Demonic horror films tend to favor a similar plot structure: A hapless character stumbles upon an evil object, or trespasses in an evil place; they accidentally provoke a dormant infernal spirit; the spirit sets about ruining their life; they attempt to repel the spirit, with varied rates of success.
The entity might start steering their victim’s body, or drive them mad with paranoia by stalking them from every shadow and around every corner. Either way, crossing paths with a demon is guaranteed to inconvenience your social life, which is the dilemma Sam (Megan Suri) finds herself in filmmaker Bishal Dutta’s feature debut, It Lives Inside, in theaters today.
Sam is a reflection of Dutta’s Indian American upbringing, raised in the United States with one foot in Indian culture and another in American. She craves belonging, at ease neither at home nor high school. Her mom, Poorna (Neeru Bajwa), laments Sam’s assimilation, and Sam squirms whenever her white friends blithely other her by nudging her to teach them one-off Hindi phrases. Enter Tamira (Mohana Krishnan), Sam’s former childhood bestie and a social outsider, bedecked in a black trench coat, her hair a constant wild tangle, and at all times clutching a glass jar filled with cloudy black ichor.
What she’s holding in that jar is a monster, of course—a pishacha, a flesh-hungry fiend found in Hindu and Buddhist mythologies. Tamira keeps it sated with raw meat, but It Lives Inside’s efficacy as a horror movie requires the jar break and the pishacha be unleashed; once that inevitably happens, Sam realizes she must embrace her Indian roots to fight the monster and save her friend.
It Lives Inside’s efficacy as a horror movie requires the jar break and the pishacha be unleashed; once that inevitably happens, Sam realizes she must embrace her Indian roots to fight the monster and save her friend.
It Lives Inside presents a streamlined take on the pishacha, paring down its origins and behaviors to suit the tropes of the demonic horror subgenre as we know them in an American context. Poorna, in a rare instance in horror cinema where the parent believes their child’s story about the proverbial monster in the closet, tells Sam that pishachas feed on human energy—they drink their victim’s soul before moving on to their body. This is true, and not Dutta’s invention for the movie, but the pishacha’s mythology is deeper and more complex than what his narrative allows.
“In Indian demonology, there are names for things that pretty much seem similar, and sometimes they're interchangeable,” explains Brian Collins, professor, chair, and Drs. Ram and Sushila Gawande chair in the Indian Religion and Philosophy Department of Classics and Religious Studies at Ohio University. “Pishachas, pretas, and bhuts are the three main classes of demons.” But the pishacha contains layered meaning extending beyond demonhood, dating back to the very origin of the word. “Pishachas sometimes are seen as people,” Collins says. In fact, in centuries past the term may have been a slur for non-Indian people; they spoke Paishachi, an unattested language of India’s middle kingdoms.
“There’s supposed to be texts that were composed in it that are now lost,” Collins adds. “We only have the Sanskrit versions of them.” Over time, these people came to be depicted as grotesque as flesh-eaters, matching Dutta’s take in It Lives Inside—he concurrently molds the creature into a metaphor, too. Echoing Sam’s Indian American experience, as well as Dutta’s own, the film is about assimilation. Just as the two of them acclimated to American identity, the pishacha is remade in recognition of movies American audiences are more familiar with, like Evil Dead, Sinister, Jennifer’s Body, and Night of the Demons—but that allegorical core remains.
“That’s what makes assimilation so difficult and so painful, the good and the bad, the baby and the bath water. You stop being Indian and you start being American and you lose touch with the old world, and the old world takes its revenge on you.”
“The idea is that you can't fully leave the homeland because it's always part of you,” Collins says. “That’s what makes assimilation so difficult and so painful, the good and the bad, the baby and the bath water. You stop being Indian and you start being American and you lose touch with the old world, and the old world takes its revenge on you.” That dynamic is common across Asian cultures outside of India, too. He cites Iris K. Shim’s Umma (2022) as a recent example, where Sandra Oh’s character is haunted by the ghost of her late mother.
Lore holds that in many cases, the pishacha is sicced on assimilated folks by family, in-laws especially; in others, they’re the disgruntled souls of deceased family members. “Their origins probably come by the fact that funerary rights are not properly performed, and so they are the restless,” says Dr. Layne Little of UC Davis’s departments of religious studies and art history. Deprived of a proper farewell, their souls devolve into voracious monstrosities—once again, matching It Lives Inside’s expression of the pishacha. “All of their virtue is gone, and they degenerate into just hunger and wrath and sexual desire, and all these negative aspects come to the forefront,” Little says.
The film diverges from the cultural record in several meaningful ways: the sexualization Little mentions is entirely absent from Dutta’s script, even though “elements of intensified sexuality,” as Little puts it, are traditional to their depiction. He advises, too, that American sensibilities don’t completely jibe with other cultures’ definition of “demonic.” “You can't think of them in a Christian sense,” Little says, “because not all demons are bad. There are ambiguous characters even among the pishachas, who are particularly malignant.” In countries like Tibet, they’re even seen as protectors.
But It Lives Inside necessarily favors details accessible to a broader horror audience: how, and why, pishachas torment their victims. There is precedent for them possessing people of their own accord, certainly—Collins suggests avoiding tamarind trees, lest one leap from a branch and straight down your gullet—but largely they’re a familial punishment, either directly or indirectly, and the common motif in both instances is that dirty word: assimilation. That motif extends outside of India, too, as Collins points out. “You see this with immigrant communities,” he says, “with Irish legends in America of the banshee, Welsh versions of fairies found in Appalachian folktales, or African American folktales that come from Yoruba trickster stories.”
These figures are intrinsically part of imported cultural fabric; just as immigrants bring the cuisine of their homelands with them to new countries, so too do they bring their myths. In his director’s statement, Dutta defines It Lives Inside as “a love letter to the community and culture that raised me,” as well as “a visceral experience that is designed to instill the same raw terror in its viewers that my favorite horror films instilled in me.” Like so many immigrants, whether Irish, Korean, Chinese, or Welsh, he’s performed the same work of translating his culture’s legends into a framework that’s foreign for the legends, but familiar to America—and in that journey from India to the United States, the pishacha has lost none of its terrifying power.
Published on September 22, 2023
Words by Andy Crump
Bostonian culture journalist Andy Crump covers movies, beer, music, fatherhood, and way too many other subjects for way too many outlets, perhaps even yours: Paste Magazine, Inverse, The New York Times, Hop Culture, Polygon, and Men's Health, plus more. You can follow him on Bluesky and find his collected work at his personal blog. He’s composed of roughly 65 percent craft beer.