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  • Writer's pictureMorgan Kovis

Scaring Me Into Goodness: Horror as Intercultural and Moral Teacher

Learn more about the value of horror in cultural learning and moral reflection from one of Hardcover Hotties very own admin and horror fanatics, Morgan Kovis ... if you dare.

I fell in love with horror in the dark corners of my teenage years and in the comfort of my childhood bedroom. First, I saw the Sixth Sense (or maybe it was The Shining?). I am Legend terrified me to no end – when it was on, you could reach me from my safe haven behind my dad’s La-Z-Boy recliner. I was scared (like most kids) of the journey to the top of the staircase once I turned off the basement lights, of the very real boogiemen who lived under my bed, of my dolls who I knew were host to menacing spirits that watched me all day and knew the best time to catch me off-guard, and not to mention that most people unsettled me. My real first time with a horror movie was in a dark unfinished suburban basement, nestled in the arms of my best friends, my eyes never far from protection behind the edge of my blanket. It was real because I was older now, I was alone with people who were just as vulnerable as I and I was willingly putting myself in front of the screen despite knowing its consequences. I didn’t sleep much that night – I slept lightly with my escape plan ready in mind in the unlikely case that the man who lived in the House at the End of the Street found his way to the house that lay at its beginning, fearing that I too would face the same fate as poor Jennifer Lawrence. When fear left the safety of the screen and entered my world, it became a game. From this point on, I could no longer be scared and I had to see everything. That is where I fell in love, and where I found myself in my bedroom, alone, with the lights off, craving the excitement of terror and submitting myself to the dystopian/apocalyptic/cosmically unsettling worlds, respectively, that I was encountering at any time from the objectively distant position of Viewer.

Japanese horror (colloquially known as J-horror to fans of the subgenre), in particular, has been especially important to me. From as early as I can remember, my grandmother scared me and my much younger cousins into goodness with harrowing tales of the お化け (Obake) that lived in the walls of her eerily quiet suburban Missouri home. Ghosts were never not real to me. My Japanese and American lives created for me a dually complex understanding of death, grieving and the afterlife that was composed both of the living spirit informed by the Shinto tradition and of the teachings of the Christian Bible. Japanese life and culture lives within me, and I within it, undeniably. To gain an understanding of a world in which I was uniquely situated – familially and culturally – has always been exciting work, but my journey into the Japanese horror universe proved accidental, born out of a grand quest for what could possibly scare me most that just so happened to also satiate my longing for deep cultural learnings and insights.

The broad horror genre has long been looked down upon as a world of media which is empty and heartless, and deems its faithful consumers as rightly the same. Horror at worst is gratuitously violent, extreme and disturbing for the sake of harmful intent or simple disregard for personal sensitivities. Horror at best, I believe, can be deeply treasured at the point of both its creation and its consumption, where its value lives in its storytelling as a means to philosophical and intercultural insights at the point that one begins to engage with perspectives and imagery that challenges, or even profoundly shocks and disconcerts. It is not my intention to convince you, dear reader, of the same thought, but to rather discuss the ways in which horror bears with it relevant sociohistorical meaning, as well as opportunities for ethical and moral reflection. What might horror offer us in the service of moral reflection? How might fear and its portrayal be culturally informed or socially determined? How is Japanese horror unique in this way and what level of foreknowledge may ensure conscientious and careful consumption of this subgenre?

It is often the case that the level of fear-inducing concepts and imagery may very well determine the success of any given horror film for its viewers. To wield the phrase “it wasn’t even that scary” onto a film that has haunted the nightmares of thousands is arguably the greatest power that a horror fan can hold – they have conquered the beast. Are these claims objective? Are fears universal? When analyzed in the backdrop of Hollywood horror, Japanese horror is distinctly unique, likely due to the cultural, religious and political differences between these two world regions. In the wake of his American remake The Grudge (2004), Ju-On (2002) director Takashi Shimizu described the ways in which fear is intentionally constructed and informed by the social anxieties of the culture that serves as both the creator’s and viewer’s backgrounds. He characterizes Japanese horror in such a way that much of the fear-inducing imagery and the level at which it scares is reliant on religious values or traditional folklore for example, as they are integral parts of Japanese life. It is these fears that are kept in mind when Japanese creators intend to terrify Japanese audiences, and it is exactly these culturally relative fears that (for lack of a better term) are lost-in-translation when either consumed by audiences outside of Japan or through attempts at American remakes. Because of the extensive lore that lives in spirit stories, Shimizu continues by describing how many Japanese audiences are well aware of the nuance that exists between such words as 呪う (Norou) meaning “to invoke evil upon” and 祟る (tataru) meaning “to come back to haunt” and are readily able to conjure up their relative associated thoughts, feelings and imagery. He recognizes this difficulty particularly when dealing with English-speaking audiences, who are potentially unable to accurately understand the unique fears that are influenced by the combination of Japanese history and language as such phrases and experiences do not hold the same weight for many American people. Upon its American remake, Shimizu feared that The Grudge (2004) would be portraying an entirely different spirit than the one that he had conceived of in Ju-On (2002).

While cultural knowledge, lived experience and language comprehension may very well enhance one’s engagement with transnational media, to know everything is an impossibility, even for the global citizen. To engage with Japanese horror directly offers insight into the nature of intercultural difference, as described above, as well as direct cultural insights into moral dilemmas as derived from the construction of fear and anxiety. Drawing from Aristotle’s conception of the tragic drama in his Poetics, Philip Tallon characterizes the horror genre as a “medium for reflection on the ways that art interacts with, and disturbs, the way we see the world” where what does or does not scare us may be a matter of those things that we view as just or unjust, real or unreal or even violations of natural or moral laws. When susceptible to its methods of storytelling, horror can deeply perturb the way its viewers experience reality, adding or uncovering layers of nonideality in creatively unexpected ways to the average audience. Horror confirms those things that we are afraid to believe as true – offering “vivid presentations of the inherent moral weakness and often-present darkness in the human condition,” questions unjustly optimistic assumptions or validating well-known fears and anxieties. For those who had the opportunity to engage with our May book of the month, Junji Ito’s Gyo, for example, casts doubt upon technological advancement and questions its concrete role in environmental decline through its depiction of a world dominated by sea creatures wielding a deathly stench on mechanical legs. Through horror, critical and careful viewers are given space to identify true moral weaknesses, destructive forces and real-world villains in absurdly negative and disturbing lights. When engaging with this type of media through the critical lens of acknowledging differences in perspective and predicting potential translative mishaps, viewers are able to reflect on horror as a mirror for reality in one’s own culture and cultures that are not one’s own -- an exciting plight that demands emotional investment and challenging reflection. After all, your world truly may not be what it seems and to uncover its truth is not for the weak of heart (or stomach).

The tale of the irrational is the sanest way I know of expressing the world in which I live. These tales have served me as instru- ments of both metaphor and morality; they continue to offer the best window I know on the question of how we perceive things and the question of how we do or do not behave on the basis of our perceptions.

— Stephen King, Four Past Midnight

Interested in exploring the world of J-Horror? Start here:

Thanks for reading ♡ Be sure to get start on our June Book of the Month Disidentifications by José Esteban Muñoz (purchase the book here from Bookspace Columbus or access the PDF version here)!



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