Screens and Screams: Horror as a Genre in Anime

Don’t turn around.



I’ve said it many times before, and I’ll say it again: I love horror anime. In fact, I love horror as a genre in general, although I’ve gotten to be a bit picky about it… which is to say, I love horror but dislike the current incarnation which has come into vogue in America – torture porn. Quite frankly, I don’t find this iteration of horror to truly be scary; I just find it disgusting. Ok, that person just had to scratch a key out of their friend’s intestine so they could escape some death device… yuck. But not really frightening.

My dislike of this version of horror actually brings me to why I think horror works in anime and why I find myself to be generally pleased by horror anime.

Once upon a time, someone stated to me, in one of those vaguely snobby tones sadly common to ‘serious’ anime fans, that anime couldn’t really do horror. They argued that, because anime as a medium necessarily relies on drawings as opposed to real human actors, there is a remove in anime which makes it much too hard for it to truly be scary. So, to whit – those aren’t real people being chased by real-looking ghosts, this clearly is fiction!

I think this is a terrifically short-sighted viewpoint. It also neatly illuminates the difference between the sort of horror I enjoy and the sort of horror that can be found so frequently in American cinemas these days. And, yes, I’ll be quite clear: I do think that the kind of horror I enjoy is superior to the torture porn ilk that’s become so popular. And it has a lot to do with my feelings about human life and torture in general; essentially, I have a strong distaste for torture porn because I think it’s just gross and also since it works to cheapen human life. Look around and take note of the new American attitude toward the practice of water-boarding. It’s all part and parcel of large issues. However, I digress.

I think the most effective anime horror are those shows which tap into our base fears and worries. When a blameless individual in Vampire Princess Miyu gets killed by a monster, it isn’t disturbing because they’ve been killed by a monster – rather, what is disturbing is the senselessness in the act. The character has been minding their own business; there is nothing truly important about them, they just happened to be the unfortunate person getting slaughtered that week to set up the storyline. Here is an individual who was just living their life, and because they did just that, they ended up dying. This violates our sense of security in industrialized nations – there is a social contract, more or less, wherein we expect to be able to be safe when conducting our daily activities, so long as we are ‘innocent’ individuals (so drug dealers, mobsters, murderers, etc. need not apply). And that is why a viewer feels uneasy while watching.

Horror anime works best as horror when it follows this kind of path, precisely because it can’t draw (most of) us in as convincingly as do live action movies. It is simply harder for someone to wake up and feel leery about, say, the vampires from Shiki being in the shadows of their room than it is to feel leery about the ghosts from The Haunting being there (the re-make… the original is waaaay different and muuuch better). The vampires are animated – they’re not real! And, yeah, the ghosts are CGI, but they interact with human players, so there is less of a remove there. Now, sic those vampires on a human character viewers feel some tenuous connection to? Then you’ll be getting those disturbed feelings. (And, no, I don’t think Shiki’s managed to do that yet.)

On a personal level, I also just find psychological horror much more effective than the in-your-face variety. I enjoy being unsettled and creeped out more than outright scared… although I certainly enjoy that to extent, too. It just seems to have fallen by the wayside, at least as far as I’m concerned; again, things like Saw or Hostel don’t really scare me, they just make me feel nauseous. So: scary? Good. Creepy? Good. Nauseous? Not good. And often characters in these kinds of movies or shows are unpleasant in some fashion, so one doesn’t really feel too terribly for them when they get their just deserts; they aren’t the random individuals from Shikabane Hime nor are they the unfortunate victims of Jigoku Shoujo.

This season was interesting to me because of the variety of horror anime that were slated to air – there were those in the psychological vein (Shiki, Occult Academy), and then those in the in-your-face vein (Highschool of the Dead). I’m oversimplifying here, of course – there is a lot of psychology (and sociology) involved in zombie tales in general, although Highschool of the Dead has done a pretty good job of hiding this part behind boobs and panties, to the point where only the fact that Madhouse is in charge has me still clinging to any notion that ‘here be social criticism’. None of the shows so far have managed to make me feel either scared or unsettled yet, though, so I can’t quite say they succeed on the horror level for me. Shiki is intriguing, although I can’t say why, so I’m holding out hope that it’ll creep me out yet. That the male lead is wholly unsympathetic doesn’t make me hyper-hopeful, though.

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7 Responses to Screens and Screams: Horror as a Genre in Anime

  1. kluxorious says:

    I love horror genre in anime but loath horror in real life movie. I dunno why.

    But then again I have no problem with hentai but couldn’t stand live action porno.

    I should have live in anime world.

  2. Shinmaru says:

    I’m a big fan of horror, so the torture porn bullshit is my most despised genre development in a long ass time, even more than all those retarded parody comedies that popped up after Scary Movie.

    It’s part of why my enjoyment of, say, Higurashi could only go up to a certain point. A lot of it comes off like gruesome, explicit violence for its own sake, and that just turns my stomach. Although I at least like the characters in Higurashi, which is more than I can say for Saw, Hostel, etc.

    • adaywithoutme says:

      Yeah, I never saw Higurashi, but I remember being disappointed in Umineko – the level of gore just seemed excessive, and it didn’t do anything to advance the storyline or anything. We get that Beatrice is cruel the first time she does something like crush someone’s skull. All the extra stuff doesn’t confirm what we already know, and it doesn’t add any suspense to the story. If anything, it makes me feel less inclined to watch in the first place.

    • odorunara says:

      I was just about to suggest Higurashi!

      On a personal level, I also just find psychological horror much more effective than the in-your-face variety.

      This is why I liked Higurashi so much. It’s true that it is violent and bloody, but style of having question arcs and answer arcs and having the story be altered across them was really effective in scaring the bejeezus out of me.

      (It doesn’t help that I live in a town that looks just like the one in the anime and that I don’t live too far from the place on which the setting is based.)

      I felt like the violence served to highlight the psychological horror rather than just make it a slasher film. Is the killer the shrine god? Who’s really pulling the strings? The second season answers all the leftover questions–it wasn’t really scary, but it was a good wrap-up if you’re interested in getting all the answers. But the charm of the first season is, in my opinion, the fear of the unknown or the not knowing as you experience the arcs with partial information.

  3. Aile says:

    never really got into “horror” (anime or otherwise) because I’ve never really got “scared” (and the seeking-out of this particular kind of scared seems to be the draw for genre-aficionados) by much anything fictional. There seems to be a kind of “disconnect” to it (especially when it’s a more outlandish horror that stresses my disbelief, and the film relies on not much else than disbelief). However, it’s not like I make an interesting psychological case study, because in other things I can empathize with what I watch/read fine enough. Porn “works” well enough, for example, I can cry at tragedies, laugh with a comedy.. I just don’t get -scared- at horror (in the classical hands-before-eyes-OhNoIcan’tWatchItAnymore sense). Especially so if it relies on supernatural/fantasy elements to be horrific (see again suspension of disbelief). I don’t know, one day I realized that most of the actual horror in the world isn’t done by monsters or zombies or evil men with guns and stuff, but people with white collars in air-conditioned offices who inflict pain on untold millions with a stroke of their well-manicured finger and then go home to kiss their good kids goodnight. Which may not make for a good movie, but is the most unsettling thing for me. Hell, sometimes seeing rows of neat houses scares me, when I remember the rape and abuse statistics for my city and can’t help but imagine what horros must go on behind some of those closed doors. Anyhoots, maybe I am a psychological case study for different reasons.

    Oh, and you’ve mentioned. “Look around and take note of the new American attitude toward the practice of water-boarding. It’s all part and parcel of large issues.” I wouldn’t say that torture-porn of the Saw/Hostel-kind plays a big role in the waterboarding-attitudes. If just for the reason that they’ve not been around long enough /aren’t mainstream enough to make such a really deep impact in the cultural consciousness (especially those who favor the waterboarding, the cliched older conservative I can’t see watching Saw etc..). I’ve heard Jack Bauers exploits on “24” being mentioned, that may have more to do with it. However, the underlying argument is that this torture is done for “worthy goals” – 24 with its timebomb-scenarios falls in line with that, but horrortorture like Hostel etc. don’t work with that (one could argue that the puppetmaster of Saw uses a moralistic reasoning).
    Sure, in the waterboarding-issue, the enemy is otherized and gets dehumanized, so far to the point that he is less worth than the stuff we’re torturing him for (freeedom, of course), but if you want to know where this devaluation comes from and is fed, there are many better sources.

    “This violates our sense of security in industrialized nations – there is a social contract, more or less, wherein we expect to be able to be safe when conducting our daily activities, so long as we are ‘innocent’ individuals (so drug dealers, mobsters, murderers, etc. need not apply). And that is why a viewer feels uneasy while watching.”

    Aight, it’s the “Just World” -thing. Like with the notion “..this wasn’t supposed to happen here!”. Since I don’t buy into it in the first place, I may not be as unsettled when in fiction the social contract is shown for what it is, a comfortable illusion. Horror works by engaging our existential anxieties. The simplest ones are crude slasher- or zombie movies where the sense of selfpreservation/bodily harm is threatened. Not much there in subtext, not very interesting for me. There’s also horror that uses anxieties like (loss of) individuality (like in the Bodysnatchers- or Mindrape tropes), or horror that engages sexual- or racism fears (like, I don’t know, many a dissertation was written about the subtext of “Alien” or the implication of King Kong-scenarios, etc.)..


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