The Strange Thing About the Johnsons

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The Strange Thing About the Johnsons
The Strange Thing About the Johnsons (2011) poster.jpg
Promotional poster
Directed byAri Aster
Produced byAlejandro De Leon
Written byAri Aster
StarringBilly Mayo
Brandon Greenhouse
Angela Bullock
Music byBrendan Eder
CinematographyPawel Pogorzelski
Edited byBrady Hallongren
Release date
  • January 22, 2011 (2011-01-22)
Running time
29 minutes
CountryUnited States

The Strange Thing About the Johnsons is a 2011 American short film written and directed by Ari Aster.[1][2] The film stars Billy Mayo, Brandon Greenhouse, and Angela Bullock as members of a suburban family in which the son is involved in an abusive incestuous relationship with his father.

The short was Aster's thesis film while studying at the American Film Institute's graduate school in California,[3] and later screened at film festivals in 2011, premiering at the Slamdance Film Festival in Utah on January 22, before it leaked online in November and went viral. The story was first conceived while discussing taboos with his friends, including Greenhouse, before Aster's first year at AFI.[4] He worked on the production with fellow students from the school.


Sidney Johnson, an acclaimed poet, accidentally interrupts his twelve-year-old son, Isaiah, masturbating. He apologizes and reassures him that the act is natural. Sidney does not realize that Isaiah had been masturbating to a photograph of him.

Fourteen years later, during Isaiah's wedding reception, Isaiah's mother Joan discovers Isaiah about to perform fellatio on a distressed Sidney. While Joan is in the shower, Sidney leaves a typed memoir under her pillow, Cocoon Man: Confessions by Sidney Johnson, which chronicles the years of sexual abuse he has endured at the hands of his son. Isaiah discovers the memoir before Joan can see it and confronts Sidney, telling him he will burn the memoir and warning him not to make more.

While Sidney is taking a bath, Isaiah breaks down the locked door and assaults Sidney. Joan hears the struggle, but raises the volume of the television. Isaiah climbs off his father adjusting his pants. The next day, Sidney removes a secret copy of Cocoon Man from underneath the floorboards and attempts to leave the house with it, leading to another confrontation with Isaiah. Sidney runs into the street where he is struck and killed by a van.

After Sidney's funeral, Joan asks Isaiah why Sidney cried for hours in the bathroom after Isaiah's prom night ten years prior. Their argument escalates into a physical fight, and Joan kills Isaiah with a fire iron. She throws Cocoon Man into the fire.



The team began work on the project during Aster's time at the American Film Institute's graduate school, AFI Conservatory, for his thesis film. The idea behind the short had arisen from a discussion with some friends about taboo topics, during the summer preceding his first year at AFI. Brandon Greenhouse, who plays Isaiah, had previously worked on projects with Aster and was there since conception.[4]

The short was shot on 35mm film.[5] He described the script as being "a bit of an uphill battle to make it there politically",[3] stating:


After the short film was released online, it went viral, garnering a polarized reaction due to its controversial themes.[7][4] Ivan Kander of the website Short of the Week wrote that the comments on YouTube had "everything from effusive acclaim to disgusted vitriol. In terms of the internet, that means it's a hit."[5]

The film also garnered controversy for its portrayal of an African American family by a white filmmaker.[7] Director Ari Aster stated that "the color of the family isn't important. We certainly assumed that casting black actors in a film that tackles such transgressive themes would create something of a stir, and it would be a lie to say that we weren't hesitant, especially as many people were advising us against the decision."[4]

As an African American incest and molestation survivor, Malcolm Harris of The Huffington Post wrote that Billy Mayo's performance was "brilliant" and that "we should be applauding the fact that someone has finally shown true courage in proposing the question, 'What If? What if these strange events were happening behind the closed doors of the Smiths, the Rosenbergs, the Mortimers, the Herreras? What if these strange things were happening to me?'"[7]


  1. ^ "Fantastic Fest 2013 Short Film Lineup Announced". Daily Dead. September 4, 2013. Retrieved February 18, 2017.
  2. ^ "For Discussion: The Strange Thing About The Johnsons Asks & Answers "TABOO" Question… [FULL VIDEO]". Straight From The A. December 2, 2011. Retrieved February 18, 2017.
  3. ^ a b "Complicated Grief: Ari Aster on Hereditary's Family Nightmare". Filmmaker. June 11, 2018. Retrieved September 1, 2018.
  4. ^ a b c d Emmanuel Akitobi (November 28, 2011). "The Strange Thing About The Johnsons Director Ari Aster Talks To Shadow & Act About His Provocative & Controversial Short Film". IndieWire. Retrieved February 18, 2017.
  5. ^ a b Ivan Kander (August 10, 2012). "The Strange Thing About the Johnsons". Short of the Week. Retrieved February 18, 2017.
  6. ^ "Interview: Ari Aster". May 1, 2018. Retrieved September 1, 2018.
  7. ^ a b c Malcolm Harris (December 19, 2011). "What's So Strange About the Johnsons?". HuffPost. Retrieved February 18, 2017.

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