IIHS City Scripts panel discussion in Bengaluru: Why we crave horror stories?

Writers Rakesh Khanna, TG Shenoy, Khayaal Patel, and Jayaprakash Satyamurthy discuss horror writing in India at IIHS’ City Scripts event in Bengaluru

Published - May 15, 2024 12:09 pm IST

(From left to right) TG Shenoy, Rakesh Khanna, and Jayaprakash Satyamurthy

(From left to right) TG Shenoy, Rakesh Khanna, and Jayaprakash Satyamurthy | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

We all scream. We all have those moments where a shiver races down our spine, a primal reaction to the shadows that lurk just beyond our sight. Why are we drawn to horror? This question was at the heart of the ‘Words Woven in the Dark: Horror in Indian Writing’ panel discussion at this year’s three-day City Scripts festival organised by the Indian Institute for Human Settlements (IIHS) in Bengaluru last weekend.

One of the panellists, Rakesh Khanna, author, publisher, and co-founder of Blaft Publications, suggested that horror is not just about entertainment; it is a way to confront and understand our deep-seated anxieties.

“In the grand scheme of things, it wasn’t that long ago that humans lived in constant fear of predators. Cave bears, sabre-toothed tigers – these monstrous creatures could snatch you up any night,” he explained, “We, as a species, had to be hyperaware of them, their habits, how to avoid them, maybe even outsmart them. Now, those beasts are gone. But what if a part of our brain, once laser-focused on danger, still craves that stimulation? Perhaps we crave these horror stories, these bumps in the night, because there’s a void left by those ancient threats. We, inherently, need to fill it with something. So we create monsters, ghosts, all these things that keep that primal part of us ticking.”

The hour-long discussion also featured science fiction columnist TG Shenoy as well as authors Jayaprakash Satyamurthy (who has self-published short story collections, Come Tomorrow and Shelter From The Storm, and the novella , Strength of Water) and Khayaal Patel (whose books include Tarikshir: The Awakening and The Zamindar’s Ghost), who joined via video call.

Rakesh Khanna’s ‘Ghosts, Monsters, and Demons of India’ and Cherrie Lalnunziri Chhangte’s ‘Mizo Myths’

Rakesh Khanna’s ‘Ghosts, Monsters, and Demons of India’ and Cherrie Lalnunziri Chhangte’s ‘Mizo Myths’ | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

Shenoy, meanwhile, explored the idea that we are innately drawn to the things that scare us. “We’ve always been drawn to death, what lies beyond it – that’s where the whole ghost thing comes in. We crave that knowledge, even if it means confronting the darkness and the fear it evokes.”

“It’s like a love-fear relationship. On one hand, there’s a part of me that actually enjoys the fear. It’s a thrill, that feeling of impending doom. Deep down, I know that it’s all just stories. But another part wants to keep the lights on all night, just in case,” he said, chuckling.

Khayaal agreed with his co-panellists about our innate attraction to horror. “We’re just wired to explore the unknown, good or bad. It’s like this primal urge to open every door, press every button—we must see what happens. We’re built to explore, to push boundaries. But also this fear of the unknown that’s just as deeply ingrained.”

Jayaprakash considered horror another lens through which we see the world. He connected it to the diverse religious practices in the country, sharing his frightening experience of witnessing a ritual in Kodaikanal that is on the line that separates the natural from the supernatural.  

“I remember attending this dance drama near the Kurinji Andavar Temple in Kodaikanal. This performer was possessed by the God Kurinji Andavar. It was terrifying! Just looking at him sent chills down my spine. And then, at the end of the dance, he collapses. I’m there freaking out, wondering if he’s alright. But then, 15 minutes later, he gets up – and the God is still in him! Now, I’m not a religious person, but there was something undeniable about that night. It felt like the veil between the worlds was paper-thin, and honestly, it still feels that way sometimes.”

According to Shenoy, Indian horror is woven right into the fabric of the country’s culture. It is not some distant, scary story — these creatures are part of its folklore, religion, and everyday lives. They feel real, not theoretical, like vampires and werewolves in the West. “India has more monsters and creatures than it can handle,” he said.

Panjurli from the Kannada film ‘Kantara’

Panjurli from the Kannada film ‘Kantara’ | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

“Take the Panjurli, for example, which is mentioned in Rakesh’s book (Ghosts, Monsters, and Demons of India). Thanks to the movie Kantara, many people are aware of it. It can be a scary creature, right? But it is my family’s deiva, the deity we worship. We perform bhoota kola rituals, and yes, sacrifices might be involved. To an outsider, it might seem horrifying, but for us, it’s a way of connecting with the divine. It’s the same with Kali. Westerners often see her as some demonic figure, a mascot for a heavy metal band. But Kali is a powerful goddess we worship. Sure, she’s depicted with blood and skulls – classic horror imagery, right? But for us, she’s a symbol of strength and transformation.” 

The panellists also discussed urban legends closer to home, such as the night-roaming ‘Naale Ba’ ghost in Bengaluru. The legend varies, but a common thread is that the Naale Baa spirit roams the streets at night, knocking on doors and calling out in the voices of the homeowner’s loved ones. If the door is opened, the ghost is said to harm or even kill the person. Some believe writing “Naale Baa” (meaning “come tomorrow” in Kannada) on the door or walls deters the ghost as it returns the next night.

The speakers also called for more writers and readers to keep the horror genre alive. 

“Horror often gets stereotyped as a visual medium,” said Shenoy. “We think our stories wouldn’t translate well to books. But trust me, if you pick up some of these works, you’ll be surprised. The written word can be just as chilling as any scary movie. So, dive into these Indian horror novels – and whether you choose to sleep with the lights on or off after that is entirely up to you!” 

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