Haunted Houses & How To Do Horror

I haven’t been to very many haunted houses in my life, at least not full-fledged, this-is-an-elaborate-annual-setup haunted houses. Here’s what I have been to: a haunted house in my middle school locker room probably 5 times or so, set up by a father-daughter program I was in growing up. The haunted house at Eigamura in Kyoto, which was more of an established place but a very small one. The last in my sadly limited stretch of haunted houses is this one that was somewhere in my home state and I think I went with my Girl Scout Troop? Not really sure, but I have vivid memory flashes of it so there was a 3rd place.

Now as I wrote above, the majority (all but 1) of my haunted house experiences have been in America, New England to be specific – the outlier is the one in Kyoto. They were all so different though, and that’s what caught my eye. Now obviously horror is different from place to place, never mind country to country, but unless you’re super into scary stuff I’m more than sure that you don’t have a set idea of how different place present horror. So I wanted to write up a personal comparison despite not having a wide body of experience to back it. Here goes.

In America, horror is built on jump scares. We go gruesome, in-your-face and have a masochistic tendency to keep piling on the suspense that breaks with a scream and starts up again every 20 minutes or so. In a haunted house, this translates to a lot going on at once. I’ve had smoke machines that pair with strobe lights to produce this active, confusing haze that puts you on edge. Half the things lining the walls are just props while the other half are people in costumes; of those people, half go on to run up to/after you while the rest twitch just enough to let you know they’re real and leave you wondering what’s next. Some of these folks don general scary costumes (the Grim Reaper robe of death, Jason’s mask and so on) while others let loose with their love of fake blood and disturbing makeup. Basically there’s a huge fascination with props, busy lighting/sound effects and a consistent (well-placed) fear that actors are going to come out and grab you or spook you in some sense. Very active environment.

In contrast, the Japanese haunted house was much more settled down, if that makes sense. You enter to a quiet, rather stagnant environment with no obvious jump scares. The lighting was low but consistent, and never the near-pitch black you get in America. The environment then becomes far more important, given the fact that you can see it properly, and so it gets much more detail. The walls are sparse, with mine in particular featuring slighting-gleaming streaks of blood over carved kanji on the walls. There’s a handful of trees along the path, along with an old torii (red shrine gate) that gives the sensation of an abandoned Edo period shrine. The silence is overwhelming and the atmosphere is much heavier – almost suffocating. As you round the corner there’s a hallway, and it’s very short but goes on just long enough to make you uncomfortable. What’s next – surely the jump scare? The anticipation builds in the next room where multiple bodies lay propped against the way, but alas, they all remain still. As you tread on there’s more overwhelming silence as you reach the next unsettling hallway, at which point someone from behind jumped out of a bush at you. Rather clever and understated – my attentiveness was up, but certainly not for anything happening behind me.

From there was a more culture-backed room, full of traditional Japanese dolls that are the fear of so many, regardless of your home country. One of those was sizable enough that I feared it moving for a jump scare, but it didn’t. This room also featured more corpses, which did nothing. There was a bit more light play, casting shadows and shifting focus, but enough still to note the room. One room beyond there moved, the floor shifting back and forth in an unexpected twist, before settling back down into that unnerving silence. Through that door was a sudden puff of air downwards, and while the sensation wasn’t by any means terrifying this was what caused the screams that could be heard from outside, the abruptness a sharp contrast to the still-ness that built up to it. Before the end one more person did interact with me, coming from behind to chase me a bit into the hallway – again, with that clever background technique that I wouldn’t expect. It was an especially unique and pleasant experience, in as much as a haunted house can be.

If I had to sum it up, I guess I’d say that American haunted houses are much more active, flashy sets, while Japan seems to favor a rather subtle and eerie atmosphere. The former is much more reliant on jump scares, even when the audience knows they’re coming, and using disorientation to build the suspense. In turn, the latter seems to revel in building the environment, making the details prominent and settle over the guest, wondering what moving scare awaits while overall, there aren’t many at all. The difference, as I’ve stated, stems from the different ways of approaching horror in different countries, and the preference of shallow jump scares with a more immediate gratification over a more nuanced, unsettling build-up that lingers in a more psychologically-toying way. Both are enjoyable, but the styles are undeniably different and fun to compare.


*Note, I’m very aware of my limited, extremely biased interaction with Japanese haunted houses. If there are any observations or comments someone with more experience has do feel free to share them. I’d love to know more about people’s experiences with haunted houses in any country.