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In Japan, Summer Is the Time for Ghosts

October 15, 1999

This haunted house a la hospital is sure to satisfy those who are looking for a chilling experience. (Fujikyu-Highland)

Ghost stories have been a mainstay of summer in Japan from around the time of the Edo period (1600-1868) and remain so today. Each summer a host of spooky creatures come out of the dark of the night and into books, movies, and the television screen. This summer was no exception.

Ghosts on the Silver Screen
The newest movie in a series called Gakko no Kaidan (School Ghost Stories) was a big hit again in 1999. Now in its fourth incarnation, this series was launched in 1995 and today has become a classic among ghost story movies. The films make reference to tales that are traditionally shared by students at elementary and middle schools throughout the country as the "seven mysteries" of each school. These frightening stories commonly include tales about a piano that suddenly begins playing in the middle of the night and a skeleton in the school science lab that moves on its own. The combination of fear and nostalgia that the films evoke in viewers seems to be the secret formula for their success.

Lurking in Theme Parks
Haunted houses have become major summer attractions at amusement parks. In general, these structures comprise darkened maze-like interiors where ghoulish creatures suddenly appear and loud noises go off unexpectedly, frightening visitors. In 1999 many new elaborately planned haunted houses were opened around the country. One of these, Senritsu no Heisa Byoto (The Haunted Hospital Ward) at Fujikyu-Highland, has been called the "biggest haunted house ever." Spanning 500 meters (550 yards) from entrance to exit and requiring 30 minutes to pass through, it boasts the world's longest walking length; the park is currently applying for recognition in the Guinness Book of Records. This haunted house takes the form of the ruins of a hospital, and visitors walk through eerie sickrooms, operating rooms, and even a morgue. For those who are overcome with fear, emergency exits (which the park calls "chicken ways") located throughout the structure provide a safe escape.

Another attraction is Jigoku Ryokan (Hell's Inn) in Namco's urban Sunshine Namjatown theme park. When visitors enter this high-tech haunted house, they are given a handheld device shaped like a monster crab that is sensitive to infrared rays. As they make their way through the attraction, the device is triggered at various points, startling them. Their pulse rates are measured at the entrance and exit, and from the difference one's "cowardice level" is calculated--complete with a paper readout.

Spine-Tingling Fear
Why are ghost stories so popular in the summer? In Japanese Buddhism, August is the Bon season, when ancestral spirits are said to return for a brief annual visit. This summer tradition creates a perfect backdrop for ghost stories. But the biggest reason for their popularity may be the way in which these stories help people enjoy the evening cool. Most people who become frightened by a good scary movie or story feel a cold chill down their spine. In fact it has been scientifically proven that when humans are frightened, the blood vessels on the surface of the skin contract, reducing both the flow of blood and, as a result, the temperature of the skin. In other words, people can actually cool off by getting the wits frightened out of them. This method of using ghost stories and haunted houses to help overcome the hot summer could be called a modern-day application of ancient Japanese wisdom.

In contemporary, air-conditioned Japan, however, people should no longer need the aid of ghosts to help cool off. Nevertheless, ghost stories have long been part of the Japanese culture, and the hotter the summer, the stronger the craving for a good, chilling scare. Thanks in part to the intense heat, summer 1999 has been an exceptional one for businesses that deal in fright. A bus tour of famous ghostly sites in Tokyo has also been launched and has gained popularity. Japan's ghosts can rest assured that they will be welcomed again next summer.

Trends in JapanEdited by Japan Echo Inc. based on domestic Japanese news sources. Articles presented here are offered for reference purposes and do not necessarily represent the policy or views of the Japanese Government.