“The Further is a world far beyond our own, yet it’s all around us, a place without time as we know it,” Elise Rainier (Lin Shaye) explains in the 2011 occult horror film Insidious. “It’s a dark realm filled with the tortured souls of the dead, a place not meant for the living.” Director James Wan saw the astral world through the eyes of fear. It was how he was able to evoke the most terror from the nether regions of soul and thought.
Horror films have made a spiritual ghetto out of the universe which lies between dream, sleep and death. They focus on the malevolent realm of incubi, succubae and the Red-Lipstick-Face Demon. The map to the Further is not limited to shadowy studies. Many mystical practices are divided into black and white magic out of fear and superstition, but there can be room for both.
Insidious starts off like a fairly typical haunted house movie. It opens shortly after Renai (Rose Byrne) and Josh Lambert (Patrick Wilson) move into a spooky new house with their three children. When the property progresses from ominous to hazardous, the family move into an even spookier house, fire their real estate broker, and contact an astral travel agent. The psychically gifted supernatural expert, Shaye’s Elise, explains the hauntings are not a feature of the multiple houses, but the results of a family member embarking on nocturnal astral projection missions which he believes are dreams.
The concept that the soul can leave the body during dream states is ancient. But for all the purported cosmic intelligence culled from out-of-body incidents, practitioners have found no way to scientifically measure if a spirit leaves or enters a body. It is a concept rejected by scientists but beloved by filmmakers and other artists.
In the film, the first person to put the notes together is Renai, the mother of young Dalton (Ty Simpkins), who falls into a mysterious coma early in the first act. Renai, who is a songwriter, experiences two initial contacts. The first comes in a box of missing sheet music. Musicians have always been pioneers when it comes to gray areas of society and spirituality, and rockers chose to embrace the Further. George Harrison melodically rhapsodizes about the extracorporeal aspects of certain Hindu practices in the Beatles’ song “The Inner Light.” The Moody Blues harmonize on the idea that “Thinking is the best way to travel” on their 1968 album In Search of the Lost Chord, itself a musical blueprint for transcendental journeying. Through sonics, these artists ventured happily into the transformative aspects of the Further. Among true believers, “the Further” is also called Liṅga Śarīra, Akasha, and prana. But it’s probably best known as the astral plane, a shallow tag in itself.
“The term ‘astral plane’ is a poetic description, at best, or more accurately a misnomer,” says Zeena, a Tibetan tantric Buddhist yogini, and iconic occult authority and artist. “When our consciousness pierces the veil of our ordinary, everyday scope of perception, there are infinite other realities one might experience, not just one ‘astral plane.’”
In Insidious, the paranormal hunting psychic Elise explains that Dalton is a “traveler,” who was born with the ability to pierce that veil.
“Everybody possesses the potential for astral projection,” Zeena says. “It’s a natural part of being human, just as many other metaphysical or paranormal experiences can naturally occur. But the ability to actualize it is relatively rare, and the effects from the occurrences vary greatly depending on many factors.”
Rebecca Halladay, an occult writer, scholar, and lifelong practitioner and witch, describes astral projection as “working on the Inner Planes of consciousness. In terms of ‘dimensions,’ this would be considered [fifth-dimensional] or above. Journeying is work within the physical, Earthly realm, which is [three-dimensional].”
Certain practices are believed to bridge these dimensions.
“Astral projection during deep states of unconsciousness like sleeping, fainting, or coma, could be achieved by a master of such techniques,” Zeena says. “For one who’s trained most of their life in the esoteric method of willed astral projection, and has become highly skilled in the ability to focus the mind under all circumstances, then deep states of unconsciousness wouldn’t impede their ability.”
The cinematic spiritualist doesn’t believe Dalton fell into a coma because he slipped off a ladder in a creepy attic. Elise believes the boy, being only a child, couldn’t tell the astral projection from a dream and had no fear about going too far.
“The Further looks like your surroundings, but a different lighting shade of it,” says Emi Rose, a psychotherapist and founder of Paragon Solstice. “You can see yourself.”
Rose finds that “Insidious depicts the astral plane in similar levels. It is similar in respect to the idea of a ‘physical’ mirror image of your waking life. Your surroundings around you as you sleep are remarkably similar. The difference is the state of consciousness you are now in can shape and change that experience that exists out of time and space.”
Because of the familiarity and relative comfort of these projected surroundings, Dalton gets lost in his adventures, leaving only a lifeless body behind. Elise, a veteran soul-traveler herself in the movie, is ever mindful of the dangers.
It all amounts to a very literal translation of eastern philosophical contemplations. The Buddhist meditation practice Maraṇasati is constant remembering that death can strike at any time. Thukdam is a Buddhist phenomenon in which a realized master’s consciousness remains in the body despite physical death. While this isn’t what is happening with the young Dalton, he is plugged into medical sensors which, during at least one frightening pop-up, flatline.
Practitioners and researchers are divided on whether it is possible to slip away and die during astral travel.
“There is a risk that could happen if done incorrectly,” Zeena tells us. Kristna Saikia, who is a metaphysics and meditation teacher and filmmaker, as well as a fellow astral travel facilitator, disagrees.
“No one dies in Astral travel,” Saikia says “There is a silver cord which is always connected with our etheric body. When you astral travel, you are always aware of what is happening in the earthly dimension with your body. It’s an intentional out-of-body experience. You can come back to your physical body whenever you decide.”
In Wan’s film, tormented souls vie against demonic forces for the chance to possess Dalton. Possession is a horror film mainstay, and Insidious offers an interesting alternative arc to the usual spectral evictions enforced by Hollywood. But is it possible for an entity to take over a body during an astral trip?
“If done incorrectly, yes,” Zeena tells us. It is also something which can be done with intent. “In ceremonial magic, this is the entire purpose of entering the Inner Planes,” says Halladay. “During the Rite of Isis, the Priestess goes into the Inner Planes to invoke the Goddess Isis to bring her into the Earthly realm. Now can an entity ‘possess’ a physical being while on the planes? I would have to say it is absolutely possible.”
It turns out Dalton isn’t the only traveler in the Insidious family. He gets it from his father, who was terrorized by the spirit of an old woman during his childhood. Josh suppressed the memory, but Elise opens old wounds and new ones for the patriarch. She hypnotizes Josh, triggering his long-resting phantasmal dislocation, and sends him into the Further to find his son and bring him back.
Zeena confirms people can be guided through the experience, but insists “it’s a very delicate process requiring a qualified teacher from reputable metaphysical lineages that specialize in that. And even then, astral projection, or directing one’s consciousness, is not the main goal, but rather a way to gauge preparedness for more advanced training on the path toward spiritual enlightenment. When done improperly, the results of attempting astral projection simply for experimentation, entertainment, or curiosity can be disastrous.”
The film presents a cinematically dark alternative to the physical plane, a netherworld of unlocked doors and an overarching feeling of dread. Insidious doesn’t imply the Further is Hell, but it does look like one of the many highways AC/DC bypassed.
“They gave the darker energies too much power in the movie,” says Emi Rose. “In the astral plane, we always have a balanced choice to engage on a subconscious or conscious level. On a conscious level you can power your will, create scenarios.”
Josh’s first encounter in the Further is with the Crying Woman, not the most inviting of hosts. Citizens in Insidious’ cinematic spectral realm include the spirits of a family doomed to relive their violent deaths on a spectral loop; a long-haired, leather jacketed ghoul with a sex-fiend tongue; and a mischievous little boy. At its center is the Lipstick-Face Demon. It is tall with horns, pointed ears, snake-eyes, spidery fingers, and hooves for feet. Its skin is black as the night sky, its eyes are blacker holes.
“When one has a mind-expanding experience through any number of means, whether astral projection, meditation, or psychedelics, one encounters infinite types of beings,” Zeena says. “Recently deceased beings; beings we knew in a former incarnation but recognize in their new reincarnated state; celestial beings; demons and hell beings; mythological or magical beings; Buddhas and Bodhisattvas; Gods and demigods.” They’re all among the usual suspects.
But what you encounter is also contingent on who you call. “It all depends on the law of polarity,” Saikia says. “If you project fear, you will encounter energy vampires and evil entities.”
Halladay agrees that there are other entities in the astral planes, but says “I have never personally met other travelers, only those I have astralled with.”
The Red-Faced Demon never speaks in the film. It has, however, spoken with Josh’s mother, Lorraine (Barbara Hershey), in her dreams, which also appear to be of a special class: lucid dreaming.
“Astral traveling is a combination of Insidious and Inception,” quips Emi Rose. Inception is technically about lucid dreaming, Leonardo DiCaprio’s character Dom is technically-aided to enter dreams to steal information or implant ideas. It is often mistaken for astral travel, but not usually weaponized in the way that film presents it. Reddit’s rogue “Astral Army” community claims they combine astral travel and remote viewing to post out-of-body surveillance reports on popular conspiracy theory obsessions like Area 51.
The different practices are often mistakenly considered interchangeable, but are quite different.
“With astral projection, one is sending one’s consciousness–either in part or fully–away from their body to a designated place or realm, in this world or others, for a particular purpose,” Zeena explains. “Remote viewing is when consciousness remains in the body but one can view anywhere else from afar. These two phenomena are also different from the involuntary experience colloquially known as OBE (out of body experiences), which usually spontaneously occurs in conjunction with trauma, near death experiences, or extreme stressors or ecstasy.”
In the overall arc of the Insidious franchise, the Further is much vaster than originally imagined, and the source and tool of mystical workings.
“There is a difference between Occultist practices and some, though not all, Esoteric Traditions,” says Halladay. “Occultists, past and present, generally accept astral projection as a regular part of their practice. Eurocentric pagan traditions do not make it a part of their regular practice.”
Though a fan of the film, Rose thought “Insidious focused too much on the shadow side of the astral plane. The movie portrayed the astral world as a scary dark place with only negative entities waiting to take over your body. So many more things occur in our dream world that we can conceive beyond bad scenarios. It is where we can conduct unfinished business, live out fantasies, replay or create scenarios, and travel to places we cannot do in our waking life.”
Late 18th century occult orders Golden Dawn and the Theosophists believed they could journey to other worlds, heavens and hells, and astrological spheres through etheric travel. In the 1999 book, Astral Dynamics, Robert Bruce calls it the “Real Time Zone,” and says it is the non-physical dimension-level closest to the physical. The New Age movement actively promotes the brighter, more enlightening aspects of the Further, to the point where the practice is on the precipice of mainstream thought.
Insidious isn’t the first film to venture beyond physical realms, but its ongoing franchise is proof the inner universe is expanding.
Insidious is streaming on Netflix now.