Samidha and Tamira used to be besties. They literally spoke the same language, Hindi, and knew all the same stories. Both emigrated from India with their families. The United States was such a strange, unfamiliar place. When they first arrived. It was so nice for Samidha to be with someone who looked and talked and even thought like her.
That was before Samidha became Sam, though. Before she stopped talking in Hindi. Before she pushed all those childhood stories from India way back in her mind and really concentrated on fitting in.
Sam’s now become one of the cool-ish kids in high school—a smart kid with good fashion sense and a phone full of friends. But Tamira’s way down the list. Their days as best friends are long gone.
Tamira? She’s the weird kid now, and getting weirder by the day. Her face is a mass of shadow and frown. She shuffles into class a half-hour late. She carries a mason jar wherever she goes—as if it was filled with her ancestors’ ashes and she was forbidden from putting it down.
Tamira knows the dark truth. And she needs to tell someone who just might—might—understand.
She finds Sam in gym and tells her that there’s something living inside that jar. It eats raw meat. It feeds off fear. And it’s getting stronger.
“All the stories?” Tamira tells Sam. “The ones we heard growing up? They were true.”
Sam doesn’t want to hear it. She doesn’t have time for that crazy talk and its insinuation of a world alive with gods and demons and who knows what else. Plus, Tamira’s embarrassing her. So in a fit of petty spite, she reaches out and swats the jar from Tamira’s hands. The jar shatters on the locker room floor.
Tamira freaks. It’s as if she sees something escape and grow, something unimaginably terrifying and terrible.
Sam doesn’t see the thing. She only sees Tamira—cowering and terrified and perhaps plain crazy. Clearly Tamira needs help—emergency psychological help, maybe—and Sam dashes away to find a teacher.
When Sam returns, Tamira’s gone.
But Tamira didn’t leave willingly. The stories are real. The thing that took Tamira will be back. And if Sam doesn’t want to get taken, too, she’ll need to reacquaint herself with those old stories really quickly.
You could argue that It Lives Inside is just as much about Sam’s relationship with two different cultures as it is about the monster that lived inside that Mason jar.
When the movie opens, she seems in the process of rejecting her Indian heritage—and alienating her deeply traditional mother in the process. Tamira apparently was far more comfortable with that heritage, so Sam rejected her, too. “I could feel the way people looked at me when I was with her, and I just hated it,” she confesses.
But the movie’s circumstances force her to reembrace that heritage once more. And while that’s not altogether good from a spiritual point of view (more on that in a moment), it is important to appreciate our native cultures and unique upbringings.
And it’s nice to see that Sam’s relationship with her mother, Poorna, also heals. Poorna begins talking to her daughter in English, not Hindi—a concession to Sam’s own embrace of her adoptive country—and Sam comes to honor her mother and her own adherence to tradition.
Mother and daughter, incidentally, risk their lives for each other. And Sam ultimately risks a great deal in her efforts to rescue Tamira from the force that has literally taken her.
One more shout-out goes to Joyce, one of Sam’s teachers (and, apparently, a family friend). When Sam realizes that she’s up against a literal monster, she turns to Joyce for help. And while Joyce initially suspects that Sam just might need psychological help, she suspends her disbelief and reassures Sam that she’ll be there for her—whatever she needs.
Joyce even offers to swing by Sam’s house late one night, which is well beyond the scope of what a typical high school teacher might be willing to do. “You came to me for help,” Joyce tells Sam. “So let me help you.”
When Tamira says that the stories that she and Sam grew up with are “all true,” she’s speaking especially of Hindu stories. The monster in question is said to be a pishach, a type of demon found both in Hindu and Buddhist mythologies (the Hindu text Mahabharata says that the original pishach was a child of the creator god Brahma). And just as a demon from a Christian-tinged horror story might stereotypically be dispelled with holy water and Latin prayer, this demon is sensitive to certain Hindu rites.
Those rites involve placating the demon through offerings. It craves bloody meat (a sharp contrast to the vegetarian-leaning faith), and at one point it’s lured by the promise of a massive Indian meal. It can also be challenged and imprisoned using special Hindu mantras that are capable of driving the beast into some sort of receptacle. (Hindu illustrations indicate that sometimes those receptacles were living people, swamis, who trapped the pishach in their own bodies.)
After seeing the number seven written over and over in the journal of one of the pishach’s earlier victims, Sam researches the significance of the number in Hinduism. (It is, we learn, quite important in the religion.)
The Hindu goddess Durga is especially recognized in the film. A statue of the goddess can be seen in Sam’s home, and her mother prays before the idol at one point. Durga carries a bit of metaphorical weight in the story as well: The goddess is especially known for defeating the demonic shape-shifter Mahishasura, an intended echo of Sam’s own facedown with the movie’s monster.
And the Durga puja (a ceremony and celebration maybe a bit akin to Christmas dinner) becomes a huge point of focus for Sam and her family. For Sam’s mother, Poorna, the Durga puja is a big deal for the family—representing not only their faith, but their Indian culture. Sam participates, but grudgingly.
At the puja, people pray to Durga for the safety and wellbeing of Tamira. Characters adorn themselves in Henna tattoos before a critical showdown. (While not necessarily spiritual, henna tattoos can be used as a sort of talisman against, and protection from, demonic activity in some religious traditions.) Poorna scolds Sam for whistling. “The evil spirits will hear you,” she says.
A student asks Sam to say something in “Hindu,” conflating the word for Sam’s native tongue (Hindi) for the religion. We see people with bindis—the red dot applied to the space between the eyebrows—which holds deep and complex religious significance. The school that Sam and Tamira go to, Wooderson Grove High School, boasts a werewolf as its mascot.
Sam has a crush on a guy named Russ, and the two kiss a couple of times. We see Sam and other girls in gym outfits.
The pishach is said to feed on negative feelings, too: “Anger, hatred, loneliness,” Poorna says. But hey, it’s not averse to chewing on the occasional helpless victim.
We see one such poor soul attacked by the pishach. While the demon is invisible during the attack (it seems to have the ability to appear or disappear), the victim is picked up and thrashed about. At one point, the pishach seems to choke him with a swing-set chain. At another, deep puncture wounds (caused by the monster’s invisible teeth, we assume) appear on his neck. At the end of the attack, the victim lies dead, his neck covered in blood. (Police think he was killed by a wild animal.)
We hear—and see a bit—of the pishach’s first American victims, too. (Who knows how many folks it killed in its native India.) In the movie’s opening scene, we glimpse a smoldering corpse—burning as fire embers would—with telltale puncture marks in the body. We later learn the corpse was once a teen named Karan, whom most people believed killed himself after murdering his parents. (People whisper about how the parents’ bodies were mutilated.) Both Karan’s journal and room are filled with horrifying drawings and paintings, including some where it appears an entity either is entering or exiting someone’s mouth.
The pishach attacks others, as well. One is attacked from behind—stabbed, it would appear, and lifted high. Another attack takes place offscreen, but we do hear the screams and see the victim in the aftermath, bloodied and nearly unconscious.
People get hit and thrown (though the pishach absorbs some blows, too.) Another person suffers puncture wounds on her arm. The invisible being yanks someone away by her hair. A character is yanked down a flight of stairs. Blood soaks the bottom of a backpack. A disturbing doppelganger chases Sam in a dream. We see people feed bloody bits of meat to the pishach.
One f-word and about five s-words. We hear other profanities lobbed, including “d–n” and “h—.” God’s and Jesus’ names are both misused a couple of times.
Russ smokes what appears to be a marijuana joint. He offers it to Sam, who takes a drag … and starts coughing and hacking almost immediately. The two attend a party where attendees are asked to “bring your own booze.” (Sam doesn’t bring any and sticks with soda, but we can assume that most of the other revelers are imbibing alcohol.)
As mentioned, Sam and Poorna have a pretty strained relationship—and it grows ever more so throughout the movie. At one point, Poorna says that it’s hopeless to even try to talk with Sam, because she and Sam’s father “mean nothing to her.”
Sam later accuses Poorna of poor life. Decisions. Sam says she wants to be more than just a dutiful, kitchen-cleaning Indian wife and mother who resists every aspect of the country she willingly moved to. Sam seems to blow off family traditions and treats both of her parents disrespectfully.
We hear plenty about Sam’s discomfort with her Indian background and heritage. Some of Sam’s classmates misunderstand Sam’s Indian culture or lean into some stereotypes. Sam shaves her forearms, which is perhaps an indication of her desire to fit in with her peers.
Sam also lies frequently.
It Lives Inside operates on about three different levels.
The film’s first and most obvious cinematic identity is as a straight-up monster movie. As Tamira tells us, the pishach is very real.
But given that the pishach thrives on negative emotions—hate, loneliness, anger—that characteristic lends itself to a more metaphorical underlayer. The pishach’s teen victims turn surly and withdrawn; Tamira becomes almost a non-entity in school. When Sam falls under the monster’s shadow, her relationship with her parents gets increasingly rocky; Mom and Dad can’t understand why Sam’s suddenly not talking them and disobeying them at every turn.
In other words, the pishach becomes an instrument for magnifying adolescent angst and mental illness. The fact that the pishach’s first victim is thought to have committed suicide reinforces that metaphorical meaning. So as Sam and others battle this very real monster, you could say that they’re warring against those negative emotions it feeds on, too. The movie seems to be telling us not to fall prey to our own destructive feelings, because doing so might lead to our own destruction.
The third level is cultural: It Lives Inside is an homage to writer/director Bishal Dutta’s Indian heritage. He moved to the United States when he was 4 years old, so his experience wasn’t that far removed from Sam’s. And according to Fangoria, he calls the film a “love letter” to the culture he grew up in.
Clearly, Dutta had high ambitions for this project. But in many ways, It Lives Inside still falls short.
While told from a new angle, the film’s approach feels old. It comes with standard monster-movie tropes baked in. The characters and their actions can feel inconsistent: For instance, Sam ditches a family gathering to go rescue Tamira … then shows up at a high school party instead; Tamira, for the moment, has been all but forgotten.
And while It Lives Inside is rated PG-13, it—like the pishach inside the mason jar—pushes against those ratings constraints. There’s more blood than you’d expect, and more foul language than you’d want.
But the biggest issue for Christians will likely be the story’s Hindu underpinnings.
It Lives Inside functions almost like a Hindu version of The Exorcist, in some ways—with henna tattoos and Hindi chants replacing holy water and Latin prayers. And while monsters in Christian horror stories can be cast out or destroyed, here the evil can only be placated—a tack that almost feels (at least to this Christian set of eyes) like a bribe.
I love learning about other cultures. And I understand the importance and the joy of embracing your own heritage. I also understand that religion can be a critical part of that heritage. And on that level, there’s much to appreciate in It Lives Inside.
But while every culture can be beautiful, in my opinion, only one religion can, ultimately, be true. Only one faith is worth following. Only one God can save us from the evils of this world or any other.
And as such, the pishach holds little fear for me.
Paul Asay has been part of the Plugged In staff since 2007, watching and reviewing roughly 15 quintillion movies and television shows. He’s written for a number of other publications, too, including Time, The Washington Post and Christianity Today. The author of several books, Paul loves to find spirituality in unexpected places, including popular entertainment, and he loves all things superhero. His vices include James Bond films, Mountain Dew and terrible B-grade movies. He’s married, has two children and a neurotic dog, runs marathons on occasion and hopes to someday own his own tuxedo. Feel free to follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.