We’ve so far got a great setting oozing with atmosphere and a cast of pitiful/compelling/amusing/well-coordinated characters who are going to sucker the audience into watching. We’ve thought about opening with a bang and drawing the audience straight into the plot and the situation. While it is pretty true that horror plots are incredibly formulaic right up to the timing of reveals and jump-scares, what distinguishes a great horror, or at least a good one, from the sea of forgettable murder-fests is whether or not that particular story manages to connect with the audience on the emotional level.
By and large, there are two audiences that really love horror. The first are just there for the blood splatter and that works well enough. If they also get a laugh out of it or the occasional jump they’ve gotten their money’s worth from the story. The second audience that watch horror are watching it for the sensations. The tension and teeth grinding during the build-up and suspense, the relief laughter when something turns out to be harmless or a mistake, the finger clenching moment where things peak and the genuine sadness when a good character is taken down and the satisfaction of watching someone survive the impossible. This second audience is somewhat harder to satisfy because it only happens when a horror story actually uses all the elements of film and story writing to tell a great story that just happens to be a horror. And given the first audience is much easier to please we know where most horror stories are targeted.
As for me, I’m firmly sitting between the two camps. I love a well told horror story, but I’m just fine with campy, creature features marching down the standard horror beats as well. But this isn’t actually about me or random horror movies; this is about what would make the best horror anime.
Are Horror Anime A Victim of Their Own Structure?
Whichever kind of horror fan you are, there’s one thing that remains the same: movie length works but TV series find it harder to sustain interest in the horror aspect (they can usually build up some good character drama but the actual horror ends up taking a back seat). The reason is simple: you can’t splatter blood continuously for 11 – 13 weeks and still keep people interested so the blood splatter fans are going to find the mid-season between the bloody opening and bloodier finish line a chore.
Those in for an emotional journey have the other problem. While a move of 90 – 120 minutes can keep them on edge and shift them rapidly through a series of emotional beats, when an anime episode has twenty minutes then has to either perform a mini-climax or cliff-hanger and hope to re-engage you emotionally in the same tone at the start of the next episode, after 5 or 6 episodes this starts to deliver diminishing emotional returns.
Again, the stronger narratives know this and try to build in those character dramas or back-stories to bridge the gaps but ultimately the horror then ends up diluted. Or pushed to silly proportions as audiences wait for a climax that ends up coming about an hour (or three weeks) after when it would have made sense. Worse, filling the void with more bodies and deaths, introduced characters that serve no purpose but to die, or tangential stories that aren’t that interesting.
The weekly format of seasonal anime just may not be suited to pure horror if we’re looking for that emotional build up. Even binge watching doesn’t really seem to alleviate the problem when you consider the average series ends up being twice as long as the average movie and the story has to either close off or leave you hanging ever twenty minutes just to begin anew in the next episode. From that perspective it isn’t any wonder that horror anime are very hit or miss with viewers.
Has Anime Found a Solution?
The answer here would be yes and no. Two anime that regularly come up in conversation when discussing horror anime both use a similar narrative device in different ways and both end up somehow overcoming this issue of pacing and diminished emotional returns (for those who are hooked into the story by the other elements). Shiki and Higurashi both play with time in a different ways to allow certain parts to be recapped without recapping and allowing climaxes and deaths to occur at timed intervals that whether you were watching weekly or binge watching work at keeping you relatively engaged.
Higurashi has a more episodic feel as it breaks its overall narrative into clear arcs using a time loop structure. It means the story can build up to the gory end and then largely reset to build up again over a smaller number of episodes. This seems to largely alleviate the endlessly delayed payoff of horror series as we essentially get to a climax ever 4 or 5 episodes. Each one is equally horrible but focusing in on a different character allowing us to learn more about the overall ongoing situation as well as the characters involved. Its a format that makes the absolute most of a series as it tells us a story that could not be conveyed as a movie in any reasonable way.
Shiki on the other hand moves us back and forward in times as appropriate to the moment. We start with characters looking for Megumi and finding her before going back a few days to see the lead up to her disappearance. However later we’ll revisit that same period of time from a different perspective. The days and dates appear on the screen rolling forward or back to keep the audience in the know about when things are occurring but it gives the anime the opportunity to have events occur when needed.
Now, some people do find the first half of Shiki way too slow and there’s other aspects that some viewers don’t enjoy, but at least its approach to story telling allowed the horror to be the focus all the way through and we didn’t stop mid-way to go on a random side-quest to fill the episode space.
Incidentally, Ghost Hunt probably nailed it when it decided to just go with a clear episodic format with the individual stories loosely connected by the agency investigating the incidents. While an ‘episode’ might run between 2 and 5 actually episodes, each story ends up being relatively self-contained and none of them over stay their welcome.
What do you think? Does horror work in a series format or is the structure itself part of the issue with horror anime not really creating the feels the audience is looking for? I’d love to know your thoughts so leave a comment below.
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7 thoughts on “What Does The Best Horror Anime Need? Part 3”
I was a big fan of Hell Girl but there was no long term arc.She ended up exactly where she started. Also the last season was getting boring. The soul-of-the-week can only be repeated so far.
What I hate the most about campy horror is when I start cheering for the characters to die. If they are just behaving stupidly, what is the point? I want to see a real contest along the way. Hitchcock did great horror by not making his protagonists easy targets.
Gotta love Hitchcock. What’s your favourite movie from him?
I think you’re on to something here. Looking back at TV history, even most of the successful live-action horror shows have either been anthologies or monster-of-the-week type shows (Tales from the Crypt, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, The Outer Limits, etc.) rather than long-form narratives with multi-season plotlines, probably for exactly the reasons you point out. Walking Dead is a notable exception, but shows like that are relatively few and far between.
Anime also feels like it tends to have more success with episodic or anthology-structured horror shows, like Hell Girl or Yami Shibai, or in its own way Higurashi as you point out, but I also think it’s even more of a challenge for anime to deliver effective horror than it is for live action, simply because the unrealistic nature of the medium is an extra barrier to getting the viewer fully immersed in the story. Not to say it can’t be done, it’s just more difficult.
I think the unrealistic part is what I like because I don’t get the gross out impact that I sometimes get with live action horror. I do enjoy the horror genre but I don’t like feeling ill while watching something and anime horror doesn’t manage to do that regardless of how much blood and entrails they splatter about.
I’m in that sort of episodic horror thing myself because it means less work for the writers and more experimentation.
That is unless the writer knows how to make a complete narrative with no problems asked.