The Netflix series looks at the real-life Burari deaths through a thematic lens by interviewing those close to the family
House of Secrets, the new documentary series on Netflix, follows the death of 11 members of a family through a unusual lens. While the very idea of an entire family of 11 dying over a single night and none but a dog surviving sounds like the perfect pitch for a whodunnit-series, director Leena Yadav has tried to steer clear of sensationalising the material. In her efforts to explore the mysterious deaths — clear evidence to call the deaths murder or suicide is lacking — she has highlighted the potential role of certain myths related in the contemporary South Asian society.
Hand-written notes in 11 diaries and notebooks reveal that Lalit, the youngest sibling, was believed to be possessed by the spirit of his deceased father. During the ‘possession’ he would instruct his family to follow certain practices and perform some rituals. His word was law for the Chundawat family as no one dared question the ‘messenger’. It was apparently in attempting a barh puja, a religious rite invoking a banyan tree, that the entire family met its death.
The series does not dwell on the forensics or evidence-gathering. It tries instead to find the reason behind the strange behaviour: were the victims motivated by a superstition or were they suffering from collective psychosis. In the process, the Indian spirituality is showcased in an unusual manner. It looks at how rationality can be weakened and mad thoughts justified by invoking spirituality.
The series does not make a straightforward assertion that the family wound up dead under a spell of collective madness, but in its social autopsy of the police, medical examiners, therapists, friends and extended family the potential impact of insanity is highlighted. This raises an interesting point. While there have been many conspiracy theories about the nearly-forgotten incident the following question seems to have been ignored: What would the public reaction have been had the ghostly command not been a factor in the deaths?
Suicide remained a possibility in the unsolved crime. Most people find it plausible that those in thrall of occult ideologies may take their own lives. How would the tragedy be categorised if the context were changed – moved, say, to somewhere in Scandinavia, where religious beliefs do not hold as much stock? Would it be called an anomaly, a cult crime or mental illness?
Sickness is not hypnotic. A single man, even if lost to delusions, is not reasonably expected to be capable of convincing 10 others to follow along with his madness.
The direction of the show maintains a level of sensitivity for the deceased. In doing so, it highlights a potential trigger for each of their actions. Once it is presumed that this was indeed a bout of madness that claimed the minds of the Chundawat family, the next question is, where did that madness stem from?
The story highlights the gaps in the media’s voyeuristic coverage of the events. Those who had been close to the Chundawat family are interviewed to show their lack of knowledge about the ‘religious’ tangents the family had created. At one point, a family friend states, “Koi bachcha hi bata deta.” It is rather curious how secretive the family was. Keep in mind, this was not a group of outcasts or ‘untouchables’. The family had a good financial standing and a fairly active social life.
Despite their seemingly outgoing demeanour, their nature was deeply guarded. In an age of social media gossip and a camera in everyone’s phone, it is amazing that their peculiarities were not recognised. Isolation came before the horror, and within that isolation, mental illness was allowed to fester. Whether Lalit was mentally ill or not, and at what point that possible illness transformed into delusions of possession, is largely indeterminable.
Also, sickness is not hypnotic. A single man, even if lost to delusions, is not reasonably expected to be able to convince 10 others to follow along. A foundation for fearful mistakes is apparently ever-present. The power of patriarchal command — through Lalit and the invocation of the late father — and the staunch religiosity possibily crafted the tools of persuasion. There is no formal claim that the family killed themselves on account of their belief in a ghost but a suggestion that the depressingly possibility is there.
The series does explore the health aspect. It ends with the statement: “The secrecy with which it happened shows the lack of interconnectedness in the society. So society actually needs to have these conversations even if they are unsettling because telling the stories of these people is in itself giving a closure, both for them and for us.” However, this sounds like tokenism and there is a feeling that the researchers did not delve deep enough.
House of Secrets raises important questions even if those are not overtly explored. Why, even in the face of apparent insanity, do people go along with certain claims due to their association with religion? Why didn’t a single person in the family speak up about what was going on the household? Perhaps was nothing truly special about the family. They arguably did what anybody from their society would have done under similar circumstances. Therein lies a bigger tragedy.
Akif Rashid is a storyteller and a journalist. Having published the short story collection, Encounters, he is working on his second book.