The Wrathful Onryō Of J-horror, ARMY OF ONE And MORE!
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The Bite #99
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The Wrathful Onryō Of J-horror, ARMY OF ONE And MORE!

March 03, 2020

In this Issue:


By John Bogna

We all remember the scary movie, book, or image we saw as a child that still turns our guts to ice. I should be in therapy from the art in Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark alone and, growing up, it was Halloween. Micheal Myers’ unstoppable slasher was a personal boogieman for years.

Until I saw The Ring.

The 2002 film about a cursed VHS tape redefined fear. I looked at the small television in my room with dread when the lights went out and watched, waiting for it to click on of its own accord. I was deeply frightened by this new breed of horror and had to have more.

Two years later, I got my wish. The Grudge was filled with slow, nail-biting psychological terror, the characters tormented by a violent ghost consumed by rage. The spirit haunting that ramshackle house in Tokyo didn’t care who it hurt; it just wanted them to suffer.

Other horror villains could be defeated; you could blow them up, kill them, sink them in a lake. But the ghost in The Grudge could show up anywhere from the sheets of your bed to the folds of your hair. And its curse stuck to you like a plague until you died.

The Ring was based on a 1991 novel by Koji Suzuki, the first in a series. The Grudge was modeled after the 2002 Japanese film Ju-On. Both films introduced Japanese horror, or J-horror, to mainstream North American audiences along with their murderous ghost, the Onryō.

Based on a Japanese mythological figure dating back to the eighth century, Onryō translates to “vengeful spirit” or sometimes “wrathful spirit”. According to folklore, Onryō are created when someone dies in the grip of a powerful negative emotion like rage or jealousy. Their spirit, known in Japanese as tamashii or reikon, becomes corrupted and stays behind to torment the living. They can also be created when a spirit doesn’t receive the proper last rites and, instead of becoming a protector of the family, it returns to the living world to exact vengeance.

Onryō can possess the bodies of the living and reenact their deaths, killing their human puppets in the process, or use their powers to psychologically torment their victims. Some legends even blame lightning strikes and earthquakes on an Onryo’s rage. And once they curse you, they’re impossible to escape until they’re placated. If they even can be.

They usually target the ones responsible for their death, but their curse can rub off on anyone they come into contact with. It’s said the spirit receives sustenance from suffering, often letting the target of their wrath live a long life while wreaking havoc on their psyche and drinking in their pain, and their appearance or mannerisms usually reflect how they died. In The Grudge, for instance, Kayako’s neck was snapped by her jealous husband and, in death, the unearthly croak of her mangled vocal cords is a sign her ghost is near.

But despite the lag in popular J-horror in recent years, the Onryō continues to haunt North American cinema with Nicolas Pesce’s remake of The Grudge from earlier this year. The news brought back old memories of warily staring at my television in the still hours of the night or watching for a shift in the covers of my bed.

I’m reminded of Aiden at the end of The Ring. “Don’t you understand, Rachel?” he says as his nose begins to bleed, “She never sleeps.”

*John Bogna is a freelance writer based in Houston, Texas. His work has been featured in Medium’s One Zero, as well as the Seattle TimesThe Houston Press, and SyFy Wire. More of his writing can be found on Medium.


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