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Ghost stories are scary & fun. No wonder, Netflix and Karan Johar have latched on to them

The Lust Stories quartet has reunited to bring us Ghost Stories. It’s a genre as old as ghosts and still continues to thrill with its scares.

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New Delhi: “Don’t leave your hair open or wear any perfume. It may lure the djinn and then it won’t leave you alone,” said Asif Khan, founder of Delhi Karavan — a group that organises heritage walks around the capital city and Rajasthan — before leading a night walk into the innards of Mehrauli. Hearing this, women in the group looked around nervously and hastily looked for scrunchies and clips inside their bags to tie their hair.

The walk up to Madhi Masjid Friday — opposite the Qutub Minar metro station in Delhi — is through partially dark and isolated alleys, with a solitary street lamp providing little light. As one walks, a presence can be felt behind but that might also be a figment of imagination.

Khan, however, strolled around nonchalantly into the abandoned and almost dilapidated Madhi Masjid. He began explaining its history, the tale of djinns in the most innocuous and factual manner.

Madhi Masjid was a functional mosque in the 17th and 18th centuries but abandoned following a spate of violence post 1857. According to a legend, the djinns took over the mosque once it was deserted.

These spirits or supernatural creatures, it is said, take up the form of either good or evil beings out of their own free will. According to many myths, it is humans who have to please the djinns.

The thing about stories of djinns, ghosts and other paranormal presences is that, irrespective of whether one believes in them or not, there is always a sense of deep enjoyment in listening to and retelling tales about them. Video streaming service Netflix has announced how directors of Bombay Talkies and Lust Stories — Karan Johar, Zoya Akhtar, Dibakar Banerjee and Anurag Kashyap — are now teaming up for a horror anthology called Ghost Stories.

The quartet’s previous anthologies were well received for featuring each director’s unique style and take. The bar is, hence, high for Ghost Stories too.

Why ghost stories appeal to audiences

According to Barry Markovsy, sociologist at the University of Southern California, part of the reason why humans believe in ghost stories simply boils down to the way our brains work. “Ghosts are almost always seen under ambiguous circumstances — such as in poor lighting, or when we’re just waking up or falling asleep, when our senses are not at their peak function. People who believe in ghosts are often in situations where they’re expecting to see them, such as in a ‘haunted’ house,” he said.

Benjamin Radford, deputy editor of Skeptical Inquirer, an American magazine, and author of Scientific Paranormal Investigation, said it is also because believing in ghosts may be related to a belief in the afterlife. It has roots in the desire of humans to have control over the world. A more quotidian reason is that people simply want a deviation from their mundane lives, and ghost stories are an avenue to adventure.

Ghosts do have a history

Often, ghost stories are rooted in a historical era or context. Khan, for example, contextualises his stories about the supernatural with historical events, making them a lot more real and relatable.

He explained the structure of abandoned monuments and how its windows make good homes for spirits. During the walk, he also expounded on how the sulphur water of Gandhak Ki Baoli nearby — where people earlier came to rid themselves of ailments — ‘changes colour’ just before someone was about to drown in it.

The night walk around Mehrauli also took the group through a cemetery — where one can get the feeling of an unknown presence lurking around. The walk proceeded into the lesser-known dargah of Qutbuddin Bakhtiyar Kaki, the successor of Moinuddin Chishti.

It finally ended at Bhool Bhulaiya, the gravestone of Mughal Emperor Akbar’s stepbrother Adham Khan. The bat-infested monument is said to harness the curse of Rani Roopmati, who killed herself before Khan could capture her during his conquest of Malwa. She had cursed Khan for his barbaric acts against women and children. Today, they say, the monument is “not recommended for women”.

Ghosts in the city

These tales of the supernatural seem fairly removed from reality because of how long ago they allegedly took place. But there are also many stories of ghosts and spirits living in today’s time as well.

The Karkardooma Delhi Court has recorded eerie instances of cabinets opening and papers flying, chairs moving by themselves and a strange figure seen waltzing around the courtroom. The Bombay High Court is known to house the spirit of a murder convict or lawyer — no one knows for certain which — who terrorises those accused of murder by talking to them in a hoarse voice and cursing them.

Then there is the Writers’ Building at BBD Square in Kolkata. This story dates back to 1930 when three freedom fighters killed Inspector General Colonel N.S. Simpson. The ghost of Simpson is said to still haunt the building — many people working there have heard desperate cries for help at night from the building’s vacant rooms.

Khan also calmly said he has seen the ‘white lady’ in New Delhi’s Sanjay Van, who famously lurks on the roads near the forest. His friend spoke about a relative who would disappear every night into the forest and only to come back in the morning. One night, a few people had reportedly followed this relative into a village and saw him climb up a tree and be overtaken by a djinn. He was brought down and had to be “cleansed of” the spirit.

Spirits with a social message

From Mahal in 1949 to Tumbbad in 2018, Hindi films have been for a long time telling ghost stories. Movies such as Madhumati (1958), Bees Saal Baad (1962), Gumrah (1965), Raaz (2002), Bhoot (2003), Horror Story (2013) and Pari (2018) have given sleepless nights to many. Netflix too has been streaming several horror films and series.

The 2017 movie Get Out, an American horror story and commentary on racism, is available on Netflix. Horror with a social message has also been replicated in the Bollywood flick Stree, which is a comment on patriarchy.

Asif Khan believes most of these tales are people’s own interpretation of social situations and historical events, based on their own situation, life and socio-economic position. History is the lies of the victor, goes the popular adage. And clearly, it’s true for the supernatural world as well.

Also read: A fall through a sinkhole on prime Bengaluru property led to discovery of a hidden temple

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