Contingent Frames 1/3:

 ‘Hereditary’ and
the Unthinkable Accident

Mathieu Buchler

Hereditary (2018). © PalmStar Media, Windy Hill Pictures. Directed by Ari Aster.
Contingent Images - A Disclaimer

As a disclaimer I should probably state the purpose of this series of  articles. As part of my philosophical research, I have been dissecting the concept of contingency, which I sometimes use intercheangably with chance or surprise. In these articles, I try to grapple with this concept through experimental readings of select movie scenes. They are not meant as thorough arguments or definitive interpretations, but more as a playful interaction between a certain kind of philosophical reflection and my subjective engagement with these cinematic examples.
It is towards a type of irreconcilable contingency that I am here directing my thoughts, and it is the medium of cinema which serves as the frame for this reflection. Something unbeknownst to me has turned the films and TV shows into a playground for my ideas. Is it a matter of association? Am I just projecting? I refuse to believe it. It is purely a matter of chance. I am by no means a cinephile or film theorist. It is only on very rare occasions, and only in very specific scenes, that I deeply resonate with the moving image. When this happens, I frantically write down my unfiltered thoughts in the form of typed notes and save them somewhere on my computer. I have now decided to go back and reread some of these notes and put them together into a triptych of structured texts. [M.B.]

Contingent Beginnings 

Philosophy quickly figured out that a state of stasis is unfit to explain the flux of the given, and that contingency is essential for the change that we readily experience out in the world. However, this change itself would have to be governed by some kind of necessary law, since it would be unthinkable for a governing concept to be tantamount to complete arbitrariness. The answer was to systematise the contingent: to expect the unexpected. Here, I believe, philosophy has been dishonest with itself. The notion that everything is in some sense arbitrary is still a looming threat to all philosophical thought. Yet, what if this threat was in itself some type of salvatory notion, a yet unthought silver lining?

Expect the unexpected. What if we turned the phrase around? Unexpect the expected. Do away with expectations, since there is no guarantee for anything. After all, chances are that whatever projections we make are themselves subject to accidental transformations, the likes of which evidently overwhelm us again and again (think of the pandemic, for example). The negative connotation is real, but not exhaustive. Couldn’t the non-expectancy of the expected also hold a positive potential? Wouldn’t it, for example, force us to formulate new paradigms of awareness for the fundamental fragility of our worlds? Would doing away with expectation itself not invite us to radically question our most basic beliefs and intuitions, thus enticing us to develop creative openings for other futures? What if we did away with trying to master the unexpected and let ourselves be engulfed by an all-encompassing notion of contingency, accepting that our presuppositions are built on shifting, accidental grounds?
Yet, and I happily admit this, we also need to ask the following: Would it even be possible to think within such a paradigm, or would it simply be non-sensical? Similarly: would it be possible to turn such a notion of contingency into a meaningful guiding concept, without turning it into yet another absolute principle, like the expectancy of the unexpected, thus missing the point entirely?

Swirling and rotating – thoughts like a tossed coin, suspended in the air – heads indifferentiable from tails, tails from heads – no outcome, just motion. Trying to manoeuvre this girating conceptual apparatus without any definite goal in mind, I will now move to Ari Aster’s Hereditary (2018).

[Article contains spoilers.]  


Hereditary follows Annie, a miniature artist and mother, and her family, consisting of psychiatrist father Steve, sixteen-year-old son Peter, and thirteen-year-old daughter Charlie. The family relation is quite obviously strained, with much of the tension coming from Annie’s problematic relationship with her late mother, who pushed Annie’s brother into suicide. Peter and Charlie do not get along well, mostly because Charlie is socially awkward and has a fondness for strange hobbies, like sleeping in her treehouse alone or using dead animals for art projects.

One night, Peter is asked by his mother to bring Charlie along to a birthday party he is attending. Annoyed by having to bring his sister around, he quickly tries to keep her occupied by showing her to the birthday cake, so he can socialise freely. Little does he know that the cake Charlie is about to dig into contains nuts, which she is allergic to. Charlie then falls into anaphylactic shock and Peter, visibly shaken and feeling guilty, carries her to his car and rushes off to get her to a hospital. During the car ride, Charlie leans out the window for air just as Peter swerves the car to avoid a dead deer lying in the road. During the manoeuvre, the car scrapes a telephone pole, decapitating Charlie. Following this gruesome event, the brittle family is forced to adapt to a new reality.

So much for context. The scene I would like to analyse shows the three remaining family members at dinner, with an argument breaking out about who is to blame for Charlie’s death.

Contingency and Reconciliation, or, An Impossible Thought

Hereditary (2018). © PalmStar Media, Windy Hill Pictures. Directed by Ari Aster.

Annie lashes out at Peter for not admitting that he is partly to blame for Charlie’s death. While she does mention that it was, of course, an accident, she repeats multiple times that the family is unable to bond over the tragedy because Peter refuses to accept responsibility.

Inadvertently, the movie is now entering into philosophical territory, deliberating about what exactly a commitment to reconciliation should look like. Through Annie, the movie thus proposes a first position which claims that when mistakes are made, the wounds will not heal until the responsible party accepts they are at fault, even if they aren’t responsible in all respects. For Annie, this is the only way some kind of justice can be made and a process of closure can begin.

Peter reacts by passing the buck, reminding Annie that Charlie never wanted to go the party and that Annie forced her to go so she could socialise and maybe meet new friends. Peter is thus insinuating that Annie is responsible for letting Charlie leave the house in the first place. His position is arguably the more sinister one, even though it comes from him being hurt by his mother’s accusation: blame can be directed towards indirect actors in a tragedy, since every cause leading up to the event is equally at fault.

Upon Steve’s request, Annie and Peter stop arguing and Annie leaves the table, letting her husband and son sit in silence.

Let us go back and analyse the interaction with reference to the third party present: the father. During the altercation, the father remains the quiet bystander, who only sometimes mumbles that Annie and Peter should calm down. His authority here is fragile and frankly not taken seriously since honouring his reconciliatory stance would undermine what the other two are trying to do: blame the other. Blame is here ultimately what turns this freak accident into a meaningful occurrence for Annie and Peter. They present two hermeneutic readings of the accident which both make sense from their respective point of view. However, they fail to reconcile because their understandings completely bracket the event itself: the accident. 

The father is, however, implicitly an important anchor in this scene. Without ever explicitly stating it, his continued request to stop the argument is telling of the fact that he has accepted that it was a meaningless accident, which means that he knows that nobody is to blame. The blame game keeps both parties from seeing the truth of the event, and even from understanding that their own blame of the other sustains the blame they receive in return, and this ad infinitum (or even ad absurdum: in a sense, the deer should be blamed for lying in the road, or the cake for sitting on the table!).

Instilling meaning into the accident keeps both Annie and Peter from seeing the accident as such. They know the truth of this event, but are unable to face it without mediating it through their own rendition of it, their access barred and distorted by their own attempt at making it meaningful.

This same distortion, in and through which an event devoid of meaning is unable to be grasped despite continued attempts at making it meaningful, is ultimately what represents the problem of thinking contingency philosophically: one postulates that everything is arbitrary and, in doing so, one turns contingency into a matter of necessity.

We can see this very paradox at play when again considering the father. Does he not, in reminding us of the accidentality of Charlie’s death, effectively rationalise the accident as a play of causes and effects, thus also giving it its own twist of necessity? In taking up the position of the voice of reason which acknowledges the accident as a result of a purely factual sequence of events, he simultaneously completely reduces the tragedy of the event: the fact that it happened for no reason at all. Even as a proponent of the accidentality of Charlie’s death, the father thus misses the mark. 

And so we oscillate between the three stances, with no way to effectively reconcile them in sight. Considering Annie’s and Peter’s moral positions, one is still haunted by the numbing notion of meaningless accidentality hovering over (or under?) the entirety of this scene, as a nauseating miasma slowly forcing the air out of the mother’s and the son’s argument and lingering as a source of horror for the audience. Similarly, Steve’s rationalist stance is equally misguided, since to attempt to think the accident directly as such, as an accident where certain things happen to have collided, also undoes that quality which makes it an accident: the fact that none of these things had to happen.

It seems that the accidentality of Charlie’s death acts here not as an event to be grasped, but as a mediating layer between the family, actively distorting each attempt to make sense of it. Like a veil feigning to hide a truth, contingency invites us to pass through it and consequently stumps us when we realise we came out of the same opening we entered. Not behind, but in-between, a distorting threshold, perhaps? Could this notion of mediation help us come to some conclusion here?

Paradoxically, and despite Annie thinking the contrary, it seems to me that this haunting accidental tragedy ripping the family apart is, precisely, the bond tying them together. Largely unresponsive to each other at the beginning of the film, the family members, through the cut in their ordinary happenings, are now forced to radically face each other, even if the form this takes is one of hostility. Acting as a mediating veil between father, mother and son, the accident creates an irrecoverable rupture which, precisely, keeps the family interlocked in an unbreakable, albeit traumatic, relation.

Unfortunately, the movie goes in a different direction after this scene, developing a supernatural narrative around the notion of hereditary or generational trauma. In this sense, the entire horrific dimension of accidentality is, in the plot, embedded in a supernatural context governing the events of the film. Charlie’s accident is thus of a metaphysical necessity, the family being at the whim of a satanic deity named King Paimon and a cult awaiting his resurrection. 

However, even here I am tempted to turn things around yet again. Funnily enough, it turns out that at the beginning of the film, Paimon was trapped in Charlie’s body, explaining her anti-social behaviour and fondness for animal cruelty. Yearning for a male host, Paimon needed to orchestrate a way to leave Charlie’s body. Ironically, it required an accident, whether forced or not, to make this happen. In this sense, doesn’t contingency still end up pulling the strings in this supernatural order of necessity? 

So, twisting the final words of the film:
Hail Contingency!  Hail Contingency!︎

Mathieu Buchler, co-founder of Mnemozine, studied philosophy at University College Dublin and at Freie Universität Berlin. He currently works as a writer, translator, editor, photographer and teacher.
You can find more of his work here on Mnemozine, on his website mathieubuchler.com or on Instagram @mathieu.buchler.

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