The Grim Pedagogies of “Hereditary”



(Kinda spoilery, sorry – go see it!)

Believe it or not, the most memorable moment for me in horror movie of the year Hereditary is a relatively quiet one: a mom speaking to her son.

Annie looks hard at Peter, both in profile. And suddenly something true, but horrible, erupts from her lips: she says something a parent is never, ever, to say to her child. And she claps her hand over her mouth, lightning-fast, desperately trying to stuff it back in — but of course, she can’t. And then something else unspeakable comes out, and again she claps the lid back on. Mouths are supposed to say what we mean for them to say, but instead sometimes say what’s true. The performance might win Toni Collette an Oscar, so convincing is the impression that the truth wants out of her, despite her will in the matter. She is a woman possessed, in small ways long before large ones.

I read the film as a long meditation on who knows what about things that actually matter (not many), and who gets to have a say about it (no one we meet, in the film’s leisurely two hours). Many others have worked over, with remarkable speed, how aptly writer and director Ari Aster locates this meditation in a dysfunctional family drama; how it’s a relationship story almost before it is a horror story.  I am drawn to it as a meditation on how what matters to an older generation gets shared or not, with the younger. In a word, how it’s also a story about pedagogy.

Pedagogy is, after all, about relationship. The word derives from the ancient Greek paidogogos, the name given to the trusted slave in well-off homes whose role was “child leader.” An older one who guides the younger through the day, keeping them safe and indicating what is worth attending to and what should be avoided, bit by bit forming a new self through the million micro-decisions that characterize intimacy. Teaching is transmission. Hereditary is about what deserves to be transmitted and what does not, and the ways that decisions shape possibilities, or their lack, in long echoing succession down the generations.

Like so many films I am attracted to, Hereditary is an oblique “school movie,” in that some important stuff happens in and around school. School, per usual, is so overdetermined in our collective memory that barely any of the family’s two children’s experience there needs to be fleshed out. A droning teacher declaims to rows of bored students, some of whom enact a “discussion” while the rest zone out or daydream about sex and weed (nothing new there — with one exception, below), or do their own more important work until they get “busted”. The real action is under the bleachers at lunch. In an unimaginative expository touch, the text being taught in class that day is Homer’s Iphigenia, sacrificed in the Iliad to the gods for the greater good.

The peripheries of school are more interesting sites, where important action goes down. In at least two instances, a threat actually lurks outside the school’s perimeter, like a vampyr not yet invited in, waving or incanting at a distance with intent that ends up being sufficient to penetrate school’s containing membrane. And Charlie enacts one of the earliest cues that all is not right with her smack in the middle of school property, in one of the undersurveilled areas outside a classroom window that I understand school safety experts are beginning to refer to as “zones of negligent privacy.”

But perhaps the most powerful role that the formal pedagogical space plays in the film is how it allows itself to be finally violated. Some have noted how genre pictures, especially “elevated horror,” succeed by simultaneously honoring their tropes and audience expectations and subverting them. My own favorite example of this is the first Paranormal Activity film, where (spoiler alert) the unspoken promise that daylight has some marginal prophylactic effect against demons is violently smashed. What is supposed to only happen at night suddenly happens in plain daylight, mid-afternoon, the benign hour of stories on the TV and waiting for the kids to get home.

Similarly, in Hereditary, the presumed “safe space” of the classroom is progressively violated, until Peter’s possession occurs in full force at his desk, during a lecture, before his horrified classmates. Assaults on the boundary of the classroom start early. A bird smacks into the window, breaking its neck; a reflection in a cabinet window reveals someone else looking back (Oculus taught us how unsettling that can be).

But even It Follows, which also played with our expectations of safety in school, didn’t go full Grand Guignol right in the middle of third period. Peter’s transformation, and its timing, above all signals the most deeply disturbing aspect of possession films: the heedlessness with which malevolent forces take what they want, when they want it, from the humans they possess. Nothing in the world cannot be made to conform to the school schedule: but a demonic possession is not of this world. The horror of the possession story is that bodies will be broken and torn, used unspeakably, maybe right here, right now.

The deepest horror might be the helpless, aghast stare of the teacher in whose room — on whose watch — the transformation goes down. “Are you all right, Peter?” he impotently asks, his face contorting into the slow-burn “Spielberg face” of abject terror this movie so delights in. The class all turns and stares (the worst school nightmare, for all of us: Did I say something stupid? Have I wet my pants?) but can do nothing about what happens next. The teacher is revealed as just one of the gawkers, another looky-loo who never leaves his assigned spot in the front of his class, as rigidly his as each students’ desk is theirs.

School is a slow-motion horrorshow, after all, for many. For most. As Howard Nemerov wrote,

Each fall, the children must endure together
What each child also must endure alone:
Learning the the alphabet, the integers,
Three dozen bits and pieces of a stuff
So arbitrary, so peremptory,
That world invisible and visible
Bow down before it…

For an educator, there is special horror is seeing children brutalized by a force “arbitrary and peremptory.” The victims of Hereditary’s curse do not know why they have been picked to endure this, and there is no escaping their fate.

But is it too much for we teachers to understand ourselves as similar agents of inscrutable but demanding forces, requiring dreadful sacrifices of our students that are unknown to them, but delivered — as in the note Annie finds in one of her Mom’s occult books — with the promise that the reward will be worth the sacrifice?

I had my own “Annie moment” last week: a taboo truth sprung from my lips, and I couldn’t put it back in. Chatting with other faculty about how to respond to course evaluations, I observed, “The one thing that all students have in common is that they don’t know what they need.” (There was a long pause, and one of my colleagues ventured, “I think you may have been doing this too long.”)

While perhaps briskly expressed (student evals, after all, can give valuable feedback on how to improve as instructors, if regarded correctly), there is an inconvenient truth at the root of of my blurt. Good teachers (coaches, directors – all paidogogos) know what needs to be done next by students, and its relationship to discomfort and struggle. They know what can be done assisted, what can be done repetitively, and what should be expected to be done alone. All that ZPD stuff. And every coach I have ever worked with must explain to their athletes that there is a difference between hurting and being hurt. Hurting is training. Hurting is growing. Hurting is learning.

If our students, or other charges, are on an inexorable path toward learning — toward being irrevocably changed as a result of their time with us — then it seems nice to help them understand why this hurts now, why you can’t budge on that expectation. But not necessarily required. Ultimately, they have to trust us. They don’t know yet that we are right.

Hopefully we earn their trust in enough small ways that they let our judgment about bigger things – like their discomfort — carry the day. But at the end of the day, even if we don’t, that does not mean we are wrong. It is, after all, a school truism that the exact classroom practices that students complain most about (small group work and role play, first among them) are the exact practices that lead students to the most transformative learning experiences — a realization that sometimes shows up at the end of the semester on course evals, but often doesn’t.

Does that mean we should stop teaching that way? That we should only do the funny lectures, low expectations, and lots of movies that students rate highly? Of course not. Because we know what they need, not them.

But that’s a hell of a responsibility, and one that, if carried casually (as I think my colleagues suspected me of doing) teeters on the edge of abuse. Of course we must heed our students’ responses to our teaching — but because they tell us whether we have proved ourselves worthy of their trust when we ask them to suffer in the name of growth. Not because they know what they need better than we do.

Hard truths come out, and do their work. Hardness in and of itself, though, is not truth. In Hereditary, Annie is revealed to have been playing her role in a grand design that was set in motion long before she had a say in it. That truth is hard. Pedagogy, for all its claims to transformation — the high-modernist, social-engineering fever dream of a new world, calving out the next generation of adults when they are still children — is ultimately a game of reproduction. The best critical work in education now reveals how and where we remain complicit in a design for replicating existing power structures. We didn’t start the fire – “no man” did (thanks Odysseus) – but we still make it burn.

For an educator, then, the grimness of Hereditary feels familiar. Violence is wrought on young people we cannot protect, often right in front of us, in the spaces we promised would be safe. We enact rituals of subservience and catastrophe we didn’t even know were possible, let alone involved us. Those who seek to comfort us end up needing us for their own ends, and using us until we are all used up — and then, new vessels appear, to watch us be cast aside.

The horror is in the hideous truth, spoken plain, for once. We stand aghast, like so many characters in this film — horrified before we know what horrifies us.

But we will know soon enough. Deep down, we already know.



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