When Ari Aster's horror/family drama Hereditary came out in 2018, perhaps no scene got people talking more than the tragic decapitation of Charlie, the family's youngest.
Up until that point, the character was more or less your stock creepy child in a scary movie. But one night, she suffers a severe allergic reaction after ingesting peanuts, and, as her older brother rushes her to the hospital along an empty highway, she leans her torso out of the car window, gasping for air. Her brother swerves, an errant telephone pole suddenly appears, and her head strikes it, coming clean off.
It's hard to tell what the most horrifying part of Hereditary's car scene is - the actual decapitation, the screams of her mother upon discovering the body still in the backseat in the morning, or the jarring cut back to that disembodied head, lying cold on the road, already being picked apart by ants.
It's equally bone-chilling and heart-wrenching, but the work and details that went into putting it all together are absolutely fascinating. So here's a behind the scenes look at Charlie's beheading from Hereditary.
It was Set Up As A Big Twist
Prior to its release, much of the marketing material for Hereditary prominently featured Charlie front and center, as though she was the main character or her relationship with her mother was the primary focus. Not to mention that creepy children in horror tend to run the show for the movies they're in - "She’s a update on Damien, right? From The Omen," says director Ari Aster. There's also Regan in The Exorcist, Gage in Pet Sematary, Esther from The Orphan, and the list goes on.
Then she dies barely 30 minutes into the movie in such a horrifying way. This is by Aster's own design. In an interview with AV Club, he explained the true purpose of the scene: "I think it’s always an emotional engagement when somebody is shocked, or surprised, or when viewers feel betrayed... And I’m very happy with A24 for not only protecting that twist, but doing everything they can to support it, by presenting this film as one that belongs primarily to that character [Charlie]."
Still, the marketing isn't totally misleading, he continues, "Charlie’s shadow looms over the rest of the film in a significant way."
The Actress Had A Ton Of Fun Filming The Scene...
At the center of the scene is actress Milly Shapiro, cast as Charlie Graham. Shapiro herself is a self-described horror fan, so the film was right up her alley. Ari Aster was also particularly happy with her casting, saying to Vanity Fair, “I despaired of ever finding her, just ‘cause I knew the chances were slim that I would find somebody who would be right. And I remember when she came into the audition, I was immediately so relieved - and then so excited.”
Though she was replaced with a stunt double when it came to getting anywhere near the telephone pole, Shapiro still got to do plenty of her own physical work. She had this to say about filming: "We were driving 30 mph and then randomly they would swerve and not tell me so I would be startled. It was a lot of fun... it was kind of like a rollercoaster in the way that it was really fast and really windy and I love roller coasters and I love acting so doing both at the same time was really cool."
At one point when the crew was filming indoors for the scene, they used a massive fan to simulate the wind blowing her back, something she found pretty hilarious as well.
...Even Though She Ended Up Bruised From It
Of course, doing that physical work also came with a price. In the scene, Charlie has basically hauled half her body out of the car window, putting a lot of pressure on her side. Moreover, she's thrashing around in pain as she gasps for breath due to her allergic reaction. Shapiro made sure not to hold anything back for this part, saying, "I didn't have to film anything the next day, so I reminded myself that if I stay really in it right now, I'll get a really good shot because this is a really important part of the film and I need to do the best job that I can."
Unfortunately, this commitment also led to some injuries: "I ended up going to a little too hard because I ended up getting a bunch of bruises on my side from hanging out... I was whacking myself against the car and I had no idea either, which was really funny. And then I had, like, scratches on my neck... They gave me pads for the next night on my side. It was really funny because I had to shove almost like a pillow in my shirt so I wouldn't get more bruises."
Alex Wolff Was Sweating In Terror The Whole Time
We can't forget that Shapiro isn't alone in this scene. Charlie is being transported by her older brother, Peter, played by Alex Wolff. Their performances together play like a one-two gut punch. There's the immediate shock of the beheading, followed by the drawn-out, sinking dread of the aftermath. The camera stays focused on Wolff's face as he realizes what has happened, drives home regardless, gets into bed, and then listens to his mother's bloodcurdling screams as she looks in the car in the morning. It's much more effective than simple gore.
In order to make Peter's trauma as convincing as possible, Wolff remained in character whenever he was on set. He told Vulture: "I basically decided for this movie I was going to, from the second I got to Utah, I was going to just be Peter for three months." Unfortunately, constantly forcing his mind to be in such a depressive state also caused him to need therapy after filming was finished.
His symptoms of mental distress even began to manifest physically. He described, again to Vulture, that the car scene with Shapiro was particularly affecting: "I remember hearing ‘Cut!’ and looking down, and we had to change shirts because I was covered in sweat. My sweater was soaking wet. I was just dripping from my face and everything, and they were like, ‘All right, let’s change him out!’ So I’m walking back to the trailer - I think it’s the end of the day - and they’re like, ‘Oh, wait! We’re gonna do one more angle of the same thing.’ And I was like, ‘Jesus Christ!’”