What You Need to Know About King Paimon in 'Hereditary'

A24 Films
A24 Films

This story contains spoilers for the movie Hereditary, and discusses the ending in detail.

Hereditary is a horror experience like none other. It's visceral, ugly, confrontational; not for the faint of heart. There's also a lot of plot hurled at the audience in the film's breathless final act, the last 20 minutes of which are non-stop madness. It's a film so savagely scary, A24 tested audience heart rates to see how high they collectively spiked. (The answer: Pretty damn high.)

If you were one of those gasping, frantic viewers you might have missed some of what Hereditary's grand finale was hitting you with. What, exactly, do those haunting final images mean, and who -- or what -- was pulling the strings all along? Here's a breakdown of the finale, and a deeper look at the film's demonic mythology.

Here's what happened in Hereditary's closing moments

Let's recap what goes down at the end of Hereditary before we jump into the deeper meaning. It all starts wrapping up when Annie (Toni Collette) realizes her grief counseling friend, Joan (Ann Dowd), was in a demon-worshipping coven with her mother, Ellen. Annie also finds her mom's headless corpse in her attic, which sends her into a frenzy. She confronts her husband, Steve (Gabriel Byrne), who thinks she's going crazy, but then Annie chucks their dead daughter Charlie's notebook into the fire and Steve's body goes up in flames.

At this point, Annie undergoes a transformation; she smiles at Steve's death, and her body starts physically floating. She shows up in her son Peter's room, then chases him to the attic, where she proceeds to decapitate herself with wire. The attic is also full of elderly naked people, who eerily smile at Peter. Terrified, Peter jumps out of the window, and when he lands, watches his mother's headless body float into the treehouse in the front yard. He follows her, and enters to find Joan and the rest of the coven in a trance of sorts, chanting for a demon called Paimon while they bow before an altar that contains Charlie's severed head wearing a crown. The headless bodies of Ellen and Annie are also kneeled before Charlie in ceremonious fashion. In the closing moments, as the coven continues their chanting, we learn that Peter will serve as the human host for Paimon.

Who is King Paimon?

That ending is a lot to take in, but once you realize who Paimon is and his significance in demonology, the rest of the film starts clicking into place.

Paimon first appeared in the anonymously written grimoire called Lesser Key of Solomon, where he's called a great king, one of Lucifer's most obedient devotees, and a master of art and science. In most lore, he is known for riding a camel, having an effeminate face, and for following a procession of demons playing instruments like cymbals and trumpets. Solomonalso states that Paimon is the ruler of 200 legions of spirits, most of them angels, and that to summon him, "thou must make him some offering."

Additionally, Paimon has many powers, among them "knowledge of past and future events, clearing up doubts, making spirits appear, creating visions, acquiring and dismissing servant spirits, reanimating the dead for several years, flight, remaining underwater indefinitely, and general abilities to 'make all kinds of things' (and) 'all sorts of people and armor appear.'" A lot of those powers are evident in Hereditary, especially after Annie performs the seance to communicate with Charlie. That's when the supernatural element of the film ratchets up.

A24 Films

Where do we first meet Paimon in Hereditary?

As we learn through context clues, Annie was never close with her mother until Charlie was born, and Ellen played an important role in Charlie's upbringing. Charlie was meant to be a boy, later evidenced when we see a welcome mat Ellen created with the name "Charles" embroidered on it. It appears that Ellen always intended to use whichever of Annie's children she could to summon Paimon, though she -- and probably Paimon himself -- preferred a male host. In fact, Ellen must have tried even before that; Annie mentions in an early grief counseling meeting that her brother hated their mother for trying to "put people into him." It seems these Paimon plans were in the works for years, and the necklace that both Ellen and Annie are shown wearing throughout the film is the symbol of Paimon, indicating his long-term presence in their lives.

We can assume that at some point in Charlie's childhood, Paimon was invited into her body by her grandmother. That's why she's so strange; why she clucks her tongue, why she decapitates birds, why she makes her spooky art projects. Her death appears to be the machination of either Paimon himself or the coven that desires him, as she is decapitated like the other women in her family eventually are. (Hereditary writer/director Ari Aster has confirmed that Charlie's death was, indeed, "designed by the cult.") After she's gone, Paimon targets Peter, ready for the male host he's been seeking all along.

What does Paimon actually represent?

The brilliance of Hereditary lies in metaphor, like all truly great horror films ultimately do. It's clear from the beginning that Annie's family is cursed in some way, and obviously the name itself is a bit of an on-the-nose description of the evil we can inherit from our ancestors -- genetically or spiritually. The movie gets literal with the demon stuff, but it's all subtext for the real stigma plaguing them: mental illness.

In Annie's early grief counseling sessions, she recalls her family's troubled history. Her mother was diagnosed with D.I.D. (dissociative identity disorder) and her brother was a paranoid schizophrenic who eventually took his own life. These disorders manifest in the next generation, too; after Charlie's death, Annie dovetails into mania, having middle-of-the-night episodes that feel like early symptoms of bipolar disorder, but also might be her mother's D.I.D. passed along, too. She flips between moods the way a dissociative person might, laughing erratically, then smiling after her husband's death. In one scene, we catch a glimpse of an email her husband is drafting, which seems to indicate that Annie has had manic episodes in the past, and he's worried she might be having another one. Peter's own descent into apparent self-harm and unexplained visions might symbolize the schizophrenia also present in his uncle.

Paimon, then, serves as a catalyst for a deeper reading. He is what the coven seeks, but also what Annie and Peter seek: salvation from an unhealthy mind, and everlasting connection to the world around them. The brilliance of Hereditary is that, in the end, we the audience can have both.

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Lindsey Romain is a writer and editor living in Chicago. She covers politics for Teen Vogue and has also appeared in Vulture, Birth.Movies.Death, and more. Follow her on Twitter @lindseyromain.