India is a vibrant land of innumerable and diverse stories. Ancient and unique stories that are

marinated with emotions and sentiments. From the deserts of Rajasthan to snowy Kashmir,

from the Arabian Sea in the south to the hilly north, in all the corners of India from east to

west and north to south, infinite stories related to ghosts, demons, and monsters are found.

Scary, mysterious, haunting, but entertaining stories. Unfortunately, these stories couldn’t

reach the silver screen. Indian screens are haunted by love and family drama.

Fear is the natural but most powerful primitive human emotion that influences our thinking

ability and intelligence. Ever wondered? How could an intensely unpleasant emotion like fear

be entertaining? Because strangely, our fear and entertainment are co-linked and we enjoy

horror in the same way we enjoy bungee jumping and skydiving. Our bodies respond to fear

by releasing a variety of chemicals and hormones. Horror films give the adrenaline rush, the

thrill that human nerves crave and enjoy. This makes horror films one of the easiest to

connect with, even with the overload of unexplainable things and non-existential entities.

We humans are born with two fears only. One is of falling down, and another of a loud noise.

Others we develop with our age and experience. We are subconsciously aware while

watching the films that we are seeing a fictional thing, and that’s why, even after connecting

with the characters and sinking into the story-world, we tolerate the shocking and horrific

scenes of characters facing brutal and torturous incidents. That’s the beauty of films, which

resemble our dreams.

The French director Georges Melies is credited with scaring people by showing the devil for

the first time on screen, laying the foundation for science fiction and horror films. His 3

minute silent short film, Le Manoir du Diable (The House of the Devil), is often recognised as

the first horror film in the world. The viewers were amused by witnessing the morphing of

one character into another. Georges Meilies continued exploring the genre with his next films

like A Terrible Night, A Nightmare, The Bewitched Inn, The Cave of the Demons, etc. A

Nightmare can be considered the earliest psychological horror with a dream sequence.

Horror movies started blooming in the 1920’s successfully. 1920 was a significant year for

horror films. It can be considered the dawn of the horror genre. Two of the most important

horror films were produced in Germany and America in the same year. The German director

Robert Wiene made The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, a film with the clear impression of German

expressionism and cubist architecture. It is referred to as the first true horror film, which

influenced horror films for over a century now. The film also had a significant impact on the

ambient lighting technique used in film noir.

In the same year, the significant American film, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, was released, which

made John Barrymore a household name. Then, just two years later, in 1922, Nosferatu, the

first vampire film and an unauthorised adaptation of Dracula, was released, leaving a lasting

impression on future generations of horror filmmakers. Nosferatu was also a prominent

example of the German expressionism and artistic movement that became the definitive look

of horror films and film noir with its deep contrast of light and shadows that deepen the film’s

morbid and nihilistic experience.

Then came the historically most important and creative decade for horror films, 1930–1940.

Often referred to as the first golden age of horror films. Many masterpieces were made

during this period, which are important historically, culturally, as well as aesthetically for the

horror genre. The iconic and stylish classic horror-Frankenstien (1931); a dreamy, unsettling

horror delight by Carl Theodor Dreyer- Vampyr (1932); a timeless horror with a powerful

message – Freaks (1932); a cinematic and creepy horror with an unforgettable

spine-shivering performance by Bela Lugosi – Dracula (1931); The Bride of Frankenstein

(1935) and King Kong (1933). King Kong was an early period monster film for which the

thematic music score was written for the first time. The masterpiece is a legacy now, which

inspired generations of monster horror filmmakers to create mystic and vivid creations.

The legacy then continued with one after another great horror like Alien, The Shining, The

Thing, The Exorcist, Halloween, Jaws, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Rosemary’s Baby,

Dawn of the Dead, The Silence of the Lambs, Suspiria, Psycho, The Birds, Evil Dead,

Paranormal Activity, The Witch, 28 Days Later, Godzilla, Saw, Shaun of the Dead, tii the

recent It, The conjuring, The Nun, Us, Crimes of the Future, Midsommar, Get Out etc. The

list is long. Many countries are making fantastic horrors worldwide. America, Italy, Spain,

Germany, and France are the major genre accelerators, whereas horror films from Asian

countries like Japan, China, South Korea, and Thailand have gained a worldwide reputation.

In such long lists, the name of the Indian film is missing.

Kamal Amrohi made his directorial debut with India’s first horror film, Mahal, in 1949. Mahal

was an excellent gothic horror film which broke collection records at the box office. In today’s

estimation, it is approximately Rs. 200 crore. The figure can give an idea of how much

success the film has had. The film was a musical hit, which gave stardom to Madhubala and

Lata Mangeshkar. It took more than 30 years for the first horror film to arrive after the first

film made in India (Raja Harishchandra, 1913). The next notable Indian horrors were

Madhumati (1958), Bees Saal Baad (1962), Woh Kaun Thi (1964), Gumnaam (1965), Bhoot

Bungla (1965), Naagin (1976), Jaani Dushman (1979), Aur Kaun ? (1979), Gehrayee (1980)

etc. A slow and interrupted journey of Indian horrors.

Ramsey’s horror era lasted from 1975 to 1995. The low-budget, creepy but catchy horror

films were made by the Seven Ramsey brothers and became the real pioneers of the genre.

They literally set up an empire of horror films and created them like a factory product. The

quality of the films was questionable, but they were successful at the box office. They made

more than 30 films in around 20 years, many of which gained the status of cult and are still

remembered. Popular films include, Do Gaz Zameen Ke Neeche, Darwaza, Purana Mandir,

Tahkhana, Veerana, Purani Haveli, Bandh Darwaza etc. A shoe-string budget, casting the

new faces in lead roles, use of comedy and love as side-tracks, collaborations with good

music directors to create good songs, reuse of the same background music in every film;

such things helped them to make the mass-engaging films on a low-budget and recover the

investment, but they couldn’t grow artistically and inclined towards more B-grade filmmaking.

The films created a stir and hope at the start, but then disappeared with disappointment.

Ram Gopal Varma, one of the pioneers of Indian new age cinema and the man who gave

the Mumbai noir genre to the film world, also gave some of the finest Indian horrors like Raat

(original Raatri) and Bhoot. He also produced some good horrors like Vaastu Shastra, Darna

Mana Hai, etc. The master filmmaker’s later films, like Agyaat, Ice Cream, 12 ‘O’ Clock,

Bhoot Returns, etc., heavily disappointed the genre’s hope.

Vikram Bhatt’s films, which included Raaz (based on What Lies Beneath), 1920 (inspired by

The Exorcist), Shaapit, Haunted, Ghost, Creature, and others, did well at the box office. He

tried to blend horror with romance and music. Like in older days, Ramsey’s tried to blend it

with music and seduction. These films created a temporary buzz and ended up adding a

small amount of creative value to the Indian horror genre.

Some creative exceptions in recent times came from Tamil horror movies like Pisasu (2014),

Pizza (2012), 13B (2009), and The House Next Door (2017). A few Indian horror films like

Tumbbad, Bulbbul, and Pari have created hope for the growth of the horror genre now. The

success of comedy horror Stree and the collaboration of notable Indian filmmakers like

Anurag Kashyap, Karan Johar, Dibakar Banerjee, and Zoya Akhtar for the horror anthology

film Ghost Stories can be considered phenomenally positive things that happened for the

genre. What Tumbbad has achieved is extraordinary in the sense of blending the elements

of horror and fantasy thriller. Tumbbad managed to impress the critics as well as the general

audience. It can be considered the second horror film after Mahal that got noticed outside its

native land. The film was far beyond the expectations and definition of Indian horror films at

its release time. Tumbbad gave wings to an independent imagination and strength to one of

the most important but unfortunately unbloomed film genres in India—horror.

In more than 20 languages, around 1000–1500 films are made every year in India. India

produces the largest number of films. Most of the topics are family drama, love, or comedy.

In terms of overall genre filmmaking, India is still a developing ground. Forget the horror films

of Hollywood and Spain or Italy, but it appears like a bonsai in comparison to our fellow

Asian film industries of South Korea, Japan, Taiwan, Thailand, and China. Asian horror films

are rocking the world.

South Korea is making remarkable horror films that seem rooted but universal and flavoured

with their own culture. The distinguishable films include The Host, Train to Busan, A Tale of

Two Sisters, The Wailing, etc. Taiwan is not producing many horrors, but the future of

Taiwanese horror films looks promising with films like The Sadness, Tag-along, Detention,

The Bride, Silk, Soul, and The Bridge etc.

Japan has already set a great example of innovative horror films with films like Ugetsu,

Godzilla (1954), Kwaidan and recent films like Audition, The Grudge, The Ring, Dark Water,

Tokyo Ghoul and One Cut of the Dead. The Ring and One Cut of the Dead have won the

hearts of viewers all over the world.

China is also producing highly profitable and terrifying films such as The House That Never

Dies 1 & 2, The Mysterious Island, Bunshinsaba, Last Flight, Bloody Doll, Nowhere to Run,

Blood Stained Shoes, and others.

Thai horror is mostly influenced by their belief in ghosts and Thai folklore. Horror is one of

the most popular genres in Thai cinema. The comedy-horror film Pee Mak (2013) is the

commercially and critically most successful horror film from Thailand to date. Other notable

films like Shutter (2004), Nang Nak (1999), and Sitisiri Mongkolsiri’s Inhuman Kiss (2019),

which was an official entry by Thailand for the 92nd Academy Awards for Best Picture. It was

not nominated but was a great attempt. Buppah Rathri (2003), a cult comedy-horror which

was screened at the Toronto International Film Festival. And the most recently successful

was The Medium (2021), which was a Thai-South Korean co-production. The Medium was

premiered and awarded at the Bucheon International Fantastic Film Festival and was

selected as the Thai entry for the 94th Academy Awards. Horror film production in

Cambodia, Malaysia, and Indonesia is on the right track, and horror films in Japan, China,

South Korea, and Thailand have gained international acclaim.

India is considered the largest film-making industry in the world in terms of quantity and

second after Hollywood in terms of finance. Even if we compare it to the Asian continent,

then where do we stand in the development of horror as a genre? How many Indian horror

films could achieve such international recognition? Why couldn’t it? The massive factory of

Indian films is failing to yield a product which could stand in this creative race.

Many Indian horror films could have become ideal trendsetters and memorable films but

failed due to the pathetic third act of the film and climax. After a good start and a great

build-up, the insecure creators tend to end the film in a clichéd, melodramatic, and

over-commercial way. It resulted in losing its artistic impact and box-office disappointments

as well.

Overuse of make-up, unnecessary and overloaded use of melodramatic music, low quality

production sets etc can cause enthusiastic viewers to become disengaged from the film. In

particular, in horror genre films, these elements matter far more than others. It’s very difficult

to make people believe in supernatural, paranormal, other-worldly, and cryptic things without

giving them a chance to distract. John Carpenter, the famous composer and director who

made classic horrors like Halloween (1978), The Fog (1980), Vampires (1998), Prince of

Darkness (1987) and science horror fiction The Thing (1982), proves the strength of music

the genre requires. The clever use of agitated piano stabs in his slasher-horror film

Halloween was as scary as the psychopath in the white mask. Such use of background

music or songs was done brilliantly in very few notable Indian films, like Mahal, Madhumati,

Manichitrathazu, Kuheli, Gumnaam, Woh Kaun Thi? and recently in Bulbbul. Many can

remember the famous Zee Horror Show theme, which was originally created by talented

music composer Uttam Singh for the Ramsey brothers’ film Purana Mandir. The musical

theme still scares even without visuals.

Stereotyping of the content and attempting to mimic Western aesthetics, culture, values,

trends, and style may also be reasons for the film’s loss of identity and uniqueness, as well

as the audience’s loss of connection with the film. The way films like Bulbbul, Tumbbad or

Vishal Bharadwaj’s Makdee managed to incorporate cultural roots, originality and

groundness of the characters worked very well. Most of the time, Indian audiences are

served by horror films with stale stuffing of romance or comedy, which becomes indigestible

after a certain point, and viewers simply deny such redundant and formula-based predictive

circus of visuals. There will always be a craving for culturally rooted, folklore-based original

content amongst film lovers, which unfortunately, Indian horror films are lacking. This is

restricting the films from being authentic and universal.

Different sub-genres of horror like slasher, monster, gothic, comedy, folk, body, found

footage, sci-fi, social, psychological, supernatural, zombie and vampire horrors, etc. evolved

over a period of time. The subgenres enriched the viewing experience and provided variety

in production. These subgenres are not explored well in India. That brought monotony to

Indian horror films.

The reputation of horror films in India has become such that hardly any filmmaker thinks of

making their debut with a horror film. In fact, many great directors, like Francis Ford Copolla,

Oliver Stone, James Cameron, David Corenberg, Peter Jackson, Sam Raimi, and Brian Da

Palma, started their careers with horror films. Despite being tried by various acclaimed and

notable filmmakers in India, a potential genre went unrealized. Indian film marvels like

Satyajit Ray, Bimal Roy, Tarun Majumdar, Mani Kaul, Fazil, Ram Gopal Varma, or Vishal

Bhardwaj have experimented with the genre, but it’s still waiting for its real glory. The 80’s

B-grade Indian horrors contributed majorly to the general misconception that horrors are less

creative and respectable. Unfortunately, there are so few classic examples of real horror

films and classic horror filmmakers exists, that this misconception has gotten stronger in

current times.

There are numerous popular international horror film festivals dedicated to fantasy and

horror films, such as the Bucheon International Fantastic Film Festival, Fantasia Film

Festival, Screamfest Horror Film Festival, The Sitges Film Festival, and others. Screening a

film at a reputed international film festival can be a great way to gain popularity for the film. It

can open doors for the distribution and international collaborations or wider release of the

films. But, unfortunately, it appears either underestimated or avoided in India. The Sadness,

Taiwan’s recent classic horror, can be a great example in this context. The Sadness was not

a successful film at the box office, after its release in Taiwan. Later, the film was screened at

the 74th Locarno International Film Festival in Switzerland, where it caught international

attention. The film was then screened in other reputed film festivals and got a huge

international success. The film is now considered as one of the most successful horror films

in Taiwan, which even got its place in the list of many ‘Top 100 best horror films of all time’.

Tumbbad gained international attention after being the first Indian film to be premiered in the

critic’s week section of the 75th Venice International Film Festival. It was also screened at

other reputable international film festivals after that. This created a buzz and helped it reach

a larger audience around the world.

The journey of the Indian horror genre from Mahal to Tumbbad appears very slow-paced, but

it’s hopeful. India is the land of rebels, and cinema is no exception to that. Many more

cinematically creative and innovative revolts like Tumbbad and Bulbbul sustain the hope for

the future of the genre.