Let me start by saying that the title of this piece isn’t really meant to be vituperative or condemning. In fact, the word “insidious” might be a little strong for the point I’m trying to make (but, hey, I liked the sound of the title, and it’s kind of my blog…so…there you go). I have made a critique of horror, before, on this blog, that the genre tends to be formulaic, that a truly original and artistic horror film, while possible (see The Witch, It Follows, etc.) is rare, and many horror films are startlingly similar. And this is true. But, far from continuing to condemn this tendency, in this post I’d like to celebrate the beauty of formula, when the director works well within a framework to create a really excellent film. In doing so, I guess I’ll sort of be suggesting that much of contemporary horror gets a bad rap from – not even, but especially – its most avid, enthusiastic followers, when it need not. A filmmaker can follow common horror tropes and eschew aiming for arthouse quality filmmaking without creating a bad film. I believe this because I’ve invested some time in watching really bad horror, and I avoid, for the most part, posting about it, because there’s no point in simply slandering someone else’s efforts on a blog when I have little if anything nice to say. So, today I praise Insidious. While it’s a movie that follows some typical horror conventions, it’s a really fantastic, scary, fun movie, and one that says a lot of interesting things about the ghost or the specter.
I have this observation, first of all, that American horror films generally employ what’s viewed as a pretty typical American middle/upper-middle class family –one with multiple children—or a group of snarky teenagers when constructing a base of main characters. Insidious is no different in this respect. Shortly after Renai and Josh Lambert (Rose Byrne and Patrick Wilson) move into a new house with their three kids, one of their sons, Dalton (Ty Simpkins), falls off a ladder and slips into a coma. When Renai starts witnessing bizarre events –a mysterious face behind her baby’s crib, small children – not her own – who skulk around in corners and run amuck – she expresses her fear to Josh. After much debate and at the suggestion of Josh’s mother, they hire clairvoyant Elise Reiner to intervene. She explains that Dalton has been astral traveling to the realm of the dead in his sleep and, sensing an empty vessel, the dead are now crowding his body to compete for entrance. At the helm of this effort is one insidious demon who’s trying to overtake Dalton. The family, then, must fight together to get Dalton back, a fight that includes entering into some uncomfortable territory.
So aside from the use of a “typical American” family (which is probably not at all typical in our current historical moment), there are a few other common tropes evident here. Clairvoyants, for one, often intervene in these horror situations (see Poltregeist), and Elise emphasizes that the house isn’t haunted; the child is. The child as vessel to the dangerous otherworld, or as the main object of attraction for a spirit or demon, is also an incredibly common horror trope. What’s more, Renai is startled by the events going on in the house, while Josh remains distant, aloof, and skeptical. For whatever one wants to say about gender depictions in contemporary American cinema, the use of an intuitive, frightening wife who is right and a husband who won’t listen and is wrong (ahem, Sinister, for example) sounds relatively familiar to me. To top it off, a lot of the most successful Blumhouse movies are similar in one other respect: They start off with a relatively rosy exposition (or, at least, a non-scary exposition), slowly escalate into a few minor bumps in the night, and then explode into the havoc and mayhem of what I’d call “otherworldly inundation”; it becomes a party of the supernatural, the evil entities are everywhere, and they’re basically taking over. So we get gradually more afraid throughout the entire film, and then, vis a vis the moment of explosion, we get a closer look at the spirit world, and – depending on our personal reaction and perhaps the film’s directing – we become either more afraid, or the otherworldly entities don’t seem so scary to us, anymore.
I’ve established, then, the tropes that weave together to form Insidious –which is a lot like The Conjuring, Sinister, and other effective movies, especially of the variety produced by Blumhouse. What I’d like to present, then, is a series of subpoints to my argument that this is a really fantastic film despite the use of formula. Here, then, are those subpoints: 1.) It’s a talent in and of itself to work well within a restrictive formula, or to deviate from it only slightly, and to execute a truly scary film, 2.) These films truly scare a lot of people –which is their primary goal, or they wouldn’t be as popular as they are, and 3.) In this particular film, the writers, directors, and producers do an excellent job working within conventions and relying on common horror formulas to piece different formulaic parts together and produce an excellent movie.
My first point, I’ll grant, is not wholly my own. I had a professor for a Victorian literature class who made the argument (without stating it this way) that it’s sometimes cliché to lambast the cliché. In other words, a lot of works of art operate within formulas and parameters, and rather than condemn the art for doing so, we should recognize that working within a framework requires its own set of skill and talent. To be sure, I enjoy works that feel very “original” to me, that disrupt or buck convention, but I think there’s some merit to this argument, too –an argument that we should appreciate convention and formula. One could, in a way, think of a certain set of contemporary horror films (often produced by Blumhouse) as akin to the Shakespearean or the Petrarchan sonnet. There are conventions to these pieces – thought not in the form of rhyme schemes, quartets, and couplets (or octaves and sestets), and some films that use these conventions well are going to flourish exceptionally, while others are going to flop, because tropes are overused and misused, and scares are poorly timed and conceived (there are Blumhouse movies, some which are less popular, that do this, too). But films like Sinister, The Conjuring, and Insidious –along with sequels—and even films like Women in Black, all employ typical horror conventions and do so effectively to both entice and scare their audiences.
Which leads me to my second point: I think if a horror film really scares a lot of people, then it’s hard to completely criticize all of its components, because it’s clearly doing its job. I’ll admit: I didn’t see Insidious in theaters. But I did see it this morning, when my horror-wary boyfriend, during one scene, in which a red-and-black masked demon appears unexpectedly behind Josh, yelled Oh Fuck me! Jesus Christ! And even having seen the movie before (he has, too) I leapt, from fright, a few times. What’s more, I’d put money on the fact that the theater for Insidious opening night was madhouse. If I’ve not talked about it before on this blog (and I probably have) experiencing a film like this in the theater is entirely different from watching it at home. People go so far as to engage in theatrics, at least in my hometown, during early theater viewings of popular horror films. Some individuals scream and shout out of legitimate fear; others yell expletives and one-liners just, I think, to entertain their fellow theater-goers. But the bottom line is, we get firsthand evidence that films like Insidious genuinely scare a lot of people. And since these are horror films, and scaring is the objective, we can hardly criticize films too harshly when they achieve this objective, even if they don’t measure up to the scare-factor and originality of a film like Kubrick’s The Shining.
Finally, though these films depend on popular horror conventions, Insidious, its sequels, and similar films, like The Conjuring, are legitimately good films. As I stated earlier, take a few minutes to watch a truly bad horror movie –one of the straight to DVD variety with gaping holes in its confusing plot –before critiquing a film like Insidious. From the standpoint of someone who (at least somewhat) aspires to write creatively, the script of Insidious is really excellent script-writing. It might not be Oscar worthy, but this is definitely a script written by master, expert writers who are adept at their craft, who create believable characters, who fuse a cohesive, sensible plot, and who manage to scare the hell out of an audience. I could probably only hope to ever write something like this story. It’s an excellent story. Couple this with the presence of an incredibly competent, creative director, James Wan, and the acting of Patrick Wilson and Rose Byrne, and you’re looking at an extremely talented group of people working together to produce a piece of art by using the skills they’re best at. A lot of effort goes into films like this, and in the end, at least when it comes to Insidious, I think there’s a lot of creativity and talent on display – all geared toward captivating an audience and scaring the hell out of them, a goal that’s met for a lot of viewers.
With all that said, I’d like to dive into a few more observations about the film, along with, perhaps, a few parts of the film that really intrigued me. First, this film is similar to a lot of contemporary horror in that it doesn’t seem content to wrestle with the ghosts or the demonic; instead, it approaches both, and sees both the living-dead (the ghost) and the demonic as dangerous entities often residing in the same space and working in tandem. True to what Jacques Derrida says about the specter in Specters of Marx, the ghosts in Insidious disrupt the binary between life and death (indeed, they exist in the realm of the dead and try to transgress it and inhabit living bodies) and they alter space and time; Elise describes the world of the dead as “around” the world of the living, as if they overlap and rupture typical rules of space. She further describes the realm of the dead as a timeless realm, a place that exists outside of time. But while the Derridean ghosts generally signal a sort of social injustice, we don’t see such things happening, I’d argue, in the first Insidious. The only injustice the ghosts face is their banishment from life on earth, a banishment into a sort of dark, still, quiet, macabre world that, in the film, looks like a really well-constructed funhouse. Insidious, I would argue, has some gender-based implications, but isn’t much a movie concerned about social injustice. There is a sense, on the other hand, that some sort of injustice is done to the dead who are banished from life, banished from any sort of heaven (which is never mentioned in the film) and forced to enter this lonely, dark world, a world defined by stasis instead of movement, since it’s rife with empty spots and completely unmoving figures of the presumably dead, or living-dead. Embedded in the script then is a sort of ancient Greek belief that the afterlife isn’t a place of infinite happiness, a reward and solace after life on earth (which tends to be a very Christian stance). Rather, it’s proof that life on earth is the ideal, and the world of the dead is a substandard realm that spirits don’t want to exist in (a very ancient-Greek belief).
What interests me most about these ghosts is that they don’t just “come.” The specter, in this film, does not randomly and haphazardly pursue its victim. Indirectly, the victim pursues the specter by astral projecting out of his body and travelling to another realm. And while many worlds of fantasy are places of light and dark, good and evil, imaginary places that are simultaneously dangerous and appealing, the world of the dead in Insidious is wholly unappealing. It is not a place of good and evil; it is a place of nothingness and evil, or evil and stasis. A place, at best, populated with relatively harmless dead bodies who don’t communicate or interact with each other, but a place, at worst, populated by the malevolent and diabolical. Indeed, in Insidious, the status “dead” is, to an extent, equated with evil, which is typical of many horror movies, and which reminds me of the little bit of The Faerie Queen that I read for the candidacy exam, in which the evil Archimego is in league with the God of sleep, whose name I believe is Morpheus, in line with myth and later influencing the name of the main character in The Matrix (although in the Matrix, Morpheus is not evil). On a new note, there’s a definite anxiety about borders in this film, too. Characters frequently talk about the dead entering our realm, or the danger of the dead transgressing our borders and coming into our world. As I’ve stated in other posts that in our culture, it seems, there should be a clear separation between life and death, and when that dividing line is accosted, we get a little scared, a little antsy, to say the least.
Finally, I think the person who’s most closely linked with the specter becomes a specter in this movie. After all, the specter is typically disembodied (though not in this film, necessarily); in other words, it’s conceived of as a spirit without a hard, physical body. Dalton, in this film, astral projects out of his body and lands permanently in the realm of the dead, leaving his essentially empty body on earth in a coma like state, and thus becoming a disembodied spirit. And if we might ask, “can the dead speak?” – do the dead have a voice in the films we watch, what are they saying, and what are the implications of their speech – we could ask the same of Dalton, who can only speak to the living through the help of mediums, in a ceremonial setting, and who even then gets interrupted by the diabolical force who overtakes him. But if Dalton is a ghost, the realm he enters is not like the realm of all ghosts in Hollywood history. While, in Poltergeist, a mother must go into the land of the dead and save her daughter (they come out, incidentally, covered in after-birth-like goo heavily associated with ‘that which is abject’) in this film the father goes into the realm of the dead to save his son, providing a gender inversion of the original, defining 80’s film on the spiritual world. It is interesting, to me, that when the father goes in to save his son, there is no slime or goo, nothing gross or unappealing. We never see the ghostly world in Poltergeist, but we can safely assume it’s much different from the one in Insidious.
Finally, I think we glimpse a bit of the mad monster in this film. I’ve written before about the mad monster, who I often define as a sort of psychopathic individual who preys on vulnerable bodies, often without any conscience or self-questioning. What’s interesting to me is that in movies like Silence of the Lambs and The Cell, the mad monster has a sort of lair; a scary place sequestered from society, often filled with creepy dolls and other accoutrements. While we never get to know the demon in the first Insidious as a person – indeed, we know nothing about his back story – when we see him in the other world, the realm of the dead (Elise calls it “the further”), he’s living in a strange little room that overlooks solid ground (he is above ground, while many mad monsters are below ground), sitting by himself, sharpening his claws, surrounded by creepy dolls. In a sense, then, the demon is a sort of inhuman, demonic version of the mad monster that I talk about on my blog. Indeed, giving him his own material place separates him from the other ghosts in the realm and almost humanizes him, as he becomes in a sense defined by his place, defined by the room of his own –you know, to get all Virginia Woolf about it. Because we get this vaguely humanizing scene of him (paradoxically) sharpening his claws and surrounded by his weird possessions, perhaps my one critique of the film is that we should know more about this demon, that he should become a more prominent character with a back story. I’m not sure if the flow of the plot would allow for that change, but it would be interesting.
I will use the fact that I’ve written four pages on this film to further underscore my point; there’s so much more to say about Insidious because it’s a really well-made film. In my countdown to the fourth Insidious that will appear in theaters soon (Insidious: The Last Key) I really want to emphasize what’s excellent about these films, what merit they possess, instead of slandering them for being formulaic. While I’m not above criticizing pieces on this blog, my tendency, I’ve realized, is to try to rescue the horror film, to elucidate why something that’s getting a fair bit of criticism really isn’t as bad as its detractors would have you believe. Insidious, I would argue, works within a lot of tried and true formulas –or, if you will, employs a lot of popular, successful horror tropes—effectively, through excellent writing, acting, directing, and producing. It furthermore does more creative things with the demon (or mad monster), the otherworld, the ghost, and the tenuous boundary between life and death. Most importantly, it scares the hell out of a lot of people. For that reason, I stand behind the film, and, if I may be so bold, I highly suggest you re-watch the series with me before #4 comes out in theaters.