A Filmmaker's Guide to the Horror Techniques Used in 'Insidious'

by Annie Kapur 2 years ago in how to

Study, Experience and Analysis

A Filmmaker's Guide to the Horror Techniques Used in 'Insidious'

(Note: this article will feature analysis on the first instalment of the "Insidious" franchise and it is recommended that in order to get the best insight that you have watched the first instalment at least once over).

Insidious is a great franchise to watch if your want is to study modern horror because it has so much to work with. The first installment to the franchise may not be the best one, but it definitely got the ball rolling towards the others. When it comes down to it, the first one's aim was to establish the entire situation so that it could be pulled apart for the second, seen as a future event in the third and finally, pulled apart again by the fourth. Here are the themes we will cover:

- Haunting

- Darkness

- Normality

Let's have a look at the film then:


Hauntings are basically the prime events of most horror films, and have a stronghold to establish links between characters by showing how characters protect each other from the malevolent spirits. In Insidious, it is even more emotional, being that the haunting happens to a small child who has apparently slipped into some sort of spiritual coma. Through the latter part of the film we learn that this is, in fact, a sort of curse/gift passed down by the boy's father and that only the father can actually bring the child back. Let's have a look at the film's portrayal of this:


When we watch the film, we realise that apart from a creature that looks like Darth Maul, there seems to be a very confused Patrick Wilson through most of it. This is a hint because he looks as if he's trying to remember something very important, and only when he's prompted to can the audience really see what's gone wrong. The Darth Maul-esque creature we see behind him is taunting the family about the taking of their son.

The frame is interesting because this character (as many believe) is supposed to represent the Devil and, it appears directly behind the characters that can actually get to wherever the person is trapped, this is why if you watch the third film he appears behind Elise.

This is also different than most horror films as you'd see this character normally appear in a dark place, but because of the way the character is designed, you would not be able to see them. Therefore, the character appearing in a well-lit location would be far more effective. The haunting is thus suggested as happening almost all of the time.


Darkness is possibly the greatest theme in all of horror ever and is mostly used to create the effect of the unknown. In the film Insidious, it is there to heighten the unknown rather than create it. We have the father enter the realm in which the son is trapped, it is fairly lit and then, when he is on the way back, it becomes darker and darker as he no longer knows what is happening. Therefore, the darkness only heightens the uncertainty—it is a very modern way of doing things and would be highly effective if you were setting your horror film in a suburban area to create the emptiness required for the film. Let's have a look at the film then:


In Insidious, darkness is used for a heightened feeling of the unknown and, in the new dimension it happens to be 30 percent set in, that is no exception. In these frames we have such a dark atmosphere that sometimes, it's difficult to actually see what's going on. It is only when we have a focused light source that we can see it, and this definitely means there'll be a jump scare or two to look out for.

Just look at the frame above—we have a character holding a focused light source that probably doesn't work very well, to another character's face. One of the characters is static for the effect of representing the other realm. One of the characters is dressed in older clothing to represent the other realm, and one of the characters is completely unaware of what is going on. This all comes before the aspect of darkness heightens the emotion of uncertainty. As the audience, we have no idea what this character is there for and what they're going to do, but the character with the light source seems to also be unsure as he peers at the facial expression of the static character.

A rule for using darkness in any horror film is to make sure it has some meaning. Make sure that the darkness is reasoned and isn't just a coincidence, because then it starts to look less realistic. You need to have the darkness add something to the scene apart from the fact that it's just dark.


Normality and abnormality are the prompts that move the film towards the "horror". This is because it is first the shift in the atmosphere that moves us from normality to abnormality. The more frequent the abnormality becomes the further we are along the line towards the main event of the film. In Insidious, there is a constant shift in the normality, which makes it less likely to predict when the build up to the main event is actually going to happen unless you've watched all the movies in the franchise. Let's have a look at the film then:


The normality is shifted most when the parents find the child's room a complete mess with the child actually on the floor, still unconscious. The various times that this is built up to in the film show us that it is, in fact, the child that is being haunted by these evil spirits and this scene is the one that is supposed to confirm it for everyone.

If you look at the frame carefully, you'll be able to see the handprint on the cloth. These are bloodied, representing the abnormality of the situation as handprints are not normally in blood unless there is some sort of danger being made evident by the film.

It is important to remember that this is a good idea if done once or twice, but if overused it can become cliché and expected. This film uses it once in a small case to represent abnormality and then here, to a much harsher extent in order to heighten that abnormality. So make sure you always check the frequency of how this shift is done and how much something is used to do so.


Therefore, we can say that Insidious has a number of great things to analyse. If you want to do your own explorations into the film, you could analyse the following themes:

- Children

- The Demonic

- Lighting

Hopefully we are on the same page and I have helped you in your explorations into the first installment of the Insidious film. Good luck on your next project!

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Annie Kapur
Annie Kapur
Read next: Run Necromancer
Annie Kapur

Film and Writing (M.A)

Writer: "Filmmaker's Guide"

Focus: Adaptation from Literature, Horror Filmmaking Styles and Auter Cinema

Instagram: @anniethebritindian

See all posts by Annie Kapur