Unconventional Horror Anime That'll Haunt Your Mind
Sometimes, the anime that'll scare you the most don't feature rolling heads or squirting blood, but psychological stuff, the stuff that quietly works its way into your head and lays eggs. Rather than explicitly showing us visuals of something extreme and frightening, these scary anime tell a story or evoke an atmosphere that can be just as, or even more effective at giving you the chills.
MAL Ranked 1286, Rated 7.60
Guardian Enzo: Ghost Hound is a product of my favorite anime year ever, 2007 - and was part of one of the greatest years a studio (Production I.G.) ever had. This is not a conventional horror series by any means, but for me it’s among the scariest anime I ever watched. Why? If I were to pick one word it would be “unsettling”. Ghost Hound has a way of creeping inside your head and laying eggs - it’s a very primordial kind of unease this series generates, because it plays on our most fundamental fears and insecurities.
Ghost Hound’s staff list is a roster of outstanding anime creatives, undoubtedly the most notable of which is its creator Shirow Masamune (who also created the Ghost in the Shell franchise). The most remarkable aspect of the production for me, though, is the sound design - without exaggeration the best of any anime I’ve seen in terms of using sound as a device to impact the audience. Watch Ghost Hound with headphones, let yourself be absorbed by the story, and don’t fight against where it’s trying to take you and you’ll be rewarded by one of the most powerful anime experiences of your life..
HoyvinGlavin64: This was an interesting show, and the kind of show I wish I enjoyed more than I actually did. Not sure why, it just didn’t keep me as hooked as I thought it would when I started watching it. The sound design is incredible, though.
Littoface: Every time I come back to this, I wonder what made me put it on my to-watch list in the first place. It's not something I should be interested in, by all accounts. But something about it draws me to it… I guess its unsettling power extends beyond even the actual show. I'm hoping I actually enjoy it when I come around to it. "Unsettling" sounds great.
Jankenpopp: Isolation is the common denominator in horror, and nowhere is it more apparent than in rural villages. As the world grows more interconnected, it’s easier and easier to be afraid to be alone with something that hates you.
MAL Ranked #291, Rated 8.22
HoyvinGlavin64: It’s easy for me to think of anime with individual scary scenes (Tetsuo’s transformation in Akira, the opening scene of Fullmetal Alchemist, Unit 01 going berserk in Evangelion, etc.). In contrast, the list of anime that successfully sustain a sense of horror throughout is much shorter. And at the top of that list, the first thing that comes to mind as the scariest overall anime, is Satoshi Kon’s first feature Perfect Blue.
I’m not sure I understand all the logic of everything that happens in Perfect Blue, but I’m not sure I’d want to. The film’s confusing-ness is part of what makes it so chilling, putting the viewer in the headspace of a woman who’s not even sure who she is anymore. That it turns out some of the most disturbing scenes aren’t “real” doesn’t lessen their horror. Note this is the only non-hentai anime to have been officially rated NC-17 by the MPAA, which called it “The most violent animated film we have ever seen.” I’m not sure if it is the most violent animated film ever, but it’s certainly one of the most psychologically impactful in its violence, give or take an End of EVA or Belladonna of Sadness.
(Also, it has the scariest looking otaku villain ever)
For similarly scary-weird but more easily digestible Kon surrealism, I highly recommend the TV series Paranoia Agent, which balances its horror with more of a sense of humor. That both Perfect Blue and Paranoia Agent are out of print is some sort of crime, and Criterion better get to work on some special editions ASAP.
Enzo: Can’t go wrong citing Kon Satoshi in this context, that’s for sure. I actually find Paranoia Agent both the better and more frightening of the two works you cite - it’s a more mature Kon, and it’s fascinating to see him apply his genius to the series format. The thing with Paranoia Agent is that Kon never lets you feel sure exactly what you’re seeing - what’s real and what isn’t. There are clunky moments as Kon transitions to the format, but on the whole it’s a fascinating and disturbing series.
HG64: I agree that Paranoia Agent is better overall, though found Perfect Blue just a bit scarier.
Littoface: Paranoia Agent was one of the first anime I watched, and it got me hooked on Kon. I have yet to get to Perfect Blue, but it sounds like Kon doing what he does best -- reaching deep into people's minds, and twisting.
Jankenpopp: Earlier this year at MomoCon there was a panel about anime as literary art, and one of the panelists was a grad student who did a presentation on Black Swan and Perfect Blue. There’s a lot of parallels between the two, and I highly recommend Black Swan to anyone who’s seen this film. They’re disturbing and terrifying works of art.
MAL Ranked #37, Rated 8.74
Littoface: Are you a good person? Are you sure about that? You might have to rethink your idea of "good" and "evil" -- and the very nature of humanity -- after Monster gets through with you.
Monster is not like other horror anime. It's slow paced and deliberate, taking its time to unravel. It's best to watch one or two episodes at a time, then digest. The anime takes you through the character development of a highly esteemed Japanese surgeon in post WWII Germany, after he makes a life-altering decision. The unusual setting, and amazing depth of the characters, sets the stage for some excellent portrayals of human beings doing what they do best: growing, failing, and being flawed.
Is there such a thing as a good person or a bad person? Why do good people do bad things, and why do bad things happen to good people? There are no answers, only questions presented in a dark and brooding way. Monster shows us the power of betrayal, of emotions, and of motivations. Even the "monster" in the anime has many layers to peel away. And underneath it all, we end up with a disturbing, often stomach-churning anime. Monster is soul-crushing and leaves you with the distinct feeling that real monsters only exist inside ourselves.
Enzo: Certainly, one of the most disturbing manga/anime of all-time. It demands your full attention and your full introspection, and watching it isn’t an undertaking to be taken lightly.
HG64: The manga’s genius. The anime, from what I’ve seen, is basically frame for frame the manga, so still a great story but I’d rather just read the manga. I’m seriously disappointed HBO passed on Guillermo del Toro’s pitch for a live-action adaptation, as few manga would make more sense for serious live-action TV.
Jankenpopp: Yeah, Guillermo del Toro’s had some frustrating setbacks lately. Anyone else dream of Jamie Campbell Bower as Johan in the alternate universe where HBO picked this up?
MAL Ranked #93, Rated 8.52
Jankenpopp: The second cruelest thing you can do to an anime newbie is show them the opening and tell them it’s like Sailor Moon, but cuter. Fans of Sailor Moon will even point out that its first episode is scarier than Madoka’s. (Morga, anyone?) So they’ll watch it. They’ll meet the cute animal mascot, the gentle senpai, the mysterious transfer student. For two episodes, it’s your everyday magical girl show.
Then episode 3 rolls around, and so do the heads. I like to think that sudden death doesn’t in itself make a show scary—it’s just a symptom of the world the characters live in. The world of Madoka is a steel-toed boot to the head for your childhood; an existential hell for those who deserve it least, all in the name of preventing an infinitely worse hell. Bad things happen to good people, sacrifices are rendered meaningless...and somehow, love keeps us going. But even then, love can just as easily destroy the world as save it.
Fun fact: The show was nicknamed “Chidamari Sketch” (pool-of-blood sketch) by fans when the notoriously dark Gen Urobuchi was revealed to be writing it. Urobuchi responded by telling outlandish lies about how uplifting and cute it would be.
The cruelest thing, of course, is showing them Wonder Momo.
Enzo: Yes, that was certainly the moment when the shit became real with this series. I don’t quite buy into the hype of Madoka Magica as an out and out classic, but it certainly was influential (it spawned actual religions, for goodness sake) and may represent Gen Urobuchi’s most ambitious work in anime. It’s also nice to see Shinbou not totally overwhelm a story with his signature grandstanding.
HG64: I love Madoka but didn’t know it spawned religions. Which raises the question of who would you rather worship: Madokami, Haruhi, or Lain?
Littoface: I've read some pretty interesting theories and interpretations of the show that are pretty convincing. I'd go with a Madoka religion any day, though. The other two are way too demanding.
About the Writers
HoyvinGlavin64: I’ve been a fan of anime since Spirited Away blew my mind 14 years ago. I’ve written film and anime criticism for various websites and make AMVs and short films. I somehow convinced Neil Gaiman to act in my senior project, “The Making of a Superhero Musical.” You can keep up with my current projects on Twitter.
Littoface: I'm a freelance writer, a gamer, and a lover of all things obscure. I'd have to distort time and space to get through my entire anime to-watch list within this lifetime.
Guardian Enzo: That guy with the blog who likes the anime nobody else watches. Also cats, Leicester City F.C. and single malt scotch.
Jankenpopp: Texas-born, Atlanta-bred actor and writer. When I’m not selling boxes or writing about underwhelming LN adaptations, I’m burning myself alive playing Pokémon Go. My Twitter has the full story!