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Insidious: 9 Behind-The-Scenes Facts About James Wan's Frightening Horror Movie

Joseph Bishara and Patrick Wilson in Insidious
(Image credit: FilmDistrict)

Despite not working on any projects together in the past several years, director James Wan and writer Leigh Whannell are known as an iconic duo for collaborating on some of the best horror movies in recent memory. One such title that would solidify their place in cinematic history is Insidious, which is celebrating its 11th anniversary in 2022.

This indelibly frightening and unique take on the haunted house movie subgenre stars Patrick Wilson and Rose Byrne as a husband and wife whose family suddenly becomes plagued by otherworldly disturbances after their oldest son (Ty Simpkins) mysteriously falls into what seems to be a coma. This is such a relentlessly creepy and well-crafted thriller that I believe would still manage to scare just about anyone even after learning the secrets behind how it was made. Let’s put that to the test by taking a look at the following behind-the-scenes facts that may contain a few spoilers.

Tobin Bell Doll in Saw

(Image credit: Lions Gate Films)

His Reputation From Saw Inspired James Wan To Make A Scary Movie Without Gore 

For some moviegoers in 2011, it may have been hard to believe that a PG-13 supernatural thriller like Insidious was made by the same writer/director duo behind Saw. Well, for James Wan, that was kind of the point. When speaking with Making Of, the Australian filmmaker explained in the following quote how his graphic, feature-length breakthrough is partially responsible for the creation of Insidious:

Because of the reputation I’ve really built for myself with the Saw franchise, I really wanted to prove that I can make another scary movie that does not have an ounce of blood or guts or gore in it.

Most fans would agree that Wan certainly achieved this goal with Insidious, as well as with the first of the Conjuring movies, in 2013. He also mentions in this interview how the explosion of the “torture porn” trend after Saw’s 2004 release is ironic since, save the grisly ending, there is not that much gore to be seen in that particular installment of the Saw franchise. It is similar to the reputation that 1974’s The Texas Chain Saw Massacre accrued, despite being almost entirely bloodless, which is a comparison to be proud of in my book.

Ty Simpkins as Dalton Lambert in Insidious

(Image credit: FilmDistrict)

The Concept Of Astral Projection Sparked The Idea For Insidious

The urge to make a horror movie that was refreshing and original (and not just to their own filmography) was also shared by James Wan’s partner-in-crime, Leigh Whannell - who would go on to have his own successful directing career with films like the third of the Insidious movies, and Blumhouse’s ingenious The Invisible Man remake in 2020. The fellow Australian writer and filmmaker was asked by Den of Geek if the idea for Insidious came out of wanting to make something like Poltergeist, but for the modern age. 

Whannell acknowledges that comparisons to the 1982 horror classic from producer Steven Spielberg and director Tobe Hooper - in which a couple call upon the help of a medium to rescue their child from malevolent spirits - are valid. However, the true inception of the project was an interest in astral projection - a concept that had gone relatively unexplored in the genre. He and Wan wanted to tell a story about someone who failed to return from an out-of-body experience - in this case, Ty Simpkins’ character, Dalton.

Leigh Whannell as Specs in Insidious

(Image credit: FilmDistrict)

The Initial Filming Production Cost Less Than A Million Dollars

Something that Insidious is often commended for is being one of the most profitable films of 2011, making more than $99.5 million dollars worldwide, according to Box Office Mojo. To make those returns sound even more impressive: the movie’s overall budget equates to a very small fraction of that number - about $1.5 million, to be exact. 

However, the principal photography alone for Insidious only cost about $700,000. James Wan revealed, in a 2011 interview with he and Leigh Whannell for Collider, that this was about the same amount that Saw cost to shoot initially before funding from Lionsgate brought it to $1 million. This just goes to show that even the smallest investments can result in large rewards, especially in the horror genre.

Rose Byrne as Renai Lambert in Insidious

(Image credit: FilmDistrict)

Rose Byrne Was Creeped Out By The House Insidious Was Filmed In

One aspect of Insidious’ modest budget is the minimal use of sets. The movie takes place almost entirely in two houses - one of which made a profound impression on star Rose Byrne. In an interview with The Cinema Source (via GaaaysInSpaaace), the Australian actress had this to say about her onscreen home:

The house that we filmed in was so scary. Like, I’m not particularly supernatural. I’m born of two skeptics, but I can definitely feel an atmosphere, you know, if there’s an odd, weird vibe. And that house had a very strange vibe. Clearly odd. Dark. Creaky. Weird. Strange smells. Just very bizarre. You could feel a little bit unnerved just sitting there, even surrounded by a film crew, which is loud and noisy and boisterous.

Rose Byrne, who had previously starred in other creepy thrillers like 28 Weeks Later and Knowing from 2008, gives a stellar performance as frightened wife and mother Renai Lambert. If the “strange vibe” of the house in Insidious helped inform her performance at all, I would go so far as to call that a happy accident.

Ty Simpkins, Rose Byrne, and Patrick Wilson in Insidious

(Image credit: FilmDistrict)

James Wan Looked To Real-Life Father Patrick Wilson For Inspiration When Directing Family-Oriented Scenes

Another actor whose own experiences helped inform his performance in Insidious is Patrick Wilson, who plays Renai’s husband and Dalton’s father, Josh Lambert, and will actually make his directorial debut with Insidious 5. Not only is he a husband and father of two in real life, but he had previously played Ty Simpkins’ father in the Oscar-nominated 2006 drama, Little Children. This expertise was not only valuable to him on the set of the film, but also to James Wan.

In a featurette included on the Insidious Blu-ray titled “On the Set with Insidious,” the director admits that, having had no wife or children at the time, he relied a lot on Wilson’s own familial expertise when it came to directing the horror film, of which family is a very important theme, and even took his advice about how to communicate with the younger actors. Leigh Whanell also adds in the same doc that the actor was very helpful when filming scenes with the infant who played his daughter, especially to help comfort her during more intense scenes.

Joseph Bishara as the Lipstick-Faced Demon in Insidious

(Image credit: FilmDistrict)

Insidious Composer Joseph Bishara Also Plays The Main Villain

One of the least recognizable names in the Insidious cast is Joseph Bishara, but that is only because his face is covered in red and black makeup the whole time. Bishara actually made his acting debut as the Lipstick-Face Demon (who bears a resemblance to Darth Maul) before appearing as other frightening, otherworldly creatures in Annabelle and The Conjuring 2, to name a few. 

Of course, he also had a very important job on all of these scary movies and more from behind the camera. Bishara composed the spine-tingling score for Insidious as well, which Patrick Wilson (while appearing on People Magazine’s web series Couch Surfing) likened to what it would be like if Star Wars composer John Williams had played Darth Vader.

Joseph Bishara and Ty Simpkins in Insidious, directed by James Wan

(Image credit: FilmDistrict)

James Wan Had Ty Simpkins Sit In On Joseph Bishara’s Makeup Sessions To Make Him Comfortable With Filming Scarier Scenes

For only being his first acting gig, Joseph Bishara certainly made one unsettling and unforgettable villain in Insidious. Just ask Ty Simpkins, who - understandably - had trouble being near the actor on set. 

James Wan was determined to help the young actor overcome his fear. As he explained on another Blu-ray featurette called “Entities,” the director would take him into the makeup trailer so he could watch the artists artists apply makeup to Bishara in person. This way, he would know that underneath his demonic captor was just another human being.

J. LaRose in Insidious

(Image credit: FilmDistrict)

One Insidious Ghost Was Inspired By A True Story

Another creature profiled on the Insidious Blu-ray’s “Entities” doc was one referred to as the Long Haired Fiend - a brutish spirit with jet-black hair and a leather duster and one of the first entities in the film to frighten Rose Byrne’s character (and the audience). Surprisingly, this character (played by The Righteous Gemstones and Saw III star J. LaRose) has some, allegedly, factual significance as James Wan explains here:

The Long Haired Fiend was, actually, a character that was inspired by a story that Leigh and I had heard from a friend of ours. He said, one night he woke up and saw a man dressed in a long trench coat with long hair pacing outside his room. So, that was where the image came from.

Technically, this means that we could include Insidious on our list of great horror movies based on true stories.

Patrick Wilson as Josh Lamber in Insidious

(Image credit: FilmDistrict)

Some Of The Further Sequence Was Filmed In The Basement Of An Abandoned Building

In reality, the most grounded element of Insidious is the concept of astral projection, which many have claimed to experience in their own lives. However, the design of the Further - a place between the living and the dead from where Josh must rescue Dalton - is more likely just a product of James Wan and Leigh Whannell’s imagination.

Translating the creepy, atmospheric realm to the screen was a relatively simply process as it turns out, especially in moments when you see Patrick Wilson surrounded by complete darkness. The actor told renowned horror magazine Fangoria that, when filming that particular portion of the sequence, he was really in the basement of an abandoned building that was darkened as much as possible by putting “black felt and garbage bags up over the windows.” 

I do not know about you, but out of all of James Wan and Leigh Whannell’s collaboration - and, perhaps, even of the individual artists’ separate projects - Insidious tops the list. More than a decade later it is still one of the memorable and invigorating movie theater experiences of my life, and it never fails to thrill me upon repeat viewings. I will willfully go back into the Further again and again.

Jason Wiese
Jason Wiese

Jason has been writing since he was able to pick up a washable marker, with which he wrote his debut illustrated children's story, later transitioning to a short-lived comic book series and (very) amateur filmmaking before finally settling on pursuing a career in writing about movies in lieu of making them. Look for his name in just about any article related to Batman.