How Insidious changed horror movies and no one noticed

In 2011 director James Wan and writer Leigh Whannel released a modest little horror film called Insidious. Starring Rose Byrne and Patrick Wilson, the film tells the story of a family who moves into a haunted house… only to soon realize that it's not the house that's haunted. The film was a runaway hit. It ended up being the most profitable movie of 2011 and spawned an entire series covering the history of the characters and world the original film introduces. In the years since its release, the horror genre has experienced a modern renaissance, with movies like It Follows and Get Out setting a new high bar for what a horror movie is capable of today. Insidious is very much the film that paved the way for this. It elevated mainstream horror in the eyes of viewers and quietly changed the modern genre entirely. In fact, it was so subtle about doing so you may have failed to even notice it happened. Here's how Insidious changed horror movies and no one noticed.

Horror: not just for kids anymore

It doesn't seem too long ago that horror was viewed as an infantile genre. The horror landscape of the mid-aughts (and if we're being honest, much of the '80s and '90s) was heavily populated by lousy slashers, middling original movies, and a litany of lousy franchise reboots and installments. The genre very much felt like it had no audience outside high school students looking for something to do on a Friday night.

Insidious changed that. It was the first horror movie in quite some time to feel like it catered to a wider demographic. Sure, it has all the scares you want out of a fun Friday night at the movies, but there's more to it than that. The film boasts a tight family dynamic and a maturity that makes it just as enjoyable to adults looking for horror with some weight to it as it does the younger crowd. Since then, we've seen a generation of horror that aims to please a wider audience, to be more mature and thoughtful that its predecessors. 

James Wan's comeback

There aren't many horror directors who can lay claim to redefining a genre not once, but twice. James Wan is one of them. Wan's Saw, for better or for worse, defined a generation of horror. It propelled gore-heavy cinema to the mainstream and spawned a juggernaut of a franchise that is still going to this day. However, after Saw, Wan petered out a bit. Dead Silence and Death Sentence weren't particularly well received, and the once-promising director lost a good bit of momentum.

Then Insidious came along and changed everything. The film's great box office performance and killer critical reception propelled Wan to the head of the horror genre again. In the years since he's directed a second Insidious film, two installments of The Conjuring, and even stepped outside the genre to direct the mega-blockbuster Furious 7. Next he's dipping his feet into the pool of the DC Extended Universe with Aquaman. It's quite the career resurgence, and it all started with a modest haunted house movie. 

Haunted property values

Haunted house stories are a cornerstone of the horror genre. Many of the great horror films of all time, from The Shining to The Amityville Horror, fall into the category. It taps into our primal human fear that someplace sacred to us, a place where we're supposed to be safe, has been violated by forces outside our control. Horror in the mid-aughts, however, largely moved away from haunted houses. The focus skewed far more toward slashers and gore-centric horror, with the tried and true haunted house movie falling by the wayside.

With Insidious came a return to the subgenre. Insidious reinvigorated the haunted house film, taking it in a bold new direction (it's not technically the house that's haunted) and inspiring others to do so. Had the film not been so successful, we may not have gotten The Babadook, The Conjuring, or We Are Still Here. Insidious didn't just start its own great haunted house franchise, but allowed for others to get their chance to do so.

Fresh narrative blood

Unlike slasher flicks, haunted house movies tend to require an air of seriousness. They rarely wink at the camera or invite viewers to make fun of them. In the wake of the Scream franchise, horror leaned into this sort of meta-awareness, making movies that lended themselves to parody or intentionally didn't take the subject matter seriously. This is easy when making a movie about dumb college kids getting hacked up by a madman, but it's a little harder when your story focuses on a family experiencing trauma. Self-serious horror became easy to ridicule, and Insidious tackles this problem head on.

One of the most common critiques of haunted house movies is the idea that it's unbelievable that if a house were so blatantly haunted, the main characters would stay there. It's a fair critique, one that Insidious also addresses. What starts as a typical haunted house movie soon turns to astral projection and a fight for the soul of a child. The family actually moves into a new home halfway through the movie, but it doesn't stop. It's a brilliant handling of a played-out trope, one that has inspired innovative horror for the better part of a decade now. Since then, films like The Babadook have centered hauntings not around houses, but far more inescapable factors. 

Scary good acting

Horror was once a genre that attracted stellar actors. The great Donald Pleasance appeared in the Halloween franchise. Donald Sutherland's turn in Invasion of the Body Snatchers is similarly stellar. Jack Nicholson in The Shining, Margot Kidder in The Amityville Horror, the list goes on and on. But by the time the aughts rolled around, the genre had become so steeped in schlock that bad acting was to be expected. No respectable actor wanted to be associated with the umpteenth Friday the 13th film or the latest remake of a Japanese horror flick.

Insidious turned the tables on this entirely. The film features a genuinely great cast turning in wonderful performances. Patrick Wilson shines as the family patriarch, while Rose Byrne turns in a powerful and potent performance as a mother fighting for the life of her son. Barbara Hershey rounds things out as Wilson's mother. It was delightfully refreshing, and grounded the film in some empathetic human performances. Since then we've seen plenty of well-regarded actors appearing in films like Get Out, The Conjuring, and A Quiet Place. It even goes for the bad ones these days: Winchester may have been lousy, but at least Helen Mirren is in it.

The return of real horror

It feels strange to say this considering that we're talking about a horror movie, but the most notable thing Insidious does well is… scare you. The film isn't concerned with making you laugh or cry. It doesn't trade in cheap thrills and tacky gore. It wants to scare you, and it does so extremely effectively. Insidious is terrifying, and when it was released, it'd been a while since a mainstream scary movie had any good scares at all.

It beautifully utilizes jump scares, tension, and atmosphere to create moments that genuinely frighten. Since then, genre fans have been treated to a series of all-time great horror films that scare just as much as they entertain. These days, real scares are expected. They're the norm. We have Insidious to thank for reminding us that while it's forgettable fun to watch a bunch of teens get diced up by a maniac, it's truly memorable to watch a movie that makes you care about its characters and world and, given this, scares you half to death when everything starts to go wrong. 

Goodbye to gore

The horror of the aughts largely consisted of gore. From torture-heavy flicks like Saw and Hostel to the Final Destination franchise (which is literally a series of films about people dying in increasingly ridiculous ways), we came to associate horror with gore. It's remarkable considering how many great horror films of old are comparatively tame. The Shining and The Exorcist certainly have their gross moments, but the fear doesn't come from excessive mutilation.

Insidious called back to those films and reminded audiences that blood isn't scary — it's what leads up to it. It thrives in its quiet moments that lead up to a big (bloodless) scare, and modern horror cinema followed suit. These days, you're far less likely than you were ten years ago to find a gross set piece centered around chainsaw dismemberment. You're far more likely to get a calculated, well-crafted scare sequence that sticks with you far longer than a gratuitous beheading. Horror has long since moved past that era, and even if no one noticed at the time, Insidious helped it get here.

It made horror look good again (literally)

Some of the greatest cinematography of all time can be found in horror classics. From The Shining's morbid symmetry to The Texas Chain Saw Massacre's grit, there was a time when horror was a real visual treat. Somewhere along the way, we moved away from that. It's understandable. Horror is the only genre in which what's most important is offscreen. It's what could be in the closet, what might be hiding in the attic. Maybe it's only natural that the focus on making horror look beautiful would fade.

Insidious reminded horror fans that they can have it both ways. The film is plenty scary and beautifully utilizes the rule of fright coming from what isn't seen, but it's also gorgeously shot. Jon Leonetti and David Brewer's camerawork and framing are wonderfully composed, and the color grading is integral to its tone and its terror. Since then, we've seen some of the most beautiful horror films ever shot grace screens. Raw, The Witch, and The Guest are among the best, beautiful films that don't forget the artistry of visuals. These days it's tough to not step outside of the horror of a great jump scare and admire just how well it's been shot and lit. 

A generation's horror thesis statement

Horror is a genre through which people process their greatest anxieties. The generation raised on the original slasher boom was a post-Vietnam one, a culture dealing with an influx of veterans who had experienced severe trauma and had no idea what to do with it. The Satanic Panic of the '70s and '80s resulted in exorcism and possession films. Generation X processed its lack of direction or a concrete cause through horror that was intentionally aimless and instead lampooned itself. No one noticed at the time, but it was in Insidious that an entire generation's thesis statement begun.

The Insidious era is one struggling with the idea of inherited trauma. It's the post-Iraq War, post-recession generation, a culture of young adults forced to grapple with the fact that past generations have left a massive mess for them to clean up. This, combined with advances in mental health leading to more frequent diagnoses of depression and anxiety, results in a generation of horror films that focus on inherited trauma. The son in Insidious isn't haunted randomly — he's inherited his ability to astral project from his father, and now his life is in jeopardy. The sins of the past have returned, and a child is left to deal with the consequences. The same theme is present in It FollowsThe BabadookGet Out, and every great horror film in between. Insidious is where it all began, and it shows no signs of slowing down.

Opening the door to a shared universe

These days, every studio wants their own cinematic universe — and will find any excuse to create one, no matter how contrived. From superhero properties to an attempt to create a shared universe for the Universal Horror Monsters, it's the hottest thing in film right now. Outside of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, though, you'd be hard-pressed to find many that have truly worked. Surprisingly, one of the more successful is the universe woven around The Conjuring, which has, through sequels and spinoffs, created a tightly-woven tapestry of horror that functions as a contained fictional world. It's a good thing Wan made Insidious, or it may not have happened.

Again, Wan's career took a downturn before Insidious. The film's success paved the way for his next original horror film, The Conjuring. The two films feel very much connected, as they're both small-scale horror about families trapped in houses they believe to be haunted. It's in the latter, though, that a full cinematic universe centering on the cases of real-life paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren begins to form. Without Insidious, Wan may have never had the chance to break ground on modern horror's first cinematic shared universe.