Let’s first look at a definition of Horror. According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, Horror is: “painful and intense fear, dread, or dismay”. So Horror isn’t a thing. It’s a feeling, an emotion that writers and artists try to elicit in the reader through their words and images. So, unlike genres such as sci-fi, fantasy or western, it isn’t limited to a time or place. One can feel horror, anytime, anywhere, though there are certain times and places that can create the emotion more easily than others. While many horror stories use the supernatural, such as ghosts, ghouls, vampires and monsters, they are not dependent on them. A horror story can take place in a mundane, ordinary world, just as well as it can in a world filled with zombies. The most common element mostly likely found in horror stories is a fear of the unknown, an emotion as old as man himself.
The history of horror stories goes back long before writing, when man still passed stories along orally. Early stories were based in the folklore of a culture, often focusing on death, the afterlife and evil forces working against the living. The 18th century saw the birth of Gothic horror, which drew on these earlier sources. This tradition continued to the 19th century which featured both supernatural monsters and very human murderers. Modern horror in the US can be traced back to the success of Steven King, which created a sort of formula for horror stories. Whether it was for the good or ill of the genre, that is up to the reader to decide.
In Japan, horror has a long tradition that dates back to the Edo and Meiji periods, though ghost stories are known to go back as far as the Heien period. Horror manga found a father in the works of Kazuo Umezu, in the 1960s. Among his better known works are the shojo Reptilia, Drifting Classroom, Scary Book and Cat-Eyed Boy, all of which have been made available in English. Junji Ito, who was inspired by Umezu, is another well-known creator who has had several works released in the US, including Uzumaki, Gyo, and the short story series Tomie. Ito has quite a talent for making even the cutest of things creepy, as in his series Cat Diary. It was also through manga that the folklore creatures known a yokai became popular again through Shigeru Mizuki’s GeGeGe no Kitaro.
In the mid-ninties, Japanese horror, also known as J-Horror became popular with the adaptations of novels and original films. J-Horror differed from modern US horror in that it focuses more on psychological horror and tension. The most popular of these are The Ring, Ju-On: The Grudge, One Missed Call and Dark Water, all of which received US remakes. These all received the manga treatment, sometimes adapting the original novel, other times adapting the movies.
So, what is horror? It’s anything that inspires fear in the reader. Whether it’s through ghosts and monsters or people and things from the mundane and everyday, if it causes your heart to race, goosebumps to break out over your arms, or keep your light on at night, then it’s horror.