladder up to the scariest attic since the Exorcist and one accessed in just the same way, though the Hereditary pole to pull down the steps has the look of Restoration Hardware product placement.

When the attic is finally and fatefully ascended to, Stetson’s music both follows and compounds the pendulum swing of terror, high shimmering fear leaping from the upper story into a basement deep dread and back again, the thwack of doom somewhere above. The surge and spatter cling to the minor mode, but are tonally unmoored, as if the house were a boat buffeted by winds and waves.  The camera does not rock and stumble; it is the soundtrack that can make you seasick.

Even if the music is not tuneful or harmonious, it often has an uncanny vocal quality, like a primal voice speaking from the depths of the earth or the mind—or both.  Things are not what they sound like: what might come across as strings are actually Stetson working his black magic on his reed instruments or harnessing dark forces in his own voice.  The paradox pays off: the highly manipulated effects sound weirdly, sometime savagely naturalistic.

Up until the final Totentanz, much of the music, like the story, proceeds at a creeping pace. There is no rush to face the coming dread, so that when it comes it is all the more terrifying.  Many are the static shots of faces troubled by the nimbus of Stetson’s commentary.

The languorous early duet—with clarinets, I think, though not sounding like those of your local high school wind ensemble—in which Annie rummages in a box of her mother’s effects, is slithering and insidious, and would be sentimental if it weren’t so unctuously repulsive. Annie’s husband is a psychiatrist, but it is Stetson who captures the Oedipal anxiety of the protagonist and her blindness to the occult machinations of her mother, even from beyond the grave. The twin luxury of nostalgia and melancholy are conveyed not by Stetson but other composers. As Annie fiddles with her latest art work, we hear a solo flute work for byTelemann— baroque music for a baroque film in mournful and lonely D minor searching for something the melody, like Annie, can’t find, but perhaps knows is there. This whispering revenant is soon followed by the very different sonic ambience of a teen party at a designer modernist house that could have been airlifted from the Hollywood Hills to the Great Basin. The Stetson sound emerges when the pornographic rap song heard by the partyers dissipates, his oscillations and thwacks conveying the danger that lurks not only in sex and drugs, but in the thrill-ride after it.

Stetson traffics in musical fragments from the dark side: spooky intervals like the insinuating half-step and doomsaying augmented fourth—the age-old diabolus in musicus, the devil in music requiring a nod, even if just for the fun of it. But these familiar shapes are constantly dissected and undercut, never allowed to exert their genealogical credentials overtly, but rather simply to loom behind and beyond the frame.

It is only at the end of the film that this meta-music gives way to glorious concord.  Can the description of a soundtrack count as a spoiler alert?  In this case I don’t think so, but if a good musical score (and Hereditary has a great one) supports, even augments, the message of the movie, then it might be a giveaway.  If you’re worried, stop reading now.

In the self-knowing triumph of the score at the conclusion of the movie, the shredded musical tissue suddenly arises whole, for the first time in fully transfigured concord. Can it be a coincidence that these radiant woodwind arpeggios ascend through a static D-flat major harmony like that heard at the conclusion of Wagner’s Götterdämmerungin which the Rhine River flooded its banks in order to extinguish the apocalyptic conflagration lit by the greed of gods and humans?

But then a final, dreadful buzz returns to Hereditary as the camera pulls back to remind us of the tale’s scale—both tiny and gargantuan, horrific and immensely entertaining. The music conjures something bigger: the notion that apotheosis and alienation can be united, even as aspens quake outside the candlelit temple.

DAVID YEARSLEY is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His latest book is Sex, Death, and Minuets: Anna Magdalena Bach and Her Musical NotebooksHe can be reached at