Thought Box



by Monojit Lahiri December 12 2023, 12:00 am Estimated Reading Time: 4 mins, 15 secs

Why? What is it about ghosts, paranormal and horror tales that is so seductive, enticing and thrillingly scary? What is behind our fascination with horror films, wonders Monojit Lahiri.

Close your eyes and go back to your childhood, a winter night with cuddly warm blankets securely tucked in bed, one small bed lamp, and your favorite nani narrating a ghost story that sent shivers of excitement and fear of the unknown that still stays with you. Why? Irrespective of age, gender or social strata, the horror brand remains a matchless, unbeatable must watch.

In Bollywood, the horror film has long been a sub-brand genre, receiving neither the attention nor respect given to other mainstream fare. It was a niche category for a niche audience, sometimes cutting loose to register big success. Film historians believe that the 1949 Ashok Kumar-Madhubala starrer Mahal was the first real scary movie to emerge from Bollywood. Other big successes between the 1940s-1960s included Bees Saal Baad, Gumnaam and Bhoot Bangla. In the 1970s the Ramsay Brothers, who dominated this space, unleashed Do Guz Zameen ke Neeche. Raj Kumar Kohli swooped in, blending horror with fantasy, offering Nagin and later Jaani Dushman. 

Others followed. Darwaza, Jadu Tona, Aur Kaun, Saboot, Gehraiyee, Red Rose, and Guest House. The 1980s came with their own horror-stories - the Ramsay Brothers’ Purana, Saamri, Veerana, Tahkhana, Dak Bangla, Purani Haveli, Shaitan Ilaaka, Bandh Darwaza. Interestingly the products of the 1980s relied less on ghosts and more on titillating sex scenes.

Ram Gopal Verma’s 1992 film Raat remains an important, if ignored, statistical landmark. A supernatural thriller that tried to understand the phenomenon of ghosts from a psychological standpoint, the slickly packaged film, unfortunately, was the wrong film at the wrong time, swamped by the Khan blitz then rocking youngistan. His 2003 Bhoot fared better since it played out the spirit stuff through a normal couple (Ajay Devgun and Urmila Matondkar) living in a normal Mumbai apartment with the wife possessed by some supernatural spirit.

In Hollywood, Psycho, The Omen, The Exorcist, The Shining were big-time chiller-thrillers along with hit TV American shows like The Vampire Diaries, True Blood, Fear Files and Haunted Nights, categorically proving that there is a huge vacant spot in our psyche that is reserved for cinematic encounters of the spooky kind.

What do these movies and genres offer that is so special and unique? Psychologists insist that it has to do largely with the aphrodisiac called fear. They believe it is about making forays into our curiosity about the unknown, which has always been a territory where trespassers enter at their own risk. This fear makes them uneasy and on-edge, sparking the excitement. It’s like a roller-coaster ride, a terrifying scream-fest that you wouldn’t miss for anything, right? It’s like that indescribable anticipatory build-up to that “bang” moment that you are so desperate to experience, when buying the ticket to the film.

Iconic storyteller of this genre, Stephen King, believes that “horror movies provide psychic relief because outright madness is extended so rarely to us.” Closer home, psychiatrist Dr. Harish Shetty reckons that “the grotesque fantasy of a human being is entwined with his vicarious pleasures and then the visuals and sound effects all put together results in a heart-pounding suspense that is irresistible, be it a TV show or movie.”

In 2023, while we are a generation away from the Ramsay brand, dilapidated, haunted mansions, creaking doors, spider webs and eerie background score, sophisticated and new-age updates in this genre keep haunting us. Some recent examples are Ragini MMS (inspired by the 2007 American supernatural horror film Paranormal Activity), which went down so well with audiences that it reportedly recovered its costs within two days of its release. Haunted, a 3D horror film, Ram Gopal Varma’s Bhoot, Kaal, 13B, the Bipasha-starrer Raaz, Varma’s Darna Zaroori Hai and later Darling. The Neil Nitin Mukesh-Sonal Chauhan starrer 3G and the Bipasha-Nawaz Siddiqui starrer Aatma also joined the list.

Smart and adventurous producer Ekta Kapoor, who followed up her horror hit, Ragini MMS with a 3D sequel starring the sizzling Sunny Leone to haunt the male gaze, has an interesting take on the subject: “Bollywood has several misconceptions about the horror genre, which is multi-layered. There are umpteen amazing stories waiting to be told, all of which can be done in a compelling, chiller-thriller way. Trust me!”

When you pull back and see the big picture, you realize that this genre is definitely an idea whose time has come. Bollywood is forever looking for new buttons to push, cash cows to milk and themes to invade. Horror and paranormal space seem to be flavor of the day because it is a subject, like love or revenge, if intelligently played out with a compelling visual narrative, riding high on chilling storytelling, you can’t go wrong. The spine tingling, imminent danger that lies ahead for that unsuspecting couple, provided a thrilling chill that got the cash registers and audiences to shake, rattle and roll!!

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of The writers are solely responsible for any claims arising out of the contents of this article.