The truth is, many sincere, devout, well-meaning Christians, who think of themselves as post-Enlightenment, consider the devil to be a concept in scripture that needs interpreting in its cultural context. In other words, they don’t really believe in demons, especially the fiery red caricatures with horns and a tail which 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 school teacher, 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, and 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 suddenly snap out of it. Here’s where Director James Wan expertly weaves in those nerve-tingling moments. Their younger son says that 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 “Insidious” does 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: her 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 just a little comic relief, and then this overly-friendly grandma medium, Elise (Lin Shaye), who immediately declares that it isn’t the house that’s haunted, it’s their son.
We Biblicists who wonder how a demon possession actually takes place are interested in this explanation of how the “spirit” or “soul” of a person gets displaced, somehow, and wanders off into another realm, which leaves 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 a live 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/crawly viewing experience, and an 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.
Dr. Ronald P. Salfen, Co-Pastor, United Presbyterian Church, Greenville , Texas