“We don’t always realise, but every one of us is full of demons, it just takes a little to let them out.”

The horror tradition of Malayalam cinema has witnessed a radical and subversive transfiguration in recent times with directors exploiting the psychology of the frayed and disturbed mind. The paradigm shift from the conforming supernatural horror that capitalises on the white saree-clad cackling malevolent spirit or the floating Yakshi to the era of psychological horror that explores the complexities of human psychology marks a progression and breakthrough in revolutionising fear and terror. Films like Yakshi, Manichitrathazhu, Akam, and Arikil Oraal has previously explored the subgenre of psychological horror using the distributed mental states of anxiety, paranoia, psychosis, loneliness, trauma, mental illness, and dread as a means of scaring the audience. 

Writer-director Rahul Sadasivan’s second feature Bhoothakaalam (The Past) is the latest entry into the genre-bending psychological horror that exposes the darker corners of the human psyche underlining the psychological and emotional vulnerabilities/fears that most people may repress or deny. Starring Revathy and Shane Nigam in the lead, the film blends the elements of psychological horror, supernatural horror, thriller/mystery, and family drama, leaving room for multiple interpretations in its culmination. The film has transmuted the stereotypical perception towards horror films as it creates fear, dread and discomfort sans the cliched employment of gore, jump scares, and graphic violence. The film conveniently manages to achieve the goal of terrifying the audience weaving together the perspectives of the paranormal with psychological settings. The film also touches upon sensitive issues like mental disorders, substance abuse, intergenerational trauma and pain, the psychological stress and pressures of elder care, and youth unemployment to evoke the unpleasant, unsettling, and distressing atmosphere.

The film follows the strained relationship between Asha (Revathy) and her son Vinu (Shane Nigam) who are living together in a house in urban Kerala, haunted by a troubled past and present-day uncertainty. Asha is a schoolteacher who is undergoing treatment for clinical depression while Vinu is a frustrated and unemployed D. Pharm graduate who is mostly seen drinking and smoking away from the glare of his overbearing mother. When the movie commences, Asha is waking up to change the adult diaper of her ailing, bedridden mother (Valsala Menon) in the dead of the night. Vinu appears noticeably irritated about playing nurse to his incapacitated grandmother and suggests his mother employ a home nurse. Asha sternly reminds him that they can’t afford a home nurse as they are leading a hand to mouth existence. Vinu’s debt-ridden father died when he was seven and Asha singlehandedly raised him while coping with the tragic loss of her husband. The tension and disagreement between Vinu and his mother are further compounded by her reluctance to let him move out of the city in search of better opportunities. The anxiety of unemployment and peer pressure pushes Vinu into depression and sleeplessness, a hereditary disposition in their family. All hell breaks loose when his grandmother passes away bursting out all the insecurities brewing between the mother and son and their fragile mental health. 

Bhoothakaalam is distinctive and unprecedented in its approach to converge discrete genres to evoke the everyday horrors of existence. It is indispensable to assess how the film functions as a layered narrative mixing up seemingly disparate genres together. First and foremost, the film opens as a family drama or relationship drama exploring the dysfunctional and fractured family dynamics and the troubled past of the two principal characters. Asha and Vinu suffer the effects of the suffocating trauma and pain of the ghosts of the past in the present. Asha and Vinu are battling depression and sleeplessness haunted by their present circumstances induced by the death of Asha’s mother. Asha who raised Vinu as a single mother and the primary breadwinner of the family after the demise of her husband can’t bear to see him leave her for an outstation job. Asha’s controlling nature stems from the creeping dread and angst that Vinu will follow his father’s footsteps to become a failure repeating the machinations of history. After the death of her dementia-afflicted mother, she feels miserable, crying all night long, as she had lost the only person who really understood her. She perceives that she has done her best to make Vinu’s life comfortable as she has bought him a computer, a bike, a mobile phone and the education she wanted for him. When Vinu expresses his discontent and frustration, she finds Vinu to be ungrateful and unappreciative of her efforts. She is also experiencing communication breakdowns with her son turning routine queries into arguments and clashes.

Vinu, on the other hand, is a victim of intergenerational transmission of depression who feels extreme stress and anxiety over his unemployed status. He is fighting his own private battles, facing the overbearing stress of job hunting while his peers are moving ahead with their prospects in career and life. As his mother doesn’t want him to pursue a job in a faraway place, his employment opportunities are limited to the hometown in which he is often unsuccessful. Disappointed and dejected, he turns to alcohol and drugs as an escape from the crushing depression and it becomes a crippling addiction that leads him to the verge of ruination. Asha and Vinu are unable to bridge the gap between their places at the dinner table which often ends in a confrontation that leaves Asha in tears. Vinu is reluctant to express his escalating anxiety and vulnerability to his friends and girlfriend as he is terrified of losing them. He also feels guilty when his grandmother dies as he has not been involved in elderly care. When he starts hearing strange sounds in the house and begins to have visions of his dead grandmother, it is uncertain whether he is in the early stages of a psychotic breakdown or he is actually witnessing a malevolent spirit.

At this juncture, the film shifts to the realm of psychological horror where the characters are doubting their own perceptions of reality or questioning their own sanity. Here the film throws its particular focus on the mental, emotional and psychological states of the characters to frighten and unsettle the audience. When Vinu experiences disturbances in his home, he notices the signs of another presence which he assumes to be his grandmother’s ghost, suddenly pricked by the guilt of not caring for her. When Vinu hears Asha sobbing, grieving over the death of her mother, he looks through the keyhole to see what is happening inside. And he sees the figure of his snow-haired grandmother who was partially the reason why Vinu couldn’t leave town and now he is apprehensive that he has to assume the same role as the caretaker of his mother. Moreover, he continues to observe eerie things at home like the wheelchair of his grandmother to be a different place each time without anybody moving it and also finds his phone to be broken and damaged.

The film persistently makes us ponder whether Vinu is experiencing paranormal phenomena or just the distressed psychological state of the character undergoing psychic problems like depression or substance abuse. The supposedly haunted house is a metaphor for the contaminated mind of its inhabitants who are encountering a series of rough patches. The characters are trapped inside the terror-inducing setting of the daily drudgeries of life having curtailed their individuality and freedom. Vinu is affected and annoyed by the thought that he will never be able to break free from his family’s troubled past. This uneasiness and anxiety are reflected in the subsequent scene where his mother threatens to lock him up inside a room when he reveals his plan of leaving town. Right after this, he finds himself locked inside his grandmother’s room and he also catches sight of a shadow in the empty attached bathroom. This experience shakes Vinu up and convinces him that there is an evil spirit that has latched on to the household. Vinu is found to be at crossroads finding it difficult to grasp the distorted reality which has become subject to delusions. We witness him slipping slowly and gradually into emotional disturbances, hallucinations, mental disorders coupled with his substance addiction.

Now the narrative transposes and assumes the genre conventions of a mystery thriller as George (Saiju Kurup), a counsellor who is trying to help Vinu, investigates the past or ‘bhoothakaalam’ of the house. At first, George with his rational thinking and scientific temper refuses to believe Vinu’s suggestion that the house is haunted. George also marks him as an alcoholic and drug addict like his relatives and assumes that sleeplessness and isolation might be the reason for his misapprehensions and delusions. However, when a nosey neighbour claims that the terrible things have transpired to those who are residents of the house, he makes enquiries about what happened to the previous inhabitants. The house originally witnessed the suicide of a three-member family consisting of a husband, wife, and a little girl and the later inhabitants have encountered near-death experiences who professes to have caught glimpses of supernatural presences at the house. Even when George is accepting of the fact that the house is haunted, Madhu (James Eliya), Vinu’s uncle, is a sceptical voice who refuses to blame the house for the actions of the people who inhabited the house. This conflicting and incongruous point of view keeps us on our toes with suspense, dread and fear of the danger and deathtrap that is awaiting the characters.

Finally, the film also adopts the supernatural horror angle at the chilling climax beautifully merging it with the psychological to generate a devastating and dumbfounding effect. When Asha loses hope of saving his son from the stigma of mental illness despite her best efforts, she takes a drastic step of mixing poison in their dinner. What follows is a cathartic and freeing heart-to-heart conversation which eliminates all the misunderstandings between the duo. When Vinu expresses that neither his friends nor his girlfriend understands him and asks for her acceptance and understanding, Asha supports him and tells him that she performed everything to the best of her abilities so that he could avoid the mistakes she has done in her life. This releasing of the pent up emotions and thoughts lets them reach a place of mutual understanding, and in effect, the house exorcises and lets out all the demons it had been hiding. 

Asha and Vinu come face to face with the previous residents of the house who committed suicide. The zombie-like ghosts surround them, seemingly trying to trap them and stop them from escaping. The ghosts Asha and Vinu witnesses represent the hurdles they need to cross to derive happiness and empathy in future. The ghosts can also be a result of psychosis, a kind of overwhelming fear that causes disconnection from reality, during which hallucinations and delusions may occur. As Asha and Vinu are equally suffering from depression and insomnia, psychotic episodes may occur which can cause difficulties in determining what is real and what is not. Towards the end, when they manage to open the front door to escape, they have escaped the traumatic episodes of the troubled past, freshly born with a clean slate. The horror trope is instrumental to the narrative as it places mental health and the need for sensitivity and empathy at its centre. 

Disguised as a terrorising horror film, Bhoothakaalam deals with themes of psychological disorder and its adverse effects. The film is an allegory for the trauma, grief, loneliness, and generational sufferings that pushes the characters to go berserk, unrestrained and self-destructively violent. Sadasivan aims to induce fear and uneasiness in a more abstract or cerebral way rather than using cheap thrills. The fear is instigated by analysing the psychology of the characters as well as the audience who perceives them. This slow-burn atmospheric film is both built on the dread of the unnatural and the universal dread of isolation and emotional longing. The film, which evokes similarities with other psychological horror movies like Hereditary, The Vigil, The Babadook, It Follows, The Haunting of Hill House, distress the audience by showcasing disturbed psychological states and unstable characters trying to find a way out of their murky existence. The film becomes all the more personal and relatable as it revolutionises fear by showing the nightmarish everyday life of a dysfunctional family. This spectacularly spooky and disquieting film signals catharsis for not only the characters but also for the audience as they navigate through the negative emotions in the deep depths of the human psyche.