Horror in Anime and Gaming
Capturing Suspense in New Media
Today’s Zen and the Art Screaming examines the methods and techniques employed by Japanese content creators to produce unique horror that spans numerous genres.
Horror in anime and horror in gaming are two separate things with a lot in common. A frequent misnomer is that anime is a genre unto itself. This is not true. Anime contains numerous genres; it is a methodology of telling a story, not its own category like a western or a war story. You can tell any story in anime just like you can tell any story in animation; it’s the same thing. Anime is just a cultural bend on a form of illustration and animation.
As such, in the vast list of things that anime can do, it can also tell horror stories. It can tell amazingly effective, powerful horror stories. Some of the most horrifying tales I have ever beheld have been told through both anime and its closely-related medium, manga.
Horror Manga and Anime
There are many examples of horror manga, with one such example being Junji Ito’s Uzumaki [ 1 ]. The story involves incredible body horror and existential horror. It successfully works with a lot of repetitive themes and is highly stylized. Another such manga is Silent Horror Z, a black and white horror web manga with no dialogue, just simple stories told without words that will push you to the ends of horror with extreme twists at the end [ 2 ].
Keep in mind that anime and manga got their start from American comic books post-World War II, with Japanese artists attempting to replicate U.S. styles. The reason manga and anime feature characters with big eyes, small mouths, and other distinctive features, can be traced back to Betty Boop, but manga and anime grew into its own art. In many ways it became a representation of very Japanese ideas and Japanese principles that have become a shorthand for these ideas.
Not being limited by the same sort of censors, you get a whole different type of horror that comes out of the culture. Japanese publishers and television networks can get away with different or more esoteric idea structures. They never went through the Comics Code Authority, or the presentation of “seduction of the innocent,” the American idea that comic books were single-handedly destroying the youth of America with “juvenile delinquency” [ 3 ]. The reason for this in the U.S., at the time, was puerile imagery, with crime and horror comics of the time thought to be causing the little minds of their readers to rot in their heads and make them into evil little delinquents.
None of that was of course true, but Congress, like all collections of politicians, looks for low hanging fruit, and in this case it involved giving parents an easy solution that solved the problem of their kids not turning out the way they wanted them to. Don’t blame society, don’t blame the parents, and don’t blame the kids for being little dicks, but blame the comic books instead!
Now, having read the early EC Comics, I can agree that they were pretty extreme. They had some objectively horrible content back in those days. Anime and manga kind of picked up the torch of that because they never went through that restraint. However, they had other social restraints; they are, after all, coming from the land of the pixelated private parts. Interestingly enough that type of censorship ended up inspiring costumes, including the invention of spandex and wearing underwear on the outside of clothing, which was the comic artists’ way of making the character stand out [ 4 ].
While in Japan they can’t actually depict genitals, a roughly cylindrical object is fine—hence the birth of tentacle porn. Because they can’t show you a penis without blurring it but we can make something that is penis shaped and away we go. One of my first exposures to anime was Demon City Shinjuku, which features not just several examples of questionably-placed tentacles, but also an evil spider-demon woman (something that probably explains a lot about my psyche) [ 5 ].
That being said, Japan started exporting its horror in earnest in the 1970s and 1980s. It did so in its anime and its manga, long before doing it with any of its live-action media, and some of its live-action horror is mind-numbingly powerful. For example, everyone is aware of The Grudge and how that really caught on when the American version of that happened; America steals from everybody. But only Japan could tell a story like Audition [ 6 ], a narrative that is not just mind-blowingly horrifying, but one that shows that horror can be cultural, monsters are a symbol of the culture we create, and this is represented in anime and manga as well. The sort of monsters they portray and the sort of terrors they talk about are a fear of contagion, the suicidal tendencies of Japanese youth, fear of natural disasters, fear of the Japanese school system, and fear of not fitting in; these are all very real fears that people have to deal with and they address them in their uniquely Japanese way.
Another great anime is Tokyo Ghoul; it takes the traditional story of the vampire and makes it even more visceral [ 7 ]. The beauty of Tokyo Ghoul is that the good guys are also the bad guys in different ways. It humanizes the monster without making them less monstrous. The monsters are inhuman cannibalistic creatures that, while they have families and lives, are still cannibalistic monsters who want to eat you. The antagonists, who take the form of monster hunters, are very driven to save people from being eaten, but the lengths they are willing to go to is making monsters of themselves as well. As it says in the White Wolf RPG, which itself is paraphrasing Nietzsche: “A Beast I Am, Lest a Beast I Become” [ 8 ].
One particularly interesting antagonist in the story is driven by a desire for art in his food, but it doesn’t make it any less horrifying and it is very effective. Another character keeps the other ghouls fed by going to suicide sites like Aokigahara Forest and collects the bodies. This is especially culturally resonant because Japan, in general, and Tokyo, specifically, has always had a very serious problem with suicide; addressing that from a different angle does add some depth to this issue.
It’s a worthwhile watch, although the main character is kind of whiny and a little spineless—though this is a fairly common theme throughout anime. You often have a protagonist who is kind of short and scrawny and not exactly a pillar of valor getting sucked into a situation that is out of his control. In this case, this particular kid literally starts out as the victim of a monster and them is drawn into their world because of mad science. It does put a unique spin on how they try to have human lives and even try to overcome their base nature to try to find a way into the human world in order for their lives have meaning. However, having to eat people to survive tends to wear down the psyche after a while, understandably eroding the capacity to be, or at least pretend to be, human.
The persona has some horrifying aspects to it, how it is an expression of the subconscious manifestation of peoples’ evil. One of the larger aspects of horror in Japan is that its citizens live in a place where the things fall down because of the ground shaking, seemingly at random. Giant tidal waves make things vanish without a trace; on top of that, the Japanese have lived through nuclear devastation on a scale that has never been seen before, or since. The Japanese, therefore, have a unique perspective about things way bigger than them coming along and destroying everything they know and love, all with them and not being able to do anything about it.
This likely explains their superior grasp of cosmic horror. A lot of animation exists because there are so many things that are practically impossible to do in live-action. Animation doesn’t have the constraints of an effects budget. Replicating a scene from Uzumaki [ 9 ] where an entire lake transforms into a giant spiral in which people fall into and then turn into snails is a big ask for practical effects.
Gaming and Horror
Horror and gaming run into a very different barrier than anime and manga, and that is the proactive nature of the gamer. Horror is essentially about powerlessness, about not being able to affect whatever the thing is. Most games, thanks to the early days of gaming (and people like Dungeons & Dragons co-creator Gary Gygax and such) are all about defeating the monster. So making a horror game is very difficult because how do you systematize powerlessness?
You see it in the great granddaddy of all horror tabletop games: The Call of Cthulhu [ 10 ]. This RPG has gone through a number of iterations over the decades, but one thing remains constant: the system came up with a solution to the problem by two methods. First, encountering monsters will cause you to become mentally weaker by causing you to lose sanity; second, most creatures aren’t affected by your mundane weapons. So get all the guns you can and master as many combat techniques as you like—it won’t help. Just prepare to have your mind erode faster and faster with every encounter. Masterfully, CoC has written into the fabric of the game that you are helpless and overpowered. The only things you actually have any capacity to deal with are the other humans you face. As long as you are fighting mortal enemies like insane cultists, you are fighting people you can deal with.
However, if you go too far the other way and decide to learn where the cultists are coming from and the powers orchestrating things behind the scenes, you might discover the very same things that made their minds shatter—a fate you may soon share as well. You can sow the seeds of your own destruction if you play long enough. Most Call of Cthulhu characters don’t make it through three games, so it is very effective at the horror aspect.
There are other games that portray the horror aspect differently. Paranoia may have many comedic elements, but is also a horror game [ 11 ]. You could, with very little effort, change the nature of the game from comedic to Cold War horror very quickly. Of course, no discussion of horror and gaming would be complete without visiting White Wolf. What this game publisher has so famously done is flip the script of horror and make the player the monster. Instead of you being a noble protagonist who is battling against these forces of evil, you are one of these forces of evil trying to hold onto your dwindling grasp on your own humanity.
Whether or not any given White Wolf game is considered horror is wholly up to the design of the storyteller, but the basic premise of most of the White Wolf games is to take “monsters” (typically vampires, werewolves, and others reminiscent of the Universal Studios variety) and have you be them as well as fight them. Both aspects can be horrific. White Wolf’s games stand unique among the world of games because it started with the premise that everything in the game is terrible, everyone is evil, and everyone is bad.
There aren’t any good guys, there aren’t any heroes—everyone is some sort of diabolic being, even the humans. It did give the advantage of shifting the perspective away from the standard “hero” model, and if you read it in the right frame of mind it does present a truly horrific setting, with truly horrifying characters.
Also, horror in gaming owes much to what is a personal favorite, KULT [ 12 ]. Scary and larger than life, KULT can be played in a number of different ways, and admittedly mine is a little bigger in scale than I believe it may have been intended to be. It is a frightening and evocative setting with a tricky system that you have to really learn how to work it in order to get the most out of it. It also serves as a surprisingly effective treatise on Gnosticism and hermetic magic, which as a game system it may have its faults but as a training tool it is sublime.
It has passed through many hands and killed many a gaming company because it is really weird and kind of on the edge of things. It’s not your average game. It also doesn’t really have heroes or villains; the things you would count as villains are too large and overwhelming to be truly understood. The greatest flaw I’ve found in it is that eventually you hit the comprehension wall.
Eventually, it becomes difficult to wrap your head around the thought process of characters and creatures that are so mentally outside the norm because that is a part of the whole game. It makes you push yourself beyond the norms of society, of sanity, of reason, and of everything that you take as being important. The source of the horror is that everything you experience is an illusion. Everything is a lie and you are trapped in it. There is no escape, and the only escape is to become worse than the things that have imprisoned you. It’s no coincidence that this game also has the sanity meter and the cosmic horror aspects of Call of Cthulhu.
The concept of depleting sanity was used in the Nintendo Game Cube title Eternal Darkness with great effect, and while losing sanity so much mess with your character, it could certainly unbalance you as a player [ 13 ]. When you can’t trust your own eyes and what you are seeing on the screen because the game developers specifically chose to do things like flash you the blue screen of death or convince you that your character died for no reason, it creates an air of deep horror. It reaches past that level of “oh I am in the fog and surrounded by zombies” to oh “what just happened?” This also happens in Batman: Arkham Asylum when Batman is under the effect of the Scarecrow’s fear toxin [ 14 ].
Most horror in video games is not done well. The ones that get it right are almost always legendary. The fault usually lies with atmosphere or the lack of it. It presents the player with the Army of Darkness problem: the character is not designed to be in a horror movie. With enough weapons and escape routes it stops being a horror game and just becomes a first person shooter.
Powerlessness in Video Games
Very few games are designed to portray total powerlessness as a feature of the game. One of the reasons for this is because total powerlessness is not appealing and therefore doesn’t sell well. However, there has been at least one game that has almost mastered exactly that. Layers of Fear is a title that manages to almost perfectly simulate the feeling of total powerlessness and in a beautiful, artistic manner, making it a brilliant piece of work that literally makes gaming fear a reality [ 15 ].
The same developers also created a cyberpunk version called Observer, featuring the acting talents of the late Rutger Hauer, a title that also masters portraying fear and powerlessness [ 16 ]. One of the reasons that horror doesn’t work well in video games is that true horror is represented by a loss of agency. That’s hard to do in a video game, and is why there are so few good ones out there. Layers of Fear plays more like a “choose-your-own-adventure book” in a video game, while Observer is much more a true horror game, but both are highly effective.
The comparison of body horror vs. stalker horror is the difference between the fear of one’s own body getting out of your control it can be as subtle as puberty and as in your face as the Square-Enix game Parasite: Eve for the PlayStation 2 [ 17 ]. Looking at it now in the modern age, it is a little clunky and old fashioned but at the time it was a work of genius. Time has taken the shine off of the apple and Eve is hard to look at and play through when compared with modern games of the same type but the story, the staging, the pacing, the setting, and the concepts are timeless. Good, or rather evil, games of that level are hard to find.
In the Silent Hill series, there is a type of horror that is reminiscent of Resident Evil 3 where you have a nigh unstoppable creature that inexorably pursues you. This is most prevalent in Silent Hill 2 with the Pyramid Head antagonist, who shares traits of supernatural stalker antagonists like Jason Voorhees or Michael Myers [ 18 ]. That is the stalker predator.
Unlike these epitomes of evil, though, Pyramid Head is revealed to be a more psychological antagonist by the end of the game, when the player finds out what he really is (no spoilers). Yet few game threats match RE3’s Nemesis, as his stalking involves bursting through walls while literally firing a bazooka at you; the entirety of the game is spent avoiding this stalker/predator up until the very end [ 19 ].
Blending Horror Types
Sometimes you get chocolate in the peanut butter and you discover something incredible. In gaming, the crossover point is clearly Alien vs Predator, where the classic Xenomorphs represent body horror in all its horrific splendor while the Predator stalks you until it captures you and pulls out your spine as a trophy [ 20 ]. Having either one of them on your case would be terrifying; having both is gloriously sadistic. The experience is brilliant in its inability to escape danger.
For a video game to be a game you must have some sort of agency. That is what makes good horror games difficult; even the examples given have flaws. Parasite Eve is a good example of one of the earlier attempts. Eternal Darkness, Layers of Fear, Arkham Asylum and Observer; none of these titles are perfect but were good in their own way. They had to overcome many hurdles, starting with the incredibly poor graphics of the early years.
When you get to the Silent Hill era, there is a point where the failure of the technology actually added true horror to the game as they had to have the whole game bathed in fog to let the graphics engine do its job. The creatures would appear out of the fog, so close you could taste them, and then you had to react to that situation while often unprepared. The Resident Evil games featured a control scheme where you couldn’t move very fast and you couldn’t aim very well, making the games both harder to play and more effective in ramping up your anxiety.
As we have all learned, uncertainty feeds the horror and that is why these co-called “failures” actually give us the biggest scare experience. In a first person shooter or an adventure game, that type of uncertainty makes a bad game; in a horror title, however, running out of ammo is scary because that now makes you defenseless against threats. That, ultimately, is a big part of what makes horror scary: the removal of agency.
- “Junji Ito’s manga Uzumaki is a profound showcase of the differences between western and Japanese engagement with horror. The nuances far exceed this writing, and are worthy of further scrutiny.” Source: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uWF6UBz9Amc Itō, Junji, and Yuji Oniki. Uzumaki. VIZ signature ed. San Francisco, CA: VIZ Media, 2007.
- “The figure of Nemesis in the Resident Evil franchise (or as it’s known in Japan, Biohazard) is a gestalt of several sources and tropes, recombined in terrifying synergy.” Source: https://media.npr.org/assets/img/2020/04/08/re3_nemesis_burning_wide-63c95afffdaf21db36eb67dca5b4a6a4ac5c3721.jpg Ashanti, et al. Resident Evil: #3 Extinction Widescreen special ed, Sony Pictures Home Entertainment, 2008.
Ed Jones revels in unpacking the sociopolitical motivations behind popular culture and placing them in their historical context. An avid gamer since the early 1980s, a veteran, and the one-time God-Emperor of Newark, Delaware, Ed serves as a contributor to The Unconventional, as well as regular staff for Damocles Thread Development. His series “Zen and the Art of Screaming” is a thorough exploration into the horror genre’s tropes, its origins and evolution.
- Junji Itō, and Yuji Oniki. Uzumaki. 1, Spiral into Horror. San Francisco, CA, Viz Media, 16 Oct. 2007.
- Tapas. “Silent Horror Z:: Murder | Tapas.” Tapas.io, 19 Oct. 2016, tapas.io/episode/488257
- Wilson, Matt D. “Comics Bogeyman: A Look Back at ‘Seduction of the Innocent.’” ComicsAlliance, Townsquare Media, Inc., 19 Apr. 2016, comicsalliance.com/history-fredric-wertham-seduction-of-the-innocent/
- Litherland, Neal. “Why Do Superheroes Wear Their Underwear on the Outside?” Geeks, Vocal Media, 2019, vocal.media/geeks/why-do-superheroes-wear-their-underwear-on-the-outside
- Demon City Shinjuku. Directed by Yoshiaki Kawajiri, Central Park Media, 25 Oct. 1998.
- Audition. Directed by Takashi Takashi, American Cinematheque, 3 Mar. 2000.
- Tokyo Ghoul (Season 1). Directed by Shuhei Morita, TC Entertainment, 26 Sept. 2014.
- “Riddle.” White Wolf Wiki, Fandom, 13 May 2020, whitewolf.fandom.com/wiki/Riddle.
- Junji Itō, and Yuji Oniki. Uzumaki (3-In-1 Deluxe Edition). San Francisco, Ca, Viz Communications, 15 Oct. 2013.
- Petersen, Sandy, and Lynn Willis. Call of Cthulhu: Horror Roleplaying in the Worlds of H.P. Lovecraft. Hayward, CA, Chaosium, 1 Mar. 2004.
- “Mongoose Publishing: Paranoia.” Mongoose Publishing, mongoosepublishing.com/us/rpgs/paranoia.html?___store=us&___from_store=uk Accessed 26 June 2021.
- Gunilla Jonsson, and Michael Petersen. Kult: Death Is Only the Beginning…, Metropolis Ltd, 1 Jan. 1993.
- Eternal Darkness: Sanity’s Requiem. Nintendo Game Cube, Silicon Knights, 23 Jun. 2002.
- Batman: Arkham Asylum. PC Version. Rocksteady Studios, 2009.
- Layers of Fear. PC Version. Bloober Team, 2016.
- Observer. PC Version. Bloober Team, 2017.
- Parasite Eve. PC Version. Squaresoft, 1998.
- Silent Hill 2. PC Version. Konami, 2001.
- Resident Evil 3: Nemesis. PC Version. Capcom USA, 2003.
- Aliens Vs. Predator. Sega. San Francisco, CA: Sega, 2010.