What makes it “horror”?

I’ve been thinking about genre lately. In different fields and different media, genre means different things. There are literary genres, cinematic genres (and of course a lot of overlap between these), folkloric genres… And whatever else it means, “genre” means, ultimately, expectations. Rightly or wrongly, if something is labeled, sorted, slotted into a certain genre, that can tell you certain things about that thing. Things aren’t just things: they are certain kinds of things. Things!

As both a folklorist and a horror fan, genre has certain valences for me that it may not for others. I’ve written about folkloric genres before. In film and literature and other media, I think of the horror genre as pointing to a pleasant type of dread. (It’s only pleasant, I suppose, if you share my particular interests.) It probably wouldn’t be pleasant, of course, if the kind of thing I associate with it actually happened to me. But it’s somehow pleasant to imagine it.

By way of illustration, imagine a scene: you’re home alone. It can be day or night, sunny or stormy. All that matters is that you’re in a familiar space, and that there are shadows. In my palatial one-bedroom apartment, for instance, there’s a doorway of sorts (with no door) that separates the living room from the bedroom and bathroom. Even with lights on elsewhere in the apartment, and even in the daytime, the little patch of floor on the other side of this door-shaped hole, which houses my vertical washer/dryer and abuts the doors to the bathroom and bedroom, is in shadow. (Unless I turn on the ceiling light. Which I usually don’t.)

So there’s a “natural” dark spot, so to speak. And of course, the bedroom and bathroom are dark when I’m not in them. If I happen to leave either door open, the darkness of the little laundry space and the rooms beyond are of a piece. It’s not an inky darkness. Just a slow fading of the light, as it were. My living room is lit only by a couple of floor lamps and a purple molded Frankenstein’s monster that a friend made. The light from these lamps makes it possible to see into the darkened bathroom or, to a lesser extent, the bedroom, if I leave the door open, but those spaces are still pretty dark.

Why in the world does any of this matter?

Aside from this being the greatest thing you have ever seens.

Well okay. Imagine that you’re looking into one of those darkened doorways. Into the bedroom, say. (In your own house, not mine, you weirdo.) It’s just dark. Not pitch black, just normally dark.

But then imagine that it somehow gets darker. Light is suddenly avoiding the room. The darkness somehow grows, which doesn’t even make much sense, because darkness is not a thing, but an absence of a thing. But it happens anyway. So now you’re sitting in your well-lit living room, or wherever, staring into a now utterly black space And then, over on the left, the darkness slowly extends past the doorjamb. That’s all. The dark somehow moves out of the room that contains it, extending past the doorframe just a bit, just in that one spot. But it’s still moving, creeping along, with fuzzy edges that eat the light.

So it moves along. The light from your lamps should expel it. And of course, darkness can’t move like this; again, it’s just the absence of light. But it moves anyway. It spills out into the room where you are, very, very slowly. And dimly, somehow, in the darkness you make out a greater darkness, a shape, a deeper dark, and it makes you out, it sees you, and it reaches toward you, and the darkness moves again.

This feeling, this bizarre feeling of wrongness, of supernatural dread, of malicious intent from something that should not be capable of intent, is what I really want when I engage with the horror genre. It may be frightening; it may even make you jump. But it isn’t about “jump scares.” It’s not about nuns in heavy makeup with shark teeth, or gimmicks like not being able to talk or having to wear a blindfold. It’s certainly not about extreme violence and gore.

Consider this still from The Woman in Black again. It’s a quiet scene, as horror goes, and it’s pretty mundane. Aside from the ruins, it’s not even an especially memorable landscape. A bit dreary, maybe, but hardly remarkable. But there’s this woman, and she’s all wrong. She’s all in black, her clothing is from a different time, and her body language wrong, and her face

But I’m very likely the odd man out here. It could be that you don’t find that weird woman in her antiquated funeral garb frightening at all. More generally, I know others think of giallo, or slashers, or torture porn, or exploitation, or any number of other things when they hear the word “horror.” Genre is always problematic. There’s no accounting for taste, and I know my own is shaped not only by my cultural context but also my acadmic interests and my own weird personal history.

But that’s what I want in horror: creeping dread. The unsettling feeling of malice from a source that shouldn’t be malicious. The supernatural, and specifically, the malevolent supernatural. I’ve often heard people say that ghosts and monsters aren’t scary, because humans are scary enough. And there’s some truth in this. People certainly are scary. But fear of other people isn’t particularly fun.

But enough about me. What does horror mean to you? Do you think of the reaching dark? Or of something else? Does it make sense to include supernatural thrillers in the same genre as slashers? And seriously, have you watched Sweet Home yet?

“Sadako vs. Kayako” (2016)


I’ve mentioned several times that I’m a sucker for crossovers and tie-ins. Even if I’m not particularly interested in the franchises involved, for some reason I become exponentially more interested if you mash them together. It’s a weird, pre-rational response. I didn’t care about Freddy or Jason at the time, but you bet I was excited to see Freddy vs. Jason with my college pals back when that was the mixup du jour. (I never did see the Alien vs. Predator ones, though. Dodged a bullet there, from what I hear.) Approached in the universally tongue-in-cheek spirit of crossovers (and fully aware of the cynical money-grab underlying them all), Sadako vs. Kayako is a lot of fun. It’s stupid and cheesy and funny and very entertaining.

The plot is paper-thin, naturally, little more than a vehicle to whisk us through the mandatory setup before the eponymous ladies duke it out. (My summary here is cobbled together from my viewing of the film in Japanese, which I still don’t speak, and Wikipedia.) On one side we have Yuri and Natsumi, two college friends taking a folklore (!) class who learn about Sadako (from Ringu) from their awesome professor. Of course they end up with the actual cursed video, and because they’re terrible students they skip a step that would have allowed them to escape the curse. They enlist their professor’s help, but even his awesome and sexy folklore knowledge is not enough. Their last hope appears in the form of a psychic named Keizo and his partner, a blind, also psychic child named Tamao. Keizo floats the idea that they pit Sadako against another powerful spirit, and hence we have Exposition Part the First.


Still looks better than when Samara did it.

Meanwhile, another young psychic named Suzuka has encountered Kayako and her son Toshio, the vengeful spirits from Ju-On/The Grudge. They kill a few children, and then Suzuka’s family, and just when Kayako is about to kill Suzuka, Keizo and company show up to rescue her. Now united, our protagonists set about enacting their elaborate plan to have Sadako and Kayako destroy each other. The idea is that by inflicting two victims, Yuri and Suzuka, with the curses of both ghosts, the ghosts will have no choice but to, I guess, ghost-kill each other?

I’ve skipped a lot of details here, but that’s the gist of it. And as you can probably tell, it’s all just deliciously ridiculous. And it’s very, very much a Shiraishi Koji film, with especially clear echoes of the bizarre horror-spoof Karuto. That film features a powerful psychic who also happens to be an impossibly hip, bleached-haired host kind of guy, who calls himself Neo in reference to The Matrix and who has silly anime-style battles with evil spirits. In Sadako vs. Kayako we have Keizo, a similarly hip, leather trenchcoat-wearing trash-talking psychic cowboy. And like many of Shiraishi’s movies, Sadako vs. Kayako drips with ironic genre satire (to the extent that any potential for scariness pretty much goes out the window).The actual fighting between the ghosts, such as it is, comprises a very small part of the film, but it’s kind of hilarious. The ultimate showdown in the final minutes involves Sadako and Kayako running full tilt at each other and colliding mid-air, which is pretty damned ridiculous. (The results of their collision are even sillier.)


This also happens!

So in the end, Sadako vs. Kayako is best approached, like so much of Shiraishi’s work, as a horror comedy, a deliberate and highly calculated self-spoof that requires a little bit of familiarity with both of the franchises to fully appreciate. On that level it’s moderately successful, and I’d recommend it for a silly, fun, horror-lite movie night. (Having said that, though, I still do want to see these franchises become scary again. Maybe Rings or the Sam Raimi reboot of the Grudge films will deliver, though I’m not holding my breath.)

What really made the movie for me are the numerous marketing tie-ins and promotional videos surrounding it, which abandoned any pretense of horror and embraced the inherent silliness of the crossover concept. The best part of the whole mess is the single by Japanese heavy metal legends, Seikima-II, awesomely entitled “Noroi no Shananana,” or “Curse of Shananana,” and its accompanying music video. I legitimately love the song, and it’s worth watching the whole video, which is a goofy and super-fun tribute to both franchises and by extension everything great in horror. (There’s also an English version of the song, though I don’t know if it’s an official release or a fan-made thing. Sounds pretty good, though.)