On horror, (un)familiarity and Junji Ito
Horror does not even need an introduction at this point – you have heard of it, you have even watched it, read it, seen it, perhaps you even enjoy it, the thrill, the adrenaline it shoots down your veins, heart pounding in your chest, sweaty palms and all that; or perhaps you are well too acquainted to the fact that you do not enjoy it one bit – why would anyone scare themselves on purpose, you think. Regardless of where exactly you position yourself in this heated debate, an agreement has to be made insofar as feeling fear is concerned – it is awfully universal, and irrespective of whether it triggers fascination or terror in our bodies, it triggers something nonetheless.
Most content that explores fear does so by tickling our ancient neuronal structures in places it knows it cannot really go wrong, and that is by simulating these life-threatening situations that make all alarms in our innermost survival mechanism go off loudly. And body horror is one of the subgenres that manage to obtain such an effect most effectively. As a contextualisation, it is only natural for it to affect us so deeply and elicit such powerful reactions – it relies on our ancient fear of our physical bodies being in mortal danger, an inborn avoidance towards sickness and malformation, as it was associated with death and (let your ancestors millions of years ago jump to conclusions for you) to the extinction of the human species. Human beings experience an innate visceral and instinctive rejection towards that which remotely resembles anything related to bodily decay, a behaviour which is also exhibited in other species, such as ants.
Let us consider a few instances in which imagination has created beings so precariously situated at the border between human and inhuman, that they gradually became tropes universally known. Zombies are the ultimate fiend in this category, as they incorporate everything we are terrified of and reject, from multiple perspectives – physically, zombies are on the verge of death, yet undead still, stripped away of everything human except for their vague resemblance, or rather, former resemblance, to the human body, with only minimal movements and reactions having lingered to link these creatures to a human existence. Vampires, too, albeit similar to the human appearance to a greater extent, still gravitate somewhere between life, as an inherent human characteristic, and death, as a categorical end to this physical existence.
Body horror functions by emphasizing and extrapolating our instinctual repulsion towards sickness, mutation, and death – however, most body horror, and horror in general, is usually assembled on a background architecture that explains at least to a certain degree the beginning of the terrifying phenomena; in other words, horror fiction works based on a mechanism, a narrative plot, logical deductions that lead back to a cause, or, more generally, an explanation. And this is the very reason we are capable of ultimately dealing with it – the imagery and the scenarios are frightening and disgusting, sure, but one thing horror does not usually do is play with the very basis of our conscious perceptions, the core nations of how we position ourselves in this world, how we relate to it. Most horror takes place while still abiding to some universe construction rules, regardless of whether it follows them or does the complete opposite; ultimately, the rules are there. Indeed, vampires are rather troublesome, but, conveniently enough, they are light-sensitive; zombies are dangerous only as long as their grey matter stays intact; ghosts can be pacified; demons can be exorcised; the wicked witch of the west melts when splashed with water – it always boils down to a solution. And even provided that said solution does not necessarily guarantee a happy ending, at least the mere explanation of what happened, the cause of the event can provide a twisted sense of solace in understanding what happened and why it happened. One way or another, we are familiar with the experience we have encountered in such fiction.
Indeed, it all seems to point towards the concept of familiarity and how vulnerable we are in relation to it, which leads directly to Freud’s theory of the uncanny and fear of the unknown being the utmost powerful, hence why it is also the most fascinating and interesting to play with, to test its limits. The fear of the unknown is the most disturbing because it renders our last resort in any critical situation, knowing how things work, useless. We seem to have been programmed to believe that, no matter how grim a turn of events, humans find a way around it given their superior knowledge about what the world should look, feel, work like. Such mentality can be attributed to humanism, a philosophy that has existed in antiquity too but was revived during the Renaissance, according to which the entire universe is constructed around and for the benefit of human beings. This narrative is overly used and deeply ingrained in our conscious by literally almost any content, from apocalyptic motion pictures in which the protagonists miraculously survive, to heroes defeating monstrous villains, to the literal reality in which every natural resource is seen as ours to exploit, to the very basis of words like humane and inhumane, as if the quality of being human is the greatest of them all.
This hierarchy of power does not even refer only to other species or resources, it translates to everything that comes in contact with human beings, the most significant of which is our environment, particularly man-made environment that is supposed to be under our unfaltering control more than anything else and, to narrow it down even more, our house. It is no wonder that the most frightening and bone-chilling narratives in literature, cinematography or visual arts, are linked to a house or, better said, home – the safest refuge, the last resort, being turned against humans. What happens when this comforting and hopeful narrative of the victorious human and the shelter of one’s home are dismantled and repositioned into the unknown? What ensues after surpassing that particular question is rather a double-edged sword insofar as experimenting with it is concerned – it might be interesting and rewarding; however, it is equally possible that extremely unnerving scenarios may come to light. One writer and illustrator in particular wholeheartedly disregarded such concern and delved into the horror of spatiality head-first – and that genius is Japanese writer and manga artist Junji Ito.
Junji Ito has already established himself as one of the most important contemporary visual novelists and comic artists through popular series such as Tomie (1987 – 2000), GYO (2001 – 2002) and Uzumaki (1998-1999), which perfectly illustrate his staple visual style – semi-realistic, fine lines and with special attention dedicated to the facial features of his characters, particularly the eyes, varying from eerily pretty faces to bone-chilling creature design. In addition to that, he is a master of the “page-turn” technique, which allows for brilliant unexpected scenes, despite the printed medium of comic books not allowing for cut scenes and montages the way cinematography does. By inserting full-page panels as the reader turns the page, oblivious to the continuation of the story, Junji Ito achieves the same shocking and goosebumps-inducing effect. However, on further investigation into this artist’s extensive portfolio, one discovers that his numerous collections of visual short stories are equally as valuable as his more popular series, as it will be exemplified further on.
How Junji Ito’s work stands out against the backdrop of contemporary horror comics is that most of his horror is not necessarily closely knit to the supernatural in the traditional sense. Most of his horror is built around the idea of decentralisation of normal life, without completely passing the threshold of a “different world” – the reality of his fictional universes is the same one we live in, but moulded in extremely peculiar ways, defamiliarising everything we feel comfortable with. For instance, cats are usually lovely, but in Soichi’s beloved pet they suddenly enter the house with alien-looking spiders in their mouths; fish are nothing more than that, but in GYO they have mechanical legs and begin to crawl on land; Ito’s work can become even more abstract, as Uzumaki has proven, as mere geometrical shapes become a threat to humanity in a world where everything starts metamorphosing into spiral-shaped objects. His body horror, too, surpasses gore, which is but an element of it. The most terrifying thing about Ito’s characters is how awfully human-looking they are still, even after the final stages of their transformation. They never quite renounce their human form, quite often not even their human behaviour, which again toys with our core survival instincts and returns to the idea of the uncanny valley – if we are unable to even differentiate between human and inhuman, our life is in critical danger.
Another recurring motif in Junji Ito’s work is claustrophobia, cursed spaces, and (in)escapable cycles. Returning to the idea of the house as a haunting entity in itself, Ito manages to distort the concept of safety in one’s own home to such an extent that it becomes an antagonist in itself. This concept was also effectively put into practice by horror video games such as Control (2019)and Anatomy (2016), as this medium is ideal for experimenting with sensorial perception, in which the very architecture of in-game setting has the purpose of opposing the human player, or rather, it exists independently from humans, not serving it, nor being created by it anymore, just an entirely separate existence from ours. Distorting space is significantly more difficult in writing and in comics, yet Ito’s stories perform impeccably, as they alternatively switch between claustrophobia (The Window Next Door, 1998), places unfit for human life, and space being contaminated by an external entity that undermines the house as a human environment to such an extent, that humans are obliged to either run or be consumed by the house (Mold, 1997).
Insofar as psychological horror is concerned, the main themes are the destructive effects of obsession, guilt, and parasite thoughts – when evil is not located in other human-like creatures or the environment, it stems from our very psyche. Stories like Earthbound (2003) and Library of Illusions (2006) prove that sometimes it is not the oppressive external environment that torments the human mind to the point of no return, it is the human mind, in its decaying state, that can influence and project onto the outside world, usually in the form of an obsession or maddening guilt that become hauntings in themselves.
Irrespective of the themes and motifs used in Junji Ito’s stories, one core element that unites them all in being truly disturbing is that, unlike most content in the horror genre, it intentionally fails to provide any catharsis, as most of his stories seem to end in puzzling or downright frustrating ways. There appears to be no resolution, no conclusion, no solution to the crisis, nothing. It is only natural, however, for his stories to be hopeless – what solution can there be when solving a problem inherently presupposes the existence of a background system, a set of rules that governs over the narrative, whereas in Ito’s stories, there often is none. It proves yet again that the scariest horror is the chaotic one, devoid of logical principles that the human mind can process. When everything seems beyond our grasp, we become aware of how vulnerable we are, of how our superiority as a species depends on the presupposition that everything will play according to our rules, will happen exactly as we have planned it, each problem has an evident solution, end of the story. Except when it doesn’t.
It would be fantastic to be able to close the book at the end of the day, extract oneself from the universe of horror and return to the realm of structure and logic – however, recently, it takes one look outside the fictional universes of our beloved manga, TV series, movies, novels, to start connecting the dots – the events that occurred in 2020 reconfirmed that humans do have the tendency, regardless of how much we wish to deny it, to lose our grip on the situation the second we realise that our mundane lifestyle might turn into something Junji Ito-esque. Confinement in our own homes that suddenly cease feeling cosy and welcoming, but rather suffocating, an external menacing force that appears to be completely arbitrary in its behaviour and manifestation, being stuck with one’s thoughts for hours on end, isolated from society – does it sound familiar yet?
The silver lining is that, unlike Junji Ito’s characters, our short story is not bound to end after an unexpected page turn. Our greatest assets are time and very stubborn adaptability. Unlike horror manga characters, we may still be able to twist the narrative in such a way that, despite the bigger scheme of things being left in the dark, we can take action still, while we find solace in the fact that at least we are all in this together and everyone is equally as messed up. Sometimes, that is reassuring enough.
Fotografie Copertă © Tomie, Junji Ito