The genre of horror isn’t as easy to pin down like sci-fi, fantasy or romance. It doesn’t have to be in a certain time or place, or have certain characters to work. Horror is an emotion. The creator of a horror story is trying to elicit specific feelings from the reader, mostly feelings of fear and/or dread. Horror manga is no different. For the Horror Manga Movable Feast, the Villagers will be looking at the elements of horror manga, and talking about what they think works, or doesn’t work, in many of the titles available.
John: What I love about horror manga is what I love about manga in general: the ability to know no bounds. Great horror manga has to be rooted in reality, but then stretch itself to the edges of believable be truly scary. A couple of favorites that do this darn near perfectly are The Drifting Classroom and Uzumaki. The Drifting Classroom is set in a graspable reality (a typical elementary school) that is teleported suddenly to a barren, hellish netherworld. Uzumaki is set in a small town in Japan that is infected by a plague of spirals. On paper neither sounds particularly compelling, but in your hands they are as disturbing and they are hard to put down.
Horror manga is probably my favorite manga genre, but it is sadly underrepresented by English publishers. I would absolutely love to see long serials Scary Book and Museum of Terror get continued again. The more Kazuo Umezu and Junji Ito we can get in English, the better!
Katherine: I don’t read much horror manga, precisely because when I do, it either really affects me (so much that I’m left jumping at shadows for days after reading it) or it doesn’t affect me at all and I find them pretty forgettable. Uzumaki definitely falls into the former category. For an embarrassingly long time after reading the first volume, I tried not to look at my fingertips because the sight of a spiral made me freak out. Only for a second! But it was enough to make me uncomfortable.
And yet, I really enjoyed Uzumaki. Or, maybe “enjoyed” is the wrong word. There’s something weird about the feeling I got from it, and from other effective horror manga: sort of a feeling of teetering on the edge of a cliff, not sure whether the ground is going to stay solid beneath my feet. It’s exhilarating and unnerving, and in the case of Uzumaki it’s more so, I think, than in cases where the menace comes from a creature like a ghost or a monster. When you read a story about a ghost, no matter how scary it is while you’re reading it, you can put it down and say “but of course ghosts aren’t real”. Spirals are real, and they’re everywhere, and Uzumaki made me notice them in a way I never had before.
On the other hand, there are manga like The Red Spider Exorcist, which is good — don’t get me wrong — but it gets its power chiefly from gore. It’s still horrific, and it still has a great deal of suspense, but to me it’s not really scary.
Lori: I have a sort of love/hate relationship with horror manga. There are some, that just one scene from them is enough to keep from ever picking up the title, no matter how good they may be. Gyo, is my main example. I had nightmares after seeing the fish with the spider-like legs for the first time, and still feel uncomfortable thinking about it. And I agree with Katherine about The Red Spider Exorcist. It’s a good story, but the emphasis on gore keeps it from being really scary.
The kinds of scary things I like are the more psychological ones, and the atmosphere. I think things jumping out at me from the shadows, and getting my pulse racing from the suspense. Vampire Hunter D has had some good atmospheric volumes. Volume 4 in the Floating City had some great spooky moments. The psychological scares are what made the J-horror movies so good too, but they didn’t translate so well into manga. The Ring was good, but the later volumes didn’t have the same impact.
I also like the comeuppance theater horror titles. The best of which I still think is Pet Shop of Horrors. Count D is a great Rod Serling-like observer to the stories, and the twists really were surprising sometimes. The balance of comedic moments with Detective Leon Orcot and the more horrific stories was perfect and made it more fun to keep reading. In a longer series like Pet Shop of Horrors, I like having lighter moments to keep things from getting to dark. Hellsing has the same kind of balance that also makes it a great read.
Amy: I used to love watching horror flicks and spooky movies when I was younger but now I’m a total wimp yet I feel compelled to stare at the screen even if my reactions are stronger than the characters on the screen! For me when it comes to horror manga it has to have a pull to it to keep me engaged intellectually. When I read the novel Goth it was scary but the psychological aspects of it had me hooked. The manga version was good, but I think because I knew what to expect it didn’t creep me out and have me crying in a corner with all the lights turned on.
John: I really like how Katherine put “enjoyed” in quotes. Horror is one of those genres where you feel guilty if you really “enjoy” a book, and if it repulses you (or turns you off in some psychological way) then that means it is “good”. I can’t enjoy horror in the same way I can lots of shonen titles, but that doesn’t mean the experience isn’t as full. It is just hitting different nerves. Gyo is a great example of that, as I can look at it on my bookshelf and see it infecting the books around it with the smell of rotting sea life. Yet, I don’t feel compelled to toss it down the garbage disposal. Why? Like the tide, it pulls me in and pushes me away, back and forth, over and over. I think not understanding the appeal is part of what makes it so appealing, and repulsive at the same time.
Connie: I love horror manga! I usually like it for the cheap thrills and over-the-top aspects of some of the series that try too hard (like Reiko the Zombie Shop, or some of the works of Hideshi Hino), but horror manga that actually scares me, or is trying to be scary, is a little harder for me to digest.
I’d agree that there’s something truly unsettling about Uzumaki, and it’s one of the best horror series I’ve read. The idea of the all-consuming spiral was good, but I liked it more because it kept me guessing through the whole thing, rather than because it scared me. I’d agree with you guys that Gyo is quite a bit scarier, image-wise though. Watching those rotting fish riding around on robot legs, periodically venting out their stench still gives me the willies. Ito seems to have a knack for drawing creepy, unforgettable illustrations. His short story collections, the Tomie stories and the ones in Flesh-Colored Horror and The Long Hair in the Attic are similarly unsettling, but nothing that reaches Gyo levels of craziness.
The scariest series I’ve read is probably Dragon Head. There’s a scene in the second or third volume, where the characters are trapped underground in a wrecked train. There were only three survivors from the accident, and they have limited resources and are trapped in a train with dozens of dead, rotting bodies. One of the three characters goes Lord of the Flies on the other two, and the idea of him stalking around the dark, broken underground train, hiding among the dead bodies, painted up with blood is one of the few things that has kept me up at night.
My favorite horror manga of all time, though, is Panorama of Hell by Hideshi Hino. It’s more of the B-movie genre of horror that I mentioned earlier, where it mostly takes things that are scary and makes a story out of them, not necessarily one that’s meant to horrify. But it’s some demented, twisted stuff, and the fact that a lot of it is based on Hideshi Hino’s life makes it even more unsettling. Plus, the last page features the narrator calling out the reader and throwing an axe towards a first-person view, which is still one of my favorite endings to any manga.
Lori: I agree with John about enjoying horror titles. It’s sometimes hard to admit that we love the thrill of being scared. And that we love to scare each other even more. That’s what makes ghost stories told at sleep-overs and campfires so much fun. Seeing other people being scared some how relieves our fear, or can give us someone to commiserate with. For me to say I “enjoyed” a horror manga, it has to have a compelling story, despite the visual, and/or make my heart race and question the shadows round me. I want that thrill of the unknown, of what could be creeping in the dark corners of the room.
Connie’s got a great point too about the way some horror manga can go over the top with some of its aspects. Hell Girl was good at that, with the overly dramatic characters and situations,and the equally overly dramatic solutions that Emna Ai used as punishments. I like that series because it’s scary-fun, not scary-scary.
John: Thanks for bring up Hideshi Hino, Connie! He can combine the cute and disgusting in truly disturbing ways. His style reminds me of Garbage Pail Kids (in a good way). Where I can go back and reread Uzumaki and Scary Book stories over and over, (and Reiko the Zombie Shop doesn’t stay on the shelf for long),the Hino stories have stuck with me long enough I rarely feel the need to pick them up again. (I guess that is an odd endorsement, but it does mean they do the trick.) Hino is so good I never want to read his stuff again.