Posted on February 22, 2017

Is Insidious Really about Race?

Dawn Keetley

The highly successful Insidious (James Wan, 2011) seems to prove the claim that the horror film is notoriously white. Hence I’m writing this in great anticipation of the release on Friday February 24 of Jordan Peele’s Get Out–a serious horror film that directly confronts racial difference and division. Peele has said that the idea for his film initially came to him during the 2008 Democratic primary and that, over the years, he became more and more convinced that “especially after Obama’s election . . . the U.S. was ‘living in this postracial lie.’” Peele’s target in Get Out, he says, is “the liberal elite,” who tend to believe they are above—past—racism.[i]

The release of Peele’s film, which takes aim at the idea that we are “postracial,” joins the recent publication of Michael Tesler’s book, Post-Racial or Most-Racial?, about the increasing racialization of the US during the course of Barack Obama’s presidency. Tesler points out that before Obama’s election in 2008, “race-based and race-evoking issues” were “largely receding from the national political scene.” Obama’s two terms as president, however, have ushered in what Tesler calls “a ‘most-racial’ political era” in which Americans are more divided “over a whole host of political positions than they had been in modern times.”[ii]

If America has become still more profoundly divided by race over the course of the last nine years, it’s worth asking, where is the evidence of that divide in the horror film, a genre that has long been (rightly) declared to be adept at representing the social and cultural conflicts of its historical moment but that, in the eyes of some, has failed when it comes to race?

There are many answers to that question (and Get Out is one). I’m going to offer another through a reading of Insidious, which saw general release just over two years into Obama’s presidency and thus two years into what Tesler convincingly describes as the increasing racial divide within the US. Like most horror films, Insidious, while directed by a Malaysian-born Australian, features an all-white cast. That cast inhabits, however, only one of the worlds of the film. There is another world adjacent to the “normal,” domestic world of the Lambert family. And that world is starkly divided into black and white. Do we find, I wonder, America’s increasingly virulent racial divide in the world of The Further?

The moments in which we see inhabitants of this other (yet proximate) world of tortured souls and malevolent demons are indeed sharply demarcated into white and black. Renai (Rose Byrne) is the first to see evidence of the inhabitants of The Further when she sees a white face lurking in the window of her baby’s nursery. The shot isolates and highlights the whiteness of the face by framing it with both the darkness of night and of the figure’s clothes.

And then there are the very white girls whom Tucker (Angus Sampson) fleetingly sees through his camera, repeated in the similarly very white human-sized dolls on the couch when Josh (Patrick Wilson) finally ventures into the Further.

Subsequent embodiments of demonic figures from The Further are notably black: the demonic figure Elise (Lin Shaye) sees and that Specs (Leigh Whannell) draws; the figure in the corner of Dalton’s room, and the demon that appears behind Josh (Patrick Wilson). The blackness of these figures is highlighted by white backgrounds—paper, light wallpapers, Josh and Dalton’s whiteness.

The stark black and white imagery of shapes from The Further culminates in the central threatening figure of the film—the Old Woman (Philip Friedman), who is seen in her entirety through a camera lens that renders the entire mise-en-scène in black and white.

Racial division, specifically the escalating racial conflict of the 2010s, is thus repressed into the starkly drawn malevolent figures of The Further, figures that disrupt the “normalcy” of the white, upper-middle-class, reproductive family. As Robin Wood has famously argued, the horror film always takes aim at the hegemonically “normal”—preeminently the family, rendering starkly clear (in its monsters) the multiple repressions upon which that “normalcy” is built.[iii] It seems strange indeed that in 2010/2011, the “normal” is still so relentlessly embodied in the horror film by the white, wealthy, heterosexual family. Perhaps the chaos of the Further, however, and the way it profoundly disrupts the Lambert family, suggests the increasing costs of this representation of the norm, suggests exactly how much is being repressed and with what increasing difficulty.

What’s repressed in the monstrous, demonic figures of the Further, then, is not race per se. After all we see “race” starkly embodied in the unambiguously white Lambert family.  What’s repressed is racial difference and racial conflict, the sharp blacks and whites yoked together and refracting our own increasingly racially-divided nation.

It’s worth pointing out that The Further also embodies the gender and sexual difference that’s  also repressed in the apparently clear cut gender roles and sexual orientations of the Lamberts. Josh, of course, is closely identified with the Old Woman (herself played by a man)—indeed, he becomes her in a momentous gender-crossing moment at the end of Insidious. This gender confusion is foreshadowed earlier when Josh is in The Further and confronts the Old Woman through what is a framed window but which looks like a mirror.

The gender and sexual confusion of The Further is only intensified in Insidious: Chapter 2 (2013), moreover, in which Josh is possessed by another figure from The Further, the serial killer “Bride in Black,” Parker / Marilyn Crane, whose mother had insisted he was a girl.

It’s certainly telling, in light of all the racially-divided imagery and the gender and sexual confusion of The Further that those white males who enter it—Josh and Dalton—must subsequently be hypnotized so that they retain no memory of what they experienced and saw while in the chaotic Further. (Could there be a more overt statement about repression?) But while Josh and Dalton are brainwashed to forget the chaos of The Further, the Insidious films themselves not only resist such brainwashing but also lay out for us exactly what must be forgotten in order to create the “norm” that the Lambert family embodies.

Check out my post on 10 horror films about sleep disorders (including Insidious).

You can stream Insidious on Amazon:


[i] Sam Adams, “In Jordan Peele’s Horror Movie, Get Out, the ‘Monster’ is Liberal Racism,”, January 25, 2017.

[ii] Michael Tesler, Post-Racial or Most-Racial? Race and Politics in the Obama Era (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2016), 15, 3.

[iii] Robin Wood, Hollywood from Vietnam to Reagan (New York: Columbia University Press, 1986), 75, 85.

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