It’s almost summer and that means a lot of stuff in Japan—Golden Week, brain melting humidity, Obon, and of course, horror movies and haunted houses. While many people in the west binge on horror flicks and spooky attractions as Halloween nears, Japanese people tend to get their fright on during the summer months.
We recently caught up with Margee Kerr, a sociologist who studies fear and helps the world famous ScareHouse terrify their patrons—in a good way of course! Margee was in Japan studying how fear works across different cultures and we were excited to learn about the similarities and differences in the reactions between Japan and America to horror. Check out our interview with a true master of fear at one of Tokyo’s scariest bars: Yurei Izakaya in Kichijoji!
When you think of a “master of horror,” you might imagine someone who looks more like your local goth kid decked out for Halloween than the chipper, beaming Margee. But happy and engaging she is! If we had to guess, it’s probably because she gets to spend all of her time doing what she loves: Figuring out what scares people.
While that might sound like something reserved for evil geniuses and secret government scientists, it’s actually much more benign. Margee explained that her study of sociology and fear came from a desire to understand “social distance,” basically why certain people or group are kept apart. As the sociologist told us, “I wanted to understand why we fear some things, and some people, and not others.” However, this brought her to another realization: “I started to notice some interesting patterns—namely that the US is considered a ‘fear based’ society, yet we are increasingly engaging in thrilling and scary activities. That was a paradox I had to explore.”
So what was this American scholar doing in Japan? Margee is currently writing a book about fear that will delve into the topic from three points of view: Physiological, psychological, and sociological. While the physiological and psychological aspects primarily vary by individual—for example how your fight or flight response gets activated—the things we fear often have sociological components to them. Margee wanted to see how things compared in the more “collectivist” society of Japan to the more “individualistic” society of the United States.
▼ Need a hand with choosing a dish?
While it would be impossible to do a detailed study of all the differences between Japan and the US in a few days—or even a lifetime—Margee was able to share some of the things she immediately noticed. Remember, she spends a lot of her time watching how visitors act and react in Pittsburgh’s ScareHouse, and has pored over pages of data, so we think she might have an eye for this sort of thing.
Our first question, of course, was what’s up with Japanese haunted houses? How are they different and how are they similar to those in the US?
Well, it turns out that the basics for haunted houses don’t really change very much between countries—actors jump out and surprise visitors, automatons provide freaky sights, darkness and terrifying sounds send shivers down people’s spines, and everything, in general, makes you want to pee your pants. But that’s not all there is to a haunted house.
▼The sign reads: “Tonight’s wake is for the Kamata family.”
Really helps you work up an appetite, huh?
As Margee explained, haunted houses in Japan tend to have set-ups. For example, reading a story or watching a video to learn what had happened at the particular location to make it haunted. “This is what made the Daiba Haunted School so scary,” she told us, “a strong narrative provided context and gets you into the story.” So while American haunted houses tend to primarily focus on throwing horror after horror at you, Japanese haunts make you a character and give you a role to play.
▼ A video advertisement for the Daiba Haunted School
The sociologist suggested that this might be a result of the differences between a collectivist society and an individualistic society. “Collectivist societies put a lot more weight into relationships and what is happening with the people around them, so it makes sense that stories about people would play a big role in haunts.” While some may bristle at the description of Japan and the United States as “collectivist” or “individualistic,” there certainly does seem to be a reflection of these archetypes in the haunted houses.
But how do people react to the frights? After all, while we might be different sociologically, we’re all still human.
Margee found that the terrified patrons in the US and in Japan weren’t all that different from each other, though there were a few things that stood out to her well-trained eyes. “Our startle response looks pretty much the same – we jump and we pull our arms close to our chests instinctively,” she explained, making us think of a cartoon turtle. However, she did spot some interesting differences in the way people acted in relation to their friends. For example, after visiting a few of the haunted houses in Japan, Margee told us, “I noticed that the groups were generally much closer together—for both men and women. US customers also tend to huddle together when going through a haunt, but in Japan that closeness seemed more expressive. Meaning, people were touching, holding onto, and being very close to each other.”
Though Japanese people do have a bit of a reputation for being distant, this isn’t exactly true—especially if you’ve ever seen a group of friends on Saturday night drinking! For both men and women, touching isn’t something that you’ll do constantly, but when you’re relaxed and having fun (or being scared silly), the walls come tumbling down. It provides a fascinating counter point to the typical perception many people have of Japanese society being completely rigid—and shows that maybe we’re not so different after all!
▼ One last smoke won’t hurt anything…
One common thing you’ll hear in Japan during the height of the summer heat is an invitation to go to a horror film. Now, if you’re easily frightened or just prefer a good laugh to a few hours spent curled into a quivering ball, this probably sounds like a horrible way to “enjoy” the evening. However, for many Japanese folks, horror movies provide a way to “cool off.” As baffling as this may sound, it looks like there’s some solid logic to it.
Here’s what Margee had to say about summer horror in Japan: “When I learned this I was delighted, it makes a lot of sense! We do experience a kind of ‘chill’ (or goosebumps) when we’re scared, so of course we should want to have these experiences when it is warm!”
Well, it might make sense, but if you’re a big old scaredy cat, you might prefer to opt for turning on the AC.
▼ Finish your veggies…or else!
Margee added an interesting tidbit about this: “I am constantly trying to remind people in the States that scary and thrilling activities do not have to be inextricably linked to Halloween—they can be enjoyed year round. We’re starting to see that happen with the success of horror movies during summer and even winter months but we’re not quite there yet with year round [haunted houses].” Even the ScareHouse, one of the most popular haunted house in the United States and a favorite of Guillermo del Toro, doesn’t operate at full force all year. So, in that respect, there’s a major cultural difference between the two countries.
But maybe it’s not such a bad thing that haunted houses aren’t all year-long in the US. As Margee told us, “That might be ok though—there is a real nostalgia and sense of comfort that comes with linking specific experiences to specific times. You see the trees changing colors and feel the crisp autumn air and think, ‘It’s time to go to a haunted house!’”
▼ Tonight’s menu? Your soul. With a side of fries or salad!
Obviously your experiences will vary, but if you’re looking for some really good scares in Japan, there are plenty of places for you to check out, like Fuji-Q’s Super Scary Labyrinth or the Daiba Haunted School (Japanese only)! And if you’re in the Pittsburgh area, be sure to stop by ScareHouse for their next event or when they reopen full time in September. And we’ll be sure to let you know when Margee’s book is published next year! We’re really excited to learn more about her take on Japanese and American responses to fear. Hopefully we won’t need to take a flashlight to bed after reading it though…
A big thank you to Margee for taking the time to chat with us! You can learn more about her adventures, scary and thrilling, on her blog or on Twitter. Also, if you like peeing your pants, you’ll definitely want to check out ScareHouse. The haunted house even has a brilliant YouTube series explaining fear called ScareU starring Margee–we’ve posted one of our favorites below! Don’t watch it alone at night…
Images of Margee from ScareHouse and Margee Kerr
Images taken at the Yurei Izakaya (Japanese only) by RocketNews24.