Some time in 2018, Jay Alani logged on to his Facebook to find a disturbing message from a woman in the north Indian city of Yamuna Nagar. The woman, a 22-year-old dentist, claimed she had seen a lady floating in front of her. She appeared to not have legs. The woman was convinced that the apparition was trying to kill her, and was so distressed that it pushed her to contemplate ending her life. When Alani asked if she had confided in her friends and family, her response was equally alarming.
“She said that when she told her parents, they sent her to an ashram (a spiritual or religious retreat),” the 32-year-old paranormal investigator from New Delhi told VICE. “She was there for about 15 to 20 days when the baba (godman) heading the institution tried to make a ‘physical connection’ with her. He told her he was an avatar of god with miraculous energies flowing through him, and that the moment his sperm would enter her body, the ghosts would go away. She somehow managed to escape from the ashram, but was worried that if she brought up the hauntings again, her parents would send her back.”
When Alani paid a visit to the woman, he realised that her experience might not have been supernatural. Instead, he believed it was a result of pareidolia, a tendency to see meaningful shapes and figures in random or unrelated objects. “People often see imaginary figures or creatures when they have suffered through trauma,” he explained. “When I asked her about her childhood, she told me about how she was molested by her uncle at the age of 7, which is probably what triggered her [hallucinations].”
At that point, Alani, the founder of paranormal investigating startup The Paranormal Company, had been investigating the supernatural for eight years. Having visited hundreds of sites of reported paranormal presence, Alani was a firm believer that most supernatural sightings could be explained through rational and logical explanations.
“I have been a paranormal investigator since 2010,” he said. “I have investigated hundreds of cases, been questioned by the police for trespassing, even attacked by animals. But I have still never come across any [actual] paranormal presence.”
Alani explained that like most people fascinated by the supernatural, his journey as an investigator also began with a curiosity to unmask the unexplained. “When I was 17, my parents took me to a temple in Rajasthan, where I saw an exorcism ceremony being performed,” he said. “I watched as a mob brutally beat up the woman they believed was possessed by an evil spirit, as those around chanted mantras (sacred chants). The atmosphere was scary and devastating, and got me curious about whether there was such a thing as ghosts.”
Inspired by pop culture portrayals of ghost hunters, Alani first began exploring abandoned locations and haunted houses with torches and electromagnetic frequency-reading K2 metres – instruments he’d seen on television shows that were believed to detect paranormal presence. However, he quickly realised that this “ghostbusting” equipment was of no use.
“I felt like all this equipment was a scam,” he said. “Instead, I started doing my own research by speaking to the locals in the [supposedly haunted] locations, understanding the wildlife there, their folklore, beliefs and superstitions, and also reading books on psychology.”
Over the last decade, Alani, who also runs a myth-busting podcast called Ansuna Such and has written a book based on his cases titled Haunted: Terrifying Real-life Encounters with Ghosts and Spirits, has investigated over a hundred “haunted” sites across India. This includes the Bhangarh fort in Rajasthan, believed to be India’s most haunted spot; the Lambi Dehar mines in Mussoorie, where legend has it the blood-curdling shriek of thousands of dead miners can be heard; and the Dagshai cemetery in Himachal Pradesh, where many claim to have seen the ghost of a woman named Mary.
“Often, what people believe is paranormal activity is just the sounds of animals, such as lambs or frogs or red foxes that can make sounds like that of a human screaming with grief or agony,” said Alani. “Sometimes, these abandoned locations, like the Lambi Dehar mines, are not haunted but actually hiding spots for local criminals.” He added that in many cases, such as the one with the dentist, paranormal sightings could be triggered by psychological trauma.
But this particular case of the dentist also got him thinking about the larger picture. Despite being overrun by controversial babas and blind faith, India did not have a platform where people could report their supposedly supernatural experiences and seek rational explanations for them.
So, in March 2020, he kicked off India’s first paranormal helpline, a phone number (+91 99995 18600) that people could dial in to report any occurrences they believed were supernatural. In an attempt to make the self-funded helpline accessible across the country, Alani decided to make it a free resource, and does not charge people for his consultations.
“We have attended over 1,000 calls on this helpline so far,” he said. But after word got around about this helpline, Alani’s phone began blowing up, with most people calling out of curiosity, speculating they had seen the ghost from The Conjuring or asking about the accuracy of Bloody Mary. To further streamline his model, he changed his helpline into a chat room, where people could WhatsApp audio notes about their situation to help him gauge whether the case was legit or not.
“The most common cases I get are of exorcisms,” he said. “These people often pretend [to be possessed] to fulfil some kind of intention, or they suffer from a psychological condition,” he said, giving the example of a woman who pretended she was possessed to get out of a bad marriage.
In one notable case, he received a call from a man in Rajasthan who believed his wife’s body had been taken over by a “shaitani aatma” (evil spirit). “He had taken her to tantric babas (who perform black magic) who charged them Rs 50,000 to Rs 75,000 ($668 to $1,002) to ward off the spirits, but it didn’t work. He then called me asking if I could help him.”
When he investigated the case, Alani realised that the woman lived an extremely suppressed life. “She was born and brought up in a small village and married off as soon as she turned 18,” he explained. “She never left the house, had to wear a ghunghat (traditional veil) to cover her face due to the society’s pressure, and was caged in her in-laws’ house to do chores or take care of her kids. Her husband probably saw her as just a sex machine and never even took her to a restaurant or movie or anything. Over time, this suppression has a crucial effect on one’s mind, and it probably [manifested] in this way.”
Alani tried to explain to the caller that this was likely a psychological disorder, and suggested he take his wife to a psychiatrist. However, the man refused to take his advice and continued to take her to tantric babas. Alani said he gets many cases like this.
In fact, in many parts of India, women are often branded witches out of either superstitious belief or to help relatives and neighbours grab their land and property, to settle personal grudges, or for denying sexual favours. As a result, hundreds of accused women are hunted down and killed.
“I get many calls from (the eastern Indian state of) Jharkhand, where women are scared that they will be lynched by mobs because they’ve been accused of practising witchcraft,” he said.
The 2019 data from India’s National Crime Records Bureau showed that witch hunting was on the rise in 12 Indian states, with Jharkhand accounting for 83 percent of killings.
“We try to run awareness campaigns against these blind beliefs,” he added. “In one case, I also referred a man who thought his wife was a witch to a psychologist, who helped them understand [why these beliefs were false].” In such cases, Alani often works in collaboration with a team of psychologists he keeps on standby, and advises his callers to seek professional medical help.
Since his helpline was launched during the onset of the COVID-19 lockdown in 2020, the investigator has received dozens of cases of haunted homes. Alani attributes this to the rise in loneliness and isolation fuelled by the lockdown, adding that addressing mental health issues plays a major role in investigating paranormal activity.
“I got a call from a woman in Mumbai who lived alone,” he said. “She was going through a financial crisis and was also facing issues in her love life. She claimed she’d started seeing imaginary things and believed her house was haunted. In such a case, people might just need a friend or someone to talk to.”
When the second wave of COVID-19 devastated the country last year, Alani also received multiple requests to perform a seance or connect people with their departed loved ones.
“One case that made me very sad was of this 72-year-old man from Gujarat,” he said. “He was a rich businessman who thought I had the power to talk to ghosts and reached out to me. He got married at 24, had his first son at 25, but had to run his business and keep travelling for work, so didn’t get to spend enough time with his family. His plan was to retire and buy a small home with his wife in the hills. But the day he retired, his wife died of a cardiac arrest. And when his son came to attend the funeral, he got COVID-19 and also passed away. So the man was very lonely and looking for support.”
Helming the paranormal helpline has given Alani extensive insight into the cultural factors that continue to drive supernatural beliefs in the country. It has also led him to conclude that even as campaigns try to raise awareness against black magic and babas, blind beliefs are proliferating on new platforms.
“Earlier it was folklore; now, you have many YouTubers acting as ghostbusters with machines,” he said. He added that though the channels pull these stunts for entertainment purposes and views, they inevitably and indirectly end up spreading superstitious beliefs without addressing the core of the problem. “With folklore and stories, people could choose to believe if a place was haunted or not. But now, you have a guy on video going to a peepal tree (the sacred fig tree commonly considered a haunted symbol in India). He may say something like there is a woman hanging upside down here, and then use a machine that starts blinking. For someone who is watching, they will then continue to believe that place is haunted.”