Insidious Lighting Schemes
Mystics, philosophers, and theologians have debated this for centuries, but as yet have little to show for it. For a while great hope was put on a tunnel of light leading to a lost childhood pet, but most now recognize this to be a defensive form of sentimentality triggered by oxygen deprivation.
Happily, a recent motion picture has decided to advance the ball on these metaphysical debates, demonstrating once again that the cinema is the only truly useful machine for imagining what we imagine things that are unimaginable might be like.
The movie in question is Insidious (2010), part of the recently resurgent cycle of supernatural horror films now haunting the world's cineplexes and Netflix queues.
|This ghost is grainy and hard to see, thus probably "real."|
During the first half of Insidious, it appears the filmmakers will simply capitulate to copying Paranormal Activity, albeit on better film stock. There's a family. There's a house. There's a vibe. Things happen. It's effective as far as young photogenic families menaced by fake ghouls and staged demons go, but after Paranormal Activity, the viewer is left thinking: "Is that all there is to a haunting? Is that all there is?"
As a momentary misdirect, Insidious moves the action to another house (thus speaking to the true horror of middle-class existence--the family must sell their house "short" just to get away from whatever is bumming out Mom. Here the ghosts become a surrogate for toxic mold or the new neighbors next door unpacking their jet-skis and confederate flags). Needless to say, the demon brigade follows them to the new home and before we know it the family's young son has lapsed into a mysterious coma.
We are told the son is not in a coma, but has instead allowed his "astral body" to wander away during a dream. The prospects of a vacant meat-bag are so tempting to the wayward ghosties that they are now hovering around the boy's body in the hopes of taking up occupancy. Meanwhile, the boy's "astral body" (or "soul" to the none-psi crowd) is being held captive in "The Further," a sort of limbo where ghosts and demons hang around looking for trouble. What a mess!
|"Be right back, kid. Promise me you won't touch that candle."|
Insidious does not necessarily subscribe to Catholic theology; still, it is a very unfair universe in my opinion when a little kid can inadvertently wander around through astral projection, get astral-kidnapped by a demon, and thereby endanger the lease on his terrestrial meat-body. If there are demons capable of doing this, then those things in the universe that are not demons--angels, sprites, astral social-workers--should really come up with a better plan for astral childcare.
At any rate, the decision is made. Dad will astral-wander his way into "The Further" to find his son.
And here is the bonus material that promises at last to distinguish Insidious from Paranormal Activity. Bound as it is to the CCTV aesthetic, Paranormal Activity has no plausible way of venturing into the beyond. While the films are tremendous at capturing the vaguely supernatural menace of an errant pool sweeper, they have no ontological authority to pierce the mortal veil and look across into the Other Side. But a film camera, one unbound by static mounts and lo-fi imaging, portends a mystical journey into the great beyond.
Now here is something strange: Gas-mask lady puts Dad in a chair to hypnotize him, thus making it easier for him to activate his wandering astral body. This all goes smoothly, and soon Dad is out of his own body, looking back at himself in the chair (below).
Astral-Dad begins his journey. As his meat-body occupies the foreground in an hypnotic trance,
Astral-Dad walks behind the chair and toward the front door. Note the small dot of light at the left side of the frame (below).
Astral-Dad gets to the door and reaches toward the light. It appears to be a lantern. It is a lantern. Astral-Dad picks it up and proceeds outside into the blackness of "The Further" (below).
A thorough review of the footage leading up to this shot has determined that there is no "real" lantern sitting by the real door in the real world--this isn't a case of every material object in reality having an Astral-double in "The Further." No, some Astral-somebody conveniently put this lantern by the door specifically for use in the Astral world.
Why is a lantern needed? Turns out "The Further" is a dark, foggy place, or at least large swaths of it are. Astral-Dad needs a lantern to see his way through the void. More to the point, a lantern is needed to illuminate Astral-Dad so that we can see him wandering through said void. We might say, then, that this Astral-lantern has both narrative and stylistic functions--it is an appropriately spooky light source for this spooky world, and necessary as a means of making this narrative space more suspenseful by confining it to a roving pool of light (in other universes, perhaps Astral-Dad takes a flashlight or some of those glowing rave-stick things). Still...where did this lantern come from? Within the diegesis, this lantern remains wholly unexplained and thus unmotivated. It simply "materializes" (albeit immaterially) on the precipice that apparently separates the family living room from the great abyss outside.
What then, finally, does the afterlife look like--or at least that shitty enclave where ghosts and demons hang around waiting to squat someone's soul? Below I have diagrammed Insidious' conception of "The Further" as best as I can reconstruct it from available textual evidence. As you can see, "The Further" appears to consist of relatively in tact yet dim suburban homes separated by a great expanse of foggy black voidness.
No sooner has Astral-Dad left his current domicile than his circuitous wanderings bring him into contact with a kid in pajamas pointing at their old house. This is where a former member of Gwar is holding the Astral-Son hostage.
I think the film privileges the second theory inasmuch as we eventually see this demon primping in front of a mirror, sharpening his nails on a whetstone while listening to "Tip Toe Through the Tulips." He clearly has a flair for the dramatic.
Before Astral-Dad can have it out with fire demon, however, we first witness a little vignette that explains why the first house was so haunted. Astral-Dad wanders into his old living room to see a family from the 1940s caught in an eternal hell-loop of repressed ironing that somehow leads to them all getting a shot-gun blast from the lead guitarist in that old Rrriot Girl video from the 1990s that ripped off Dr. Sardonicus.
Later, Astral-Dad sees the entire ironing/shotgun blast family at the top of the stairs, smiling eerily as an ensemble (below).
Adjust your expectations accordingly.