REVIEW: House of Secrets: A chilling docuseries about the death of a family due to mental illness, the supernatural and patriarchy

House of Secrets, Burari Deaths. (Photo courtesy of Netflix India)

By Saumya Rastogi
Boston University News Service

Content warning: This review contains multiple descriptions of events involving suicide or mass death.

“House of Secrets, Burari Deaths” recently joined Netflix India’s collection of docuseries, a show directed by Leena Yadav that covers a number of conspiracy theories aimed at exposing the truth, all while revealing itself like a work of fiction grounded in a solid screenplay.

As chilling as the series is, it fails to answer some pertinent questions.

At the center of the series are the deaths of 11 family members, killed by hanging or strangulation in the Burari neighborhood of Delhi, India. The hangings of the Bhatias, a seemingly typical, middle-class joint family, shook India and hit national headlines in 2018.

The event also presented questions and conversation about secretive family dynamics and how these incidents could happen anywhere. 

The docuseries is timely, as it comes in the background of new conversations in India on how superstition breaks communities apart and how their power is in their implicit invocation of fears around changing norms.

Earlier this year, a couple in Andhra Pradesh’s Chittoor district allegedly killed their two daughters in a brutal manner, believing that their dead daughters would come back to life due to special powers. Similarly, over superstitious beliefs, three people were involved in the murder of their 2-year-old nephew using black magic. 

Despite most people in India knowing the basic facts of the case, Yadav is able to get people hooked to the series early on, with many audience members tweeting that they binge-watched it as soon as it came out.

With the help of archival footage, recreated sequences and interviews with experts, Yadav makes us feel that we were there in Burari. There is a scary buildup, and even though actual footage or images of the dead family are never shown, the impact is quite shocking.

It might be extremely disturbing for some viewers, as it has mentions of suicide and graphic imagery. There is at least one triggering scene showing ropes hanging and the dangling feet of the family members, barely touching the ground.

Lalit, the youngest son in the Bhatia family, became the patriarch of the family after his father’s death. Due to trauma and mental illness, he allegedly experienced episodes of psychosis in which he thought he was possessed by the spirit of his dead father.

He maintained 11 handwritten diaries where his possessed spirit would apparently invoke the “instructions” of his “father.” Those words became the word of law for the Bhatia family, so much so that no one dared to question the “messenger.”

It’s according to that word of law that the family attempted a badd puja — a religious ceremony invoking a banyan tree, that led to the death of the entire family. It is revealed that none of them were meant to die, as the dead father would save them. Experts have claimed it is neither suicide nor murder, but an accident. 

Friends and neighbors of the family, who have been interviewed during the docuseries, had no knowledge of these occult activities and the family dynamics of the Bhatias, though here are mentions of mental health and how Lalit’s “psychosis” led to this tragedy. All in all, the series paints the picture of a family that became a small cult where they shared a similar belief that the spirit of a dead man would help them succeed.

But, one must not ignore the deep patriarchal hold at the center of it all, one that only seemed further strengthened by the involvement of the cult behavior. One cannot just say that “Lalit was mentally disturbed” or some variation of the plot.

Ultimately, the tragedy should have asked questions and ignited discussions about the hidden dysfunctionality of “seemingly, normal families.” Without this deep-dive, the docuseries falls into the same vicious circle.

The production brings in psychologists, journalists and writers to discuss the merits of the case, but none of them answer the important questions of why some accept orders from patriarchal figures like Lalit. Or why is it normal for people to hide the “abnormalities” in their households? It’s the same instinct that makes us hide a relative who is suffering from a mental health disorder.

The docuseries makes the requisite appeal to mental health, to the “secrecy” factor of Indian families, and the deep hold of superstition. It also vilifies the media’s coverage of the case which sensationalized and appeared to blow facts apart.

But all of them are tokenistic representations. For example, in one scene, a neighbor of the family merely mentions that Lalit should have sought help from a psychiatrist, making the conversation around mental health just in passing. 

The genuinely disturbing revelation of it all is the knowledge that this could, and likely will, happen again. The ingredients for the recipe already exist in most families: undeterred obedience to a patriarch, hiding mental illness, secrecy, shame, and increased control over each family member.

One question I ask is: what if it was a woman in the family who was “possessed?” Would her orders be obeyed or would she be vilified? The latter seems more plausible.

A man, however, in a position of power within the family was able to actualize his control through his mental illness, galvanizing superstition to legitimize the illness in turn. This is a common strand in a society where mental illness is not dealt with through the proper channels. 

Though the series is a step in the right direction, in my opinion, its creation is hampered by the short-sightedness of its makers.

However, one might still have sleepless nights after watching it or have the urge to always look up as you enter a room, recalling eerie images from the documented crime scenes. Either way, it is strongly recommended not to binge-watch this show at night.

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