How James Wan Made Ghosts Scary Again

On a Friday evening in April 2011, I drove an hour with my family to the Annapolis Mall. I had read online about a new movie, Insidious, that was supposed to be terrifying. I had heard little about it from sources beyond genre sites, the likes of which heralded it as the next big thing in horror. That was all I knew, and my family knew even less. We purchased our tickets, went into the auditorium, and wondered whether an ostensibly conventional PG-13 haunted house movie truly was as scary as everyone had said. Three films later, the answer is clear: It was.

Parents (Patrick Wilson, Rose Byrne) take drastic measures when it seems their new home is haunted and their comatose son (Ty Simpkins) is possessed by a malevolent entity.

Insidious, like 1996’s Scream, was something of a late bloomer. Opening weekend, the film pulled in $13.3 million, only a quarter of what it would go on to gross domestically. Like Scream, word-of-mouth catapulted a fledgling horror picture into a genre phenomenon. Two years later, the sequel, Insidious: Chapter 2, would gross $41 million in its opening weekend alone, becoming the largest September debut ever at the time. Wan has replicated that success with both 2013’s The Conjuring ($41.9 million opening weekend, $137.4 total domestic gross), its 2016 sequel, The Conjuring 2 ($40.4 million opening weekend, $102.5 million total domestic gross), and films in the extended Conjuring cinematic universe, whose total worldwide gross has reached $1.9 billion across seven films.

While not every horror fan is thrilled with Wan’s contributions to the haunted house subgenre, particularly with regard to its spinoffs, it is undeniable that Wan revitalized a dying subgenre by subverting one of its cardinal rules– namely, that what you don’t see is scarier than what you do. Beyond Wan’s trademark camera movements and staging, he is perhaps best known for thrusting his titular spirits and spooks into the spotlight. The ghosts in his haunted houses aren’t relegated to the shadows or consigned to speak in disembodied voices from dark corners– they are right there, in full-frame, for the audience to see. Bathsheba, Valek, Annabelle, and even the myriad inhabitants from the Further are corporeal forces, played by real actors, with enough screen time to qualify as supporting players in their own right.

The almost axiomatic refrain that what you don’t see is scarier than what you do is a longstanding certainty in the horror community, and while its roots are unknown– some attribute its contemporary use to Steven Spielberg– haunted house films in the 20th-century were virtually beholden to the avowed truth of the sentiment. 1961’s The Innocents, 1973’s The Exorcist, 1979’s The Amityville Horror, 1980’s The Changeling, and– perhaps most famously– 1999’s The Blair Witch Project all ascribe to the notion that by keeping your monster hidden from sight, you’re cultivating something far more frightening in the minds of your audience.

To be clear, there is nothing wrong with this approach, and most stories are indeed elevated by the decision to obscure the true, tangible form of the horror plaguing its characters. To return to The Blair Witch Project, just imagine how much seeing the Blair Witch would have deflated the impact of the finale. Though simply conjecture, it’s unlikely the film would have the legacy it does had the horror been shown. Conversely, without the ghosts and demons in either the Insidious or Conjuring films– that is, if the films were more restrained ala Blair Witch in that regard– it’s unlikely a franchise would have been born.

Which is to say, while Wan’s approach is certainly not well-suited for every story and every monster, it should not detract from just how considerable his impact on the genre has been in the nine years since Insidious’s release. Wan and his principal collaborators demonstrated just how much life was left in the genre– how bending the rules can yield terrifying and remunerative results. An entire cinematic universe has been born from these ghosts. The landscape of horror has changed considerably by dint of Wan and his subversion of once common wisdom. Sometimes, it seems, what we do see is scarier, and I, for one, am happy we got to see it.



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