The Neo-Gothic Horror Of James Wan



Filmmaker James Wan’s brand of Gothic cinema has helped shape the state of the genre.

Director James Wan wheeled into the horror genre alongside his buddy Billy the Puppet in SAW. Born in Malaysia, raised in Australia Wan has gone on to make some of the most popular interpretations of American culture in genre films of the new millennium all with an eye to destabilize the familiar and create fear in our most intimate relationships. The Gothic or Neo-Gothic movement which emerged in England in the 1740s rose in popularity throughout Europe on multiple fronts (from architecture to art) in part as a reaction to industrialization which was sweeping the Western world at the time. The Gothic movement is seen as a reaction to the minimalism which industrialization was popularizing, it was a return to opulence; individualization over industry. Gothic literature also emerged during the period and was marked by imbuing romantic stories with supernatural elements, prophecies and cursed places making the ordinary extraordinary. Wan’s horror oeuvre (outside of his work in action with the films DEATH SENTENCE and FURIOUS 7) has showcased these elements while updating and manipulating them to create a new Gothic set in contemporary America.


In SAW two men, Dr Lawrence Gordon (Cary Elwes) and Adam (co-writer Leigh Whannell), wake up in a decrepit room and are forced to play a game by an unseen assailant. Each element of the “game” pushes the men to further extremes testing their humanity. In relation to previous understandings of Gothic art Wan’s use of the decidedly urban space of the room which at some point featured amenities is now shown to be falling apart, a symbol of the failings and trappings of industrialization. Wan has included the Gothic element of the cursed place alongside the movement’s reaction against industry. As the film builds to its climax, Adam and Lawrence both learn of their reasons for being imprisoned. It was not by happenstance but rather because of their actions. The notion of the Gothic curse or prophecy is realized through Wan’s framing of the two men as victims of their own choices, a theme that would be explored and tortured out of the entire franchise. Gothic literature has long concerned itself with the repressed or forgotten, in Saw forgotten spaces are where the Jigsaw killer is able to lay his traps in places that are no longer needed by society. His selection of victims (or victors) is based on deeds or incidents that they have forgotten with Jigsaw forcing them to relive and react to them.


Wan’s follow-up film which he produced before SAW took off in a massive way has been derided by its creator. In the press Wan has admonished the supernatural thriller, lamenting the lack of time he felt he had to conceptualize and make the film.DEAD SILENCE sees Jamie (Ryan Kwanten) returning to the town he grew up in after the brutal murder of his wife. Jamie begins to suspect that his wife’s murder may have something to do with the town lore of Mary Shaw a long-dead ventriloquist who may be dealing out punishments from beyond the grave. While Saw explored a modern Gothic in an urban landscape, DEAD SILENCE explores a more traditional Gothic story with the main updates coming for the modern characters. After the opening coda in an urban setting, the film transitions to a rural landscape where large houses are filled with threatening and eerie objects. Wan’s camera treats object as potentially threatening to the point where large rooms become more threatening than the potentially cognizant dummy (the actual dummy, not Donnie Wahlberg). The setting of the small town of Ravens Fair serves to mark the film act as a throwback, the cursed place from a cursed time that threatens to consume everyone in it. The ghosts of America’s relatively young past are returning to wreak havoc on the living…


INSIDIOUS would combine multiple elements from Wan’s previous films to crystallize the concepts that would mark Wan’s new Gothic. When INSIDIOUS was released in 2010 it was marketed as a bloodless film; a palate cleanser to the new millennium’s interest in Torture Porn. INSIDIOUS follows the Lambert family as they begin believe their house is haunted. Soon they learn that it is not their house that is haunted but their son who is being tracked by a malevolent spirit who has been threatening to overtake the family for decades. Not only does the film mimic a Gothic aesthetic through the costuming of the ghost and parts of the netherworld known as The Further but tonally the film is in keeping with the inherent sense of inescapable dread prevalent in Gothic literature. It is not until the family patriarch Josh (Patrick Wilson) recognizes his role in the haunting that he is able to help his son. INSIDIOUS as well as INSIDIOUS 2 and 3 have helped popularize the sub-genre of the Suburban Gothic where the American Dream is threatened by old, underlying forces (see also: IT FOLLOWS and SINISTER). While the ideology behind this form of Gothic is terrifying, it also elevates the plight of normal families to the mythic by viewing it through a classically Gothic aesthetic. Wan’s frames the Lambert’s life in a rainbow of washout greys where vibrant colors are only introduced once Josh passes into The Further. The Lambert’s cinematic framing renders their story has part of a longer lineage which traces itself back to the Gothic ghost stories which emerged in the 18th century.


Possibly the most assured example of Wan’s preoccupation with Gothic elements comes from his 2013 film THE CONJURING based on real-life paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren and a supposedly true case of possession in rural America. Set in the 1970s Wan amplifies the pastiche nature of the time period to create fear and suspense in the rural farmhouse that the Perron family has moved into. The repressed past, this time in the form of a witch, stalks and terrorizes the family in similar fashions to the rest of the malevolent figures in Wan’s films but in THE CONJURING, the evil stems from the land, not the people. Wan’s contemporary Gothic structure places the onus on the family and society at large for moving into a house that is once both affordable and haunted. With THE CONJURING, Wan insinuates that like the Gothic tales that came centuries before, fear lies around every corner waiting to be discovered by anyone.

The appeal of the Gothic and Wan’s updating of it comes elevating the everyday. Saw crucifies those that do bad things with full knowledge that what they are being punished for is relatively mundane in the grand scheme of things. Their trespasses are ones that people make on a daily basis. In DEAD SILENCE there is a fear of history, of the former self and the idea that folkloric tales yield terrifying consequences. Insidious deals with what we inflict on the next generation while THE CONJURING looks at bad luck of receiving a cursed object or location. Wan amplifies the terror in the banal; everything ordinary is a threat specific to us which in turns renders our lives and our contemporary stories as meaningful rather than meaningless.