In other words, they don’t really believe in
demons, especially the fiery red caricatures with horns and a tail that are typical of
medieval art. But the irony is that there are horror/exorcism films, like “Insidious,”
that take the devil very seriously indeed, and perhaps not just as supernatural fodder
for a creative script.
Josh Lambert (Patrick Wilson) and his pretty wife Renai (Rose Byrne) have three cute
little children, two boys and a baby girl. He’s a schoolteacher and she’s home with
the kids while trying to do a little songwriting on the side. They’ve just moved to a
cozy house in the suburbs. Renai is busy unpacking the boxes, but she begins to notice
that things aren’t where she thought they were, or not where she left them, or missing
entirely. At first, she thinks her boys are playing pranks on her, but then she starts
seeing, out of the corner of her eye, shadowy figures suddenly appear and disappear.
Then her older boy, Dalton (Ty Simpkins), doesn’t wake up one morning. He’s not
dead, and he’s not in a coma, he just—doesn’t respond. The doctors are baffled, and
so is the family, but they bring Dalton back to his room and hire home health nurses to
look in on him, hoping he will snap out of it.
Here’s where director James Wan expertly weaves in those nerve-tingling moments.
The couple’s younger son says he sees Dalton walking around after everyone’s asleep.
The baby wakes up in the middle of the night screaming for no apparent reason.
Doors slam closed, floorboards creak, frightening apparitions appear as reflections in
windows. This film expertly produces some creepy, skin-crawling moments.
Oftentimes, this is where the horror genre breaks down. As soon as the monster is
fully revealed, he becomes less threatening, and sometimes even unintentionally
comic, because he is such an unvarnished caricature. What the creators of “Insidious”
do at this point is break out into a little Greek mythology, a little supernatural
dimension-hopping, and somehow throw in a tribute to “Ghostbusters” while they’re
at it. When Renai starts seeing devil images, she calls a priest, a seemingly nice guy
who has no idea what to do. (So much for the usefulness of parish clergy.)
Help finally arrives from an unlikely source. Renai’s mother-in-law, Lorraine
(Barbara Hershey), has been hiding some significant information: When Josh was a
little boy, there were some translucent, Sheol-like underworld figures trailing him,
which only became visible in photographs. Josh, as an adult, only remembers that he
doesn’t like having his picture taken. But now Lorraine shows Renai the disturbing
photos and tells her that there is a certain team of channelers experienced in “The
Further” realm. When they arrive at the haunted Lambert house, there are a couple
of young techno-nerds who provide a little comic relief. Then an overly-friendly
grandma medium, Elise (Lin Shaye), declares that it isn’t the house that’s haunted, it’s
the Lamberts’ son.
We biblicists who wonder how demonic possession actually takes place may find
ourselves intrigued by this explanation of how the “spirit” or “soul” of a person
gets displaced and wanders off into another realm, leaving the living body vacant
and available for possession. Is this what Jesus meant when he talked about how
an exorcized demon could then wander the desert wastelands and bring back seven
other demons worse than himself? (Luke 11:24-26) Or how about when the demons
named Legion asked Jesus to let them inhabit the herd of pigs, which then promptly
ran down the hill and drowned in the sea? (Mark 5:1-20) The shadowy figures in the
netherworld presented here are reminiscent both of the séance of Samuel (I Samuel
28) and an exhibit in a wax museum. But in the end, even the exorcized devil still has
to end up somewhere.
Ah, so much supernatural mystery, and this film bravely seeks to enter a darkly
spiritual realm where few rational filmmakers dare to tread. Sure, there are holes
in the logic, and probably defects in the theology, as well, at least from an orthodox
Christian point of view. However, “Insidious” is both a creepy viewing experience
and a conceptual challenge to everyone’s assumptions about the reality of the unseen
in the midst of the seen, and the invisible hovering around the visible.
Ronald P. Salfen is co-pastor of United Presbyterian Church, Greenville, Texas.