What makes Japanese horror scarier?

Last night I finally got round to watching Ju-on White Ghost/Black Ghost. Admittedly I cheated slightly, by waiting to watch them when I was not entirely on my own.  Somehow I just felt that they might unsettle me enough that I wouldn’t want to be in the house alone after.

Both films continue the story of the curse created by the murder of a housewife, in a house in Nerima.  All of the Ju-on films are a variation on the haunted house classic with the onryō  or “vengeful ghost” thrown in for good measure.   To briefly summarise; all of the films focus, to varying degrees, on the Saeki house where Kayako Saeki was murdered by her husband.  Her son Toshio is a witness to the murder and is consequently drowned (along with his pet cat Mar) by the father.   The concept is that, “when one person dies with a deep and burning grudge, a curse is born” this curse then “manifests on those who encounter the curse by any means, such as entering the house or being in contact with somebody who was already cursed”.

Generally horror movies don’t scare me.  When Darth Maul appears in the kid’s bedroom in Insidious I was, at best, mildly surprised, Del Toro regularly disappoints, although I like the look of his films, The Possession was creepy, but didn’t really stay with me after I turned off the lights, V-H-S had elements and certainly the Haunted House segment stayed with me a while and I’ve seen Regan’s spider walk enough times now, I am mostly indifferent to it.  Japanese horror, however, is my Achilles’ heel.  This got me wondering, what is it that the Japanese do that makes their films much scarier?

The death rattle is probably number one on my list.  That sound is just horrible.  But why?  Demonic voices and nails on blackboards do very little for me.  Even the ‘creepy’ music that provides the backdrop to most horror movies doesn’t really set the mood for me.  However, the death rattle does everything a staple horror movie sound should.  In all the Ju-on films the sound tends to fade in quietly.  Half the time you don’t even realise you are hearing it.  This puts you in exactly the same position as the characters.  Not only are they looking around questioning if that was a sound they just heard, but so are you.   It’s often the only sound, as there is rarely background music signalling the filmmaker’s intentions.  Usually it is preceded and then followed by silence.  Psychologically we find silences unsettling therefore when prefacing an equally unsettling sound, the silence becomes oppressive and the relief felt by the introduction of sound is denied.  Denying the audience their expected release is, I believe, the key to why Japanese horror is scarier.

For example, Western films work on a tension and release cycle.  The segment on the beach in Jaws is a textbook example of that. Chief Brody’s view of the sea is blocked, creating tension, then, over the shoulder of the guy talking to him he sees a woman who looks to be drowning, ut oh, tension, only for her to be hoisted on her boyfriend’s shoulders.   Next there is a series of fast shots of lots of kids playing in the water, more tension, some guy looking for his dog, more tension, shark cam pov shot, on the edge of your seats tension.  By the time the kid gets it the audience is tensioned out.  You’re overloaded by sound, quick shots and camera tricks.  Most of which, incidentally, are easy to learn, for example, John Carpenter films everything in the centre of the frame, so the jumps are going to come from the sides, Sam Raimi has stuff jumping out of doorways all the time so, if the camera lingers on a doorway, something is going to jump out.  Music foreshadows everything and, if you’re watching a teen slasher flick anyone drinking, doing drugs or having sex is dead by the end of the film.  It’s no wonder very few Western horror films scare me, I understand the cinematography and find myself predicting and rationalising the horror before it’s even on screen.  Lengthy over the shoulder shot?  Something is creeping up behind.  Japanese horror, however, does it differently by slowly building tension; silences, followed by creepy sound, followed by silence and then often something mundane, sometimes denying you the shock only to provide it when you’ve forgotten, momentarily, about being scared.  Although there is still heavy use of specific camera shots to foreshadow, those in themselves unsettle the audience.   In most of the Ju-on films, for example, high angle and low angle shots are used to good effect.  Shots often skew off to the side giving unnatural lines of sight, instead of looking straight at something you might find yourself looking up or down on a diagonal.  By changing the audience’s sight line the director is able to firstly take them out of their comfort zone, secondly, our brains react to the unnatural view which in turn unsettles our equilibrium thereby making us feel more vulnerable.

I think this is also why unnatural movement is another element in horror that upsets me greatly.  If something moves in an unpredictable way then how are you supposed to defend against it?  Not just that but, in most Japanese horror films things crawl.  As I write this I am actually watching the scene, in Ju-on The Curse,  where Kayako crawls down the stairs and it’s really, really unpleasant.  The groaning and wide eyed expression coupled with the unnatural movement works on several levels of fear.  By having something moving along the floor you key into the primal fear of being attacked from below, something early man would have had to contend with.  You can face a predator head on easier than if it falls on you (hence why shots looking up also freak us out) or climbs up the tree you are sheltering in, it’s a fear that’s been hardwired through millions of years of evolution to keep us safe from extinction.  It’s also why, as children, we are often afraid of ‘the monster under the bed’.  Then you have the wide eyed, mouth open in a fixed mask of fear expression.  The fact that the face is frozen in a grimace of fear is upsetting enough, the fact that the mouth is open becomes quite threatening and the death rattle, as previously discussed, is downright horrible.  Once Toshio starts his meowing it’s pretty much game over for most viewers.  White Ghost also does this well with the creepy Grandma ghost, for most of the film she shuffles around, hunched over just looking unpleasant.  There are a couple of scenes, however, where she moves unnaturally fast.  I don’t like that either.  One moment she is on the opposite side of the room, the next, right up in your face with her death rattle, basketball and creepy make-up.  This happens again in one of the later vignettes in Ju-on The Curse 2, one minute the girl is shuffling, the next second she is close up, eyes and mouth wide open, again in that familiar death grimace of terror.

Finally, for me, the most compelling thing about Japanese horror is that it’s all so plausible.  Most Japanese horror films use yurei  – spirits kept from an afterlife, easily recognised by their white clothing, long dark hair (which also often features prominently just on it’s own  – see Dark Water, White Ghost, The Ring, Apartment 1303, to name a few), pale skin and dark eyes.  This covers Kayako and Toshio from the Ju-on films, Sada from the Ring cycle and creepy Grandma from White Ghost as just a handful of examples, there are plenty more.  Three of the aforementioned yurei are also onryo, seeking revenge for their untimely and violent deaths.  These are elements from Japanese folklore that can be seen in their culture from Kabuki theatre to films today.  Because these ideas are deeply seated in a culture which is, in itself, very spiritual there is never any doubt that the events depicted in the film are of supernatural origin.  No tedious, ‘I think you might have mental problems’ dialogue, no, ‘our child does not need an exorcist, levitation is perfectly normal for a teenager’ conversations just, ‘there is a spirit, probably vengeful’, ‘in that case I’ll get my spirit removal stuff’.  Horror works best in a culture that accepts the supernatural, if someone says a house is haunted, or a person possessed, everyone else accepts this as normal.  Therefore the audience accepts it as normal.  Once you have accepted that hauntings or demonic possessions are normal, good luck trying to go to sleep!


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