A living doll, everywhere you look.
It can sew, it can cook,
It can talk, talk, talk.
– Sylvia Plath, “The Applicant” (Oct. 11, 1962)
And they stuck me together with glue.
And then I knew what to do.
I made a model of you
– Plath, “Daddy” (Oct. 12, 1962)
– Plath, “Cut” (Oct. 24, 1962)
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The opening sequence in the psychological-horror family drama Hereditary (released mid-June 2018) draws back from a window and its view of a treehouse outside, deeper into a workshop full of miniature models, then moves in on a scale replica of a house, front exposed, then its bedroom, and a father enters this suddenly living space, his son’s bedroom. The closing sequence of the psychological-thriller family drama Sharp Objects (eight episodes; aired July-August 2018) sees a woman-turned-surrogate-mother in her teen sister’s bedroom, peering into her dollhouse, only to discover the terrible truth about her sibling, who has just returned and, about to enter the bedroom, is stopped still by her older sister’s stricken gaze.
In the film and the TV series, miniature domestic objects – scale replicas of rooms and houses – are not just re-creations and reimaginings of scenes of trauma and imprisonment but microcosmic mirrors of toxic and power-intoxicated femininity. In writer-director Ari Aster’s Hereditary, Annie (Toni Collette), a creator of 1:12-scale dioramas, does not see, until too late, that her replicas are clues and crime scenes hinting at the horror that her mother Leigh has welcomed into her family, a horror that, in bouts of raging grief, she has, to a smaller extent, inherited and replicated. In showrunner Marti Noxon and director Jean-Marc Vallée’s Sharp Objects, Amma (Eliza Scanlen), owner of the 1:16-scale model of the home in which she feels so trapped and manipulated, doll-like, by mother Adora (Patricia Clarkson), uses the precious little house to store the secret of her savage rebellion, an outsized violence – serial murder – provoked by and reworking Adora’s Munchausen-by-proxy mothering. Both daughters try, and fail, to rechannel their sadness, anger, and confusion by creating and reshaping miniature worlds that are, in Annie’s case, dealing with and expressing some of her most haunting memories, or, in Amma’s case, storing away and remodeling her site of confinement, dosed illness, and murderous rebirth.
“I Made a Model”: Orphaned Annie and Hereditary’s Haunted Little Worlds
Hereditary begins with the death of the matriarch, announced in print – an obituary for “Ellen Taper Leigh, 78,” who “passed away after a prolonged illness at her daughter Annie’s house on April 3rd, 2018.” The middle name, “Taper,” evokes a life dwindling away, as if a flame on a slender candle. Just before we enter the Graham residence, then, in the model-come-alive sequence, the home is marked out as a death-site tied to matrilineage: “Annie’s house” is where this “devoted mother” and “cherished grandmother” died.
Annie’s miniatures recall Narcissa Niblack Thorne’s miniature historical interiors (about a hundred were made in the 1930s; nearly all are on display at the Art Institute of Chicago and other American museums). But her mother’s name, Ellen Taper Leigh, echoes the tripartite name of Frances Glessner Lee, a Chicagoan who built, in the 1940s and ’50s, the Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death – miniature scale replicas of crime scenes, based on actual cases, used as training tools by investigators (twenty were made, of which nineteen remain, on permanent loan to the Maryland Medical Examiner’s Office). As implied by the opening, the camera moving us into Annie’s workshop and then surveilling it (Figure 1), the Grahams’ house is a built-in, pre-established crime scene for us to investigate. We watch to figure out crimes past and present; we “search the miniatures for clues” (Cooley, “Hereditary”), for the miniature is “a metaphor for interiority” (Stewart, back cover descriptive copy). We note the secrets piling up in this home (early on, Steve [Gabriel Byrne] lies to Annie about why the cemetery called and she lies to him about going to a movie). We watch to find out not just who-done-it but why-done-it – discovering, for instance, that daughter Charlie (Milly Shapiro) was the demon Paimon’s host and the dead matriarch, Leigh, was a cult queen.
The film’s playing with reanimation, revivification, and repossession begins with that first sequence, when a house within a house is turned from a set into the film’s first story-space. By the end, the treehouse at the start is the red-lit place into which climbs the son, Peter (Alex Wolff), now possessed by Paimon (a King of Hell; he prefers a male host) as if “Peter”ed out; he finds a Paimon effigy with Charlie’s head, his parents’ headless bodies bowed before it, a framed picture of his grandmother titled “Queen Leigh,” and himself crowned and hailed by his new family of cultists.1 But the final shot, of Peter-turned-Paimon standing before supplicants in the treehouse, its interior exposed by a cutaway and surrounded by blackness, resembles one of Annie’s tableau-dioramas, its figures placed and posed (Figure 2). The lines between miniatures – as if homunculi, epitomizing male violence and carried in the speaker’s blood in Plath’s “Cut” – and “real life,” like the lines between dream and reality and between a character’s designed sets and the film’s story-spaces, have become horribly smeared. And the smeared bloodlines run through Annie.
Stressing the Her in its title, Hereditary draws us, Plath-like (as in daughter-mother poem “Medusa”), into Annie’s jangling, conflicted feelings about her domineering mother, fallen at last, as the child’s grief is churned up with relief and release. But how much has Annie modeled her mothering on Leigh’s and been shaped, even warped, by Leigh? (In “Medusa,” daughter calls mother “Bottle in which I live” and declares, ambiguously, that there is “Nothing between us.”) After Annie’s eulogy for Leigh, ominous music swells as the family of four pulls up to their rural Utah home in their station wagon. (The car is another death-site, for the Paimon-hosting Charlie, after the cult influences her into being decapitated – head ripped off, like a doll’s – by a pole marked by the Paimon symbol, which resembles the silhouettes of a family of four; the symbol was on a necklace of Leigh’s and on Annie’s necklace at the eulogy.) As they enter, Annie talks about how “[i]t does feel weird,” and there stands one of her model homes on a table by the wall,2 yet theirs is no model home but a space of occult weirdness. Soon after, in a close-up of the poster for Annie’s upcoming exhibit, “Small World,” on her computer screen, the file name reads, in part, “FOR MRS. LEIGH’S APPROVAL,” as if she is confused with her mother. Next, Annie is working on the figure of an old woman in a hospice bed, as if re-creating and reimagining her mother’s death.
We see that Charlie makes models, too, and Annie looks at her book of drawings, finds one of “Grandma,” and tells Charlie that she was her “favourite,” but Charlie says, “She wanted me to be a boy.” (Charlie’s appearance – Shapiro has cleidocranial dysostosis, as do her mother and sister – heightens, or too crudely literalizes, the growing sense of monstrous femininity.) Annie, as if manipulating one of her figures, prods a bit more, talking to Charlie (a doll or husk housing Paimon), to detect any relief about Leigh’s death – the mother hopes to see in her daughter what she herself feels. (Annie later notes Charlie’s “little fingernails,” as if she had been a miniature.) Back in her workshop, after Annie finds a note from Leigh – ending, “Our sacrifice will pale next to the rewards. Love, Mommy.” – Annie sees the apparition of Leigh in a corner of the room, and there is a tongue-click (Charlie’s habit). Stricken, she turns to gaze at one of her models, featuring a miniature of her white-haired mother, one breast exposed, standing by the bed, looking to take little Charlie from the breast of Annie (Figure 3). Earlier, Annie had told Charlie that Leigh insisted on feeding her when she was an infant, but Annie’s re-creation – or reimagining? – shows a literal, physical, and visceral (s)mothering.
Annie’s angry turning-around of the artwork, as if it confronted her when she least wanted it to, reveals that such memories are all too present and have long stoked her guilt and resentment over Leigh’s grandmothering of Charlie, no matter how much Annie has been trying to control and curate the past with her artistic re-creations (reminiscent of the speaker’s making “a model” of her parent in Plath’s “Daddy”). The diorama screams out, though, that Annie’s mother was overbearingly protective of (Paimon-hosting) Charlie, as confirmed by a photo of Leigh bottle-feeding Charlie (the milk contains a suspicious black herb). Annie even imitatvely scrawls SATONY on the wall behind the headboard in her miniature of Charlie’s bedroom, but she does not read the writing on the wall and investigate the word (it is used in necromancy). She does set up and take a long, hard look at the miniature of her mother in a nightdress standing in the doorway of a bedroom where Annie is sleeping, as if trying to confront and stare down this moment when her mother invaded her privacy (and her dreams?), watching her.
The miniatures allow Annie, then, through art – like Plath with “Medusa” – to freeze and rearrange and review haunting memories of her relationship with her mother; her dollhousing of pain likely reflects her “need to put [her] trauma in a box” and to “compartmentalize death” (Joho). But she does not seem to deeply re-read her miniatures or break them down to see them as hints of a darker malevolence at work, and so, besieged by the forces that her mother unleashed, she will near a breakdown herself. (Annie forgoes deeper interpretations, perhaps, because she sees them as her psychiatrist husband’s remit.) And the more that her complicated grief over the deaths of Graham females – Leigh and Charlie, as if posthumously reunited – ripple through her, the more that Annie comes to resemble a Leigh-like force of twisted parental power.
The film sinks into grotesque motherhood and toxic femininity as Annie’s grief – “escap[ing]” as “from a Pandora’s box” (or one of Annie’s model scenes?), “wounding and changing its sufferers” (Lodge) – is smeared with rage and blame (of Peter, for not watching over his sister) after Charlie dies. In a domestic horror film about her identity shadowed, malformed, and repossessed by others (her family, her mother, a cult), Annie tells a grief-support group that Leigh had dissociative identity disorder (and then dementia); her father, beset by “psychotic depression,” had starved to death when she was a baby; and her brother, a schizophrenic, hanged himself at sixteen, accusing his mother of “putting people inside him” in his suicide note. “That was my mom’s life,” she says, but it is really Annie’s litany of diagnoses, afflictions, and demises in her family – a burden that she has mainly dealt with, it seems, through miniature-art that strives to ball up, tamp down, and nest haunting memories. Annie says that Leigh got “her hooks into” Charlie once she was born after Annie had not let Leigh get close to Peter, but Annie still feels guilt, and “blamed,” and so the diminished daughter feels stained and shadowed.
Annie’s model-making has been, in large part, an attempt to rework and reframe her growing anger, guilt, and resentment on small stages; she even has a miniature of a gallery space, in which she moves her exhibits around, thus using a diorama to plan her showing of dioramas in the gallery. Such a moment – in conjunction with that opening model-comes-alive sequence and the establishing shots and long shots that make what we are seeing seem like part of a diorama – re-creates an eerie sense that all we are seeing could have a miniature version, and that the people in the film are figures being manipulated in this gallery-space of a film that we are moving through. And so the sense of a great evil housed in little spaces (the King of Hell in Charlie; the infernal in the Grahams’ home) builds, even as Annie’s artful efforts to impose order on her all-too-real world with her mini-worlds crumble.
Annie keeps working away on her pieces, using her art to try to channel and rework her outsized, overwhelming grief and anger, and even “inspect death like a detective” (Joho). Her latest piece is a re-creation of the site where Charlie was killed, including the headless body in the station wagon and the head on the ground (Figure 4). (It is like a diorama for one of the story’s key horror-spaces, as if the film is modeling and echoing itself back to itself – as with the opening house-comes-to-life shot, this moment conjures an eerie, warped, and darkly inward-looking effect. It is as if there is some strange force outside it all, just waiting and beholding us – malleable, model-like creatures – in its gaze . . . a force malevolent and maternal? In this way, the film’s surveying eye enhances a museum-exhibit effect, aligning us3 with the cult members watching the family figures – the Grahams, trapped in a plot constructed by Leigh’s followers, become mere Lilliputians in relation to the Paimon cabal’s grand plans and deep occult worship.) But the monstrous femininity that created Annie, and which she is trying to compartmentalize and rework, will not be contained, and the diabolical evil that Leigh worshipped and channeled will out.
Much of that evil can be seen in Annie, in her fury, which – perhaps in part because she pours her creative energy into tiny objects – first smolders until she lashes out at her son. At the dinner table, Annie turns her parental identity into a power-relation – “I am your mother! Do you understand? All I do is worry and slave and defend you” – and tears into Peter. She says that he will not admit responsibility and “nobody admits anything they’ve done.” Then, in a dream within a dream – much like a miniature house within a house? or a bedroom within a reimagined mini-house? – in response to Peter asking, “Why are you scared of me?,” Annie replies, “I never wanted to be your mother,” then puts her hand to her mouth, aghast, and explains that she was scared but felt pressured by Leigh, and “I tried to stop it” by having a “miscarriage.” After she has confessed (to herself, in this dream) her maternal guilt and resentment over not wanting to create him, Peter says, distraught, “You tried to kill me” (family and one’s existence in it as nightmare), but Annie protests, “I love you!”4 Next, as Annie, Peter, and Steve descend for a séance that Annie will perform to reach Charlie, the camera moves up and around a tall miniature by the stairs – the miniature is an old, rotted, turreted gothic mansion, and, above that, a rickety, window-with-shutters mid-America-style home, and, at the top, a house that looks like their home, standing on the grass, and so the other two houses (mothers before this one) are buried underneath, as if in stratified, moldering layers of earth.
Annie’s fury then flares into physical violence when she smashes her laboriously and meticulously wrought models. As Annie is crafting her scale replica of the funeral hall where she gave her eulogy, she breaks the back of a model chair as she listens to a gallery representative’s message, her strain and stress flashing through her, and then yells and punches in the roof of the hall that she has spent so much time meticulously building. When Steve comes home, enters her workshop, and beholds the wreckage, Annie is sitting among it, as if it is her inner life, and she says, “I didn’t want to look at it anymore.” The mother-creator is becoming an ever more destructive, wrathful force, dismantling those remade places and spaces reflective of her basest fears and grievances.
Finally, Annie’s fury fireballs and this cult queen’s daughter kills the patriarch. Annie tells Steve that they must destroy Charlie’s notebook, “For Peter,” and begs and cajoles Steve to do it, though she also says, “It needs to be me. It’s my fault.” But he will not; instead, the psychiatrist, fed up, threatens to contain her – “You are sick, Annie. I’m calling the police.” – and so she grabs the book from him, tosses it in the fire, and then watches, appalled, as he goes up in flames, as if bearing the brunt of all her self-immolating guilt, grief, fear, and anger. (Did Annie suspect as much? She had just told Steve “you are the love of my life” and kissed him, as if bidding farewell.) Annie’s self-blame and rage seem to burn up inside her, blaze out, and kill her husband, as if this mother, driven to it by her mother before her, can reach a fever-pitch hysteria so fiery and destructive that it can engulf her family and raze her household to the ground. Annie’s attempted minimizing, reduction, and repression of her emotions through her model art only mask and coil up her psychic pain all the more until, overcome by the monstrous maternal malevolence that she never truly faced on a life-size scale but unconsciously mimicked, she erupts. The greatest horrors in Hereditary, then, are not what threaten the Grahams’ home but what Annie, the true head of the family, can house within.5
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“A Living Doll”: Little Sister Amma and Sharp Objects’ Haunted Playhouse
In Sharp Objects, it is the youngest female in the Preaker family, Amma, whose dollhouse screams out what the preternatural teen harbours. The “dollhouse is a materialized secret” and its “aptest analogy” may be “the secret recesses of the heart” (Stewart 61); the secret within Amma’s dollhouse, and thus Amma, is revealed at the end, or innermost, of a series of boxlike episodes, “center within center, within within within” (61). Richard Woodward sees Lee’s death-scene “dollhouses” as reflective of their creator’s mind: “They . . . appea[r] macabre and maybe a little unhealthy” (11). Miniature houses (the house, in dreams, is often taken as symbolic of the maternal) can be seen as mirrors to a woman’s mind or inner-ness, as when Amma – dressed primly and girlishly, as if a doll – first shows to older half-sister Camille (Amy Adams) her dollhouse, a replica of their mother’s just-so, storied house6 in which they are standing, and says, “Isn’t it beautiful? This dollhouse is my fancy” (my emphasis). The miniature building is not only an emotional and psychological “sanctuary” and “prison” (Stewart 65) for its owner, then, but both mirror and microcosm of Amma’s warped mind, play-housing her perverse desire and bloodlust. So Camille discovers, at the series’ end, when she peers into the dollhouse, finding victims’ teeth – sharp objects – making up the ivory floor of their mother’s bedroom, and realizes then and there that Amma, her at-times tiny teen terror of a little sister, is Wind Gap’s serial murderer (Figure 5).
The ivory floor – its material a symbol of white rapaciousness; Amma’s teeth-substitute darkens the grotesque sense of trophy-hunting – is the most precious part of Adora’s proper, perfect sanctum sanctorum, but the bedroom also stands in for Adora’s mind, and Amma’s replacing of the tiles with her victims’ teeth marks a supplanting of Adora, a biting-back against that icy queen’s damaging control, and a reoccupying of her most private, precious space. As a critic notes, “Amma’s traumatic environment shaped her” and, “[i]n response, she recreated that environment and made it even more ghoulish” (Chaney). The (re)writing is on the floor – Amma, her play-space blares to her journalist sister, is the monstrous new female power in the family. If “scripted narratives of self and family are rehearsed,” Laura J. Miller notes, “until they are naturalized, aided and abetted by artifacts and decor that codify and embellish not only the domestic setting, but . . . the stories being told” (196), then Amma’s re-tiling of that domestic setting and retelling of her story exposes her dark truth and rewrites her family story: “Underneath the cherished fictions of domestic space, dystopia is found” (207). The barely contained domestic is a cabinet of horrors – like Lee’s miniature unexplained-death dioramas, the teeth-floor “both refute[s] and reinforce[s] the power of domestic order” (Doublet) – and a curated museum exhibiting, ultimately, the toxic and power-intoxicated mind of a young woman who toys with others and plays at murder.
Corinne May Botz notes of Lee’s death-scene dollhouses that they “introduce threat and danger into the roles young girls emulate while at play and present the architecture of the home as a deadly terrain where prosaic objects have a secret life as murder weapons. The monstrous acts seem all the more horrible when they are contained in . . . a domain associated with childhood and innocence” (35). But the discovery of the pearly whites of pre-pubescent girls Ann Nash and Natalie Keene (the surnames eerily evoke gnashed teeth7 and keenness, that is, the anger, watchfulness, and intelligence of their killer) as the tiles of Adora’s bedroom in Amma’s dollhouse explode any lingering illusions of childhood and innocence, announce Amma as the greatest threat and danger, and confirm that the thirteen-year-old has taken up the crown from her malicious mother. (This Southern Gothic’s revealing of a sister’s fury via an upstairs bedroom echoes the Gothic novel Jane Eyre’s revealing of a madwoman in the attic.)
The dollhouse, much like Amma herself, is transformed from a fixed, seemingly innocuous, and faintly pitiable thing – a replica of the place where (and so stand-in for) Amma, contained and controlled by her mother, stuntedly grew up – into an abject domestic space, a site of horror miniaturized, and a fiercely sharp object. It is a lockbox that, wrenched open, reveals who the murderer is and, worse, how savage and spiteful she is. Camille’s discovery throws agape a Pandora’s box of complex, terrible truths about her younger sibling – depths of pain, anger, suffering, arrogance, nastiness, narcissism, and violence – that we glimpse in a mid-final credits sequence. That sequence flash-cuts through flashbacks of Amma’s hands-on killings, by strangulation and battery, of her newest friend Mae, Ann, and Natalie (the latter two with the help of Amma’s friends Jodes and Kelsey), and close-ups on Amma’s ferocious face, mid-murders, the sound of her breath heightened (Figure 6). The final shot, post-credits, reveals that Amma was Wind Gap’s legendary woman in white,8 going back into the woods, as if slipping back into her deep, dark unconscious.
Femininity, then, in this Southern Gothic-meets-noir procedural, is stinging, cutting, poisoning, and, in Amma, bloodlust-homicidal. Camille’s newspaper editor tells her, “You’re not there to solve the mystery,” but the viewer, as in Hereditary, is the proxy, private investigator, while acting as interpolator between reporter and police. And the most horrible investigation – in a town beset by nasty gossip, petty jealousies, and class dissatisfaction – is the linked investigation into Camille’s self-punishment (she was a cutter and drinks a lot) and into Amma’s victimization by, and imitation of, her mother (“Amma” is “Mama” [as both daughters call Adora] rearranged and echoes amare, Latin for love [amo, amas, amat]). All three women are buffeted by forces of propriety, grief, guilt, possessiveness, and recrimination, and the daughters are often torn between wildness and tameness, but haughty matriarch Adora – ill-used by her mother (who punished her by walking her deep into the woods and leaving her there) – is the suffocating source of her daughters’ pain, trauma, and violence (Camille’s violence to herself; Amma’s murders of girls).
Adora, we learn, has long been controlling and dosing Amma (and did the same to daughter Marian, until she died) to induce and prolong bouts of sickness, orchestrating Amma’s need for Adora and reaffirming her (poisonous) maternalism. By ministering to her daughter, spooning her tea and “medicine” into Amma, Adora treats her girl like a doll (Figure 7). (From Adora’s potion-like concoction and the many references to the woods to the dreamy sense of a girl as a sleeping beauty in sickness or death, episode after episode creepily plays with fairy-tale tropes.) Amma even tells Camille, her pause leaving us to fill in the wind-gap with another noun (patient? prisoner?), “You know how [Mama] is. I’m just her little . . . doll to dress up.” But Amma imitates and replays such force-feeding and doll-making for her sociopathic ends. Caught with her two friends (and accomplices) taking items from a memorial-shrine for the murdered girls downtown, Amma counters that “We knew those girls,” “We just wanted something to remember them by, that’s all,” and “We’re all sad,” and so she seems to be collecting trophies and feeding off others’ grief and pain. When Amma and Camille then find Natalie, dead, perched on an open windowsill in the alley, Amma can enjoy the sight of her victim put there by her, just like, Detective Richard Willis (Chris Messina) remarks, “a prop or a doll” . . . to which the police chief replies, “My daughter had one of them dolls.” The song accompanying the fourth episode’s opening credits, Mark Batson’s “Cupcake Kitty Curls,” concerns a “baby doll” and “raw little freak girl” who is “nasty” and “wicked.” And Natalie’s father tells Camille that his daughter’s fingernails were found painted (in the final episode’s mid-credits reveal, the nails of Amma’s two other victims are painted the same colour), as if Amma had treated her like a doll-like daughter, replicating her Munchausen-by-proxy mother in treating a girl as a miniature moppet to be primped, posed, and displayed.
With her dollhouse, after all, Amma, Adora’s miniature woman, is containing and managing the miniature of the home that her mother is in control of and in which Adora has long been containing and managing Amma. A miniature – especially one of a domineering mother’s house – can offer children “a rare power at a young age, conferring the potency of adults,” and they can “render [children] conquerors,” with a feeling of “dominion over the world” (Garfield 4). Using her mini-version of the life-stilled domestic space, made so clean, white, and controlled by the mother who forcibly nurses her there, Amma remakes and remodels it into a site that stamps – with that floor of victims’ teeth – her refusal to be passive and restricted whenever she leaves the home and roams Wind Gap. Amma’s manipulation and murder of three girls outside the home is both an extension of and a furious response to her mother’s manipulative at-home sickening of her and murder of Marian; hers is a twisted counter-control. Amma suggests that counter-control and rebellion are two reasons for her killing when she claims to be as unruly as her older sister: “I’m incorrigible, too,” she tells Camille, “only [Mama] doesn’t know it.”
Murder is the ultimate rebellion (against family and Southern small-town society) and non-corrective for Amma, and a way for the thirteen-year-old to act older than she is, even outdoing her older sister’s legendary wildness. (Camille internalizes with self-harm: cutting into herself and drinking; Amma externalizes by harming others: lashing out and killing.) Amma, for whom murder is tied to attention and narcissism – Adora keeps Marian’s exhibit-like bedroom untouched,9 like a “preserved diorama” (Seitz), tutored Ann, and paid attention to Natalie; when Camille’s avuncular editor jokingly praises her friend Mae, Amma gets jealous – is also trying to counter and re-create her sister’s death, and its pride of place in her mother’s life, by killing girls near Marian’s age when she died. (Amma says that she can never be like [Maid?] Marian because “I’m not as good. You can never be as good as someone dead.”) Why else place their teeth in the miniature version of her mother’s bedroom, a room that she rarely lets her daughters enter, unless it is to strew the ground beneath the managing matriarch’s high-heeled feet with the gaping evidence of her own power? By carefully tessellating the teeth of two girls whom Adora favoured to retile and retell the space of the master bedroom, Amma is showing off her victory over her mother’s pets – Amma having fatefully, fatally played and toyed with them herself – and reasserting her control. But her twisted act of postmortem dentistry is also declaring that Adora’s (s)mothering has taken a tremendous toll on her, for Amma has long felt yanked out (of school, to be kept home and nursed) and wrenched around by her Munchausen-by-proxy parent.
Externally, though, the dollhouse helps to mask the inner truth of Amma, for its mini-ness only makes her seem more girlish. Littleness is often associated with innocence, as when Adora reproves Camille, the spectre of Marian floating through her words – “You can’t just go into the room of a dead little girl. You of all people should know how private, how personal that is.” – or when Amma asks her sibling about having children – “Don’t you want a little . . . baby? Babies are so cute.” – and acts like Camille’s little one, saying, “You can practice on me, if you want,” and putting her hands around Camille’s neck. Amma is used to being the protected, wee thing, especially in Adora’s dollhouse of a home, and she sometimes plays into her mother’s concerns. But Amma also uses that child-ness – forced on her by Adora’s treatment of her as a sick, helpless little patient – to hide her all-too-adult, overdeveloped monstrosity. Amma has lashed out, stripping girls smaller than her of life, to get back at her mother and regain agency after being so weakened and ruled over by Adora. (Murder thus acts as a counter to Munchausen-by-proxy, which is grotesque overprotection and overparenting; passively under her mother’s thumb in the home, Amma, outside it, actively ensures, with her own hands, that other parents’ daughters can never be protected or parented ever again.) And, by butchering human beings, Amma is emulating and reacting to Adora’s brutal concern, an industrial pig farm where the penned animals are regularly slaughtered. Amma’s killings, then, allow her to manufacture sorrow and so draw her mother closer through grief – Adora’s driving emotion since Marian’s death – and act even more the little girl (while secretly being the adult-like architect of it all), as when, in the second episode, Amma laments Natalie’s death to Adora as they sit in front of the dollhouse (Figure 8).10
Camille has memory-flashes and dream-glimpses of Amma’s dollhouse, as if she realizes that not her mother’s house but Amma’s re-creation of it holds the truth of the killings that she is in her hometown to report on. The opening of the seventh episode, “Falling,” begins inside a dream of Camille’s: she comes downstairs to look at the dollhouse, its lights upstairs go on, and then its lights downstairs, she says, “What the hell?,” peers into the rooms (Figure 9), and then the camera is within and we are in the rooms, looking out at her, and a person passes through a room, moving between us and Camille. In this dream, she is looking into the hell of her own household as if from the outside, as if it is contained and containable and easily explicable, yet it is also not explicable (how did the lights go on?) and shadowy (who is passing through? what lies within?).
Camille misses the hiding-in-plain-sight truth of her sister as the killer because, given her own experience of overbearing Adora, she sees her sister as sufferer, much like herself. Camille even ends her feature piece on the murders (for which Adora has been charged, convicted, and imprisoned) with self-questioning: “As for me, I’ve forgiven myself for failing to save my sister [Marian] and given myself over to raising the other. Am I good at caring for Amma because of kindness, or do I like caring for Amma because I have Adora’s sickness?” Camille’s sisterly sense of a fellow victim (of their mother) and her maternal desire (to raise Amma now, and so in a small way make up for what their mother did to her) have led her to overlook the clues that Amma is the true killer. Camille has largely seen Amma as a littler version of herself. Indeed, much of the final episode, “Milk,” where both daughters are dosed by Adora, concerns Amma and Camille being miniaturized – reduced, made passive, and made more impotently childlike and daughter-ish by Adora, who turns them into sick, doll-like patients – and motherhood as murderous. When such reductiveness (of people to pawns or playthings), murderousness, and need-for-control is both mimicked and revolted against by Amma, though, the daughter becomes the nastiest, sharpest object of all.
In Hereditary, miniatures express the painful memories and violent feelings of a daughter-turned-grieving-mother; in Sharp Objects, a dollhouse expresses the violent feelings and acts of a daughter turning against her mother. But their feelings about their malevolent, power-hungry mothers run so dark and deep that fortysomething Annie and teen Amma are unable to read, deal with, or even fully repress them. So heavily impressed upon and influenced by the woman before her, each daughter is impelled to imitate, react to, and rework her mother’s anger, control, and power. The roof comes off and the truth emerges, but it is not the truth of external horrors – a demon-worshipping cult, serial killings – that so appalls, telescoped through the camera’s eye. What chills and thrills Annie and Amma too much for them to clearly and honestly confront it is the truth, as Plath’s haunted speaker feels (see “Lady Lazarus,” when she asks, “Do I terrify?”), of what lies within the female I. Ever so darkly and deeply in Hereditary and Sharp Objects, the I – masked and revealed, indulged and restrained, and contained and released by its expression-in-miniature – becomes both Self and Other: “I am transported out of myself. Yet I am more myself than ever” (Cooley, “Dollhouses”).
Botz, Corinne May. “Killing the Angel in the House: The Cases of Frances Glessner Lee.” The Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death, by Corinne May Botz, Monacelli, 2004, pp. 17-43.
Chaney, Jen. “Let’s Talk About the Sharp Objects Finale,” Vulture, 26 Aug. 2018, www.vulture.com/2018/08/sharp-objects-finale-ending-explained.html.
Cooley, Nicole. “Dollhouses Weren’t Invented for Play,” The Atlantic, 22 July 2016, www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2016/07/dollhouses-werent-invented-for-play/492581/.
Cooley, Nicole. “Hereditary: Mourning My Mother in Miniature,” Entropy, 4 Sept. 2018, https://entropymag.org/hereditary-mourning-my-mother-in-miniature/.
Deleted Scenes. Hereditary. Directed by Ari Aster, A24, 2018. [DVD special feature]
Doublet, Jennifer. “Existance Minimum/Maximum.” Loud Paper, vol. 3, no. 3, 1998, www.loudpapermag.com/articles/existance-minimummaximum.
Garfield, Simon. Miniature: How Small Things Illuminate the World. Canongate, 2019.
Han, Angie, and Jess Joho. “9 Details You Missed in the Horrifying ‘Hereditary’.” Mashable, 14 June 2018, https://mashable.com/article/hereditary-ending-explained-everything-you-missed.
Hereditary. Directed by Ari Aster, A24, 2018.
Joho, Jess. “The Real Horror of ‘Hereditary’ Is Its Realistic Portrait of a Family in Grief.” Mashable, 11 June 2018, https://mashable.com/2018/06/11/hereditary-familial-grief/.
Lodge, Guy. “The Horror of Grief: How Loss Is the Ultimate Boogeyman in Hereditary,” The Guardian, 7 June 2018, www.theguardian.com/film/2018/jun/07/hereditary-toni-collette-horror-grief.
Miller, Laura J. “Denatured Domesticity: An Account of Femininity and Physiognomy in the Interiors of Francis Glessner Lee.” Negotiating Domesticity: Spatial Productions of Gender in Modern Architecture, edited by Hilde Heynen and Gülsüm Baydar, Routledge, 2005, pp. 196-212.
“Munchausen.” Directed by Ari Aster, Invicta, 2013.
Plath, Sylvia. Ariel. 1965. Faber and Faber, 2010.
Riley, Jenelle. “‘Hereditary’ Filmmaker Ari Aster Answers Burning Questions (Spoilers).” Variety, 11 June 2018, https://variety.com/2018/film/awards/hereditary-ari-aster-answers-burning-questions-1202841448/.
Seitz, Matt Zoller. “What Sharp Objects Understands About Memory,” Vulture, 9 Aug. 2018, www.vulture.com/2018/08/sharp-objects-jean-marc-vallee-editing-memory.html.
Sharp Objects. Created by Marti Noxon and directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, HBO, 2018. [Based on the novel by Gillian Flynn.]
Stewart, Susan. On Longing: Narratives of the Miniature, the Gigantic, the Souvenir, the Collection. Duke UP, 1993.
Woodward, Richard B. Introduction. The Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death, by Corinne May Botz, Monacelli, 2004, pp. 10-11.
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All images are screenshots from Hereditary and Sharp Objects.
- This sequence is a grotesque take on the Ascension, and Peter’s climbing the treehouse ladder to reach Paimon’s hell-throne ironically echoes Jacob’s Ladder to heaven. The last shot, of a reborn Paimon-as-Peter, worshippers gathered around, ironically resembles a Nativity scene. [↩]
- This model, as Nicole Cooley notes, is “sealed shut with chains” – its windows are boarded up and secured with chains, while its front entrance is a vault door; both this model and the sunken three-house model, Cooley argues, are “metaphors for Annie’s grief, enclosures in which she is trapped and falling” (“Hereditary”). [↩]
- Two critics have noted the Grahams’ discomfiting relatability to viewers: “We, too, are products of families we didn’t choose, genes we didn’t select, histories we don’t know, circumstances we can’t control” (Han and Joho). Aster argues that “the family has absolutely no agency” and so the “miniature figures and dollhouses . . . [are] a perfect metaphor for the situation; [the Grahams are] dolls in a dollhouse being manipulated by outside forces” (Riley). [↩]
- In a deleted scene, after the dinner-table argument, Peter asks his father if he blames him, too, but Steve says that Annie is “blaming everybody. It’s part of her grieving. She blames herself, really”; Peter starts sobbing, says, “I’m nothing,” “I just want to die,” and “I’m so sorry,” and the film cuts from his weeping and wailing to Annie saying, “I’m sorry,” and crying herself. Twinned currents of recrimination and guilt, then, run between mother and son. [↩]
- A narcissistic mother’s fear-filled power to box up her child is the dark heart of Aster’s wordless short “Munchausen” (2013), which, like Sharp Objects, concerns Munchausen-by-proxy. Riffing off Up and Toy Story 3, the opening mini-film within the mini-film is the mother’s lightsome vision, while watching the boy box up his things for the big move, of her son’s sunny college years (especially meeting his future wife). This vision darkens into her dread of empty-nest loneliness. She doses his food, then tends to him, but he dies; she, hardly bearing up, touches his last box – a coffin – as it is borne away. [↩]
- Given that early dollhouses were often meant to teach a young girl “how to set up and control a house . . . [and] learn to become the lady of the house” (Cooley, “Dollhouses”), Amma’s expression of rebellion and murderousness (the teeth-floor) within the imitation of grande dame Adora’s home seems all the more horribly apt. [↩]
- The teeth also suggest Amma’s serial, ravenous predatoriness (Amma’s teeth are bared in the final episode’s mid-credits reveal). After moving to St. Louis to live with her sister and new mother-figure, Amma says to Camille, “You make me happy. I could eat you up.” She is echoing Max’s threat to his mother (“I’LL EAT YOU UP!”) in Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are (1963), when the child acts so ferocious and must learn to control his emotions. [↩]
- Amma thus re-authors the local legend, again showing herself to be a kind of writer, akin to Camille, and that may be why she is so jealous when Mae says that she is considering journalism – Amma snarkily comments, “You just say that to impress Camille. Kiss-ass.” (Here, Amma reveals her possessiveness of her mother-figure and her jealousy, two key motives for killing Ann and Natalie, whom her mother was close to.) Most alarming for Camille at the time is the writing that she observes on Mae’s fingers and wrist, put there by Amma in imitation of the words that she saw cut into Camille’s skin. So how much of what Amma does is her acting out of imitation, spite, and jealousy? [↩]
- In keeping her dead child’s room like “a museum,” the Southern lady, much like Dickens’s Miss Havisham and Faulkner’s Miss Emily Grierson (in “A Rose for Emily” , set in Mississippi), freezes the sense and memory of a part of the family, as if trying to arrest time. [↩]
- A complex of further reasons for Amma’s serial killing is hinted at by Amma’s ominous bursts of explanation or confession to her sister in other situations: her rage (“I – I was mad”); her derangement (“I get funny ideas sometimes”); Amma says that she is often bored and that is why she acts as she does; her lonely power and superiority (Amma: “It’s not the same with girls. I mean, I can get them to do what I want, but . . . they don’t like me.” Camille: “It’s safer to be feared than loved.” Amma: “Machiavelli.” Camille: “How do you know that?” Amma: “You know how. Sometimes you need to be mean . . . or hurt.”). Ultimately, in the revealing of Amma’s psyche through Camille’s discovery of the teeth-floor, as with Lee’s crime scenes, “what the minutia reveals is as frightening as what it hides” (Doublet). [↩]