These Things Only Happen in Japanese Horror Films
Just what makes Japanese horror so scary?
Ju-On (The Grudge)/Xanadeux
We must admit, there’s just something so unnerving about Japanese horror flicks that make them tick. It’s not as if the supernatural scares are bad enough—the infamous duo of Sadako (The Ring) and Kayako (The Grudge) gave us nightmares for years—but their fear factor seems to go beyond the fact that they are just scary white ladies. For some reason, J-horror films are way scarier than their Western counterparts. Here, we investigate the reasons why Japanese horror films make us afraid of television sets, wells, and everything in between.
Horror is incorporated in everyday life.
In Japanese horror, the mundane things that we encounter in our daily lives could be sources of fear. In the movie, Uzumaki, for example, a seemingly innocuous spiral manages to wreak havoc in the lives of people living in a small town. At first glance, a spiral is the least frightening thing that we could ever think of—because, really, who would ever think of being afraid of a shape? However, the film manages to make use of the idea of a spiral as a frightening motif, making it appear repetitively in the movie that even the audiences cannot escape its influence. While Western films build on extraordinary events as settings of horror (e.g., a group of teenagers chancing upon an abandoned haunted house, a viral outbreak causes a zombie apocalypse, etc.), J-horror turns to the every day for real-life scares instead.
They effectively use silence to build suspense and tension.
A lot of Japanese horror films make for interesting studies on the effective use of music—or actually, the lack of it—as a device. The economical use of sound seems to be a common thread among most J-horror movies, which are mostly limited to ambient noises, sparse dialogue, or the creepy shuffling of ghosts that lurk in the dark. The absence of sound could actually be unnerving, making it seem as if the audience is also trapped in the same vacuum as the characters. Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Pulse makes for a great example of a film that plays with idea of sound and silence to heighten terror. And who could ever forget the creepy sound effects in the mainstream hit, The Grudge?
A lot of films use dark, empty spaces to highlight emptiness.
There’s just something about J-horror that makes us feel that everything’s empty or desolated. Just like the sparse use of music, there also seems to be the sparse use of space in a lot of Japanese horror films. The Ring features Sadako, a ghost that emerges from a well and makes hauntings in rooms and hallways, The Grudge features Kayako and Toshio who roam around a cursed abandoned house, Pulse features haunted people living alone obscured in darkness, eventually leading to random individuals disappearing all over Tokyo. The atmospheric feeling of abandonment makes for a creepy experience, making the audience feel as if they’re being left behind. Couple this psychological terror with unexplained hauntings, and you got yourself sleeping with the lights on for a very long time.
The creepy encounters are amplified on a societal level.
Barring apocalypse movies, a lot of Western horror films put the spotlight on a person or a group experiencing really creepy happenings: a deranged father terrorizes his family in an abandoned hotel in The Shining, a girl seemingly becomes a victim of possession in The Exorcist (spawning an entire genre of exorcism-themed movies), an individual, group or a family prey victim to a slasher, a poltergeist, or a malevolent spirit. However, in these types of films, the horror is contained within the storylines of the main characters. In J-horror, whatever is causing the main protagonist’s distress usually spills over into society, wreaking havoc on a large scale. That’s the case in the movie Pulse, or in the blockbuster hit The Ring (where a videotaped had to be passed along chain letter-style in order to escape its curse).
The scares linger well after the movie.
What amps up the scare factor in most J-horror movies is the common theme of inevitability: bad things happen to random people and to the entire society and there’s nothing they could do about it. For Western slasher flicks, the horror is thought to end upon the arrest or even murder of the antagonist. For those with more supernatural elements, evil forces are thought to be captured or sealed away forever, which supposedly concludes the hauntings. But in most Japanese horror films, the haunting just never ends. On the contrary, they spread throughout society, rendering the characters in the movie and even the audience helpless in the face of irrational danger. This idea of powerlessness is seen in the movies Pulse, The Ring, Uzumaki, and Noroi, imprinting a more memorable impression on the audience well after the movie.