In one room, a mother lies in bed holding her infant, and a woman with silver hair stands beside her, bare breast cupped in her hand, an offer. In another, the older woman is prone in bed, IV strung above her. And then on another bed: a small girl’s body, headless, bloody, damaged.
These are the room boxes—some call them dioramas—built by miniature artist Annie Leigh (Tony Colette) in Hereditary, the new film by Ari Aster, which Rolling Stone calls the scariest movie of 2018. Annie has constructed these miniature rooms in the studio on the second floor of her home in Utah. Her miniature show is upcoming at The Archer Galley in New York City, and at many points in the film, we see her painstakingly building these miniatures, wearing a magnifying device, painting a doll’s head, gluing a one-inch chair. All of her miniature work represents the losses she experiences during the course of the film. First her mother. Then her daughter. Annie mourns through miniatures.
As does her daughter Charlie (Milly Shapiro) who deeply grieves her grandmother’s death which sets the film in motion. “I want Grandma” is one of Charlie’s first lines of dialogue. Charlie makes her own miniatures, strange surrealist assemblages, with bottles and jars and a cut off bird’s head, then places them in her own room box in her bedroom.
Hereditary is a horror film, and like many in the genre, it focuses on a family. Reviews have compared it to The Exorcist and Rosemary’s Baby. Yet there has been little discussion of the role of miniatures in the film. While Hereditary certainly investigates the occult and the paranormal –– as all of the reviews agree—it is also a film about mothers and daughters and grief and the miniature worlds that bind them.
And this is why I have gone to see it again and again.
Hereditary is the only movie I’ve been able to see since my mother died suddenly in New Orleans three months ago.
Though I’ve gone to multiple theaters in New York and New Jersey, driving, walking, riding the subway, as if a geographic cure could work, I can’t sit through a single film. I settle in my seat, prepare to be transported and then I can’t. I am not able enter another world. I feel overwhelmed by my own life. My mother is dead, my father is alone, and my sister and brother and my husband and daughters and my students all need me.
I am rarely alone unless I go to the movies. But I now leave movies, again and again, and go home, lie on the floor of my study and think about my mother and how I want her back.
But I don’t leave this film. Because Hereditary brings me back to my mother. It’s not only that Annie, like me, is a mother of two who has just lost her mother; it is the fact that Hereditary is a film about how miniatures connect mothers and daughters and a film about how tiny things help us to grieve.
My mother taught me the power of the small when I was a girl. She built me my first dollhouse. She took me to miniature shows. She checked out every library book on dollhouses we could find. And when I became a mother of daughters myself, for years after, until her death, she built furniture and sewed dolls for my daughters’ dollhouses, gave me miniatures for every holiday, and emailed me images of miniature objects she found on-line. Being her daughter and being a mother to my own daughters is forever connected to dollhouses and miniatures.
On screen, over and over, I watch as Annie constructs a hospice scene, her dying mother lying in a hospital bed.
Now I’m a daughter without a mother.
Now I don’t know how to be a mother without my mother.
I feel a deep sense of being torn from myself. And I return to miniatures. I see Hereditary over and over.
Figure 2: Hospice scene room box.
The initial moments in Hereditary tell us how important miniatures will be to this film. The movie opens with text: the obituary of Annie’s mother, Ellen Taper Leigh, who we learn, died “after a prolonged illness at her daughter Annie’s house.” Then the film cuts to a tree house in a backyard, viewed through the window of Annie’s art studio.
The camera pans the studio: blueprints taped to the wall, stacks of balsa wood and jars of paintbrushes and half-assembled room boxes. The first close up is a miniature model of a craftsman house, which will turn out to be the family home, and a shot of a miniature bedroom, a tiny boy in a bed, asleep under a blue blanket, as a tiny man stands at the doorway of the room. At first the scene is static and small. And then a moment later this miniature universe becomes life-size: the dolls from Annie’s miniature room become the people in her family, and a dog runs in. The man becomes Steve (Gabriel Byrne) and the son is now Peter (Alex Wolff). A father is waking up his son to get dressed for his grandmother’s funeral. These early moments of Hereditary alert us to the fact that the miniature will be a lens through which to read the rest of the film. The film is telling us that miniatures offer an alternative world.
Later in the film, we learn that Annie’s New York art show will be called “Small World: New Miniature works by Annie Leigh.” Small World could be an alternative title for this film. Small World could be the name for my life with my mother and for my life as a mother of my daughters.
The miniatures in Hereditary were made by artist Steve Newburn and his team at Applied Arts FX Studio in Toronto (where the movie was initially to be filmed). It fascinates me that the film’s director and the designer of the miniatures are both men. This film is so much about women, specifically generations of women.
In his New Yorker review, Anthony Lane notes the film’s “sense of enclosure” and links it explicitly to gender. And it is interesting that in her process of grieving, Annie almost never includes men in her miniature rooms; rarely if ever do we see her father, brother, husband or son. Nearly all of the scenes circle back to mother, daughter, and grandmother.
Annie and Steve’s home displays two miniature houses the large front hall. Aster listed themes for the miniature maker to use when constructing the room boxes for the film: “One was the idea that the house is trapping its owner inside,” Newburn says.
The first miniature house in the front hall is a house with its windows and doors sealed shut with chains. The house sits on a table in the front hallway. The second display consists of two houses, which appear to be in the middle of an earthquake, one on top of the other, and one sinking under the weight of the other.
Both of the houses in the front hall are traps. The miniature houses are metaphors for Annie’s grief, enclosures in which she is trapped and falling.
Figure 3: Dollhouse in the front hall with windows chained shut.
My mother showed me the importance of miniatures at an early age. When I was eight, she built me a Victorian dollhouse.
Four feet high, the house is painted pink, with a sky blue roof, and a front cobblestone path winds beside a garden of plastic plants. My mother crochets area rugs and tiles the kitchen floor. She sews curtains for the windows: red velvet for the parlor, pale lace for the master bedroom, with thread tiebacks. On the walls are framed paintings she cut out of postcards. She strung the house with real electric lights.
It’s 1974, and my mother has built me a nineteenth-century house. To understand how to arrange it, I read all the library books we find about the history of miniatures in order to model the interior on a 1880s English home. I set up a lying-in room for the dollhouse mother. I arrange a scullery. As unlike familiar seventies home decor as possible, with its plastic chairs and shag rugs, my dollhouse allows me to step into another universe. A universe I can control and possess.
But more than that: just as my dollhouse lets me recapture a past I’ve never lived in, it also enables me to engage deeply with my own interior life. And to imagine my future. As a character in my dollhouse—my mother has sewn a doll that resembles me with long hair and glasses—I can live alone, reading fake books in the library, drinking wine out of a mini green bottle and devouring a polymer chocolate cake the size of a dime.
When my own daughters are three and six, I give them all the dolls and furniture and plates and tiny food from my childhood dollhouse, and as they grow older they build an enormous dollhouse land in our dining room. My mother is still at the center of our miniature life, which now includes her, my daughters and me. She crochets more rugs and sews more curtains. She sends the girls new furniture. She paints street signs to set up between the houses. She asks them what their favorite books are and glues together facsimiles with identical covers. From a Mardi Gras outlet in New Orleans, she buys bags of purple and silver plastic king cake babies to populate the dollhouse town.
One day when my mother and I are standing in the kitchen watching my daughters play, she says. “You know there are no men in their dollhouse world? Only women and girl babies.”
Miniatures replace flashbacks in Hereditary, telling the story of mothers and daughters. Ari Aster never gives us backstory. Who are the grandmother’s “friends” who no one knows who attend the funeral? When Annie says in her eulogy to her mother that her mother was a “a very private person” and appears visibly shocked that so many are attendance at the memorial service,” what does that mean? How long did Annie’s mother live in Annie’s house as she was dying before she entered hospice? What exactly was the relationship between Charlie and her grandmother, which Annie explains by saying “I gave her my daughter”? Why did Annie break off contact with her mother because her husband asked her to her son was born and then why did she let her mother back into her life?
Instead we have to read the objects in Annie’s studio. A preschool. A hospice. A funeral home. A model of her own house. A room box of the Archer gallery where her work will be displayed.
We have to search the miniatures for clues.
Figure 4: Bedroom scene room box.
In an interview about his film, Aster explains. “Annie creates these miniature figures and dollhouses and they served as a perfect metaphor for the situation; they’re dolls in a dollhouse being manipulated by outside forces. Any control they try to seize is hopeless.”
I know miniatures are about more than simply control. The lesson of miniatures my mother taught me: I can both manipulate a world and be transported by it. This odd combination entrances me. I might sit in front of my dollhouse and pick up a wax apple the size of the head of a pin, then place it in a fruit bowl on a kitchen table, or I might make myself small and slip inside the kitchen and devour the apple, tear its lush white flesh between my teeth.
I slip out of one self and into another. I enter an alternative world.
The truth is that so often, in my own life, miniatures have saved me. For nearly all of my life, I have been convinced I would die before I was twenty, thirty, and then forty. I’ve marked my life off by decades. Forty was the biggest obstacle as by then I was the mother of two daughters. Most of all, I fear disappearing. Miniatures keep me tethered to the world.
Now in these weeks after my mother’s death, as I lie in bed beside my husband, listening to my girls’ steady breathing across the hall, I remember the objects in my childhood dollhouse. A canopy bed with a mustard colored spread. A velvet covered photograph album full of pictures my mother made of my favorite book characters.
Annie’s miniature work in Hereditary is part of a new trend in the art world; in the past several years, a number of miniature artists and gallery owners have recommitted to miniature art that works toward social change. In New York, the last few months alone have brought four different miniatures shows that focus on justice and activism: WEE# Resist, a little uprising, in Hastings-on-Hudson, Empire, at the CLAMP gallery, Unpacked: Refugee Baggage at the United Nations, and Badass Miniatures, in Yonkers.
Miniatures are also captivating a new, younger generation through social media. Thousands of mini-blogs and vlogs showcase mini-furniture and food. Instagram, ETSY, Pinterest, and Tumblr are replete with miniatures for display and sale. The most notable example is Kate Ünver’s popular site, The Daily Mini. First launched on Instagram, where it currently has more than 62,000 followers, the site offers daily photographs of miniatures plus a Q&A section featuring miniature artisans. And the YouTube channel “Miniature space” which was started in 2014 in Japan features miniature food, both edible and not, now has more than 2 million subscribers.
The passion that miniatures inspire and the way that they do cultural work are evident in the fact that they now have their own manifesto written by artist Louise Krasnweicz in 2015. For Krasnweicz, miniatures are “not an escape from the real world but a way to engage, confront, question, critique, or consider it.”
Annie’s miniature room boxes are exactly this: new spaces for thinking and creating, new frontiers of imagination.
Now in my new life as a mother without my mother, over and over I go back to miniatures.
At my mother’s funeral in April, a man I knew in high school, a middle aged man who never should have been interested in me, who followed me and took pictures of me, appeared at the service and stood too close. “I want you to know I cried for you mother when I heard she died,” he said. And he scooped his finger into his own eye socket and wiped it down my face. I stood there, revolted and horrified.
And instead of yelling at him or slapping him across the face which would have been no doubt appropriate reactions, I found myself doing what I have done for years when I was confronted with sadness, I closed my eyes and went to my childhood dollhouse.
I ascend the stairs, one flight at a time, from the first floor parlor to the second floor and finally to the attic nursery. I place my mother there. I put myself in her arms. Mother and baby, static and still, in a white wicker chair—a world where nothing untoward—nothing bad at all—can ever happen.
My mother is once again a young woman. I am an infant. Mother and daughter: we are starting our life together all over again.
Figure 5: Preschool room box.
Near the end of Hereditary, Annie goes into her studio and destroys her work. She wrecks all of her room boxes. The moment where the miniatures are ruined marks the film’s climax.
“I didn’t feel like looking at it anymore,” Annie says, slumped on the floor, when Steve stands, aghast, in the doorway to her studio.
I knew this moment would happen. Earlier in the film, Annie has already said in the grief group: “Sometimes I feel like it is all ruined.” And that is exactly what will happen. The destruction of the dollhouses prophesies the end of this family. Annie’s intense grief — which has been so accurately depicted throughout the film with her being alternately and even simultaneously sad, angry, frozen, suicidal – comes to a crisis, and the film spirals to its conclusion.
Each time I reach this moment in Hereditary, I wonder what my mother would think of the destruction of the miniature worlds. She taught me never to ruin my dollhouse, and I’ve kept my daughters’ miniatures safe and intact as well. Even as they outgrown them, I will never throw any of their miniatures out.
Miniatures are my inheritance, passed on from mother to daughter.
I understand now that a mother’s death requires that a daughter rearrange her life.
I see my mother everywhere—in my daughters’ faces and bodies. But also in my older daughter’s dollhouse, in the display of tiny objects my mother gave me that I keep on my writing desk. In the curtains my mother sewed. In the rugs the size of a fist she carefully crocheted.
And finally I understand that I am not seeing Hereditary over and over to escape my grief. I’m here to understand myself and my own story, my life as a daughter and a mother, and how dollhouses and miniatures have shaped it.
Now I will live in two worlds—the world without my mother and the miniature worlds she taught me to love.
Nicole Cooley grew up in New Orleans and is the author of six books, most recently the poetry collections Of Marriage (Alice James Books 2018) and Girl after Girl after Girl (Louisiana State University Press 2017). Her essays have appeared in The Paris Review Daily, The Atlantic, The Rumpus, The Feminist Wire and The Southern Review. She is currently completing a nonfiction project, My Dollhouse, Myself: Miniature Histories. She is a professor of English and the director of the MFA Program in Creative Writing and Literary Translation at Queens College-City University of New York.