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
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
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.