Sunday Reads: A Guide To HEREDITARY’s True Villain

Hail to the King.

Warning: this article spoils the third act of Hereditary.

Hereditary is being marketed as a ghost movie; a supernatural thriller. But if you’ve seen the movie, you’ll know that’s not quite what it is. As Annie (Toni Collette) sees her family and world collapse around her, she discovers a disturbing secret.

Turns out: Annie's recently-deceased mother, long considered simply a sick and manipulative woman tormented by a tragic family history, was in fact the leader of a demonic cult. What was thought to be family demons were in fact...a real demon. This demon - referred to as Paimon, King of Hell - ends up, if the film’s didactic final scene is to be believed, occupying the host body of Annie’s son Peter, via her deceased daughter Charlie, set to bring riches to his followers and who knows, maybe Hell to Earth.

Though Annie’s discovery of her mother’s occult involvement comes through a clumsy dive into a photo album, the preceding ninety minutes are filled with clues and symbols that help set it up. Paimon’s sigil appears all over the film, from necklaces worn by Annie and her mother, to photos and welcome mats, to the telephone pole that takes Charlie’s life. That symbol, as well as various words used in the invocation of demons, appears carved into the wall of the family home. And Annie’s mother’s reported dissociative identity disorder can, problematically, be explained alternatively as demonic possession. It all leads up to a cavalcade of highlighted book passages, photographs, and a final ritual in the service of King Paimon.

But who is King Paimon? Is he some demon Ari Aster just made up? For all the audience knows, he could easily have been, but he’s not. Paimon is as real as demons come; how real that is depends on your attitude towards demonology. At the very least, he’s no more or less made up than any other mythological demon.

Paimon appears most notoriously in a 17th-century grimoire attributed to King Solomon (translated to English in 1904) called the Goetia, and a set of illustrations published in the 1800s called the Dictionnaire Infernal, though both can be sourced back to Johann Weyer’s 1583 witchcraft thesis De Praestigiis Daemonum. Weyer’s work itself was inspired by Liber Officiorum Spirituum and the Book of Abramelin, whose original dates are unclear but likely date back a further century or two. Furthermore, those texts stem from the story of King Solomon, originally written between the 1st and 5th century, who supposedly summoned demons to build his temple, via a magic ring given to him by the archangel Michael. When you go back that far, especially with occult texts, the exact publication history gets a little fuzzy. 

Our boy Paimon is described as a crowned Mesopotamian man with “an effeminate countenance” - or sometimes a crowned woman - sitting atop a dromedary, heralded by a host of musicians. Though a King himself (variously listed as the ninth, twenty-second, sixth, or third), Paimon is obedient to Lucifer, and in command of two further kings Bebal and Abalam, which makes him sort of Hell’s middle management. Some texts claim he also commands between 25 and 200 legions of spirits, further complicating Hell's corporate structure; they're also unclear as to whether he’s a former Dominion or Cherub (two rungs in the angelic power ladder).

Summoning King Paimon (he prefers to be called “King”; to omit the title is to commit a grave act of disrespect) typically doesn’t involve setting up an entire family to produce a host body, of course. Demons in "real life" tend to manifest as visions or presences, probably because they're harder to discredit. One must look to the Northwest (as mentioned in Hereditary) and make some sort of offering; various self-described authorities suggest accompanying your offering with a range of music, candles, or symbols. Furthermore, the conjurer must make their requests “without fear,” and request that Paimon speak in the summoner’s native tongue. Otherwise, he’ll just speak loudly and brashly in his own language, like an goddamn American tourist.

What can Paimon offer a conjurer? Oddly enough, he’s mostly known as a teacher. He can teach “all arts and sciences, and other secret things,” and knows all about Earth sciences in particular. Of more interest to the typical conjurer, however, he can also bestow dignity and titles and enslave subjects to one’s will. The Book of Abramelin rather bullishly assigns him omniscience, knowledge of the past and future, and the powers of reanimation, flight, underwater breathing, and conjuration of people, objects, and visions. Paimon will likely require his own wishes to be fulfilled by the conjurer, which is where Hereditary’s cult comes in - though the notion of Paimon desiring a male body seems to have been an invention of the film.

It’s when you stray away from ancient texts and into the deeper Internet, however, that things get truly squirrelly. A surprisingly large subculture centres on the summoning of demons and other occult “magick” - not necessarily cults, but enthusiasts and other independent conjurers. The blogs and message boards these people frequent, like Become A Living God, function exactly like other boards, complete with clueless newbies, jaded veterans, forum in-jokes, and more - only they’re sharing their experiences and expertise about summoning Dark Lords. Like any forum involving how-to questions and answers, there’s plenty of disagreement on methodology and lore; I’m sure the community has running feuds just as Film Twitter does.

Message boards make for an eye-opening read, but YouTube is even better. Hearing the voices of the people who worship the likes of King Paimon adds an extra element of personality. Like fundamentalist preachers, these people speak from a personal reality somewhat removed from the objective. Several videos present a step-by-step guide to invoking him. One suggests that Paimon accepts offerings of Mountain Dew. Another opens with the text “Thanks To King Paimon For His Assistance With This Video.” Many, many, many YouTubers tell of the conversations they’ve had with the demon - what kind of personality he has, what he likes and dislikes, what he’s taught them, and so on. They’ll stress how dangerous the summoning is, but also how worthwhile it can be.

You’ll hear a lot of monotonous, gothy voices on Paimon YouTube.

The saddest revelation is the number of people who not only wholeheartedly believe in demons, they're desperate enough for revenge or quick personal gain that they'll attempt to conjure one to get it. One could claim any deity is made up, of course, but traditional deities at least claim to be the good guys. Demon-worship attracts people who want to be villains. The whole scenario is a less dramatic, online version of Toni Collette's digging through boxes of her mother's stuff. Just as Hereditary's supernatural goings-on can be read as a metaphor for family tragedy and mental illness, so too can the demon-worship scene be read as a desperate, deluded grasp for a power greater than one's own. But hey, whatever gives you the courage to get through this crazy world.

Unsurprisingly, director Ari Aster says he isn't involved in any of this. The film doesn't fetishise its demon enough to indicate otherwise. And amusingly, Aster also says he didn't write Paimon into the film for any particular reason other than he wasn't the Devil:

I wanted to avoid the devil, it’s been done so many times. So I researched, looked for a demon in demonology and Paimon struck me as one that made sense. I have no ties to the occult and I’ve heard from a few sources that even Paimon is passé and obvious among occultists. Ultimately Paimon was a product of me — he came in pretty late and I just needed a name in mythology.

Hereditary accomplished something pretty special: not only scaring me in the cinema, but leading me down a hell of an internet rabbit hole. What lies within that rabbit hole can be fascinating, amusing, or terrifying, depending on your outlook, what time of night it is, and how much you've had to drink. It's all mystical nonsense, of course - but the magic of horror movies lies in making you question the fundamentals of reality. What if my house is haunted? What if that car I bought is possessed? What if that shadow really did just move? And what if all this demonology bullshit is for real?

Perhaps King Paimon really is out there. Perhaps Hereditary is secretly a public tribute to him, despite Aster's claims - or perhaps Aster unwittingly gave him power and influence through making the film. Perhaps by writing about Paimon in such a skeptical manner, I’m invoking demonic wrath upon my life. It's unlikely. But...perhaps.

Just in case: Hail Paimon.