As the temperature rises, it’s the perfect time to stay inside and binge watch horror, starting with these eight great horror anime series.
Summer is officially upon us. And with the Japanese Obon festival only a couple of months away, now is the perfect time to binge watch a bunch of horror anime! So where to start?
Well, first off, the show actually needs to be scary — something that will give you enough chills to cool off that summer heat. Hellsing and Tokyo Ghoul are both well known horror anime, but neither are particularly scary per se. Fighting vampires and other supernatural creatures isn’t enough to frighten me.
Next, I like to binge my horror anime in a single night, so I’m going to narrow the list down to shorter series. Higurashi When They Cry is probably one of the most famous horror anime out there. But with several seasons and over 60 episodes, it’s not exactly binge friendly. Shiki is another great one I’d recommend. But it’s still a bit long at 22 episodes. So let’s save both for another list.
Finally, and most importantly, the show needs to be horror. Erased, which I highly recommend if you’re looking for a creepy murder mystery, is excellent. But it’s a thriller, not horror. While a lot of “best horror anime” lists will include thrillers and whatever horror series is the most popular, I want to stick solely to the stuff I found scary and that actually belongs in the horror category.
So, keeping all that in mind, here are the anime I would recommend for a night of chills.
1. Yamishibai: Japanese Ghost Stories
Year Released: 2013
Number of Episodes: 78 (but each episode is only a few minutes long)
It’s like: A Japanese version of Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark
Why it’s awesome: This horror anthology proves that good things come in small packages, offering up bite-sized horror stories that are both fun and genuinely spooky (despite being only a few minutes in length). Each day at five, a man in a yellow noh mask brings his kamishibai theater to a playground to entertain a group of school children with spooky stories based on urban legends and Japanese folklore. The animation of Yamishibai (“dark play”) is based on the kamishibai, or “paper play”, a type of portable street theater that uses pictures and narration to tell a story. (Here’s a video of kamishibai storyteller if you’re curious.) It uses jerky, stop motions effects to make things even creepier.
The show is rarely gory, instead relying on atmosphere, suspense, the supernatural events and darkly ambiguous endings to scare its viewers. This one was hard to review, since each episode has a new, unrelated plot and characters. So just trust me when I say you have to check this one out.
If you enjoy Yamishibai, watch Kowabon next. It’s another anthology of horror shorts, this time based on technology and cameras and using rotoscope animation.
2. Boogiepop Phantom
Year Released: 2000
Number of Episodes: 12
It’s like: Watching Jacob’s Ladder while super high. You have no idea what’s happening or what’s real. All you know is that you’re seriously freaking out.
Why it’s awesome: Boogiepop Phantom has the dubious of award of being one of only two anime (the other being Higurashi) to give me nightmares. I first saw it in high school when I was young and easily frightened. And Boogiepop messed me up. Many years later, and now a full-blown horror fan, I made a second attempt to watch the series —convinced that no mere cartoon could possibly scare me.
Well that was a terrible mistake, as was watching it in my apartment late at night when no one else was home. I was mostly okay until I got to episode 3, at which point I knew I was going to be in for another sleepless night of freak outs. The strange part is, I barely remember what happens in the show. I just know that it was weird, and trippy, and freaked me out.
Boogiepop Phantom is known as a “dementia” anime (aka, a complete mind fuck). It’s meant to mess with the viewer’s head as much as possible. It’s an incredibly disorienting experience that, when done well, will leaving anyone watching the show feel paranoid and uncomfortable — making the show even scarier. Other examples of “dementia” anime are Perfect Blue, Serial Experiments Lain, and Paranoia Agent (all of which you should check out, because they’re super creepy and awesome).
While most people recommend reading the light novels “Boogiepop at Dawn” and “Boogiepop and Others” before starting the anime so you at least have some idea of what’s happening, I’ve never read either. So I can’t say if that actually enhances the viewing experience. In 2019, an animated version of Boogiepop and Others came out, and it’s…. Okay I guess? The animation is not great, there’s a lot of exposition, and it’s not scary. You can watch it if you want some backstory and can’t get your hands on the light novel.
But honestly? Not knowing what the hell was going on made Boogiepop Phantom even creepier.
3. Petshop of Horrors
Year Released: 1999
Number of Episodes: 4
It’s like: The Twilight Zone set in a Petshop
Why it’s awesome: For me, the best part of mall trips as a teenager wasn’t hanging out with friends (I’m antisocial) or shopping for clothes (I would wear the same T-shirt everyday if I could). It was visiting the Borders Books to pick up the latest Tokyopop releases. Of course, this was long before both companies went bankrupt and malls started closing across America, which should give you an indication of how old I am.
Back then, my absolute favorite manga of all was “Petshop of Horrors” (despite Tokyopop’s bad translations). A horror comic targeted at older women, “Petshop” was like nothing I’d ever seen before with its gore, intricate artwork, and low-key gayness.
Each story centers around a different animal from the mysterious store intended to “help” its human owner. In more cases than not, however, the owner meets an unfortunate end due to their inability to overcome their own flaws. While Petshop of Horrors was sadly never given a full animated series, it does have a 4 part OVA (original video animation) which is faithful to the manga. The animation is just as beautiful as the illustrations in the manga, and the stories selected are a nice balance of horror, tragedy, and romance.
Of course, it was made in the late 90s, so expect some cheesiness — like the sleazy synth music that sounds like the start of a late night HBO porno.
4. Happy Sugar Life
Year Released: 2018
Number of Episodes: 12
It’s like: Your typical school girl sociopath who falls in love with a little kid. Wait, what? Also, ew.
Why it’s awesome: In a lot of ways Happy Sugar Life is very similar to the better known School-Live! and Puella Magica, subverting cutesy shows about plucky school girls in horrific ways. But of the three, Happy Sugar Life creeped me out the most.
It isn’t quite horror in the traditional sense. There are no ghosts, curses, or masked killers. But it is horrific. The monsters in this world are regular humans, selfish adults who abuse the children they’re supposed to protect. The children are then cursed to carry that trauma with them, eventually becoming monsters themselves.
Satou, the show’s villain protagonist, has never felt real love before, thanks to a tragic childhood. This makes her desperate and willing to experience the real thing. After sleeping with hundreds of boys and feeling nothing, she discovers a new, “sweet” emotion after meeting a little girl named Shio. Convinced this feeling must be love, Satou kidnaps the little girl and does everything and anything to keep them together.
Happy Sugar Life is not a series for the faint of heart. In addition to child abuse and neglect, the series also deals with sexual assault, codependence, PTSD, pedophilia, and has some of the most realistic panic attacks I’ve ever seen portrayed on screen.
The show may be dramatized, but the abuse and trauma is realistic enough to be both terrifying and deeply disturbing. Out of all the shows on this list, this one stuck with me the longest.
5. Mermaid Forest
Year Released: 2003
Number of Episodes: 13
It’s like: Highlander but with mermaids and cannibalism
Why it’s awesome: Legend says a human can obtain immortality by eating the flesh of a mermaid. Unfortunately, the legend leaves out the most important part. The majority of people who dine on mermaid either die painfully from poisoning, or worse, mutate into mindless monsters known as a “deformed ones”. The rare humans who do survive (one every few centuries) quickly learn that immortality doesn’t mean invulnerability, and they still get to feel every wound inflicted upon them. If they die, they are resurrected. Mermaids, on the other hand, maintain their youth, human form, and cognition by devouring immortal humans.
Yuta, a fisherman who ate mermaid meat centuries ago and is desperate for a cure to his immortality crosses paths with a hobbled young woman named Mana. She has been raised since her infancy by a village of mermaids who plan on making her their next meal. The mermaids look like the woman they’ve last eaten, so they only choose beautiful girls to raise and devour. Yum!
When I first started watching Mermaid Forest, I wasn’t sure it qualified as horror. That was until I got to the “Mermaid Forest” arc (for which the series is named). That’s when you can to see all the really messed up shit.
The anime is based on a manga by Rumiko Takahashi, creator of Inuyasha, Ranama ½, and Urusei Yatsura. So of course the writing is great, though it’s much darker than her usual fare. Unfortunately, the artwork quality is inconsistent. Sometimes the mermaids and monsters look frightening, other times awkward and goofy. The character models also seem to change from episode to episode. And the blood is censored, so it looks like all the characters have red glitter glue flowing through their veins.
There’s also an uncensored OVA with a much higher budget and better music, but it means trading in backstory for more realistic blood and boobs.
6. Le Portrait de Petite Cosette
Year Released: 2004
Number of Episodes: 3
It’s like: A gothic lolita acid trip
Why it’s awesome: Pro tip: If a mysterious, French ghost girl who haunts an antique Venetian glass offers you blood to drink, DON’T DO IT. No, not even if you fell in love with her after seeing her reflection in said glass (especially since she looks ten, you disgusting creep). She’s probably just going to torment you for revenge because you’re the reincarnation of her dead fiance (who is also a creep for getting engaged to an underage girl).
Okay, yes the premise of this gothic horror anime is bizarre, and it’s not always clear what’s going on story wise. But the music is haunting, the imagery creepy and the animation absolutely gorgeous. This isn’t the kind of show you watch for a solid, clear-cut story, but because you want something visually stunning, creepy, and atmospheric.
Or maybe you just enjoy watching a gothic lolita torturing some guy. Hey, no judgement here.
7. Corpse Party: Tortured Souls
Year Released: 2013
Number of Episodes: 4
It’s like: Elementary school as imagined by Lovecraft and Clive Barker
Why it’s awesome: A group of school friends are sharing ghost stories after school and performing a friendship ritual. You know, like you do. But instead of cementing their status as BBFs for life, the spell instead flings the unlucky teens into a dark, dilapidated primary school located in another dimension and haunted by angry ghost children. This is why you always read the instructions carefully before performing spells. If the ghost kids don’t get them first, they’ll slowly go insane and turn into monsters themselves.
Like When they Cry, Corpse Party is based on a horror video game. Unlike When they Cry, it’s been condensed into a 4 episode OVA. So much of the story is rushed through, and some of the suspense and characterization gets sacrificed due to time constraints. But Corpse Party isn’t really something you watch for the story.
Like Hostel, it’s all about that gore. And if you love blood and guts, you’re in for a real treat with Corpse Party. The carnage isn’t copious, like in Blood C or Genocyber, where gallons of high pressure geysers of blood splatter across the screen. But it is disturbingly realistic. People slip on bits of intestine, eyes get gouged, tongues are cut off with scissors, and maggot-covered corpses in various states of decay litter the ground.
And hey, if you really want the full experience, you can always just check out the game, available on Steam.
Year Released: 2012
Number of Episodes: 12
It’s like: Final Destination but with better writing, characters, horror, and subtly. So pretty much the opposite of Final Destination.
Why it’s awesome: There’s a reason Another shows up on almost every “top horror anime” list. Finding an anime that’s both visually appealing and well written can be tricky. And it’s even more difficult when you include sound design and music. Add to that trying to find one that’s actually scary? You might as well be asking for the moon.
Le Portrait de Petite Cosette is lovely to look at with wonderful music, but the story leaves a lot to be desired. Shiki is certainly scary, but so is the artwork with the most ridiculous looking anime hair since Yu-Gi-Oh. Petshop of Horrors’ beautiful artwork and solid (if a little clichéd) writing makes for a spooky series. But that 90’s synth fits better in a soft-core porno than a horror anime. Mermaid Forest is creepy but censors too much.
Then there’s Another.
Kōichi Sakakibara has just transferred to a new school and all the students are acting weird. REALLY weird. They’re terrified of a secret no one will share with him. He’s the only one who notices a girl in the class named Misaki who may not exist, and there’s an unusually high number of gruesome deaths caused by freak accidents. Based on the novel by award winning horror author Yukito Ayatsuji, Another is the perfect balance of horror, suspense, mystery, and gore — with small spots of humor sprinkled in that make the scary scenes stand out even more. The artwork is absolutely gorgeous, creating the perfect creepy atmosphere with beautifully drawn dolls and bright splashes of blood. Add to that a haunting soundtrack by the critically-acclaimed composer Kow Otani, and you have the perfect recipe for a horror series.
But is it scary? Sweet Beelzebub, yes! I binged watched the entire series with my sister until 2 AM, and we couldn’t tear our eyes away. If you only check out one series on this list, make sure it’s Another.