As I began watching the trailer for the supernatural horror film It Lives Inside, I thought it would be another classic high school story — you know, the protagonist discovering their true identity while battling a Freddie-Kruger-esque killer or being haunted by an Annabelle-like spirit — but I was sorely mistaken.
From the producers of Jordan Peele’s Get Out and starring Never Have I Ever’s Megan Suri, the film follows the struggle between Sam, an Indian American high-schooler, and a pishach, a flesh-eating demon from Hindu mythology — something I grew up hearing stories and legends about from my Indian grandparents. Turns out, It Lives Inside writer and director Bishal Dutta based the film on his experience immigrating to the US from India as a 4-year-old, Indian folklore, and even a family story his grandfather told him.
Needless to say, this story hit me personally and emotionally. Recently, I had the opportunity to chat with the Bishal about the horror stories that informed our childhood — from popular Indian myths to the pishach that inspired his film. So, here’s a breakdown of the five beings from South Asian folklore we discussed that will definitely keep you up at night:
Let’s start by discussing the demon in the room, the pishach. It’s a shapeshifting and flesh-eating demon that originated from Hindu mythology. As Sam learns in It Lives Inside, a pishach can become invisible and even manipulate the mind to drive you to the brink of sanity. “Don’t go to sleep with a bad feeling in your heart,” Bishal shared, as these creatures pry on negative human energy.
Next, Bishal spoke about his childhood in Assam, where he heard stories of the baak. As he explained, “[A baak] is a shapeshifter that lives in swamps and will draw you in while you are traveling at night.”
According to the legends, a churel is an extremely hideous witch who can shapeshift. She lures men into the woods to absorb their life force to make herself beautiful. She’s giving Mother Gothel from Tangled meets The Blair Witch Project — but Bishal revealed that you could identify these witches by their “backward feet.”
If you’ve seen or read Harry Potter, you might notice the connection between Voldemort’s snake, Nagini, and this next creature, the naagin. It’s a half-human, half-snake creature that can shapeshift into different species. Like Bishal, I first heard of the naagin from my grandparents and was always told you could recognize one by its 1) ability to be statuesque for extended periods, 2) infrequent blinking, and 3) particularly alluring beauty.
Last but not least, Bishal and I discussed the Nale Ba legend — said to be based on true events from a village in Bengaluru, India. In English, “nale ba” translates to “come tomorrow.” As the story goes, an evil spirit would knock on the doors of villagers at night while saying their names in a familiar voice. If the villagers opened the door, they would be killed and put back into bed. In hopes of preventing the spirit from knocking, the villagers began writing “nale ba” on their doors.
I hope you enjoyed reading the scary stories that Bishal and I grew up with. Let me know what scary stories you heard growing up! And if you were fascinated by the folklore we discussed, be sure to watch It Lives Inside. You can check out the trailer below:
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