The Sounds of Insidious: The use of diegetic and non-diegetic sounds within James Wan’s films

Paper by Gregory DiFilippi.

The creaking of a door, the shattering of the window, the buildup of manic strings, or the bang of a percussive piano, all can highlight the emotional or artistic view of a film. Director James Wan utilizes the thundering of pianos and the scathing of a human’s voice within both Insidious (2010) and Insidious Chapter 2 (2013) to deliver a haunting impact on the viewer. The use of diegetic and non-diegetic sounds combined with slow zooming close ups and swiping camera angles produces a comparative method to how director’s Akira Kurosawa and Alfred Hitchcock used sounds within Throne of Blood (1957) and Psycho (1960) to create an emotional response in the audience.

Before James Wan’s first film Saw (2004), “He knew by the age of 11 that he wanted to be a filmmaker and went on to receive his Bachelor of Arts degree from the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology in Melbourne” (Tribute). For Saw, “Wan directed an eight-minute sample short on DVD…[and] Producers at the US film company Evolution saw the DVD and were impressed” (Tribute). Saw became, “… the largest- grossing horror franchise of all time” (Sense of Cinema). After James Wan’s first film Saw, he wanted to create something different. As Wils points out Wan has stated that, ” I will always be very grateful for what the Saw films have done … [but as] Insidious was
starting [that’s] when I think people started seeing me, not just as the Saw guy but started seeing me as a film director” (Sense of Cinema). Wils explains that, “He [Wan] goes on to suggest that his reputation as the king of gore energised him to want to prove to others and to himself that he could make different kinds of films and that both Insidious and The Conjuring have given him” (Sense of Cinema). The first Insidious even pays homage to Saw, ” (at around 30 mins) When Josh [Patrick Wilson] is in the classroom, on the chalkboard behind him the name of James Wan can be clearly seen, as well as a drawing of Billy, the puppet from Wan’s Saw (2004), with the number 8 written under it” (IMDB Insidious Trivia).

Both the first Insidious and Chapter II were a different style for Wan. He had stated that he was interested in, “craft[ing] a really creepy, suspenseful movie” that “felt like an old-fashioned throwback” to classic haunted house films such as The Innocents (Jack Clayton, 1961) and The Haunting (Robert Wise, 1963)” (Sense of Cinema). Wan’s use of sound, by Joseph Bishara, within these films is what offers the biggest scares. In the first Insidious, shot in only three weeks (IMDB) shows a scene with Renai (Rose Byrne) unpacking bags. A tracking shot follows her around the house as she takes care of chores. As she exits the house, the camera continues following her, but from the inside. The visual aspects of this create suspense, but it is not until the record player shifts to the song “Tiptoe Through The Tulips” performed by Tiny Tim that the unsettling suspense begins. The audience may know that something is not right, but it is not any more apparent than it is to Renai. However, the use of diegetic sounds produces a strong awareness of horror. The sound of a child’s footsteps stomping through the
house along with giggles gives the viewer an indication of children, but a lack of innocence, “… elements of childhood such as innocence and motherhood are not merely backdrops against which the horror plays out … composers have used the elements of childhood as tools for the expression of horror itself—innocence as horror” (Brill, 534). The use of “Tiptoe Through The Tulips” is an indication of how, “The presence of lullabies, music boxes, and other children’s songs are used as premonition, or often provide empathy, or musical indifference” (Brill, 534). One of the most notable horror directors, Alfred Hitchcock uses sound to express more onto the visuals in Psycho. The infamous shower scene uses piercing strings as Marion (Janet Leigh) is murdered by Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins). The silhouette of the knife plunges down, but it is the use of the strings that produces a harsh contrast to the jaggedness of the knife’s blows. Even the lack of sound is vital as, “… the importance of silence in the film and on Marion and Norman’s disembodied inner voices, which create a second narrative level in the film, brilliantly underscored by Herrmann’s music” (Brill, 534-535).

Insidious Chapter II continues Wan’s approach for sound to tell the story. In one scene, a medium shot portrays Renai sitting at the kitchen table. A soft, diegetic piano tune drifts out and the camera swipes to the right, highlighting the dimly lit hallway. The use of a sweeping camera shot emphasizes that something is lingering down the hallway, but it is the use of the soft piano tune that eventually builds that creates the suspense. This cinematic effect could be explained through, “… the complex semiotic and narratological functions of film music and sound design, not just an affective supplement, but in constructing destabilising tensions and conflicting ontologies … [which] demonstrates how music can close the comforting visual gap between ordinary American life and the monstrous ‘other'” (Johnson, 489). Renai sits in her typical American kitchen, but what lingers about the house is anything but typical. The diegetic sound of the piano’s tune is what pulls the narrative along. Renai must get up to investigate. The piano’s tune becomes an essential part of Insidious Chapter 2’s narrative. The tune holds a secret that uncovers the malevolent force that plagues the family.

Throughout both Insidious films, Wan uses song to invoke fear that plays in well with the loss and separation of family themes. Director Akira Kurosawa uses a similar technique in his film Throne of Blood. When warriors Taketori (Toshiro Mifune) and Yoshiteru (Akira Kubo) venture through a forest they come across an Old Ghost Woman (Chieko Naniwa) chanting in the forest, “ambition is false fame and will fall, death will reign, man falls in vain” (IMDB). Later in the film, it is revealed that this chant was a premonition of what was to come as both men are met with untimely deaths. The use of song to illustrate the plot of the story is used within Insidious Chapter 2 as well. As Renai stands in her living the room, the Mother of Parker Crane (Danielle Bisutti) appears on the couch facing away from her. The Mother’s voice screeches out low at first with the lyrics of “Row, Row, Row Your Boat” and rises in a scratchy tone. As her voice becomes gravely and moves to exuding out from the baby monitor, the final words finish with “Merrily Merrily, Merrily, Merrily, Life is but a dream”. A thunderous bang rings out and a baby’s cry fills the air. The last line of ‘Life is but a dream” can relate to the premise of Insidious itself since it pertains to The Further and Renai’s son Dalton’s (Ty Simpkins) dream traveling. It is a children’s rhyme that now holds a dark connotation despite none of the lyrics being changed, but rather the altering of the tone and amplification of it.

Director James Wan’s implementation of malevolent diegetic sounds and ominous mood twisting non-diegetic sounds push the dark visuals of Insidious and Insidious Chapter 2 to a startling level. Through Wan’s placement of music by Joseph Bishara and the ability to have the camera visualize subtleties, Insidious and Insidious Chapter 2 reveal how the utilization of sound is what makes a horror film what it is.


Brill, Mark. “Music in the Horror Film: Listening to Fear (review).” Notes 67.3 (2011):
533-535. Project MUSE. Web. 17 Jun. 2015.
“Insidious: Chapter 2.” IMDb., n.d. Web. 23 June 2015.
“Insidious.” IMDb., n.d. Web. 23 June 2015. “Insidious Trivia.” IMDb., n.d. Web. 23 June 2015.
“James Wan Biography and Filmography | James Wan Movies.” N.p., n.d. Web. 22 June 2015.
Johnson, Bruce. Terror Tracks: Music. Sound and Horror Cinema Edited by Philip Hayward Popular Music, Vol. 30, No. 3 (October 2011), pp. 489-490. Cambridge University Press. Jstor. Web. 17 June 2015.
“Psycho.” IMDb., n.d. Web. 23 June 2015.
“Throne of Blood.” IMDb., n.d. Web. 23 June 2015.
Wils, Tyson. “Paratexts and the Commercial Promotion of Film Authorship: James Wan and Saw.” Senses of Cinema. N.p., 16 Dec. 2013. Web. 17 June 2015.


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