04 Sep Modern Myths: Cursed Bloodlines (Hereditary & What Remains of Edith Finch)
You’re probably wondering what a Sundance-darling horror film and a melancholy walking simulator have to do with each other? Hereditary and What Remains of Edith Finch were released in different years, they have no actors in common and seem to be completely different genres. Well stay tuned because these two have much more in common than you’d think. So prepare for an in-depth analysis of the themes, characters and even general aesthetic. I would also recommend some familiarity with these texts so you aren’t lost if you decide to just read anyway. Beware major spoilers for both – you have been warned.
Both Hereditary and What Remains of Edith Finch centre around a once happy family. In What Remains of Edith Finch the audience plays as Edith as she revisits her family’s long abandoned house and uncovers generations of tragic history bit by bit. Hereditary takes place after the death of the family’s matriarch, we follow her daughter and grandchildren as they begin to unravel the long hidden secrets of their ancestry and all that that entails. In both we are privy to both families increasingly embittered lives and we witness their plights unfurl for our viewing pleasure. The concept of a fairy-tale style ‘family curse‘ is very much alive in both texts. Both the Graham family (Hereditary) and the Finch family (WROEF) reside in labyrinthine homes, surrounded by wilderness. They are isolated in more ways than one. There is a tangible undertone of dread as we enter; it is as though Death has long ago been welcomed into their homes and will not depart without taking every single member of that lineage. This leads to a fatalistic attitude within the respective families. If everything is predestined than why bother fighting against it or exercising caution? Mental illness is also rampant in both bloodlines, which is likely a factor in their decidedly fatalistic frames of mind. Inevitable ends await them all, they are unable to escape from a ‘fate’ that has been thrust upon them from birth by an elder – in both a genetic standpoint and, we learn, from the grandmother figure in both who persists with the myth, infecting the younger generations psyches. Which leads to shared story threads of reluctant mothers harbouring resentment toward the grandmothers. They see this trend of unnatural death and need to blame someone.
Before we delve into the texts let’s address the physical similarities between the key children; Peter and Charlie from Hereditary and Lewis and Milton from What Remains of Edith Finch. Physically Milton and Peter look very alike, so much so that Peter actually resembles a grown up Milton (right down to the crown). Whereas Lewis has Charlies colouring, with blonde hair and blue eyes. Lewis and Peter are the older brothers to Milton and Charlie for whom they feel responsible and thus it was inevitable that they should carry the burden of their premature deaths. Another similarity is that Lewis ends up purposely decapitating himself and Charlie is accidentally beheaded in a car crash. Both their fates were sealed from the start by their tall-tale telling grannies, who filled their heads with grand ideals regarding fate and family, who manipulated them from an early age and caused irreparable damage while doing so.
*Just to clarify neither of the father figures from either text factor very much into this analysis. Mainly due to the fact that they both married in from outside the bloodline being discussed. However the father in Hereditary Steve (Gabriel Byrne) was a warm blanket of a man, every scene he’s in you feel soothed. The actor just has a comforting aura, so his VERY sudden death toward the end was an unpleasant moment in every conceivable way but it’s understandable that they would rip off the safety wheels at that point.
Miniatures are scattered throughout both What Remains of Edith Finch and Hereditary. Their presence can signify a number of things; recreation of delusions, an attempt to regain control over unalterable events, glorification of the family mythology. Our main protagonist in WROEF, Edith does this with her brother Lewis’s hallucinatory kingdom, presumably he described it to her before becoming consumed by its magnetism and she built it after his death. In the images below you can see soldiers from Lewis’s hallucination followed by a set in Edith’s room made out of newspaper. You can also see a newspaper recreation of the Finch house.
Milton also recreates his own black and white kingdom in a plethora of points throughout the house. We can spot some examples of this in his bedroom and in the planters. He does this again and again, obsessively sticking to his black and white colour scheme with no deviation either in this or in his art – the colour scheme always remains the same.
Edith Senior, the grandmother, also has a miniature in her room that could either be her current house prior to all the additions, or the original house from Norway – which sunk during their crossing and whose wreck is still visible from their current home. Due to Edith Senior’s determination to hold onto the past and mythologise it for the younger generations, either are equally possible. Annie (Toni Collette’s mother character in Hereditary), actually makes artisan miniatures professionally, and throughout the film we see her constructing doll house-esque scenarios from her own life. Including a faithful recreation of their own home, one of her husband and mother in the hospital and tragically her daughter Charlie’s fatal accident She also shows events that didn’t happen, or rather we don’t know if they will at that point such as her son, Peter, decapitated in bed and her deceased mother watching her from her doorway clad in a white nightgown.
Clearly this could act as a therapeutic exercise, a cleansing process for each respective character. However, it takes a twisted turn in light of the imagery that is recreated especially after Milton and Lewis’s deaths, and the psychological torture Peter is put through emotionally and physically by everyone bar his father.
Another huge commonality is the foreshadowing of death, which is both done subtly and abruptly depending on your knowledge of the text, such as whether this is your first foray into these worlds or the second. Calvin and Sam’s bedroom door has hanging next to it a picture of a boy on a swing, presumably Calvin himself, on the very object which was to be instrumental in his demise. In that same hallway we can find another framed picture, this one of Molly climbing a tree – in a similar fashion to how we, the player, do in her fever dream. We never learn exactly what killed Molly, though it is likely the myriad of poisonous objects she consumed made her hallucinate. Then she either died in her room or fell from the trees she so loved to climb (possibly while scavenging for more food). Walter’s bedroom walls have the original Finch home in its new location at the bottom of the sea and an old fashioned train painted on them. Also we can see in Barbara’s segment of the game that as a child his bed was train shaped. Considering his death by oncoming train in his later life in retrospect this event seems preordained . You may not notice these the first time you play the game but you will the second. These reminders are littered around the house, acting as precursors to the shrines within. In Hereditary Charlie morbidly cuts the head of a pigeon with a pair of craft scissors, an act that is repeated to her and her mother. The film implies that for Charlie at least, beheading is her route to reincarnation – a path to enter another life – her true life, the reality that she was meant to have. This train of thought is similar to Lewis’s before his suicide.
The Matriarchs of both these families, namely the grandmothers, have a tendency to mythologise their family history and lineage in a vein similar to a Greek Epic. This toxic way of thinking infects the younger generations and leads them astray. Lewis and Milton were both imbued with delusions of grandeur and a morose interest in death, particularly that of their own family. Charlie was led to believe she was imperfect due to her gender, that she must be fixed. She was told she would be a king, once the proper preparations had been done.
Charlie’s exposure to her grandmother was more akin to psychological abuse than real love and affection. She was made to depend on her and her alone, and taught her gender was a curse, a mistake. It is even implied that she breast fed her rather than let her mother do it, which considering her age and lack of recent children seems off, almost otherworldly.
Milton and Lewis however, were told from a very early age about the grand mythos of the Finch family and their godly roles in it. Edith Senior filled their minds with pride and superiority. There are clues that hint Edith Senior may have narcissistic personality disorder which translates as a greatly inflated sense of your own worth and value in the world. A person with NPD may have a sense of entitlement that leads them to act in ways that other people may find objectionable in order to obtain admiration. She believes their family to be of great importance and does not think about how her actions could be causing their deaths, instead seeing it as all preordained. She even claims her own husband was killed by a dragon – leaving out the fact that it was a dragon shaped slide. She likely indulged the delusions of grandeur in her two grandsons and considering their family line they were already in danger of developing a mental illness. To clarify; delusions of grandeur, also known as grandiose delusions, often accompany other mental health symptoms. They can often be linked to schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. Some who suffer with delusions of grandeur also experience other delusions, such as a fear of persecution or unusual religious beliefs. The evidence that Lewis and Milton were inflicted with schizophrenia is plentiful. Schizophrenia is characterised by delusions, hallucinations, and a difficulty distinguishing reality from fantasy, things they are both shown to suffer from. As Edith notes during the game;
“I’m worried the stories themselves may be the problem.”
Milton is a slightly more mysterious character to the audience, we never get to play as him or even see him in anything bar his missing person posters and his shrine. He simply disappeared one day. Milton is always shown with a crown, smiling at the viewer. Edith says as we walk up to his castle, gifted to him by Edith Senior, that his receiving it was the “beginning of the end”. An ominous mist wafts around Milton’s abandoned palace, it feels ethereal, like something out a Grimm Brothers fairy-tale.
Upon exploring Milton’s palace we are told by Edith that;
“Whatever Milton had found in the house, Mom didn’t want it getting out.”
Like many other things about Milton this is not expanded on. The secrecy lends a further aura of intrigue to his disappearance, letting the audiences imagine run free. The way Edith said it, it was as though he discovered some primordial evil that ensnared him in its grasp, never to be seen again. In my opinion one of two things happened to Milton.
Littered throughout the house are bottles of cleaning fluid with a yellow crowns on the side. It’s hard to see what exactly it contains until Barbara’s segment in the basement where we can clearly see it’s bleach. Milton, obsessed as he was with royal imagery and suffering from an inflated ego, is likely to have seen this as a sign. Though for this theory to hold weight he would have to have ingested it somewhere remote or unknown to his relatives – since his body was never discovered.
My other hypothesis is that he returned to his ‘true palace’, which from the grand tales Edith Senior told him would be the drowned ruin that was the old house. His castle and especially the view from his window is dominated by the partially submerged ruin. Its light flashes all night, signalling to him to come closer. It ceases to be a physical object and more a sign, a beacon luring him closer – like a will-o’-the-wisp methodically beckoning weary travellers to watery graves. In The Great Gatsby a similar manifestation occurs, Jay’s infatuation with the green light across the bay possesses him, it means more to him than all of his wealth and power and in the end it represents his eventual downfall. Nick observes Jay one evening as “…he stretched out his arms toward the dark water in a curious way, and far as I was from him I could have sworn he was trembling. Involuntarily I glanced seaward–and distinguished nothing except a single green light, minute and far away, that might have been the end of a dock. When I looked once more for Gatsby he had vanished, and I was alone again in the unquiet darkness.” Edith Senior idolised that house, our narrator even tells us;
“Edith said she dreamed about it every night”.
Milton likely saw it as his birth right and therefore one fateful night when the tide was out he thought he could make it. The banished prince returns to claim what is rightfully his. This would explain Lewis’s guilt over his brother’s death, he could have seen this coming, and Dawn blaming Edith Senior. It would also fit with his body never being discovered.
Lewis blames himself for Milton’s death, and shortly after he turns to drug dependence . He too has fantasies of a malleable kingdom that satisfy his grand expectations for his life which Edith Senior fostered in him. He feels insignificant, merely a cog in the machine, at his day job as a cannery worker and so constructs an interior world, not unlike his brother for whom he still carries a lot of guilt. We experience Lewis’s descent into madness in a very unique way, this is where the gameplay really shines. Just like Lewis we go through the monotonous motions of chopping fish, soon this becomes an automatic reflex, but on the other side of the screen we explore an ever growing inner world. As his psychosis increases so too does the breadth of the world and eventually even his own mother’s pleading voice fails to drag him (or us) back to reality. From the psychiatrists letter we read, it’s clear Lewis has a myriad of issues, including addiction and possible schizophrenia. This addiction could factor into his psychosis as research shows a distinct correlation between the two; those afflicted with grandiose delusions also seem to be a substantial portion of those with substance abuse disorders. People who are high and experience a delusion of grandeur may be at increased risk for physically harmful behaviour, as is Lewis’s case. He becomes so infatuated with the world in his mind that he sees it as his true existence. His job in the cannery is a simulation by comparison.
Lewis becomes so disconnected from reality that when thinking of his real self;
“He began to despise he man with a royal contempt”.
His symptoms start to reflect depersonalisation disorder, something which is also associated with schizophrenia. Patients suffering from depersonalisation disorder feel as if their consciousness and body are two separate entities, Lewis goes beyond that with full delusions and hallucinations of another reality which infects his own. His grandiose hallucinations are the most worrying symptom as they mark a significant disconnection from the real world. A person with delusions of grandeur may continue to believe in the delusion in spite of contradictory evidence. Another factor not to be ignored is his clear predilection with Alice in Wonderland and the Red King.
In Through the Looking Glass, Tweedle-Dum and Tweedle-Dee show Alice the sleeping Red King and tell her that she is merely a part of his dream. “`Well, it no use YOUR talking about waking him,’ said Tweedledum, `when you’re only one of the things in his dream. You know very well you’re not real.’” From what they say it would appear that Alice is not ‘real’ in any sense of the word, her reality is merely a part of the oft overlooked Red Kings dream. Lewis however has an entire book dedicated to him in his room that is very prominently placed. It is one of the few titles a player would stop to read – The Red King’s Dream. This and a few hints at Lewis’s fantasy world being called “the lands of Wonder” all seem to point toward Lewis Carroll’s Alice In Wonderland (for which one can only assume Lewis himself was named). Even the Creative Director of Edith Finch, Ian Dallas himself mentions that
Lewis focuses on what seems an insignificant character in the book, but one who holds all the power. With his waking the entire story disappears and Lewis latches onto this idea. He abandons his reality in favour of his construction, where he has absolute power. In his mind his sister, mother, grandmother are all Alice’s. He is slumbering nearby and through death he will achieve wakefulness and they – as figments of his dream – will vanish but he will be returned to his Lands of Wonder. To him reality is the dream state and he needs to wake to his rightful place.
In both texts there is a final dinner scene and with both the audience is overwhelmed sense of unease as they are forced to witness that night. In Hereditary and What Remains of Edith Finch this scene is an explosion of repressed emotion. The aura of finality hangs heavy over the table as they all try to repress what they’ve been keeping bottled up inside. Both end in a fierce argument between the mother and another member of the family; Peter in Hereditary and Edith Senior in What Remains of Edith Finch. The mothers lash our and lay blame for the recent deaths in the family on Peter and Edith Senior. It marks the beginning of the end for the remaining family members.
Religion also plays a huge part in both stories, with the grandmothers at the helm of faith. Hereditary focuses on a bastardised version of Catholicism, which is very much intertwined with satanic ideologies. As you experience the twisted version of reality that is the Graham family’s’ lives, it becomes hard to tell what exactly is mental illness and what is the supernatural. By the end, the text heavily implies that the grandmothers devout worship and subsequent marriage to Paimon, the demon king, is not unfounded. However, for someone to become enthralled with such a dark belief system and to torture their family with it for decades leads me to believe she was at the very least lacking empathy and a consummate narcissist. The anti-Christ imagery becomes less and less subtle as we near the ending. Charlie’s decapitated head is adorned with an inverted crown of thorns and Peter now possessed with Paimon stands in a distorted manger scene.
“You… are Paimon. One of the eight kings of Hell. We have looked to the northwest and called you in. We’ve collected your first female body and give you now this healthy male host. We reject the trinity and pray devoutly to you, Great Paimon.”
The film ending uses demons and satanism to subvert our expectations. They are metaphors for the demons inside that have plagued Annie’s family tree for years, the inherited curse that will always follow them.
When Annie attends grief counselling sessions we learn the extent of her family’s troubled history. Her mother was diagnosed with dissociative identity disorder when she was young. Annie never truly saw her as a mother figure due to the stress she put her and her brother under during their formative years. That same brother who was a paranoid schizophrenic eventually took his own life citing as a reason in his note that his mother kept trying to “put people into him.” And much like a family curse, these illnesses are present in the next generation too. Annie has manic episodes after Charlie’s death, and this is clearly not the first time as evidenced by Peter’s childhood recollection where Annie tried to set him, Charlie and herself alight while ‘sleepwalking'(Peter believes she was fully conscious during this episode however which explains the distrust between them). Her husband also writes an email toward the latter half of the film which indicates that Annie has had manic episodes in the past and he feels she might be in the middle of another one now.
Annie may be experiencing early symptoms of bipolar disorder or even more likely, her mothers dissociative identity disorder passed down. She has massive mood swings, laughing than sobbing, screaming as her husband burns to death in front of her than smiling after. As for Peter, he delves into gratuitous self harm and experiences unexplained visions in a similar vein to his uncle who killed himself at around the same age. Having a family history of schizophrenia means that Peter is more likely to be inflicted than the average person and considering his symptoms that seems to be the case. The Graham family suffers from internal and external demons, and turn to bastardised Catholicism looking for reason to their madness.
The Finches however turn to Norse mythology. The mythic tales are irrevocably intertwined with that of the Finches. Edith Senior’s own father, who drowned at sea with the original house, was called Odin after all. There is also a myriad of notes on the wall of the library which Edith Senior has placed there which attempt to map out the connections between the two. She mentions ‘forbannelse’ which translates as curse/spell and ‘Valhöll‘ which is old Norse for Valhalla a sort of righteous heaven known as the hall of slain warriors, who reside there blissfully under the leadership of the god Odin.
The two notes we will focus on are the one about Ægir and Rán and directly next to that the one with Milton and Lewis written on it – maybe signifying some correlation between the two. According to theorist Rudolf Simek,
“… Rán is the ruler of the realm of the dead at the bottom of the sea to which people who have drowned go.”
Simek says that “while Ægir personifies the sea as a friendly power, Rán embodies the sinister side of the sea, at least in the eyes of the late Viking Age Icelandic seafarers.” Linking this back to the idea that Milton drowned trying to return to his palace in the ocean it would seem to Edith Senior that he is the embodiment of Rán, while Lewis is Ægir. Even their colouring implies this, with Rán being depicted as darker and Ægir as lighter. They are brother and sister in the myths, married to one another. Lewis and Milton also shared a bond (though not romantic) through their similar delusions and heeding the fact that Lewis couldn’t function without Milton, which is one of the factors that led to his suicide.
Johannes Gehrts depicted Rán as lurking beneath the waves, determined to pull others to their deaths, surrounded by the skulls of those who came before. Similarly Milton drowned at sea, trying to return to the old house which his fractured psyche saw as a palace. His death directly led to Lewis’s. I mentioned before that there is a commonality of death being foreshadowed in both texts but in What Remains of Edith Finch the characters go beyond that, they are infatuated by death. Milton’s artwork in the secret passages depicts key factors of his family members deaths. A cat for Molly, a swing for Calvin and a pumpkin for Barbara. If he is meant to be the embodiment of the goddess of the realm of the dead than this corroborates that. Though other family members share this preoccupation with death it may be more of a grief process for them as opposed to idolising the demise of someone you never knew. Sam, prior to his final hunting trip, left a photograph of the swing where Calvin died next to one of a deer. Though it is not the deer that kills Sam it is poignant imagery, his and his twins deaths side by side. Walter keeps Barbara’s boyfriends crutch mounted above his faux window in the bunker, the same boyfriend who is thought to have murdered her.
If Edith Senior views the family as reincarnations of Norse Gods, starting with her father Odin as the All-father, it is not a stretch to see Lewis and Milton as Ægir and Rán. Edith Senior seems to have almost prophetic vision when it comes to her families deaths and Edith remarks that she almost has the shrines prepped prior to actual death.
In conclusion the similarities between the texts cannot be denied, they compliment each other as different takes on a similar narrative that hasn’t been seen in much mainstream modern media. Both What Remains of Edith Finch and Hereditary are re-imagined fairytales, posed in a modern light – where the idea of a cursed family can be translated into one plagued with mental illness and the ‘demons’ are often your own family members.
For further reading check out 100 Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez and the entirety of Marina Carr’s work, especially her play The Mai.