Horror shares the same goal of evoking fear from the audience or creating tension, but the technique used to achieve this differs around the world.
The Horror Renaissance of the 70s and 80s brought a boom to the horror industry. Though the horror genre had its own cult following, it wasn’t until the Renaissance that the genre boomed in popularity. From Freddy Krueger to Jason Voorhees, the world fell in love with slashers and the macabre. To this day, horror has its iron grip on the world, appeasing fans of the macabre with a wide array of literature and media.
While horror has made fans of people throughout the globe, there are subtle, yet striking differences between the West and East when it comes to horror content. Western and Eastern horror are both fantastic, but they use different techniques to scare and delight their audiences.
Perhaps the most recognizable of the bunch, we’ll start off with Western horror. The bastion of slasher movies. The footprint left by the West when it comes to horror is one that no shoe can fill. The influence did not just come from movies, but also the literature that was written.
H.P Lovecraft constructed a whole universe surrounding the cosmic entities that humans couldn’t even think about without going insane. Stephen King is a still a best seller with his books that deal with a mix of the supernatural and the mundane, using realistic backdrops and fears to immerse the audience. “The Shining” is a perfect example of these kind of stories being translated to the big screen.
Western Horror, while being a tad bit more realistic than Eastern horror, is a lot more direct about scaring the audience. Most of the time, these movies lack subtlety and count on jump scares or fast-paced orchestra scores to scare the audience. Another technique popularized by Western horror is “shock horror”.
Shock horror is a type of horror that counts on polarizing imagery or scenes to disgust and surprise the audience. One of the best examples of shock horror is The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974). The movie follows a man in a mask made of human skin that terrorizes and kills a group of teenagers. Throughout the movie there are quite a few death scenes, mostly dealt in a gruesome fashion by the antagonists of the movie, including Leatherface. Other notable examples are Halloween and Friday the 13th.
To sum up, Western horror has a tradition of counting on gruesome deaths or more direct means to scare the audience. Of course, that is not to say that all Western horror is like that.
The Shining counts on supernatural elements to portray the growing insanity of a father trapped with his family. Alien uses tension of the ever-nearing presence of the Xenomorph to immerse the audience in the movie. Even the recent film A Quiet Place uses silence to create a psychological discomfort to the viewers. Western horror takes influence from many other forms of horror, including Eastern.
Speaking of Eastern Horror…
Just so I can be transparent with you readers, I will be focusing on the countries primarily responsible for producing most genre content. These countries include Japan, Korea, and Thailand. Predictably, films from these areas are not as popular as Western horror when it comes to American audiences. Whether it is the language barrier, the inability to find a specific movie, or the intimidating aspect of the colossal library, Eastern horror seems like too much trouble to get into for some people.
With that said, Eastern horror does have a large cult following among some in the horror community. One reason could be its subtler approach to fear. For example, let’s look at the Japanese version of The Ring (Ringu). Instead of counting on jump scares or gruesome imagery, the movie focuses on creating tension and a creepy atmosphere. The scene of Shizuko, the girl crawling out of the TV to claim her next victim, is one of the most iconic scenes in horror to date.
Instead of the imagery being gruesome, the appearance of the girl feels you with dread and fear — fear that the movie lets build up inside of the audience, until delivering the ultimate payoff. This is what defines Eastern horror. It tends to put atmosphere and tension above all else. The gore can be present, the monster can be scary, and jump scares can still be used, but the atmosphere is of primary importance.
I Saw The Devil is one of my favorite movies released by Korea in 2010. The story follows a detective that loses his fiancé to a serial killer. The entire film follows the detective getting revenge on the killer, slowly degrading in morals until there seem to be none left.
And this is the next defined characteristic of Eastern horror movies: Social/human commentary. The movie makes you watch a man, who’s supposed to uphold the law, break it and hurt others in the name of revenge. A question is raised: “Was it righteous?” Is it ok to hurt others if they themselves are bad people?
Another not so heavy example is Tomie: Unlimited. Without going into too much detail, the movie brings up the question of fitting in and jealousy. But the beauty of these movies is that it’s not always black and white. Eastern movies tend to be open-ended with their themes, not wanting to spoil too much for the viewer. This allows the viewers to create their conclusions as to what these movies represent.
While we defined Western horror as more direct and “in-your-face”, Eastern horror tends to be subtle in its atmosphere. To these moviemakers, fear should be felt throughout the whole movie, and the audience should always be kept on the tip of their toes. Meanwhile, the movie is preferred to have a sort of a deeper meaning that deals with various social issues or issues with the individual.
With the differences between Western and Eastern horror laid out, does it mean that neither can share characteristics? Of course not. Many psychological horrors exist within the West that count on atmosphere to create fear, while some Western horrors count on nothing but shock.
Some Western horror is made just to make a social commentary, such as Clive Barker’s Candyman, which dips into systemic racism during the 90s and beyond. Jordan Peele’s Get Out, a more recent movie, deals with the political side of racism in modern day America.
What I have outlined are defined characteristics for the traditional horror movie from the East and West, but they can always overlap from influence.
Some might prefer the subtler approach of Eastern horror, while others want to be shocked and disgusted by the obscene amount of gore that might make an appearance in a Western horror. No matter what you want, there is always an option.