Asian horror movies have been gaining popularity in the US for the past few years. There are many reasons why but one of the biggest reasons is that they are just so different from American horror movies. Asian horror films tend to be much more psychological and integrate practicality even when the supernatural are involved.
In America, many horror movies use violence in the forefront with little to no plot. They are designed to shock and scare, but not to make you think. Asian horror movies, on the other hand, are often slower paced and atmospheric. They are designed to get under your skin. That isn’t to say that American horror movies are only gore-fests and over the years American horror has changed. Many of our classic horror films, however, are centered around killers─ Halloween, Scream, Psycho, American Psycho, The Silence of the Lambs, Misery, Hush, The Last House on the Left, Panic Room, Fear, The Strangers, The Hills Have Eyes, You’re Next, Us, etc. This is likely due to the fact that Americans believe we are the true monsters and capable of horrific things.
How does religion come into play for both cultures?
In America, Christian symbols such as crosses and Bibles are often used to ward off evil. In Asia, Buddhist and Taoist rituals are sometimes used for the same purpose. American films often focus on individualism, while Asian films often focus on collectivism. American films also tend to be more graphic and explicit, while Asian films tend to be more subtle and suggestive. Specifically, the explicit nature of our films. Asian films pack plenty of graphic scenes, but they are far less aggressive than it’s Western counterpart.
One of the biggest differences between Asian and American horror movies is how religion is used to frighten. In America, there are moral tales that are deeply rooted in Western Christian ideologies and core beliefs. For example, in the movie The Exorcist, a young girl is possessed by a demon and the only way to save her is through an exorcism. This was considered one of the most frightening films of all-time because even today, in 2023 people believe that demonic possession is very real and that you must have a priest exorcise the spirit from the person or a place. (in some cases things, like Annabelle, a film based off of an allegedly true story about a doll possessed by a little girl’s spirit). Another example is in the 1979 film Amityville Horror which was based off of a ‘true story.’ The film’s focus was on the experiences of George and Kathy Lutz who had moved into the home around a year after the Amityville grisly murders had taken place. They recount tales of slamming doors, strange odors, and bizarre goo rising from the floors. The story does touch on the true story of Twenty-three year old mass murderer Robert DeFeo Jr. who took a rifle and killed all six family members in their sleep. The biggest mystery in all of this was how they all stayed asleep in their bed while the shots were fired. And while DeFeo claimed that he drugged them before killing them, the coroner found no evidence of sedatives used. How does it make the story supernatural in nature by religion? DeFeo later told authorities that he was driven mad by a Santanic presence in the home. He (of course) plead not guilty by reason of insanity (the devil made him do it) This type of supernatural tale is a very commonplace in American horror films.
In Asian horror movies, religion is used in a very different way. Religion is a way to explain the unexplainable. For example, in the Japanese horror film Ringu (which became so popular we had a re-make made in 2002 called The Ring), a cursed videotape kills anyone who watches it seven days after they view it. The only way to break the curse is to copy the videotape and show it to someone else. The vengeful spirit is known as a Onryō, a woman spirit so filled with hatred by how they died that it can actually project their hatred into objects and curse them. And as mentioned in the movie, she never stops, nothing you can do will make it right, the only way to avoid it (in this case) is to pass the misery along to someone else and make them watch the tape.
Another prime example of this film style was the Japanese film, Ju-On (the grudge). This was also world-renowned and had several re-makes and sequels. While (unfairly) compared with Ringu, this story isn’t just about angry spirits of the dead─ it talks about how their hatred ran so deep it placed a curse on the home itself. Anyone that entered the home would be doomed to the same fate, consumed by the wrath of the vengeful spirits.
Morality is very strong in many Asian horror films, just like in the U.S., and tells cautionary tales of how we should treat others with respect (what goes around comes around, or Karma). One of the creepier films I have watched was the 2004 Thai film Shutter. The very end scene just really tied everything together from the beginning to the end. It is one of the highest grossing films in Thailand and is known worldwide.
The movie tells a tale of a woman and her photographer boyfriend driving when the young woman accidentally hits a girl on the road. Jane tries to get out of the car, but her boyfriend, Tun, forbids her from doing it and they drive away, leaving the girl to die on the road. Soon after, Tun begins to notice shadows and faces in his photographs. Jane then comes to the conclusion that it is the captured images of the girl they ran over and that she is haunting them. I won’t give any spoilers, but suffice it to say, this film is both creative and masterfully done. I highly recommend that you see it!
We also see an example of how religion differs in the Korean horror movie: A Tale of Two Sisters.
The sisters come home from an extended stay at a mental hospital after being treated for psychosis. Since their mother’s death, Soo-Mi and Su-Yeon have discovered that many things have changed. Their stepmother, Yun-Joo, greets them upon their arrival but tension quickly begins to mount. Many strange things begin happening including their stepmother continually picking on the both of them. They continue to endure this for the sake of their father, who has become very cold and distant toward his girls. It becomes worse as they begin to see ghostly visions and it is eventually revealed that what is actually happening takes on an interesting turn of events. I won’t spoil it for you (if you haven’t seen it, go rent it now!) Suffice it to say that religion and superstition play a key role in what is happening. While religion is used as a device in both cultures and styles of films, the way we utilize them are different in nature.
One thing to note in both Asian and American horror movies are the differences in the settings. In America, horror movies are often set in small towns or rural areas. Usually in hospitals, old homes with histories, schools, and churches. This is because America is a very large country with a lot of open space. Many American horror films confine hauntings to an area or an object we take with us. In other words, the spirits stay put or are trapped inside of an object. Unless of course, we are talking about possession films, then all bets are off! Asian countries, on the other hand, are much more densely populated. This means that many Asian horror movies are set in cities or urban areas. It also makes it to where nothing is safe, you cannot hide. And while, they also have spirits attached to objects (and homes), in some Asian cultures, the objects themselves can become evil entities that were not haunted by the lost souls of humans. At least, not all of them.
How else do our horror films differ?
While we do have films where supernatural exists, it is normally always centered around human spirits, or demons. While there are definitely movies that break the mold, for the most part we are talking about the classic American and popularized films within the U.S. Many of our supernatural beings are based off of either restless human souls or spirits, or dark entities such as demons. Mass amounts of panic have been around since the Puritan society spouting nonsense about devil worshippers, cultists, and witches that do the devil’s bidding. And then finally, of course, the fear of the Devil himself. And while the Salem Witch Trials are believed to have lasted longer, the trials occurred from roughly February 1692 – May 1693. Not long at all as far as mass panic, but still very notable in history. Not to mention ruining the lives of probably more than two hundred people accused of witchcraft. While that happened to cause wide spread panic and probably where ‘The Devil made me do it,’ stemmed from, there later was a growing unease across the United States about devil worshipping from the 1970’s through the 1980’s. Devil worshipping was indeed considered to be a real concern back in the seventies, especially after the Charles Manson murders, but America didn’t go into full panic mode until the 1980’s. It was so bad that it was actually later coined the Satanic Panic. Our roots throughout American history have always been planted in the belief of God and the Devil. The other popularized belief is that some spirits are benevolent that come to warn us of danger, or in some cases actually push us out of harm’s way. (Such as the supposed experience of the ghost children pushing cars over the train tracks.) But other beliefs say that demons can disguise themselves as those lost to us and trick us into harming ourselves or others. Angels, demons, spirits─ all pretty much still widely used in supernatural horror in the U.S.
While, again, these are just summarizations of popularized films and viewpoints they really do showcase many differences between the two, especially societal norms.
Just for fun, let’s list some common horror tropes!
American horror films:
- Final girl. She is the last woman standing against the killer or intergalactic fiends. She is almost always pure in nature and doesn’t sleep around. She has a strong sense of justice and never chooses the easy way out.
- Jump scares. While I have seen these start to change and film directors are becoming more creative with them, I get so irritated at the same tired tropes with jump scares. At some point it just felt sad that I could pinpoint exactly when it would happen─ and it always did.
- Indian burial grounds. Let’s face it, the best takes on these were Pet Cemetery, Poltergeist, The Amityville Horror, and The Shining. While those are beloved classics for a reason, they are becoming a tiresome trope.
- Demonic possessions. The idea that people can become possessed by demons or evil spirits. Prime examples of these are Insidious, The Exorcist, Hereditary, and The Conjuring.
- Abandoned buildings with a history. Usually something to do with homes, schools, or hospitals that are haunted by the spirits that died in terrible ways.
- Slashers. We barely need more than a handful of words to explain these films. Maniac killers, dumb hot girls, having sex = death, splitting up, and gore. Lots and lots of gore.
- Don’t go in there! Seriously, we need to have scary shit happen in sunny and seemingly normal safe spaces. It would be far scarier if it happened during the day while you were on the potty playing games.
- Masculine horror. Let’s face it, we love our bad guys to be ripped walls of men that are armed with creepy ass masks and big machete’s. (wink) For years, it’s centered around murders, the more gruesome the better, and jump scares. When people here to go a scary film, they want to jump, scream, and laugh. I mean, the entire slasher genre has half naked girls running around in shredded clothing with fairly explicit sex scenes. Not to mention the vulgar dialog. Don’t get me wrong, I love dark humor─ but there is something about slashers that just make me want to take five showers after watching them.
Asian horror movies often have a different approach. They may focus more on the psychological aspects of fear, rather than the physical. And let me tell you, when they do body horror, you feel that shit in your soul. I mean─ yeah, our body horror is disgusting and usually very vulgar, but their body horror goes to a whole other level.
Asian horror films:
- Woman scorned. When a tragedy happens where women are wronged, in many Asian countries they come back as a vengeful spirit. This also can mean a woman that is still alive. It’s a very common theme throughout many Asian horror films that I have noticed and while we do have films here that have angry spirits that are female─ there is a more prominent presence of it in many Asian and Southeast Asian tales.
- Pale skin, long black hair. Whether from folklore or superstition, this woman of terror always exists. Who could ever forget the lasting horror of Ju-on, Shutter, Ringu, etc. If something crawled up my legs while I was in bed and I pulled back my sheets to that face, I think being ‘terrified’ is putting it mildly.
- Emphasis placed on suspense and general un-ease. In many Asian films, there is an atmospheric creep factor. It is paced to build tension until the terror peaks. It isn’t full of jump scare tactics, or gore just for the sake of gore. Vulgarity, (even for some very uncomfortable adult scenes that were completely horrific to watch – especially rape scenes even done tastefully as odd as that sounds) is something that is approached far different than our own. There is a purpose behind their gore to move the story along, instead of using it to only shock and appall the audience.
- Horror is open ended and allows the viewer to interpret the scenes as they see fit. While Americans do use the horror genre as an outlet for religion, political controversy, and morality─ this is more prevalent in our Asian counterparts. They don’t just ‘tell’ us what is going on, they let the viewer experience it.
- Feminine horror compared to masculine horror. Asian horror is often seen as haunting, creating a sense of cold, clammy dread as the movie progresses. There are no dude-bros running around screaming with chainsaws held over their heads and intestines pinned on their vest. Each scene flows sensually and curves around the viewers brain, stimulating thoughts and provoking the audience to think about what is happening.
While obviously there are very well made horror films here that don’t deserve to be lumped into all of our horror film generalizations─ it’s fun to take a look at all the differences that make our cultures what they are!