Look who’s behind you!
Hallowe’en just isn’t what it was. Plastic pitchforks, supermarket pumpkins, and small children at the door, stumbling their way through bad jokes in hopes of getting a handout. Where did all the terror go?
Put yourself, instead, by an old stone well, at night. All of a sudden, a figure slithers out. Long, matted hair covers her face, dripping muddy well-water on to her gown. You don’t know her, but she knows you – and what you’ve done. And with unnatural purpose and speed, she’s coming for you.
Sadako Yamamura, the murderous apparition at the heart of the 1998 film Ringu (or Ring), is credited with launching a horror boom both in her native Japan and the West in the 2000s. It didn’t require an inflated body-count or budget-busting special effects. Instead, Ring did something very simple: it took audiences numbed by entertainment-overload and taught us how to be truly, profoundly afraid again.
This supernatural back-to-basics drew on a centuries-long tradition in Japan that leaves Western ghosts looking tame by comparison. The latter seem sad, tremulous, trapped – rattling their chains, waiting for a helping hand into the afterlife. Or, like Dickens’s Christmas ghosts, they show us how to change our ways. There’s a safety net of sorts, woven from Christian cultural threads: human beings matter in the grand scheme of things; divine justice may be obscure to us, but it’s ultimately benevolent.
Not so in Japan. The ghost in Ring does not need your help. She is not here to offer lifestyle advice. And she is not beholden to some higher power with a soft spot for humanity. Killed and thrown into a well, she has been powered back into this world for revenge.
Most Japanese ghosts, or yūrei (“faint spirit”), are female: conjured up by storytellers who associated women with emotional intensity, fearfully long memories, and the power to summon spirits. From the mid-500s, these stories began to be reshaped as a means of communicating Buddhist basics – you reap what you sow – to the meagrely educated.
As a consequence, wraithly wrath in Japan is no mere personal eccentricity, of a sort where “calm down, dear” might conceivably do the trick. It comes direct from the engine room of the universe: cause and effect, crime and punishment. It is relentless, non-negotiable.
Nowhere is this more thrillingly on display than in the greatest ghost story in all of kabuki, Japan’s classical theatre. First produced in 1825, and inspired by real-life murders, Yotsuya Kaidan tells of a woman called Oiwa, who suffers terrible wrongs, among them the gift of a poisoned face cream. Her ghost is unmistakable: a disfigured face, one eye drooping down her cheek. Combing her hair in front of the mirror – an erotic act in Japanese culture – whole clumps at a time fall out. (A stagehand would surreptitiously throw extra hair on to the stage.) Two of the great masters of Japanese woodblock art, Hokusai and Kuniyoshi, depicted Oiwa tormenting her husband, to the point where even his enemy took pity, and put him to the sword.
Japanese ghosts are all about unfinished business. But it isn’t always bloody business. One folk story, with countless variations, features a woman buying sweets in a shop, silently placing a dried-up leaf in the payment jar. Confused, the shopkeeper decides to follow her, ending at a graveyard where the woman disappears over a patch of earth. Turning to leave, he hears the sound of crying under the soil.
He digs with his hands, and discovers the body of the woman with her arms around a living baby. His customer was an ubume: the ghost of a woman who has died giving birth, and who returns to look after her child.
Here is one of the most compelling things about Japanese ghosts. If they were all shrieky, blood-crazed killers, boredom would soon set in. Instead, we find tenderness too, along with sadness, and even comedy. The next life