Paranormal tales engender in the viewers / readers / gamers a sense of dread firmly rooted in the psyche. Fear comes subtly in these forms of storytelling, which makes it all the more engrossing.
Ghost stories are relatable to every single person. Every culture has stories about spirits, and that’s where the universal appeal comes in.
Gore is not necessary; the human mind is maddening enough to make you gasp at shadows on the wall. Which everyone has done before, whether they stayed up way too late watching Poltergeist, or had too much caffeine before bedtime.
As I am such a fan of paranormal scary stories, I also want to see anime take on this genre in full force. Sadly, it’s criminally inept at doing so.
The best horror is subversive, and subdued. Anime can’t do either.
When I mean subdued, I mean horror that stretches into the bones—not horror that flays the skin off. I mean films like Personal Shopper, starring the often maligned Kristen Stewart.
This indie flick is slice-of-life meets paranormal, and it becomes all the more unsettling when you’re left with an open-ended conclusion, not knowing if the apparition is friend or foe.
You don’t find anime doing this very well at all, or very often, for that matter. And why is that?
Those are the types of ghost stories I want to see more of. Things that creep into the bones, make you think, make you marvel at mystery, and often scare the pants off of your body.
One would think others share my interest in all things spooky and scurry, and we’d get insane amounts of video games and anime featuring the spooks, but that’s not the case.
Take the recent video game landscape, for example.
Why has this genre been forgotten? Why did the asian horror boom in the early 00s get lost in the quagmire between Saw and Hostel?
Why is there no Goddamn Silent Mother Fucking Hills?
Where the shit are all the scary ghost anime?
I think I might have the actual answer as to why anime won’t touch the ‘ghost story’ genre (or horror for that matter) with a ten foot pole, and why when it does, it sucks so bad that the best its known for is a horrid (amazing) off-color dub.
Anime just can’t carry ‘scary’ very well, and it all boils down to the format.
In order to create fear within the audience, anime has to overcome several huge challenges that it rarely puts any actual effort into, anyways:
Rich atmosphere paired with masterful, subtle sound design.
The ability to embrace the surreal without losing the audience.
Vulnerability / depth of characters to create actual fear for their ‘lives’.
Accessible lore (human lexicon of ghost-stuff), which is impossible because Japan’s masturbatory lore-jerk over-encumbers literally everything and makes me want to vomit on my keyboard.
The art of subtlety. Anime fans always miss clear clues unless written in sharpie marker, so it’s no surprise writers avoid subtlety.
The ability to make blood and gore actually feel scary.
The ability to not just rely on blood and gore to create terror.
The ability to create actual tension.
An art style that can lend itself to horror, and not UwU.
Anime doesn’t know how to do much else than bash cringey gore over your head until you submit.
That means spooky stories will never hit their mark, because anime can’t let things be poignant and atmospheric.
Anime has trouble doing any of the above things, and has had trouble doing them, since the mid 2000s. After the huge ‘graphic / violent’ 90s kick, we’re on a trajectory for the same-face / same-plot apocalypse. For what reason we find ourselves here, I don’t quite know exactly.
However, it’s probably safe to blame the commodification of the genre, leading to the homogenization of art styles, narratives, character tropes, and otherwise.
Anime is about viewership, product sales, merch, DVD sales, and consumer culture. And because of the often dauntless production schedule levied at the industry, we don’t see much in the way of novelty these days.
Fear is about subverting expectations, and therefore, about novelty.
If anime can’t craft novelty in storytelling anymore, it won’t ever be able to craft anything scary, ever again.
The last time I witnessed an anime that truly unsettled me was the late great Satoshi Kon’s Perfect Blue. This is not a ghost story, though it is a psychological thriller. It does, however, have all the elements necessary to fit into the above checklist.
The amount of care, time, and dedication put into this gripping exploration of a fractured human psyche will never be replicated. Not by western filmmakers, not by animation, not by book, nor by manga.
There exists only one Perfect Blue, and to attempt this type of narrative poise again would be derivative and toothless. So what does anime do?
Nothing. Or, rather, it tries very hard to do what it knows how to do: it devastates us.
The Promised Neverland is a harrowing anime.
But it devastates, it doesn’t conjure fear.
Animation can only go so far with fright, when characters have features that lend themselves to symbols. The moment you abstract people from a narrative about the paranormal is the moment you lose the fear.
Ghastly, ghostly anime will never be scary as long as the characters don’t have weight, form, and some semblance of realism in the physicality of their presence. Light and shadow are huge markers of a spooky story, and anime would have you think all overhead shadows smear down in one pane of gray.
The Promised Neverland is not a scary ghost anime, but it is quite unnerving and decidedly very good.
The Promised Neverland is more about the psychological and physical atrocities that a group of children go through at the hands of monsters. Both monsters meant to take care of them, and monsters who are actually monsters and plan on eating them.
It succeeds at portraying just how horrifying the situations these youngsters are placed in are, but it’s not subtle in the way Personal Shopper is subtle.
Nor is it paranormal in the way that The Autopsy of Jane Doe is paranormal. The sinking dread comes in because you fear for the cast of kids, surely, but this isn’t knuckle-white, ‘oh what the fuck was that’ terror.
It’s ‘SAVE THE BABIES’ terror.
Which is different. It is, it’s different. Don’t pretend it’s the same.
Deadman Wonderland is a depressing, violent sonnet to corruption and how humans overcome it.
But it begs tears, it doesn’t strike fear.
There’s another challenge that awaits anime where crafting dread is concerned: if characters have fantastical powers and manage to live despite all odds, the tension dies—unless it’s done with the precision of a narrative surgeon.
Since anime salivates at the ‘male protag shounen down on his luck hero story blah blah’ we inevitably get this in stories that we’d otherwise glean tension from. And yet it cheapens that factor every single time a protagonist wields the magical-whatever-thing he has and saves the day, each and every single time.
Deadman Wonderland is one such anime that suffers from this. One that I actually thought was fantastic and wished would have continued. But it was not scary, because the world was set up through conscious, deliberate intent, and ‘shounen subconscious story tactics’, to let us know the main character would be overcoming all odds.
That doesn’t make something scary. It makes it shounen, and shounen can’t terrify, because the hero is never actually in any danger.
And what of actual ghost related anime that isn’t just fluffy ‘spirited to another world to bone 700 year old dragon girls’?
It’s rare, and when it isn’t, it’s goofy.
Ghost Hunt is honestly the only anime I’ve seen in a long-ass time featuring ‘paranormal ghost story shit’.
Although amusing, it misses the mark.
This animation suffers from 90s-isms, the characters fall into tropes so thick I’d have to weed-wack them to care very much, and the ‘ghost of the week’ format gets weakened as we realize the frights are never really very frightful.
I love Ghost Hunt. Not because it’s anything good, but because it attempted its own hot-take at the ‘people hunting ghosts’ idea that anime seems to be allergic to.
That, in and of itself, is worthy of at least mentioning. The attempt itself is meaningful, especially since the closest we usually get is ‘someone is a shinigami, someone is a spirit from BLAH dimension, the devil is a high school student’ bullshit.
You can’t create fear within an artistic lexicon like that. You just can’t.
The best you can do is make people care about characters, and the damage they go through.
That’s not the same thing as paranormal terror, though. It really isn’t.
What of horror in anime? What of titles that actually send you reeling? Where did they all go?
Anime trivializes the absolute shit out of horror, gore, violence, trauma and loss, to the point where truly being frightened while watching it is impossible.
There are little to no paranormal ghost story anime titles for this specific reason: anime doesn’t have this touch, and when it did for the briefest of moments, it lost it.
Instead, these flavors live elsewhere, simmering in titles you’d least expect:
Banana Fish Ruined My Life And Made Me Weep For My Fake Children
Banana Fish, often pegged (heh) as a boy’s love anime series, is not for the faint of heart. Yuri on Ice fans caught a whiff of it a while back, and promptly arrived at the scene expecting men to smash faces together. That really wasn’t what went down. There’s now an entire subsection of BL fans who are traumatized, thanks to their ignorance of the source material.
In Banana Fish, corruption abounds, sex trafficking happens, prostitution is social currency, child abuse and scandal is thrown around like shrapnel, characters you really care about die in cold blood, disgusting creepy molesty old men almost get away with it, amazing 80s fashion can’t obscure the heartache, and much more.
Banana Fish ruined my soul, and earnestly had me terrified for two star-crossed would-be lovers for every single episode I watched.
Terrified, that they just wouldn’t make it out alive, and poor Ash would get thrown back into ‘molestable underling’ territory, and Eiji would just die because he’s too pure to live.
Spoiler-alert: you will sob like a baby at the end of the series, and then you’ll probably need to call your significant other to tell them you love them over and over again.
Banana Fish is not a ghost story. It isn’t technically horror. The genre is listed as ‘crime thriller’, and the aptly labeled ‘tragedy’.
The fact that this anime has ‘tragedy’ as a genre filter on Wikipedia means it’s probably the closest I’m going to get to white-knuckle ‘what the fuckery’ dismay any time soon.
But Banana Fish is not a spooky ghost story anime.
So…what gives? Where the fuck are all the scary ghost anime?
Take to Google for just a minute to feel my rage:
Only one of these titles is properly a series of episodic ghost stories, aptly named Ghost Hunt. Boogiepop Phantom came out in the 00s and it’s definitely a mindfuck ghost-story narrative if ever there was one.
Blue Gender is also a late 90s, early 00s stint in this same genre. It seems that time period held the most promise.
But what of all the rest?
Madoka is not scary. Hell Girl is not scary. Attack on Titan is not scary, it’s straight up stupid and goofy looking.
Deadman Wonderland is not scary.
Death Note is not scary, it is a thriller but that’s not where I’m trying to find purchase. Ghost Hound is on my list of supernatural / paranormal scary anime to watch, and I hope it delivers.
Paranoia Agent is flawless, and very unsettling. Serial Experiments Lain is much the same.
Ghost Stories is a literal sentient meme.
Blood+ is bullshit, FMA is not scary, Vampire Princess Miyu was awesome but not scary, FateZero is not scary, Another is lame, and Highschool of the Dead is just boobs.
What does this tell me, in terms of what Google rates as the top ‘spoopy scary ooga booga’ anime out there?
What has my exhaustive research, to find something to fill the ‘spooky ghost story’ void, actually shown me?
Anime doesn’t know how to craft engaging, subtle, scary narratives.
You know, the stuff that ghost stories are made of and require.
Anime will resort to tits when it feels it isn’t being scary enough—Gotta keep the viewers interested! Anime will overpower protagonists and lose all sense of fear—can’t have Best Boy dying, now, right? Anime will equate blood with scary, when every shounen is filled to the brim with violence anyways.
Anime doesn’t know how to make ghosts scary, and yet Akira made Teddy Bears covered in Milk horrifying in the 80s:
I am penultimately convinced that the anime industry as a whole lacks the capacity to craft fear like it had in the 80s to mid 00s.
Just like how I’m convinced that’s when American Cinema started struggling to craft fear all the same. There are some bright spots, but America likes gore just as much as Japan likes UwU ghost girls.
I firmly feel that in order to have an earnestly haunting, taut, psychologically demanding story, the anime industry as a whole would need to embrace the weirdness that was 90s-era anime.
But it won’t do that, because what sells now is what they’ll keep banking on, even if there is a definitive void in the market that could be filled.
Anime can’t do ‘scary ghost stories’ because it doesn’t know how to. Not anymore.
People like me, who pine for the return of the survival horror video game genre, pour over reviews of anime and film alike searching for anything to fill the gap, and mourn Silent Hill like a lost child, will always be left wanting. Always.
I am waiting here. I am waiting here, and I want the anime industry to take my money. I doubt it will happen in the next five years, but here’s to hoping beyond all hopes.
In any case, to answer the question: Where the shit are all the scary ghost anime?
My answer is simple:
The anime industry is too chicken-shit to take the risk to make them.