What is driving young Indians’ belief in the paranormal?
1. The Cursed House
About an hour’s drive away from Diamond Harbour in West Bengal, the house where Arti* grew up lies abandoned. Even the mango tree that stands guard outside is withered and gray. When Arti’s uncle was alive, he would regularly bathe this tree’s roots with blood – goat, when he could get it, otherwise chicken – procured in bucketfuls from the butcher. It was his father-in-law’s advice – a man whose proficiency in black magic was well-known. Whether the blood worked as a fertilizer, or the tree had a natural proclivity for growth, Arti remembers its branches as always laden with fruit.
The day her uncle died, the tree stopped receiving its offering of blood. It stopped bearing fruit. And everything changed.
Inside their two-storey house, objects would clatter to the floor in empty rooms, footsteps would be heard overhead, and Arti would often feel an invisible presence seated next to her. It was their land, but something else seemed to have taken possession of it. Once, when Arti lay ill in bed, as she often was in that house, all the lightbulbs shattered at once, spraying glass shards everywhere.
“We tried a lot of things over time to fix the house. Nothing worked. Whatever people told us, we did,” Arti says. Rituals were conducted. Ojhas, purohits, priests – each came in their turn, and each left, unable to rid the house of this entity. Their consensus was unanimous: “There’s some negative energy here that isn’t letting anything good happen for you.”
One night, Arti was seated by the window when she glimpsed what she calls the “demon.” She struggles to describe it. A bat-like creature with a human face was hanging upside down from the terrace to her window. Days later, her mother, too, claimed to have seen it. That’s when Arti called in Devraj Sanyal and his team – of paranormal investigators. They run Detectives of Supernatural (DOS), one of the many Indian organizations that have emerged in recent years with the aim of debunking superstitions and revealing the true nature of the paranormal.
As soon as the team entered the house after dark, they felt an “uncanny feeling,” Sanyal says. Armed with their electronic voice phenomena (EVP) recorders and electromagnetic field (EMF) detectors, they called out loud for any signs of this entity. All of a sudden, the many cats that Arti had rescued over the years began behaving frantically.
The team rushed upstairs to a room where they had spread powder all over the floor, an experiment laid out to capture proof of a paranormal being. What they saw was “unbelievable,” says Sanyal.
Despite the room’s locked door, there were clear footprints in the powder.
Arti had never believed in ghosts, spirits or black magic. She belongs to a generation that has grown up in a hyper-connected digital world, at a time when technology has become indispensable, scientific research is rapidly advancing, and information on any subject is only a few clicks away. So when it came to understanding the invisible entity she now believed was haunting her family, Arti turned to the Internet.
“I watched videos on YouTube and read a lot of books. Now I believe there is something. We can’t see it, but we can feel it,” Arti says.
More people, especially from younger generations, are open to the possibility of the paranormal today, says Sarbajeet Mohanty, a paranormal investigator and co-founder of Parapsychology and Investigations Research Society (PAIRS). These generations are also the ones who have grown up with scientific knowledge at their fingertips, in a world where logic and scientific reasoning have long been established as the foundations of modern society. Then why are many of them looking for answers in what is considered the unscientific realm of paranormal activity?
The answer raises specters far more disruptive and threatening than the “demon” in Arti’s house.
2. The Haunted Barracks
Before the Jorabagan Traffic Guard outpost in Kolkata was commemorated as a heritage building, some said the barracks housed a presence. The haunting forced at least one officer to transfer to another post. Some complained of being slapped while they slept, others were tormented by nightmares, and a few claimed they had seen a small girl in the dead of night, her eyes endless pits of black…
A paranormal investigation begins with a question: What is it that people fear, and why?
“It’s always a fear of the unknown,” says Mohanty.
Mohanty has been investigating claims of paranormal activity since 2016, after his own experiences with unexplainable phenomena led him to co-found PAIRS. On the phone, he speaks with an ease that shows he has done this before. He is willing to go into great depth about what the paranormal is, and isn’t – the world’s widespread disbelief requires it.
The unknown is what the paranormal represents. It is a world of mysteries that has long captured the human imagination. Its stories have been told and retold over generations, and new stories continue to emerge as people recount their most recent experiences, cementing its place as a cultural phenomenon.
Ghost stories, pop culture, and folktales have conditioned people to expect to experience the paranormal a certain way – to keep an eye out for the woman in white with twisted feet on dark, deserted roads; or to avoid crumbling buildings that could easily be the setting of a horror film. These actions, and the expectations behind them, are rarely interrogated.
“No one tries to question how it happens,” Mohanty says.
The paranormal investigators are in search of the truth, they say. While their personal beliefs and services vary, they share a common goal: to educate the masses on the true nature of the paranormal, dispel the myths and superstitions that pervade this space, and bring people out of the fear that accompanies it.
The Indian Paranormal Society (IPS), founded in 2009, was the first organization to undertake paranormal research in India, quickly growing in popularity as they traveled across the country to investigate “haunted” locations. IPS’ aim, as per their website, is to “shun myths/superstitions by logical evaluation, critical thinking and applying principles of forensic science.” After IPS, many other groups emerged, and some – such as PAIRS – were even registered as non-profit organizations. The mottos emblazoned next to their acronyms mirror their aim; PAIRS goes by “Bringing Light into the Darkness,” while DOS is trying to help people “Rise Above Fear.” To do this, they begin by questioning the nature of the paranormal activity itself, looking for rational answers to help explain it.
Some ghosts are easily banished. “There are thousands of reasons our mind can manipulate us, nature can manipulate us…” says Mohanty. Exposure to LPG gas, a high electromagnetic field, ionized gas, or carbon monoxide are only a few of the many scientific reasons behind hallucinations.
“We leave that decision to them that now what is it they want to do.”
Then, there are causes that speak more to the human condition. Meghna Porwal, a member of IPS, says anything – a medical condition, family conflict, trauma, or stress – can raise such specters. During the Covid19 lockdown, paranormal reports – and calls to investigators – shot up. “Religion and supernatural belief tend to go up in times of what we would call existential crisis or more existential perils,” Joseph Baker, the co-author of American Secularism: Cultural Contours of Nonreligious Belief Systems, told The New York Times.
Investigating the paranormal requires collecting as much physical and sensory information as possible, familiarizing oneself with the history of the place, gathering competing perspectives and accounts, and even observing the body language of those who claim to have experienced paranormal activity.
One of the calls PAIRS received during the pandemic was from a Pune-based bachelor who suddenly found himself stuck at home. Now, shadows materialized from corners, and he would often wake to the sound of things crashing to the floor. There was a peculiar, lingering smell that accompanied these incidents, a kind of evidence known as olfactory manifestations, Mohanty explains, which he says occur when paranormal entities manipulate smells to show their presence.
With the lockdown in place, PAIRS’ investigation was restricted to video calls, perusing photographs of the house, and attempting to decode the client’s vague descriptions of the smell – one that Mohanty soon traced to a leaking LPG cylinder.
This is how it usually goes. As Sanyal says, only 1% of the cases are those where no logical, scientific explanation is found. The remaining 99% are easily debunked. These are cases of either “hallucinations, misinterpretation, or lies,” says Sanyal.
Even in the rare instances where no rational explanation emerges, investigators do not jump to conclusions of paranormal activity. Instead, they finally turn their attention towards obtaining tangible proof of entities using various instruments, and begin a paranormal investigation in earnest. Cases where no proof emerges are filed away as possibly “active” sites that remain unexplained.
But if “proof” does emerge – in the form of sounds that lie outside the restricted range of human hearing, voices in the dark picked up by audio recorders, sudden drops in temperature, rare visual evidence of apparitions, and even personal sensory experiences – the investigators present it to the client.“ We leave that decision to them, that now, what is it they want to do?” says Porwal.
If the client wants to be freed of the entity, some investigators conduct cleansing rituals if required, either by burning sage, using rock salt to absorb negative energy from the surroundings, or other spiritual practices.
Investigators tend to believe that the paranormal exists as part of reality. Just not in the way most people imagine it. Still, the way it exists is unclear. They often refer to “energy” when talking about specters, leaning into the scientific law that says energy cannot be created or destroyed, but can only change form. Some investigators reject the term ‘ghosts’ and prefer to call them “invisible intelligent entities” instead; others deny the existence of any negative entities or demons; while a few use psychic mediums to communicate with the souls of the dead. Ultimately, for the investigators, the paranormal is anything that science cannot explain – any inexplicable, unknown force.
Such forces require people to confront an uncomfortable fact: that human knowledge is limited, and that many possibilities lie beyond human understanding. A belief in these forces requires people to embrace uncertainty.
Perhaps this is why most people with a rational bent of mind are highly skeptical of these beliefs. Paranormal investigations receive their fair share of criticism, mostly from skeptics working to promote a scientific temper among the masses. Rationalists have been leading the crusade against superstition, black magic and the fraudulent practices they breed, and branding paranormal investigations as “unscientific.”
But science and the paranormal share a history far more closely intertwined than most realize.
As for the Jorabagan Traffic Guard outpost, the then-commissioner called in investigators to find out what lay behind the rumors. “It is the first time in Indian history that a commissioner in headquarters is sponsoring a paranormal investigator,” Sanyal says.
The two nights Sanyal and his team spent at the barracks were enough to give them splitting headaches. Their hunt took them to the roof, where they found a telephone tower standing right above where the officers slept. The magnetic field, considered safe in the range of 0.3-0.5 milli gauge, was off the charts, crossing 100.
“If someone is sleeping there on a daily basis, they are sure to have hallucinations,” Sanyal says.
3. The Age of Magical Thinking
A scientific investigation also begins with a question – one based on an observation of the natural world. Scientists propose an explanation – their hypothesis – and then conduct several experiments to prove or disprove it. They pore over existing literature on the subject, and gather data. But their conclusion is not that it’s ‘unknowable,’ but that it’s not known yet.
A scientific experiment is repeated; its findings analyzed many times over before something is considered to be ‘known.’ This is the scientific method, the origins of which can be traced back thousands of years to scientific thought in various ancient cultures, but which gained popularity in the West during the 17th and 18th centuries.
This was a time when the West found itself embroiled in debates weighing reason against experience, building upon the work of early philosophers and cementing logic and rational thought as the bedrock of all knowledge production. It also happened to be an era of exploration, not just of the natural world but of new lands as well, which saw these ideas disseminated – often by force – to the rest of the world.
By the 19th century, the tide was turning towards scientific thinking, but the belief in spirits, psychics and “the occult” was stronger than ever, especially in Victorian England. Ouija boards were common, psychics were regularly consulted, and the dead were called upon in dimly lit seance rooms. Spiritualism claimed to offer proof of a world beyond our senses – one inhabited by spirits of those long departed.
“There are thousands of reasons our mind can manipulate us, nature can manipulate us.”
At the same time, something else was afoot. A new kind of ghost emerged on the horizon – mass technology. From railways to radio and the telegraph, a rapid spurt of technological progress made voices emerge out of thin air and delivered messages across great distances using invisible forces. The rapid advances and their ethereal nature made it difficult to distinguish the natural from the unnatural, and prompted a form of “magical thinking” and a “shadow discourse of the occult,” writes Roger Luckhurst, professor of Modern Literature at Birkbeck College, University of London. “For every disenchantment there was an active re-enchantment of the world.”
Spiritualism thrived in response to the rapid shift towards science, technology, and the mass media they enabled. New technologies, such as the telegraph, were “appropriated… as a metaphorical reference to explain communication with the world of spirits,” Simone Natale writes in his book Supernatural Entertainments.
Along with this rise in (or openness about) paranormal beliefs came attempts to study it. Even as reason was being instituted as the founding principle of modern society, among the first investigators of the paranormal were scientists themselves.
In 1882, the Society for Psychical Research in England represented the first attempt at formalizing scientific inquiry into spiritual and psychical phenomena such as hypnotism, clairvoyance, apparitions, and what later came to be known as telepathy. Much of its early work focused on exposing fraud, but – as per its website – its members held the view that psi, or telepathic and psychic phenomena, are real, “and that while the phenomena should certainly be explained in scientific terms, such a science does not at present exist.”
Across the Atlantic, Joseph Banks Rhine started the Parapsychology Laboratory at Duke University in the 1930s to look for evidence of psychic and paranormal existence. “For a time, it was possible to be interested in both serious research and the fantastical, and document it in the same, professional ways,” said Christopher Keep, an associate professor of English at Western University.
But as the world entered the 20th century, scientific investigation of the paranormal receded to the fringes. The battle lines were retraced, not only between science and the paranormal, but within the scientific community as well. A handful of scientists continued to look for evidence of the paranormal, but they were dismissed by those deemed “real” or “serious” scientists. In their wake, amateur investigators entered the scene, writes Diana Peters in University Affairs, a Canadian university news magazine.
Over decades of research, no scientist has been able to prove that ghosts exist. Whatever has emerged in the nature of proof is inconclusive at best. The lack of reproducible evidence, for many scientists, is proof enough to sever the paranormal from science. After all, scientific experiments are replicable; ghosts are not.
Often, proof of paranormality hinges on experience, which is faulty and highly prone to error. Human memory itself is unreliable, especially during fear or trauma.
However, paranormal investigators around the world claim to have acquired evidence using devices. These tend to be industrial equipment marketed online as “ghost spirit finder,” “ghost detector” and “ghost meter.” Colin Dickey, writing in The Atlantic, reviewed the popular K-II EMF detector, which claims to detect changes in electromagnetic field: “Erratic, prone to false positives, easily manipulated, its flashy LED display will light up any darkened room of a haunted hotel or castle. Which is to say, its popularity as a ghost-hunting tool stems mainly from its fallibility.”
But its popularity may also stem from the wider zeitgeist.
The technological advances that continued at a steady pace throughout the 20th century, suddenly sped up at its end. Each discovery or invention opened up new avenues for innovation.
What began as two computers, and then networks, learning to communicate with each other, turned into the world wide web, which then led to the creation of Google, then Facebook and social media. Telephones, once fixed to their cradles on walls, shrunk to the size of a human palm and allowed anyone to connect instantly, face-to-face, with others across the world. People could locate themselves specifically in time and space with GPS – and navigate to an unknown place without ever having to consult a map. Cars became electric, and then self-driving. (And there’s approval for a flying car in the US.)
Memories were externalized, first stored in flash drives as photos, videos, documents and data, before finally moving to an intangible realm of its own – The Cloud. Data became the new currency – our personal identities, shaped by our likes, dislikes, search histories, location, and even our daily heart rate, began to reside online, available to all those who sought it. And against this backdrop, algorithms and machines that aim to imitate human intelligence are now burgeoning, with the likes of ChatGPT, Dall-E and Midjourney.
This scientific and technological boom was supposed to enlighten and elevate mankind – to reduce unscientific beliefs and increase access to the truth. And in part, they have. But decades in, and fake news and misinformation circulate freely, often indistinguishable from facts. Social media is widely acknowledged as having driven a wedge between people and their immediate surroundings. It has resulted in social isolation, alienation and drastically poor wellbeing. The virtual had become as real, if not more, than reality itself.
We use many of these technologies daily, intuitively, without fully knowing the exact mechanisms of each. Artificial intelligence and its computational procedures, for instance, exceed limitations of human knowledge. “The most advanced NLP (Natural Language Processing) programs operate at a level that not even the engineers constructing them fully understand,” writes Stephen Marche in The Atlantic. Highly advanced technology today is its own mystery, resembling supernatural forces more than it does human ones. As science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke once wrote, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”
With people adrift in a sea of uncertainties, grappling to keep abreast of the rapid changes amid a growing sense of alienation, a resurgence of paranormal and spiritual belief systems seems, if not understandable, then – inevitable.
4. Seeing Spirits
Saujanya Karkera, 35, has been able to see spirits since her childhood. They were always there in her peripheral vision, congregating at certain spots within the society complex she grew up in.
No one believed her – that is, until her sister visited her. During the lockdown, the spirits Karkera would usually see outside began appearing within her new home. Shadows flit in corners and sounds rang out in the dead of night, waking both women abruptly.
And then, one night, Karkera opened her eyes to see a man standing next to her…
“[A belief in the paranormal] helps with keeping my sanity,” says Vandana.*, a 29-year-old graphic designer. “If the world is what my eye can capture, I don’t think that’s true.”
Vandana doesn’t believe in ghosts, but does believe the spirits of departed souls are present nearby (though the difference between ‘ghosts’ and ‘spirits’ eludes her, she says). She also trusts other unexplained forces.
It was after a friend passed away that she first turned to reiki healing. Therapy didn’t work for her, she says, so she sought help elsewhere. Later, after she was able to “let go of certain thoughts,” she began training in reiki healing herself. But she finds most solace in her tarot practice. “You depend on certain things… Like how my parents probably pray to god and go to temples. In some way, this sort of helps me,” she adds.
Research suggests paranormal beliefs help shield people from harsh truths. The perceived existence of the paranormal contradicts the finality of death, keeping loved ones alive long after they are gone. It’s a lens through which the sharp edge of reality is weathered and made bearable, a way to grapple with the uncertainty of life and the disconnection of death. In other words, the paranormal – and its adjacent spiritualism – is one way that people have long made sense of the world.
“In the Indian setting, it persists for various reasons. I think Indians have always been struggling with the question of ‘modernity’ and the presence of ‘paranormal/occult’, especially within the realm of religious beliefs and practices,” says Dr. Renny Thomas, an anthropologist of science who teaches at the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences, Indian Institute of Science Education and Research (IISER) Bhopal.
Vandana grew up engrossed in the magical worlds she saw in the movies, all of which hinted at the existence of something far beyond mundane reality. It made her question: Why can’t magic exist in real life? “And probably I look for it everywhere,” she says.
“Indians have always been struggling with the question of ‘modernity’ and the presence of ‘paranormal/occult’
She sees the paranormal as a means of forging a connection with the world around her, a link significantly hampered by technology. Like so many others, her relationship with technology soured from overuse during the pandemic. She now limits her time online. Paranormality and spirituality have provided an antidote, a deeper connection with her natural surroundings and the energies beyond what’s visible. Humans are intuitive by nature, she adds. “But when you’re constantly on your phone, when you’re on technology, that’s when you are disconnected.”
Still, technology and media have also made information about the paranormal and services to address it far more accessible than what it once was. Mohanty says that’s probably one reason why younger generations are more open to accepting the paranormal as well. It’s a trend that parallels the resurgence of other beliefs that experts dismiss as pseudoscience, such as astrology. In recent years, reports documenting the growing popularity of astrology among millennials and Gen Z have attributed the trend to rising stress levels, and a search for coping mechanisms in a world inundated with news about existential threats like wars, climate change, unemployment, financial crises, and a growing global mental health crisis.
“We are increasingly turning to unreality as a form of escape and a way to search for other kinds of freedom, truth and meaning,” stated a 2016 report by J. Walter Thompson’s Intelligence Group, as cited in a piece in The Atlantic. “What emerges is an appreciation for magic and spirituality, the knowingly unreal, and the intangible aspects of our lives that defy big data and the ultra-transparency of the web.”
While its underlying nature remains unchanged, astrology has adopted new forms to make itself more palatable to the youth – horoscopes now circulate as memes, and many websites and apps have emerged to bridge people’s access to their stars.
Similarly, the paranormal has undergone its own rebranding. Ghost tours, popular in the West, are gaining popularity in pockets of India as well. Ghost tours are a form of dark tourism – a niche sector that explores sites with a history of death, tragedy and violence. These tours take attendees to carefully chosen haunted locations so they may experience the paranormal themselves. The tours organized by PAIRS also allow people to be part of an investigation while sharing with others their own unexplained encounters with the unknown.
“Every place that has a historical touch of anything that’s traumatic is haunted by something or the other,” says Mohanty. “It can be emotions haunting you, or it can be spirits haunting you. The haunting still exists.”
Paranormal investigators have explored several spots on the dark tourism map of India. From the Lambi Dehar mines near Mussoorie, where 50,000 mine workers died an agonizing death, to the abandoned village of Kuldhara; the cursed fort of Bhangarh, to the forests of Dow Hill in Kurseong – tourists, investigators and content creators regularly flock to these locations where history is said to come alive. It’s the stories that have emerged from these places that draw them in, and many return with stories of their own.
“India is a land of histories, stories and paranormal,” says Mohanty. “There are stories spoken in every corner of the country, there are experiences that people have in every corner of the country. It is just that there wasn’t the right platform or right kind of people who you could speak to about this.”
For Dhawani Gaala, 30, attending a ghost tour was fundamental to gaining confidence in herself and in recognizing her own power. “I wanted to explore my own self and my own psychic capabilities. And going for these investigations really helped me to believe in my own abilities,” says the holistic wellness and sound healer.
For Karkera, too, attending ghost tours gave her confidence a boost. On these tours, she met many others like her who had undergone similar experiences and were attempting to make sense of them. Together, they felt understood.
But this kind of empowerment may come at a cost. Paranormal beliefs are stigmatized, says Dr. Sabah Siddiqui, an assistant professor of psychology at Krea University. The scientific mainstream writes off believers as gullible. But even among paranormal believers, the popular view is that entities feed on the weak. There’s equal stigma attached to being considered “mad” or “disordered,” for being struck by magic, for being weak or vulnerable to the evil eye or a ghost – in other words, paranormal sensitivity can become a symbol of personal moral failing, Dr. Siddiqui says.
Many have judged Gaala’s beliefs, and at one point in life, their skepticism bothered her.
“Now, I don’t let that affect me,” she says. She’s only recounting her own experiences, she adds, and if others don’t want to believe her, that’s their choice. Her voice is assured, as is Karkera’s when she says that it’s not necessary for others to believe in the world she turned to for answers. All she asks is that no one try to tell her otherwise. She says she has lost several friends along the way, who were hesitant about her exploration of the paranormal. Karkera, too, frames a belief in the paranormal as a choice. She says she knows the paranormal exists, and no amount of dismissal can shake that.
“If a person says that I went through this emotional turmoil, we cannot discredit saying this doesn’t happen. They are the ones who actually went through it and it is true for them, even if you didn’t find any empirical evidence during the investigation,” Mohanty says. To question one’s fears, it’s important to voice them. But the shaming of paranormal beliefs prevents many from doing so, he adds.
But where choice ends and entrapment begins is, perhaps, the biggest question. The generations born into a digital world have even greater exposure to a range of materials on the paranormal, says Mohanty. But “they do not have any conditioned mindset to anything; they are very open. As a result, they also do get easily manipulated,” he adds. “…[T]he internet is so easily available, people can go to Google anything and fall into the trap of fear-mongering and spreading superstition.”
And the very people looking to escape social media, internet rabbit holes, and other addictive technologies may well find themselves heavily relying on other forces.
“Even my therapist asked me to stop doing tarot,” admits Vandana. “He’s like, ‘You’re depending so much on this. You need to face your uncertainty.”
When the PAIRS team arrived at Karkera’s house and began their investigation, their findings pointed to the empty plot of land adjoining her home where, they said, many souls remained trapped. These spirits were entering her home to gain energy, Karkera adds. But once the house was “cleansed” and certain changes were made, the spirits plaguing Karkera vanished.
5. A Ghost Named ‘X’
Unravel the paranormal, and distinctly human stories emerge.
“People who are suffering will go wherever help is there,” says Dr. Siddiqui.
The Hazrat Saiyed Ali Mira Datar Dargah in northern Gujarat is only one of the many faith-healing sites that dot the map of India. Thousands flock to this shrine each year to be treated for the spirits haunting them. It’s the “home to the occult,” as its website states; “the final destination” for those suffering from what they believe is the work of spirit possession, sorcery, black magic, “unknown mysterious diseases” and “incurable physical or psychiatric problems.” Religion is no barrier for those seeking treatment, according to the website.
The paranormal landscape is vast – a supernatural spectrum inhabited by many human players. Just as there are many kinds of paranormal beliefs and practices (a belief in ghosts is one of the most popular, but it often overlaps with tarot, crystals, psychic powers, clairvoyance, and other forms of spirituality), there are many kinds of paranormal experts. Godmen, babas, and tantrics all offer help to people suffering at the hands of paranormal entities.
Sometimes, faith-based help against the paranormal is beneficial. For many living at the shrine, their experience there is a gateway to much-needed mental health care. People who seek the help of faith to rid themselves of the “evil eye” or the “ghost” that controls them are equally willing to undergo psychiatric treatment for mental illness, says Dr. Siddiqui, who has researched faith-healing shrines in India. “They didn’t have a strong position that ‘I need to have absolute belief in the shrine, and that means I can’t take medical treatment,’” she says. If they had access to medical aid, they were ready to take it.
“Psychiatric care in India is very difficult to find, especially in rural India,” she says. Class, caste, education, and income all play their role in limiting access for those who need it. Add to that the stigma associated with mental illness, and the result is a lot of people gravitating towards faith healers instead.
There is a wide rift between practitioners of science and faith healers, in terms of healing modality, but studies have noted that those suffering from mental illness in developing countries seem to have a better recovery rate – because of these multiple avenues of support and care.
“India is a land of histories, stories and paranormal.”
At the Mira Datar shrine, discovering the name of the ghost is part of the treatment.
Many at this dargah who believed their affliction to be a case of haunting shied away from naming the spirit. They talked about being possessed or of the “malignant presence” that was causing their suffering, but would stop short of identifying them.
But one young woman – a Master’s student Dr. Siddiqui spoke with – called her ghost ‘X’. Ghosts have names, and their names hold power, she told Dr. Siddiqui. It was to take away some of this power over her that she called the ghost ‘X,’ so that it doesn’t know they’re talking about it. That the woman chose to mark her ghost with an ‘X’ was telling, Dr. Siddiqui says. In algebra, the ‘X’ could stand for anything, a value that emerges only once a problem is solved – an answer. As John M. Lawler, a linguistics professor at the University of Michigan, told LA Times, X is a potent symbol loaded with “mystic significance.” X is mysterious, it is the unknown. X defines the paranormal.
X might also define possibility on a much more human scale.
“Within faith healing, they were receiving some kind of support, both community support and social support, and that was helping them,” Dr. Siddiqui adds. It was where they felt they were treated with a semblance of respect. “To come from a poor context, rural context, and to have different kinds of identities – to be woman, to be queer, to come from a lower caste – all of these would mean that their relation to the doctor, to medical care, is complicated.” Their relation to the world and society at large may be complicated, too.
Paranormal investigators are careful not to draw a direct correlation, but say their work often involves a certain amount of counseling. Hauntings are like a wound that will fester if not treated from its roots. Investigations, too, involve many layers that need to be peeled back to address the source of the issue. “Until you find the source of the issue it will never heal,” Mohanty says.
Social scientists across disciplines have reached similar conclusions – that, at times, specters become both the reason for, and a reflection, of people’s most immediate worries.
Once, a family brought their daughter to the paranormal investigators from IPS, claiming she was possessed. The girl showed all the tell-tale signs – the ones in movies. She behaved bizarrely and spoke to investigators in a heavy voice.
Gaurav Tiwari, the founder of IPS whose mysterious death set the rumor mill churning in 2016, caught on. When told to cut the act, the girl had responded normally, explaining that her parents were forcing her to marry against her will. Possession, or the act of it, was a way out where she saw none.
“This has been something that has been documented through cultural anthropology that the experience of being haunted or possessed is like an experience of being able to step out of your designated social role,” says Dr. Siddiqui. People are often possessed by ghosts of the opposite sex, or a ghost with an antagonistic relation with the person’s religion. Such ghosts can now curse the god or the healer, reversing social power and inverting power dynamics. It doesn’t overturn it, Dr. Siddiqui warns, but it does give some more agency.
“Possession allows for multiple voices to speak from the same body. And so, that is a kind of radical potential in possession,” she adds.
Sociological and anthropological works often reveal the cultural anxieties that underlie a belief in the paranormal, says Dr. Thomas. “… [T]he believers sometimes use paranormal and occult beliefs to deal with various difficulties in everyday life, including pain, loss, and suffering,” he says. “That is not to say that a belief in the paranormal can be justified, because very often people are exploited by powerful practitioners.”
6. Ghosts in the Machine
His employees were troubled. Each day they would troop in to work and witness the doors of their lockers and washrooms banging of their own accord. The machines would whir to life with no one present. Once, a machine – switched on by what seemed to be an invisible entity – badly injured a worker. Wracked with fear, they began leaving their jobs, one by one, until 50 were gone.
Nothing the owner would say could convince his employees the factory was not haunted. His business was suffering, but as the third-generation custodian of it, he could not bear to shut it down with a ‘haunted’ tag tarnishing the family name.
“I need some closure, I need to understand what is there,” he told PAIRS’ Mohanty.
Beyond cultural beliefs, there’s another force that keeps India’s ghosts and other paranormal entities alive: money.
Outside any popular faith-healing shrine, shop-owners hawk their wares, selling offerings to be presented to the deity within. Living accommodations rise up to house weary travelers and those seeking treatment for the spirits they believe are haunting them.
“There is a whole economy that drives it as well. We need to acknowledge that people are not doing it always for healing, they’re doing it for money… Of course, the healers make a lot of money through it, but it has sometimes sustained an entire region, like an entire village,” says Dr. Siddiqui.
Faith-healing shrines in India have a long history of exploitation and human rights violations in the name of treatment. Dr. Siddiqui’s own research began by probing the Erwadi fire in 2001: Those who had sought treatment at the shrine and were considered violent were chained to their beds. When a fire broke out, dozens were burnt alive.
Still, god-men, babas, and tantrics who profess to be experts of the paranormal and in touch with forces beyond our realm are often the first to be consulted in most cases of perceived paranormal activity. There are countless reports condemning these consultations as fraudulent practices and bringing to light the egregious abuses committed in the name of a cure. But people continue to flock to them. It is only once they have exhausted all their financial resources that they look to others for a solution.
In contrast, paranormal investigators say they are often the last resort. “Every time we will take a case [that has already consulted a god-man, baba or tantric], the team will realize that there is nothing paranormal at all. It was happening for some scientific reason and whatever money the [client] spent on it all went to the gutter,” says Mohanty.
“The thing is that when they go to such people, they are completely brainwashed, they instantly believe in all these things — that somebody is haunting them, someone’s third eye has opened. They’ll blindly believe them,” says IPS’ Porwal. “But when we tell them there is nothing going on here, they are not ready to believe us.”
Porwal clearly remembers one such case. A family was willing to go to great lengths to cure their daughter and banish the distant relative who they believed had taken possession of her body. So when the baba told them they needed to go to a tree in a distant part of the country and perform a ritual under its boughs, they didn’t think twice. They spent money they couldn’t spare to do as the baba directed. But the ritual didn’t work. The girl was still unable to speak. When she tried, a different, unintelligible language would come out each time, confirming the family’s fears of possession.
The baba had another solution in mind – but he needed a special black stone first. Once again, the family spent lakhs to procure this stone. Eventually, they were left with nothing. That’s when they called in the paranormal investigators from IPS.
The girl had been suffering for a long time, says Porwal. She had been diagnosed with schizophrenia at a very young age. Porwal and her team reviewed the medical records, where the doctor had laid out a course of action for treatment. Left untreated, however, the illness had progressed to paranoia, Porwal says. The team repeatedly explained to the family that there was no paranormal presence – what the girl needed was medical attention. But the family was disappointed with their investigation. They were looking for a solution to a paranormal problem. The answer they received was not one they were willing to accept.
Still, the family offered to pay the investigators, but Porwal refused. “It’s not about the money for us. It’s about helping people.” After a brief second, she adds, “It’s not about only helping the living; it’s also about helping the dead.”
There’s not much money in this field, Sanyal says. Paranormal investigators pursue this more as a passion. “We charge sometimes. If we feel somebody will be able to pay, we charge. Otherwise, if someone is poor, we do it for shauk,” Sanyal adds.
But to some, paranormal investigators are no better than the exploitative faith healers. Both are part of a larger problem.
“Wherever I have investigated anything paranormal, I have found that it is sheer nonsense,” says Narendra Nayak, president of the Federation of Indian Rationalist Associations. Each time, he adds, human agency was at work. The rationalists’ fight against superstition has faced opposition from political parties and religious leaders alike who consider their work an attack on religion. Many face threats to their lives, while some have even been killed for advocating an anti-superstition law. But they continue to debunk the paranormal.
Few locations are as infamous for alleged paranormality as the Begunkodar Railway station in Purulia district of West Bengal. Its stories of hauntings held such immense power that the station lay abandoned for 42 years. No train stopped there, and no station master was posted – all in fear of the “woman in white” who had reportedly been glimpsed by several people on the railway tracks.
Sudip Das, a local tour operator in the district, recounts some of the local stories: Trains entering the station would see a woman running alongside. She could match the speed of the train, sometimes even overtaking it. Many locomotive pilots have seen this unnatural phenomenon, Das claims. The woman is believed to be a former station master’s daughter who was raped and murdered, her body disposed of in a nearby well.
Another story, chronicled in the papers, says a woman who died by suicide patrols the tracks. The station master at the time claimed to have seen this ghostly apparition, but no one believed him. Later, he was found dead, along with his entire family, according to one version. Another says that after his daughter was assaulted by some locals, the station master created these stories and left the place, leaving generations of people grappling with the fear of a haunting.
“People who are suffering will go wherever help is there.”
Tales spread like wildfire and eventually the station was abandoned till 2009, when it was finally reopened. But the legends drew daring tourists from the city, turning this ‘haunted’ railway station into a ghost tourism hub.
“I got to know that the local people there drink and lie in the station. They throw stones, hoping that this place doesn’t get occupied, that is why they are creating this story,” Das says. This is why Das, who used to run a ghost tour to this station in collaboration with a Kolkata-based paranormal investigation group, soon stopped these tours.
In 2017, a group of rationalists from Paschim Banga Bigyan Manch spent the night at this station to unearth the truth. They soon busted the myth of the hauntings, claiming that a few locals made unnerving noises from behind a bush, fabricating stories of a ghost. “We suspect that this group of locals might be behind looting the youngsters, who were lured by adventure of ‘ghost tourism’,” said rationalist Nayan Mukherjee at the time.
Ghosts, spirits, and even figures from local folklore often become scapegoats for what are decidedly human activities born of vested interests. Most of us don’t know how to investigate these phenomena and that’s why such things survive, Nayak adds.
“The paranormal investigators might be using various methods (audio/visual), but that doesn’t make it a science,” says Dr. Thomas “[U]sing the language of ‘science’ and ‘scientific method’ might give legitimacy to such practices, and perhaps for that reason the paranormal investigators present it as ‘scientific’.” Science and the paranormal are completely different, he adds. “In many ways, the paranormal is the opposite of science.”
Criticism does not faze the investigators. Their methods can be questioned, just as any scientists’ method can, says Mohanty. There are still many unknowns – from outer space to the ocean bed – that scientists are still discovering new insights about, he adds. “[T]he human mind is so limited to so many of these things.”
There is always more than one perspective when it comes to a ‘haunted’ location, says Mohanty. If you manage to debunk one but not the other, it will continue to exist and the fear will keep spreading – because what people lack is closure.
Before venturing into the haunted factory, the PAIRS team had asked the owner to disconnect the power and lock them inside. What they witnessed was eerily similar to what the workers had claimed. As they began their investigation in the dark interiors, a machine switched on by itself, beginning its industrial hum without any electrical connection. As the others continued to look around for any signs of paranormal activity, Pooja Vijay – a psychic and co-founder of PAIRS – managed to “connect” with the spirits.
It was, supposedly, a family of three that had been murdered on the factory premises many years ago. Where the factory now stood was once their land. The spirits were enraged by intruders on their property, but had no intention to harm. The team attempted to explain to these spirits that for the workers to continue with their job, they must leave the premises.
But it was only when the factory owner was brought in to communicate directly with these specters, tendering an apology along with a request for them to leave, that the paranormal activity allegedly finally died down.
A week later, the owner called Mohanty to let him know that the factory was back in operation. He had managed to amass a sizable workforce and things were now running smoothly. His legacy remains intact. But some of the workers who had left in fear of the spirits never returned.
7. Ghosts in the Attic
At their heart, science and the paranormal are different systems of knowing, both driven by a need to understand the world’s many mysteries, to arrive at answers and get closure – although they do so in starkly contrasting ways. Where science insists on an explanation, the paranormal accepts uncertainty for what it is.
In seeking an explanation for a haunting or possession, in embracing the paranormal, people seem to be seeking a resolution to an underlying distress at once unique to our times and utterly timeless.
For Arti, of the haunted childhood home, this resolution came in leaving a house that had been transformed from a site of safety to one riddled with conflict, where family ties strained under the weight of individual expectations and desires. Arti says her parents had worked hard to construct their new home, while Arti’s uncle and aunt lived next door with fewer resources and less money. Over time, bitterness and disconnect grew. “My aunt never liked us. She wanted that whatever we have, she should get.” Arti.’s family believes that her aunt resorted to black magic to ensure that happens.
Her case was actually one of the rare ones, says Sanyal. “The conclusion may be disturbing, but we think it was in no way normal.”
Arti is certain of it – it was her uncle haunting the place. When her uncle’s coffin was being carried out, his father-in-law, the black magic practitioner, had stopped the procession to whisper in the dead body’s ear for 10 minutes, she recalls. “We didn’t believe in black magic, but when all these incidents happened at home, and there was so much negativity, we thought this is why it’s happening.”
She’s well aware that her theory of what transpired is not for everyone, but in the absence of any rational explanations, it’s a way for the family to make sense of what they endured in that house. “I don’t think anybody will believe any of this, but we have suffered a lot.”
Most people will have a hard time believing Arti’s story, or the experiences of the others above. But the prevalence of paranormal belief among younger generations suggests that while the paranormal is as much a part of history as science, it is also intimately tied to the present self. It continues to hold sway today by offering people a sense of autonomy in a world replete with uncertainties, and comfort in the knowledge that their suffering may have a cosmic cause. This acceptance of the paranormal in the midst of rapid changes is a story we have seen unfold before.
But there’s a defining feature of the present moment that heightens the tension between these two worlds and further strains the tenuous nature of reality: the rising misinformation and the spread of fake news that has shaken public faith in science.
There is little doubt about the immense value of scientific knowledge and technological advancements that have revolutionized our understanding of the world. But the same science and technology that was meant to deliver us to a place free from unscientific beliefs is also giving rise to experiences that blur the virtual and real. A uniquely modern specter is emerging: one in which it is increasingly difficult to separate fact from fiction, lived experience from haunting. Social media platforms, on which many spend most of their day, allow people to cultivate connections with friends and strangers dispersed across the globe. At the same time, they sow a deep discord between people and their environment, creating echo chambers that polarize and contribute to a loneliness epidemic – the impacts of which have been found to be most prominent among the youth.
In contrast, the paranormal is intensely personal and seems easier to grasp. It may mean many things, and is intertwined with the believer’s lived experience. In a world rife with conflict and injustice, the paranormal is where some look for acceptance, confidence, and healing. Ghosts, and the people they choose to visit, tell us far more about this moment in time. They become bodies of knowledge themselves, revealing a need for deeper connection and wellbeing that is central to the human experience, but lies confounded at present by technology, as well as a range of cultural and political factors.
But the paranormal also requires weighing the personal against the collective. Any closure and comfort the paranormal offers is restricted to an individual level, and while the significance of it in people’s lives cannot be discounted, the paranormal also leaves sufficient room for grave harm to be enacted at a mass scale. The superstitions, myths and fear that continue to surround the paranormal, along with the many human players eager to exploit these, is something the investigators acknowledge as well. A choice emerges – to value truth and accept the discomfort that comes along with it, or seek comfort in the unknowable that science dismisses. As technology advances, the options for virtual experiences expand, and new ethical minefields emerge, this is a question society may have to grapple with not only in the paranormal, but also in the ‘normal,’ the day-to-day lives of believers as well as skeptics.
At the ground level, there seems no end to the debate between the two worlds – one rooted in beliefs, the other relying solely on reason. Science has given its verdict, but the paranormal persists, requiring no empirical evidence for its sustenance.
It’s a debate that will rage on, says Mohanty. Paranormal investigators have long faced criticism for their work, and have stopped attempting to respond to it. It’s fine if people don’t believe in the paranormal, he says. They aren’t trying to force their beliefs on anyone.
At the end of the day, he adds, “no proof is required for a believer and no proof is enough for a non believer.”
* names changed to protect anonymity
Ananya Singh is a Senior Staff Writer at TheSwaddle. She has previously worked as a journalist, researcher and copy editor. Her work explores the intersection of environment, gender and health, with a focus on social and climate justice.