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Horror and Culture: Anglo/American, Korean, and Japanese Perspectives

Note: This is another post from last semester, when I was teaching a film class. I am not teaching now, but the thoughts seemed worth posting. (Because right now I’m too busy to write much new for the blog, but feel I should post more often than I have been.) The post is definitely not intended to be any definitive discussion, just interesting notes from a small class discussion.  

I had an interesting discussion in my class today about horror across the three cultures represented in my Understanding Anglophone Cultures Through Film course: Korean, Japanese, and Anglophone.(1)

We watched the Korean film <<여고괴담>> (Whispering Corridors 1), Juon: The Curse (Part 1); and the little-known but (in my opinion) excellent The Haunting of Julia, also published at one point as Full Circle. (The film is based on Peter Straub’s novel, which in different editions also has borne each of these titles.) I haven’t read the book–I kept seeing a copy in a huge used bookstore near my apartment when I was in undergrad, but when I saw the movie and decided I ought to read it, the thing finally had been snapped up by someone else, doubtless someone who’d also seen the film on the Showcase channel late one night. However, I’ve seen people say it’s easy to tell that the book was Straub’s first (horror) novel, so maybe I didn’t miss much… I don’t know.

Well, I don’t know about all that, but the film is very creepy; however, I chose it not just because I love it, but also because it feels scary in a way characteristic of Western ghost stories, and because of its parallels with Juon and Whispering Corridors: malevolent child-ghosts, the brutalization of a woman, the rendering of a place that should be familiar (home, school) somehow uncannily alien and unsettling. (The Freudian unheimliche, basically.)

The discussion was pretty fruitful in my opinion: we talked about differing cultural expectations for horror, and one thing that surprised me was that most of the students (with one except) claimed Julia was less scary because one didn’t see the ghost onscreen until the end. To me (and one student), that’s what made Julia so much more frightening, because the invisible presence of the ghostly child was constant, watching, relentless. But a lot of students in the class said they get much more scared when they see a ghost onscreen, visible, even if they can also see the makeup or wires that are keeping it in suspension. This is odd, and certainly goes against what the horror writers I like best tend to do — leaving the horrors unseen so the reader can do some of the work of scaring themselves.

We also talked about how Korean horror seems to depend more on a literalistic type of supernatural, whereas Japanese horror seems (from the students impressions) to tend toward the grotesque, like the crawling ghost and the horror child in Juon, or the malevolent body-in-a-bag thing in Takashi Miike’s Audition. Finally, we speculatively linked this all to history, particularly the Joseon Era’s hard shift toward Confucian ideology and the anti-supernaturalistic elements within that shift, which are also responsible for the relative paucity of superatural and magical beasts in Korean popular culture’s version of fantasy today.

We also discussed the concept of transgression, and how horror movies seem to be a barometer for social anxieties and shifts. Julia flees her family in a 1970s setting, when feminism is upsetting the traditional family dynamic sufficiently that women can leave unhappy marriages… but not so sufficiently that divorce isn’t a source of anxiety and social unease. Julia therefore transgresses in asserting her freedom to leave her unhappy marriage, as well as in her self-perceived “failing” as a mother to save her choking daughter, who dies early in the film.

Our discussion touched on comparable approaches to transgression in Juon, though the logic of the victimization in that film eluded us somewhat, beyond the idea that intruding into others’ private lives is a form of transgression in a face-oriented society. In Whispering Corridors, transgression seemed linked very deeply to the oppressive structures of school and competition between students, who, in engaging in that competition, transgress their natural friendships and relationships. (They become complicit with their own fragmentation and dissociation.)

Finally, we discussed the importance of naturalism… both the “naturalistic” supernatural in Korean narratives (the ghosts always look like humans, and there are more talking animals than imaginary beings) versus Japanese (where all kinds of weird supernatural stuff is possible) and Anglophone ghost stories, where the relative sanity of the victim of a haunting is often called into question by the film itself, and sometimes unresolved — something that was done most masterfully in Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw, a short novel I recommend very highly. (The book is public domain, and available all over the place, including at In our discussion, it was suggested that this was why the ghost appears onscreen early and often in Japanese and Korean films, as opposed to appearing only rarely, and after a lot of setup and hinting and mood-building in Anglophone horror films.

We also discussed the politics of the films, especially of Julia. (Since the central horror is linked to a set of events that comprise a microcosm of the Holocaust, ironically reversed onto a German child, including the long-ignored complicity of Western nations that did not open their doors to European Jewish refugees.) We didn’t find a lot of politics in the other two films, though I’d argue there is a kind of politics buried in Whispering Corridors 1.

Then we talked about the changes going on in horror films in English — the possible influence of the Christian Right on the genre, for example, as well as the changes going on in Korean horror films — and questions of adaptability of each film to the other cultures. (The conclusion was that a film like Julia would not likely do very well in Korea, because it relies too much on hints and implications, whereas Korean audience want to see the ghost onscreen, instead of thinking and imagining it.)

That said, in this class we often also contrast Northeast Asian cultures with Anglophone cultures. It’s reductionism, of course… and that’s why this approach is useful. As long as you can bear in mind there are fine-grained differences, the similarities are worth noting too.

(1) Normally I term the culture I’m from Anglophone, because (supposedly) there’s a lot of free flow of ideas, and a lot of shared cultural background, between English-speaking societies. This is probably how I perceive things in part because I’m Canadian — and we tend to be ourselves a weird hybrid of American and British cultures, with other stuff thrown in — and partly because, after living in Korea and being surrounded by expats from all kinds of places in the English-speaking world, the cultural differences between all the English-speaking expats seem minor in comparison to those between us and Koreans, or Koreans and Japanese, or whatever.
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