The Universality of Horror

By: Jessica Dennis (Horror alum, Winter 2013)

Ishizuka-sensei and I were trying very hard to get the rowdy sannenseis (the American equivalent of ninth-graders) of Sakata Fourth Junior High School to pay attention to our English lesson, but the whispers and hushed giggles were becoming overwhelming.  In exasperation, I dropped the chalk I was holding and turned to Ishizuka-sensei.  “Do they even know what ‘Charlie, Charlie’ is?”

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For indeed, the newest American demon-summoning trend had somehow reached my students in rural Japan.  The fad seemed to catch on overnight; all my early Monday classes started with students intoning in English, “Charlie, Charlie, are you there?” before hastily shoving their summoning papers and pencils into their desks when they noticed Ishizuka-sensei and me.  For those unfamiliar with the ritual, as I was before a quick search on the Internet between classes that day, “Charlie, Charlie” is a game in which you summon and ask yes or no questions to the demon Charlie.  To do this, you draw a cross on a piece of paper, write “yes” in two of the quadrants and “no” in the remaining two.  Last, you place two pencils on each axis of your grid, one on top of the other, chant “Charlie, Charlie, are you there?” and proceed to ask the demon questions.  If Charlie is present, the pencil on the top will shift and drop into one of your quadrants to answer your question.

After asking my students how they came to hear about the game “Charlie, Charlie,” they revealed that a Japanese YouTube celebrity performed the “Charlie, Charlie” challenge online and became viral.  Unfortunately, like a lot of western trends and holidays that come to Japan, their origins are misunderstood and often modified to fit into Japanese culture.  Christmas, for example, is considered a “date night” in Japan, where young couples go out on the town to party and drink, while families stay at home and eat “Christmas cake” and KFC… because nothing is more western to a Japanese person than frosted pastries and chicken.

comHalloween traditions in Japan are also quite different.  Unaware of Halloween’s roots in Samhain, the Celtic festival that separated the long days of summer from the darker ones of winter and when the boundaries between the realms of the living and the dead were thought to be weak, the Japanese have adopted Halloween as a “family-friendly” holiday.  Whenever I walked into Daiso (the Japanese “dollar store”) during the Halloween season, I was amazed at their stock: fluffy animal and bright-colored witch costumes, streamers with happy-looking ghosts, stuffed animal bats with big, dewy eyes, and stickers with the infamous Hello Kitty dressed as a pumpkin.  Like many things in Japan, Halloween was stripped of any of its prior associations to darkness and trickery in favor of Japan’s beloved obsession with “cute.”  Halloween is a holiday that kids may learn a little about from their English teachers, or perhaps attend a small trick-or-treat event if there is a lot of foreigners in their area, but that’s it.

Although Halloween in Japan is nothing like its western counterpart, that does not mean Japan does not like horror.  Far from it, if my students fascination with “Charlie, Charlie” is anything to go by.  In fact, my students persuaded me to take the remaining class time during that particular period to explain “Charlie, Charlie.”  With the lights turned off and the curtains drawn, the students arranged their desks in a semi-circle around me while I told the origins of “Charlie, Charlie” and described other American horror games, such as “Bloody Mary” and Ouija boards.  I even concluded the talk describing a botched séance my older sister did with her friends in her room of my old house in Michigan, ending with the candles being inexplicably blown out and something crashing in the room.  When the bell signaling the end of the period rang, my students sat wide-eyed and slacked-jaw.  I wondered how many would go into their darkened bathrooms that night and stand with a lit candle in front of their mirror.

The west is not unfamiliar with Japanese horror; films like The Ring, The Grudge, and Dark Water spawned their own American recreations (although I argue that the originals are better).  There is an entire genre of horror in Japanese manga, anime, and video games.  Urban legends, like the notorious Hanako-san, a little girl who haunts the third stall of the third-story girl’s restroom in all schools in Japan, and Satoru-kun, who you can summon and quickly ask a question to before he tries to take you to hell, are just as well known among the Japanese population as the American myths of Bigfoot and the Jersey Devil.  Haunted houses, or obake yashiki (お化け屋敷; lit., “ghost residence”), are extremely popular in Japan and can be found anywhere from the homemade and student-run obake yashikis in school cultural festivals, to the professional renditions in city festivals and attractions around the country.  In fact, it was declared by the Guinness Book of World Records that the scariest haunted house in the world was located in Japan’s Fuji-Q Highland Amusement Park, close to the base of Mt. Fuji.  Fuji-Q’s obake yashiki is located in an actual abandoned hospital that has been recreated into a maze full of demented doctors, corpses, and trapdoors.  There is no set route for visitors who enter the hospital; they have to find their way out themselves.

Despite the west’s perception of Japan as a country preoccupied with all things cute, bubble-gum pop, and occasionally weird, there is a distinct aspect of Japanese culture that thrives on horror and the supernatural.  This could be heavily influenced by Japan’s dependence on Shinto and Buddhism, where considerable importance is placed on nature and the afterlife.  In any case, after living and working in Japan for two years, I truly came to understand how much horror plays a role in any culture and how essential it is to forming its system of beliefs.  While Americans may dedicate an entire month in October to celebrating the creepy and unexplainable, Japan’s fascination with horror is spread throughout the year, from festivals for the dead or to warn off evil spirits (e.g., Obon) to animes and mangas personifying vengeful or mischievous ghosts and spirits (e.g., Yōkai Watch!).  So while you chew on candy corn and binge on The Walking Dead this month, or do your very best to avoid anything scary at all, just know that wherever you run to in this world, horror will always be right around the corner.

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One thought on “The Universality of Horror

  1. Wow, this was incredibly interesting to read, thank you for posting it! First, I completely agree that the Japanese versions of now-Americanized movies like The Ring, are usually better. Perhaps because we don’t see as much stereotypical American horror movie stuff and therefore it catches us off guard- either way I find them scary! I’m not surprised however at the fact that Halloween and Christmas is adapted in Japan. It’s a similar kind of situation in Puerto Rico- albeit a little closer to the American ways of celebrating these holidays. When I’ve been in Puerto Rico and it’s Halloween time, most people are gearing up for the parties. As a pretty interconnected society, people are looking for chances to get together and have fun; Halloween is one of them. There is trick-or-treating but unlike in the US it’s still pretty hot and so the types of costumes for kids opens up considerably, as well as giving people an excuse to dress how they want to accommodate the weather.

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