The most unusual thing about the Bengali film Ballavpurer Roopkatha (2022) is a melancholic male spirit unable to leave the precincts of the thakurbari (palace house) of his erstwhile ruling family. A reluctant prince, he was a romantic who loved Kalidas’s Meghdoot and tried his hand at verses himself. The young man’s writerly ambitions were mocked in neighbouring kingdoms and dismissed by his father, who sent him out on a misguided military mission. Those of us with creative aspirations know this sub-continental tendency too well — and how wounding it can feel when we aren’t old enough to deflect our parents’ egos. The prince dies on the mission, but is unable to leave his family home because of a curse his father announced .
It is an abiding rule of story-telling, especially in cinema, that ghosts will be women. Hindi cinema is packed with unhappy women who tend to wander at night with a repertoire of memorable melodies. The late Lata Mangeshkar made her first mark in playback singing with the song “Aayega Aanewala” in Mahal (1948), filmed on Madhubala. Her career is studded with haunting hits. Interestingly, Mangeshkar herself produced a film called Lekin (1991), based on a Rabindranath Tagore short story that was made into the Bengali film Kshudito Pashan in 1962 by Tapan Sinha. Here, she sings another of her classic haunted melodies, “Yaara Seeli Seeli” filmed on Dimple Kapadia who keeps appearing to Vinod Khanna’s ASI officer (interestingly in daylight hours too).
This tradition continues. This year’s first big Hindi box office hit cinema featured the unhappy Bengali twin sisters Manjulika and Anjulika, played magnificently by Tabu, in Bhool Bhulaiyya 2 (2022). Stree (2018) is about a witch who abducts solitary men during an annual festival. The under-watched Talaash (2012) featured both an otherworldly female streetwalker, and a woman neighbour whose visions disturb Aamir Khan’s fragile state of mind. Vishesh Films spent the Noughties investigating the secrets of husbands and partners who cheat on Bipasha Basu, and her various replacements in the Raaz series and other supernatural thrillers.
The first Raaz film appeared in 2002 and seemed to be a copy of the Hollywood film What Lies Beneath (2000). Hollywood is filled with women figures who are not normal. The most well-known Hollywood horror film, arguably, is The Exorcist (1973) where a young girl called Regan breaks out with demonic strength and nasty sores. Although the supernatural force is male – Satan—the form is female. Another cult film is Rosemary’s Baby (1968), based on a novel by Ira Levin. Here again the presence is Satan, a male figure, but he presages his arrival through a woman, through the womb. The exception appears to be The Omen series, featuring a boy child called Damien. However, Damian’s mother is a mysterious figure who we are told died at childbirth. Digging upon her grave in the cemetery reveals a secret along expectedly unsavoury lines. More importantly, what I notice is that men are almost never terrifying spectral presences. Children, boys and girls who die before attaining puberty, can be.
The unhappy world of ghostly women
The spirit of the unhappy woman is most often credited to the 18th century Gothic tradition of novels, prominently Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte and Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte and Frankenstein by Mary Shelley. Later 20th century works in the Gothic tradition include, most famously, Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier. The Gothic template situates characters in a large estate, some of it ruins. Central to all these works, barring Frankenstein is an unhappy or insane woman, haunted by the lack of love. But consider Frankenstein: Written by Mary Shelley who lost her baby soon after childbirth, it tells the story of a “creature” created by a male scientist called Victor Frankenstein who is disgusted and terrified by the ugliness of the human-like form he has created. The creature spends its life being shunned by human beings who are terrified of him, and begs Frankenstein to create a female creature for him. Like the unhappy women, this too is a story of the rage that comes from rejection, and unfulfilled sexual needs.
These books, aside from inspiring many more books, have all been turned into successful films and shows in all formats—celluloid, television, web series. Among the many writers influenced by this form is Rabindranath Tagore, who wrote two short stories turned into memorable films — Manihara in the Teen Kanya (1961) anthology by Satyajit Ray and the aforementioned Lekin and Kshudito Pashan. Both stories are about unhappy women.
The apparition of an unhappy woman goes beyond Anglophone cultures too, where the reach of Gothic fiction is arguably limited, most significantly in the Japanese Kaidan stories. These figures are described as having long black hair which tends to obscure their faces, much like Sadako in the cult Ringu films (The Ring in Hollywood ). The Kaidan refer to stories laden with moral meanings, based on Buddhist teachings, where justice is achieved by supernatural beings who were wronged in life. These beings are mostly women and servants, those without much power in the natural world. The first major Japanese horror film Kwaidan, a quadriptych of four ghostly stories based on their folktales, won a major prize in Cannes in 1964 and featured many of the elements associated with the Japanese horror genre—women with long hair, a pervading sense of melancholia, and the righting of old but unforgotten wrongs. It is sadness that makes a ghost story haunting, more than the horror of mutilated appearances, which can make us jump. Sadness, on the other hand, reminds us of how common injustice is.
The malevolent female presence, is a recurring motif in Korean ghost stories, a genre that has come into own from 1998 when the first Whispering Corridors film released, a series set in girls’ schools. The first significant Korean horror film came several decades earlier, however —The Housemaid (1960) is routinely listed as one of the best Korean films ever made and considered a formative influence on Bong Joon-Ho’s Parasite (2019). The story is about a woman, who comes to work as a maid, seduces her married employer, becomes pregnant with his child and soon after a forced miscarriage, begins to display unnatural powers. Note again: The thwarted, shamed sexual relationship.
So why are ghosts overwhelmingly female across cultures? The obvious answer is sex, and the simultaneous disgust and awe of the womb. Think of how the story of the unhappy female spirit is structured. She is typically a woman who is sexually active, but thwarted or cheated in a relationship. Sometimes, she is not sexually active but of age, hence pent-up sexual energy. In her essay ‘Women and Medicine’, Holt Parker argues that the Hippocratic treatise ‘On the Diseases of Women’ makes a distinction between the mouth and the anus, which are holes that can be “closed voluntarily” as against the vagina which “stays open”. The womb was seen as the “source of all disease” and women were said to “leak menstrual blood, sexual lubricant, lochial discharge after giving birth, and yeast infections.
Second, the kaidan narrative suggests women lack power in the natural world. Third, consider the cinematic possibilities of a figure like this — a figure who is not powerful in the natural world, but possesses the presumed-to-be-powerful ability to bear children. It allows you to project taboo desires like rape, subjugation. Think of how often the ghost story has been wrapped in sex? Look at the Ramsay Brothers catalogue and the output of Bhatt productions in the 2000s. In cinematic languages where song and dance is used, like Indian cinemas, the figure of the unhappy female spirit also offers strong audio-visual possibilities.
The male minority
Consider, on the other hand, the minority figure of the male ghost. Their film appearances are rare and generally genial or benevolent, in line with the stereotype that men are easy to hang out with. Hollywood has Casper, the cute friendly ghost, and Patrick Swayze as a loving otherworldly partner in Ghost (1990). The Sixth Sense (1999) differs from this generally warm portrayal with a beautiful, quiet sense of melancholy but the central male spirit is a good man (perhaps it’s more accurate to say, good soul).
In Hindi cinema, only a couple of male ghosts come to mind. The most famous of these is the phantom of MK Gandhi who takes up residence in Munnabhai’s conscience in Lage Raho Munnabhai (2002)—a gentle, delightful presence. (One interpretation of Lage Raho Munnabhai is that Gandhi was a hallucination, but why would a man who barely reads have hallucinations of MK Gandhi?) In Paheli (2005), Shah Rukh Khan is a charismatic shape-shifting spirit, who offers the romance that Rani Mukherji’s lonely marriage is bereft of.
The soul of good scientist Ajay Devgn inhabits the car he devised in Tarzan: The Wonder Car (2004), a dim copy of the sentient car Herbie from Hollywood. I could think only of the one prominent film where the male spirit is a chilling presence: in Aatma (2013), Nawazuddin Siddiqui plays an embittered divorced father, refused custody of his daughter, who dies in a freak accident and finds that the problem of visiting rights is sorted out.
Bengali cinema, like Hindi, only has a few instances of male ghosts, most of whom are cheerful. In Ray’s Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne (1969), the king of ghosts is thrilled to hear the horrendous music of Goopy and Bagha, performs a upbeat ditty in a nasal voice and grants them three life-changing wishes. Bhooter Bhabishyot (2012) has a house full of resident ghosts, where the male figures are as cantankerous, flirtatious, smitten, chatty, shy; as are the women ghosts. They are all human, but no longer living in the natural world.
This gender divide in ghosts is also an argument about mental health. In a previous essay, I have noted how it is always women who suffer mental health issues while men are psychiatrists, anchors, even abusers. When men are shown as depressed, it is usually the result of a woman who has rejected them. The rare film that has shown a genuinely disintegrating man is the English-language Death in the Gunj (2016). In fact, there’s a fleeting suggestion that Vikrant Massey’s Shutu is watching over the proceedings after his death.
The Bengali film Ballavpurer Roopkatha too contains an abiding sadness, although it bends genres nicely by mixing eeriness with good-tempered satire and feminism. The dead prince is built up ominously in the first half. We don’t see him, but we hear his unsettling laughter, his recitation of Sanskrit verse; we see a portrait where his face is scratched out. When we see him eventually — a double role by Satyam Bhattacharya who plays the hero — we realise that the dead man is both a flirt and a wimp. But even with these deft touches, it’s hard to miss how lonely he has been, speaking an arcane language that his own family don’t speak, biding his time for 400 years. The sort of loneliness that haunts most of us.
(There are several other notable Korean ghost films, just as there are many more well-known Hollywood, Bollywood and other ghost films. This piece is not an encyclopaedic view, only a pamphlet-like glimpse. There are, also, other cinemas with their own genres of ghost stories—Hong Kong and Indonesian come to mind. I invite you to analyse them by gender.)