The Utah Effect
Ever since I was a little kid, wandering the aisles of the cavernous Video Vern’s in Holladay, the most intriguing pseudo-genre, to my mind, was always the intoxicating “Filmed in Utah.”
For me, films like Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, The Outlaw Josie Whales, and Dumb and Dumber—among countless others—all took on additional resonance due to their association with the Beehive State, and it’s certain that I liked them more because of it, no matter how dubious the distinction.
I liked the movies more, but I liked Utah more, too: the idea that Utah, which, even as a young child, I recognized as some kind of cultural backwater—at least to uninformed outsiders—could be part of something as interesting as Troll 2 captured my imagination and elevated this peculiar place, making it, somehow, the equal of New York City, or Los Angeles, mythically “important” places to my young mind where so many movies seemed to be made or at least take place.
As I got older, I started to think of this reciprocal phenomenon as the Utah Effect, i.e. the process through which both movies and Utah are made better by virtue of the fact that those movies are filmed in Utah.
1985’s Fletch is a good example of the Utah Effect: Fletch is a better-than-it-should-be kind of neo-noir comedy in which Chevy Chase is Irwin Fletcher—"Fletch”—, an investigative reporter who is somehow good enough at his job that he can be a generally insufferable smartass to literally everybody he encounters and still get away with it.
In other words, it is a near-perfect mid-‘80s Chevy Chase vehicle.
The plot is surprisingly involved but suffice it to say that not only were parts of it filmed in Utah, parts of it actually take place in Utah—specifically the Salt Lake City International Airport, Provo, and Orem.
The Utah Effect, for me (and maybe eleven other people who are broken enough to think like me), gives the illusion of a personal connection with this film—which enhances it by almost allowing me to look past some of its flaws (mild period-typical racism and misogyny) and gives me the desire to watch it again every other year or so so that I can pretend to remember Utah in 1985—when I was two.
Fletch, in turn, also enhances Utah by somehow accomplishing the nearly impossible task of making Orem and Provo … not … cooler … which is literally impossible, but … neater? … by association with maybe-near-the-peak-of-his-1980s-powers Chevy Chase—back when we all knew that he was an asshole but still loved him anyway (I guess because he was charming and also so good at literally just falling down?).
That’s the Utah Effect.
And I spent years watching these movies benefit from their association with my home and augment my home by its association with these movies, until I was shocked in 2018 when Ari Aster’s Hereditary came along and did something that I had somehow never even suspected as a possibility: Hereditary perverted the Utah Effect, highjacked Utah, and, still, almost two years later, refuses to give it back.
Hereditary is Ari Aster’s directorial debut. For anyone who has seen it, this fact must be mind-boggling, as Hereditary is an act of filmmaking bravura that one might more reasonably expect only from more seasoned directors. It confidently embraces its genre—unabashed horror—but while other first-time directors might take comfort in the tried-and-true conventions that decades of horror films have produced to great effect, Mr. Aster’s film is also stubbornly unconventional, most notably in its refusal to provide any semblance of even one relatable, sympathetic character.
The typical horror film employs a kind of hero’s journey shorthand: a relatable character or group of relatable, quirky characters leave a normal situation, encounter problems (usually fantastic problems in the vein of cannibals or zombified wildlife, etc.), and then either solve those problems—or don’t—and return to some semblance of normalcy—or die (which in horror movies is kind of the same thing).
Perhaps this is overstating things a little bit, but Hereditary’s characters never feel normal or relatable, and the film is thus utterly infused with relentless dread (which has not been overstated at all) that completely overtakes both the characters and the audience.
I feel like I’ve made it pretty clear by this point that I love movies. And I love all kinds of movies for all kinds of reasons—even silly reasons like where they were filmed.
Horror movies, though, I have only come around to in the last few years. For me, for the longest time, horror movies felt more like cheap thrills than like something worth spending time with. The jump scares, fake blood, and stupid protagonists were a lot to take.
Jump scares work—they startle me—but they feel too easy. Gore and blood feel too easy, too, and, also, for me, beside the point: I don’t want to be disgusted, I want to be scared. I don’t like to conflate the two. Stupid protagonists can be fun, but they’re also exasperating.
More than anything, though, my problem with so many horror movies is that my ability to suspend disbelief and actually enjoy a movie is easily compromised by lazy filmmaking, and the horror genre is saturated with lazy filmmaking—easy gimmicks, bad special effects, and bad writing.
And while I’m happy to watch something ironically, which seems to be how a huge number of people consume horror movies—they know they’re bad and love them specifically for that reason—on some level I’m always bothered by incompetence. (Without the Utah Effect, for example, I doubt I could stand the aforementioned Troll 2.)
This is all to say that the horror genre had some significant barriers to entry that I needed to get over before I could really enjoy it, and, in a way, I never really have gotten over them: the horror movies that I like still tend to be less about easy scares and more about the kind of disturbing, psychological horror that sits with you long after the film has ended. Movies like Kubrick’s The Shining, Robert Eggers’s The Witch, and Ari Aster’s second full-length feature, Midsommer, immediately come to mind as examples of this kind of horror.
Like these movies, except maybe more so, Hereditary isn’t scary because it produces the kinds of visceral, automatic responses that I referred to as being too easy, above (although it does have at least one incredibly effective jump scare that can’t be easily dismissed); rather, it’s scary because it gets into your head and stays there, infecting the way you look at the world, so that everything outside of the movie starts to feel as dreadful as everything inside the movie.
My family was out of town when I saw Hereditary. Vanessa had taken our kids to Florida for a week or so (a kind of horror that even Ari Aster hasn’t been able to top, yet), which meant that I was free to watch and listen to anything I wanted.
As much as I hate to admit it, marriage and children profoundly affected my viewing habits: Vanessa and I used to watch The Walking Dead together when it was new and better and we were first married, but this did not last long. She liked it, but she began having intense nightmares about zombies and even strange episodes during the day where she was afraid to do things like walking into a poorly lit parking structure.
It got to the point where the obvious answer was for her to stop watching the show. Then, somehow, it got to the point that I needed to stop watching the show, too, just in case her proximity to someone who she knew had watched it could somehow transmit its effect to her. I guess. I didn’t really understand the logic, but I did understand that if I wanted our relationship to continue, then it would be important to drop the show.
And since then I’ve been pretty careful at least not to talk about watching things that could be perceived as too scary around Vanessa.
But in June of 2018, she wasn’t around, and I had heard that Hereditary, which opened on June 8th, was my kind of horror movie, so the timing was perfect.
I went with my friend Dustin—a true horror aficionado—and we both loved it. And we were both left more or less stunned.
After the show, willfully ignoring that Cold Stone Creamery was about to close, I insisted that we walk across the street from the Cinemark Sugarhouse Movies 10 ostensibly so we could get some ice cream. Dustin was game and we sat together for a while outside, eating and talking.
It was like being on a date, and it sounds romantic, but really it wasn’t. Because this wasn’t about him or ice cream. It was about safety. Hereditary is a scary movie, and we were both more than a little rattled.
We talked for a while about the movie and then about some other movies and then about all of the other things that you talk about with people that you’ve known since the 7th grade, and when we both felt pretty thoroughly distracted from what we had just seen, he dropped me off at my place and I immediately walked through every room in my empty house and turned on every single light.
It was hard to calm down. I’d never really understood how Vanessa could be so scared by a show until that night. But I wasn’t scared in the ways that I would have expected. Or, at least, not in just those ways. Obviously, I’d turned all of the lights on because I wasn’t super interested in shadows anymore, and that’s the kind of thing that even in the moment embarrassed me because it was so cliché. But more than that, Hereditary had contaminated my world view: it was the lens through which everything was being processed and the result was that everything was now awful.
A Bunch of Quotations
Hereditary evokes a lot of the suffocating dread that somehow manages to seep beyond the movie due to Mr. Aster’s expert use of the conventions of his medium to complement these dreadful themes. According to Mr. Aster, “After a couple of months of unsuccessful scouting for a location that would cater to the shot list, we finally decided to build all the interiors ourselves, from scratch.”
Andrew Hodge, Salt Lake City-based location manager for Hereditary, told me that Utah Film Studios in Park City was available for use on the film, so while the exterior of the house was located in The Colony at the Canyons, the crew was able to “recreate part of the house set in [the studio].”
Mr. Aster elaborates, revealing that “every interior—the bottom floor, second floor, attic, and interiors of both a smaller tree house and a larger tree house for our final scene—were all built on a stage.”
And Mr. Hodge adds, “We matched the interiors we built to the actual location. We had live fire in some scenes that needed a controlled environment. … [Mr. Aster’s] camera angles and safety drove us to film in the studio.”
While Mr. Hodge’s account comments on the practicality of building the interior sets in the studio, Mr. Aster makes it clear why the “camera angles” mentioned by Mr. Hodge were so important for the film: they enhanced the thematic content: “Hereditary contains … shots with removed, life-size walls, which were shot at a great height in order to get as wide an angle as possible to dwarf the actors. This is part of the film’s aesthetic: to make the characters look and feel like dolls in a dollhouse.”
And this aesthetic is what makes the film more than just scary: it’s also hauntingly beautiful—emphasis on haunting. The characters look peculiarly small in the face of insanely outsized circumstances, and the smallness reinforces the idea of fragility—a fragility born of the perversion of family ties.
And, of course, as the characters look smaller and more vulnerable, the audience feels smaller and more vulnerable, too—unable to hide.
Mr. Aster’s vision for the film succeeds on practically every level. It’s scary but in a way that goes far beyond temporary thrills and instead settles into your bones, in no small part because of this extraordinary production design.
However, despite Mr. Aster’s careful artistry and its profound effects on the film and therefore the audience, the Utah Effect is what has made this movie something truly horrific in a way that I can’t imagine Mr. Aster ever anticipated.
The Reverse Utah Effect
Watching Hereditary, for me, has become like a nightmare version of a promotional commercial from the Utah Office of Tourism, and after watching the film, “Life Defiled” feels like a much more suitable slogan for our fair land than “Life Elevated.”
But I was unwilling to submit to this terror without a fight, and, so, I called up Dustin—the same poor idiot with whom I had originally seen Hereditary—and we set out in an attempt to reclaim what Ari Aster had stolen.
Our plan was simple: we would infuriate our wives by disappearing in the middle of the day on a Saturday, leaving them alone with children and chores and other responsibilities (one would suppose?), and more or less pointlessly drive around from one filming location to the next in an attempt to confront our fears and thus vanquish them or whatever.
I had high hopes that it would be incredibly psychologically productive except that not really.
Hereditary hops around a bit between the Salt Lake Valley and Summit County, quietly destroying each one and rebuilding it in its own Satanic image. Which is fun. But exhausting.
We decided to begin our odyssey in Summit County, a place beloved by virtually no one. Because it seemed like the least important objective and hardly worth saving, perhaps it would be a good place for a trial case: if confronting our fears here failed, at least it could not possibly get any worse.
Dustin and I drove to the gate of The Colony, home of the Graham House exterior, and briefly considered telling some elaborate lie to get inside. We rejected this plan almost immediately because neither of us are good liars and also, as committed as we were to exploring our psyches metaphorically by exploring these literal places, neither of us were feeling terrifically confident that this was a good idea.
Nevertheless, there we were, at the gate.
We could see almost nothing beyond the gate, which is a kind of blessing, really, as I won’t ever actually have to see this place, but, unfortunately, it is surrounded by gorgeous aspens that are unmistakably Utah aspens.
In the film, the house crouches quietly among the trees, the idyllic setting belying the unspeakable acts and betrayals that happen within.
In the same way that the Pando Aspen Grove of Utah has discreetly spread its roots over 106 acres, becoming the world’s largest living organism, Hereditary has subtly attached itself in my mind to every aspen in Utah, indirectly becoming immense and filling me with dread in places far removed from anything that could have been considered its source.
Park City is just kind of like that, one might say, but Hereditary gave it teeth.
And it weaponized treehouses, too.
Nestled in the aspens near the Graham home, a treehouse in the film provides the setting for the bonkers climax and pretty much immediately ruins every treehouse you’ll ever see again for the rest of your life. Andrew Hodge told me that “we built [the treehouse] for the film,” and, in a lot of ways, it makes the film. As the story unfolds, several shots reveal that the treehouse is somehow bigger on the inside than it is on the outside, and this logical impossibility breaks your mind, mirroring the way the film’s corruption of family breaks your heart.
Mr. Hodge’s revelation that the treehouse was built and subsequently dismantled just for the film should somehow deliver me from having to worry about it anymore. Just as the family’s house is hidden behind closed gates, the treehouse no longer exists; out of sight, out of mind. But, instead, the ghost of the treehouse remains, and wherever there are aspens, there it is, too. Impossibly, Hereditary’s treehouse has become every treehouse I see, each one promising that things are worse than they seem.
I have heard unsubstantiated rumors that the disassembled treehouse was eventually used to build someone’s planter boxes or chicken coops or something like that, and these rumors have extended its malevolence: it seeps into those objects, as well, tainting them. Vegetables, eggs—whatever is produced in this thing it will be evil, of that there can be no doubt, and now I can’t eat breakfast, anymore.
Dustin and I left The Colony and its death trees behind and made our way to the Utah Film Studios, just off of US Route 40, on the outskirts of Park City, where the Hereditary production built the interiors of the Graham home.
The Utah Film Studios occupy a blocky structure that is maybe the least sexy building I’ve ever seen. It’s frumpy and obtuse, the minivan of buildings. Which is fantastic: it is difficult to believe that anything creative or interesting could happen inside of it, which is important if one is trying desperately to pretend that nothing terrifying could happen inside of it, either.
Not unlike the comfort that I find in the inaccessibility of any view of the exterior of the home due to its location behind closed gates, or the disassembly of the treehouse, it is some relief to know that the interior of the house is a fiction with no chance of me somehow blundering into it someday, but, unsurprisingly at this point, this fact cuts both ways, too: because the interior of the house isn’t really anywhere, I find that it is, essentially uncontained; it is not confined to any one space and therefore the idea of it is somehow free to roam, and so I find myself thinking about it in any upscale neighborhood, not just in Park City, but in Salt Lake, too.
Wood paneling eats at me.
Of course, one location from the film that is confined to a particular place is the site of the untimely end of Charlie—Milly Shapiro’s character—: Richardson Flat Road. Andrew Hodge told me that they “had to install [their] own telephone pole for the decap,” which is one of the stranger things I’ve ever heard a real person say.
Richardson Flat Road is within walking distance of Utah Film Studios. It is not unlike dozens of roads on the outskirts of Park City or Kamas or Heber: rural-esque with somewhat underdeveloped infrastructure.
There are odd mounds of earth inexplicably piled up at odd intervals, and Dustin and I spent a ridiculous amount of time next to each one, comparing a still frame from the film to the skyline behind it until we were satisfied that we had found the exact spot where the telephone pole must have been.
Because this road is so typical of roads in the area and other country-ish roads in Utah, it’s not difficult to allow this particular road to become every road, and Mr. Hodge’s revelation that the telephone pole was installed just for the shot and then removed, manages to untether this location even further, encouraging the more impressionable among us to see every telephone pole as another opportunity for Satanic decapitation.
When I stood in the spot where the pole had been, what I’m coming to understand as the Reverse Utah Effect was strong enough that Dustin declined to have his picture taken there, too, and we were relieved to be on our way, but not before by standing there I had somehow become the pole and therefore some kind of passive murderer.
Just as I had expected, the healing was not happening.
Summit County is Summit County, though, and, as I mentioned earlier, I am a Salt Lake County kind of guy. So Dustin and I washed our hands of the place, happy to be gone, and headed back to Salt Lake. But you see where this is going: there is no escape. Leaving Park City for Salt Lake City provides no relief from Hereditary’s Reverse Utah Effect.
For instance, Ann Dowd’s character, Joan, lives in the Maryland in downtown Salt Lake City and is one of many examples of someone who appears to be friendly in this film but eventually is revealed to be anything but.
The Maryland is easy enough to find, and Dustin spent several minutes trying to convince me to stand in the middle of the road so my picture would match another still from the film. For all of the obvious reasons this seemed like a bad idea, and I was beginning to suspect that our quest to banish our demons was perhaps having the opposite effect: was Dustin trying to kill me? I declined to stand in the middle of the road.
The Maryland is one of my favorite buildings in Salt Lake City. It was built in 1912 and carries its age well, looking proud and well-established. Full of class. Though when I drive by it now, I am reminded of the obvious fact that all of my friends are most likely devil-worshipping, duplicitous snakes, which is a bummer.
Also downtown, and established in 1890, West High School is another building whose interior makes some appearances in Hereditary and is just gorgeous to look at—if you like looking at old buildings. And I do. And it is.
As Dustin and I walked around in front of the venerable edifice, I thought back to when I used to tutor at West High School. While the students had been fine, it was the building that stood out most in my mind—the building was to die for: Wide halls, tall ceilings, impressive staircases, and beautiful brickwork make it a pretty extraordinary place running over with history.
West High School is where Alex Wolff’s Peter Graham is a student, and as his life begins to really fall apart, West is the setting for some deeply disconcerting scenes involving self-harm and reflected images whose correspondence to reality is distressingly … off, tying together with other logic-bending imagery such as the mismatch between the perceived size of the treehouse and the actual size of the treehouse.
The malevolent version of Peter looking back at him from a glass pane often comes to mind as I go about my day, not at West, but in the building where I am a high school teacher, catching my own reflection from time to time in doorways and windows and remembering the sick feeling of wrongness that Mr. Aster conjures in yet another place that should be safe, yet, reflecting, perhaps, the growing concern of our time, isn’t.
While that feeling of wrongness is powerful in a school setting, one might assume that in a cemetery setting, its power is somewhat diminished by the recognition that here, at least, it’s more appropriate to be reminded of our mortality.
Near the conclusion of our journey, Dustin and I threw decency out the window and drove around and then walked around Larkin Sunset Gardens in Sandy until we were able to find the exact spot that Hereditary had used for a funeral scene.
Larkin Sunset Gardens provides a fine location for the film, but the Reverse Utah Effect takes over not because of this particular cemetery, but because of the prominent shot of the Wasatch Mountain Range in the background of a funeral scene, quietly commanding our attention and providing an imposing sense of anticipation as we watch the characters try to mourn in the foreground.
The mountains, in the Salt Lake Valley, are inescapable, and shots like this, emphasizing a kind of unavoidable, cosmic scale to everything around us, reduce everybody who lives here to the insignificant, reminding us of Mr. Aster’s description of the effect of the wide shots he was able to get from the artificial house interiors: Utahns become like the Graham family, “a set of dolls in a maligned dollhouse, manipulated by outside forces.” The Reverse Utah Effect commandeers the mountains and crushes us with them, reminding us, constantly, of our irrelevance and overwhelming even our most formidable defenses: I am not myself anymore; this is not my home anymore; this is not my family anymore.
As an Alta/Snowbird kind of guy, I always thought the worst part of our mountains must be that people actually ski in Park City, but, once again, Hereditary showed me that I know nothing about this place, that there are entirely different kinds of worsts that I had never considered.
But despite the omnipresence of the mountains, it is the location of the high school party to which Peter Graham takes his doomed sister Charlie that has come to represent the most offensive consequence of the Reverse Utah Effect.
Growing up in Holladay and Cottonwood Heights, for most of my life I have been surrounded by relative affluence. Beautiful people, working in fulfilling careers, and living in magnificent homes has always been normal for me, even if I, personally, haven’t always felt like I was on the inside of that world.
My family used to drive back and forth between Cottonwood Heights and Holladay to visit my grandmothers on the weekends. I always loved descending from the bench of the hills of Cottonwood Heights and into the tree-filled hollows of Holladay, straining through the windows of the family minivan to catch glimpses of marvelous homes hidden in the woods on the south end of Holladay Boulevard.
One of my favorite homes there has always been a very modern-looking home, reminding me of a stack of blocks.
I was always attracted to its status as both a marker of relative financial success but also disdain for the more conventional homes surrounding it. Its smart, bold design would always be more interesting than some of the larger, more predictably impressive (and expensive) homes around it, and this place knew it. And I loved that.
Most of us have an idea of what kind of place we’d like to end up in ideally—assuming that everything broke our way and all of the luck flowed in our favor—and, for me, this place was it.
Consistent with the Reverse Utah Effect, knowing that the innocuously named “Party House” (as it’s referred to in the list of locations that Andrew Hodge graciously sent me so that I could really make my editor mad with the sheer length and stupid thoroughness of this piece) was filmed in Utah had predictably made all modern-looking homes in Utah suspect, but, prior to visiting this location, not enough of the home had been visible in the film for me to comprehend just what, exactly, I was looking at.
I was surprised to see on my list of filming locations that this place was in Holladay. Movies really do create impressive illusions, and I had assumed that the Party House was in Park City like the exterior of the Graham house. But, no; Holladay.
Then I was surprised to see the address—it might actually be visible from the main road, a somewhat unsettling thought, considering the relative protection afforded by the gated community in Park City.
Dustin and I shot right past the house, not expecting to come upon it so quickly, and, reversing, discovered that after having already stolen Utah aspens, treehouses, planter boxes and chicken coops, wood paneling, country roads and telephone poles, the Maryland and West High School and by extension my own workplace, and, finally the mountains—my mountains—Ari Aster and Andrew Hodge and all of the other devils with whom they had conspired had stolen my dream.
The Party House, of course, is the same house that, for years, had represented all my aspirations, professional and personal.
The Party House, where, if it’s not already obvious to the audience by this point that everything in this film is going to go terribly, horribly, irreversibly wrong, it becomes incredibly, crystal clear as irresponsibility leads to an accidental allergic reaction and culminates in literal, appalling, predestined beheading.
The Party House.
My dream becomes my nightmare.
And I give you the Reverse Utah Effect. To Mike, from Ari Aster—with a bullet.
I can’t speak for Dustin, but it’s worth declaring that our little road trip was no match for the Reverse Utah Effect, and, if anything, Hereditary has only become more powerful in my mind.
My physical journey as a metaphor for self-discovery ended, as they always do, figuratively crashing and burning.
When someone destroys your world, in a way, it’s better if you can convince yourself that they did it for some specific reason. A causal relationship between victim and aggressor doesn’t make it less painful, but it does make it comprehensible: I wasn’t picked at random, but because I have an impressively girthy beard. I wasn’t picked at random, but because I have exceptional taste in porcelain horses. I wasn’t picked at random, but because I have the world’s largest collection of unopened condiment bottles.
Perhaps this is problematic reasoning—encouraging victims to accept some of the blame for something that was the product of another person’s malice—but sometimes even the problematic illusion of a plausible explanation can provide at least a sense of order.
As I lie awake at night, suspecting that my mom, like Toni Collette, is crawling in the shadows on the ceiling above me, possessed and waiting for an opportunity to burn my father alive and deliver me to her Satanic masters, I wonder if maybe Ari Aster hates families, and Utah, and me. I wonder if he came here specifically in order to make a movie that would steal from me the comfort and familiarity of my home. And I can almost convince myself that this makes sense and that it was meant to be.
Of course, when I surreptitiously asked Andrew Hodge if Hereditary’s production had settled in Utah due to “practical” concerns—read money—or for “artistic” reasons—read psychological torture—, he said, simply, “I think the film incentive was the main reason for Hereditary landing in Utah.”
In other words, it was an accident. Utah happened to offer the best deal. It could have been Oregon or Alabama, Texas or Montana, but, instead, chance lead them to the Beehive State.
It was essentially random.
Which is the worst horror of them all: the arbitrary nature of the coldness of the universe. Your successes and your failures have nothing to do with merit or the lack thereof; rather, they are the unintentional product of coincidence—at best.
It shouldn’t matter that Hereditary was filmed here, and, really, in the end, it doesn’t. Because nothing matters.
All is lost.
Congratulations, Utah; you win; and your suffering will mean nothing.
(Design: Josh Fowlke) (Editor: Rachel Swan)