Our 10 favorite horror anime
Ever since I first joined Rely on Horror all the way back in 2011, I have wanted to talk about a subject that is very close to my heart, but falls just outside of our regular coverage: horror anime. We have probably all seen an anime at some point in our life—the Pokémon boom of the 90s was hard to avoid after all—but many don’t realize that there is a plethora of anime on the market that isn’t about pocket or digital monsters, but regular ones that simply want to eat you. Now that Halloween is approaching, I have been given permission to run rampant for a night and share with you ten of the best horror anime that I could find.
I must warn you, however, that most of these shows don’t tackle horror the same way as the video games we all know and love, even those of Japanese make. What I like about anime is that it’s an unconventional medium, and even something as straightforward as a zombie apocalypse story can become incredibly oddball (Highschool of the Dead). With that said, regardless of whether or not you’re a fan of anime already, I hope you can find a few shows on this list that appeal to you.
Class 3-3 of Yomiyama North Middle School is notorious for being cursed ever since a student in that class died in 1972 and everybody pretended it never happened. Students, teachers, and even family members are at risk of dying in horrible ways when the curse is active, similar to what you would expect in a Final Destination movie. When a new transfer student is placed into the cursed class and begins to notice a girl nobody else can seemingly see, the curse breaks loose once again and begins to claim lives. The dwindling number of survivors must now seek a way to stop the deaths and answer the all-important question: who is the cause of this?
What I like about the show is that it’s a mystery that kept playing with my expectations right up to the very end. New elements are thrown in constantly, some simply to set you down the wrong path, so it’s unlikely your first guesses are anywhere near correct. It’s unpredictable and intriguing enough to let you breeze through its twelve episodes.
The show is available for free, legal streaming at Crunchyroll and should be relatively accessible to those new to anime.
This is a name you might have heard before, since Elfen Lied, for a while, was the go-to show that fans used to prove that anime could be mature, and not just for kids. A bit silly, considering that the show, despite being pretty awesome, is also rather juvenile.
In the world of Elfen Lied, there is a race of human-like mutants with horns, called Diclonius, that are locked up and kept from society by an evil research center. One day, one of the strongest of these mutants escapes from captivity, brutalizing everyone in her way with a set of invisible hands that can cut through nearly every material. She is shot in the head, but winds up unconscious on a nearby beach where two cousins find her and take her home; turns out the impact of the shot caused her to develop an alternate personality that is cute and cuddly, as opposed to the murderous psychopath personality we’d just witnessed, which resurfaces occasionally.
Throughout the show, more and more girls join the group, as they try to keep their mutant friend safe from cops, scientists and hired mercenaries. Every once in a while though, the Diclonius walks off to fix the problem herself, such as when her own kind is used against her. It has visceral action, tons of blood, a weird little love triangle, and a glorious, emotional music score. If you like media that pushes the boundaries of good taste, then this one definitely comes recommended, but those who are easily offended might want to skip it.
Based on a story written by Junji Ito, a horror manga artist with a fascination for the sea, Gyo is a disgusting anime movie about deceased fish leaving the sea by means of metal spider legs. Not just tunas and other small fry, but entire sharks are carried out of the sea by these metallic devices to harass the human population, spreading a nauseating aroma of death wherever they go. In the midst of all this is Kaori, a girl on a trip with her friends, who seeks to reunite with her lost fiancée as the chaos breaks out. It’s kind of like a zombie apocalypse movie… but with fish.
What sets Gyo apart is just how nauseating it can be, especially when humans inevitably get taken by the machines as well. Its story leaves a lot to be desired, but as a 70-minutes long gross-out movie, it serves its purpose admirably. I just wish they would animate some of Ito’s shorter stories, such as The Thing That Drifted Ashore, Graveman and Army of One.
Higurashi: When They Cry
Returning to the theme of curses, Higurashi takes place in a remote farming village called “Hinamizawa.” It’s a religious town where the villagers worship a questionable deity called “Oyashiro,” who in the past four years has been considered the cause of a yearly cycle in which one person is killed and another vanished without a trace.
Higurashi uses an arc-based narrative, where every arc is about five to six episodes long and follows a group of friends that live in the village. While these friends love each other dearly, the story contains a number of triggers that will cause one of them to become violent and grow distrustful towards their friends. Fueled by Oyashiro’s influence, this individual will cause mayhem and kill their friends; an event which is then followed by the destruction of the town and the end of the arc. The story then goes back to a few weeks before the incident and plays out again with different triggers, events, and slight modifications to the character’s personalities, in the hope of one day finding a path that doesn’t lead to death.
I will be honest here and admit that this is one of the harder shows to get into, but if you do, then you’re in for quite the emotional and freaky ride. Season 1 is mostly about atmosphere and actual horror, having the cute group of friends start out with anime antics and after-school activities, only to then have them fall apart as the curse works its magic. It also has, by far, the better murder scenes, which are sure to unnerve. Season 2 goes in a different direction and has more character development and action scenes, which may seem like a downgrade, but it makes for some heartbreaking moments and ties the story up nicely.
The first two seasons tell the core story, but fans can enjoy a number of extra chapters, most of which are fan-service. Sadly, Funimation has stopped distributing the show, so copies are expensive and hard to find, unless you live in Australia.
Puella Magi Madoka Magica
Those who grew up watching Sailor Moon may recognize this show as part of the “magical girl” genre, which typically features everyday girls becoming superheroes and fighting against evil. Madoka Magica would probably have been a regular entry into the genre, were it not for writer Gen “The Butcher” Urobuchi, who is notorious for his dark and cynical stories.
Madoka is an average middle school student with a healthy family and school life, but that changes when a weird transfer student by the name of Homura arrives, giving her cryptic warnings about things to come. When Madoka starts hearing a voice later that day, she and a friend suddenly find themselves in a surreal world where weird creatures try to attack them, but they are saved by a magical girl who introduces them to Kyube, a cat-like cosmic entity who offers contracts to young girls: become a magical girl and fight evil for me, and I will fulfill any one wish you have.
Getting a cute costume and magic powers are of course included in the deal, but Madoka Magica likes to emphasize that getting your spine bitten off will kill you no matter how colorful you are. It presents a world where magic exists, but those that can use it will have to cope with fighting an onslaught of horrific, abstract monsters until either their body or sanity collapses in on itself. While the horror factor is mild here at best, consisting mostly of surreal monster design, dark fantasy, and powerful death scenes, the story and visuals make it a recommendation anyway.
The show can be legally streamed for free over at Crunchyroll and Netflix, though apparently not in Europe, and for those short on time, there are two movies that recap the story, and a third that continues it.
Petshop of Horrors
Another show for those looking for a quick bite, this classic from 1999 is a mini-series about a shop that deals in otherworldly and mythological creatures. Run by the enigmatic “Count D,” each of the show’s four episodes tells a 20-minute-long story about a different customer buying a pet, and how this leads them into terrible danger. These stories are tied together by a detective character that tries to form a case against the shop, and save the customers from their purchases.
Its age definitely shows, but it’s also really short and fun, especially to show off as an obscurity. The stories themselves are also decently fun to watch, though I would argue that the final one is a bit odd. The uniqueness of the show is really what sells it and I got my copy for like fifteen dollars at Archonia, so it’s really cheap by anime standards.
This is the freshest addition to the list, as the first season of Tokyo Ghoul concluded mere weeks ago and is scheduled to resume in Q1 2015. It follows a boy named Kaneki who lives in a world where humans exist alongside ghouls. These ghouls are not your average zombies, as they look perfectly human and can blend into society quite well; the only difference between them and humans is that they can only eat other people, and they have special powers to help them hunt.
Kaneki accidentally becomes a hybrid between the two races as the result of organ transplantation and is unwillingly brought into the harsh and unfair world of ghoul society, where his status as a hybrid immediately turns him into a target for various organizations. Of course, he also has to deal with preventing starvation and the moral dilemma that comes with feeding on other people.
The first season ended up mixing cool action scenes with gore and torture, though the animators sadly decided to censor some of the more severe scenes. It portrays a gritty world filled with injustice and the struggles of a good kid caught in the middle of it. For those interested, the show is available on Hulu, but can’t be purchased on DVD or Blu Ray quite yet.
Future Diary/Mirai Nikki
Being chased by psychopaths is a common theme in horror media, but Future Diary asks what it would be like if the psychopath was on your side.
Thrown into a survival game by a dying god, the shy and introverted Yuki Amano is forced to face off against twelve other participants, each armed with a diary that can predict the future in a way relevant to their owners. The craziest of these turns out to be a young girl from his class, Yuno Gasai, who is completely obsessed with Yuki and vows to defend him – whether he wants her to or not.
It makes for a romance story with an interesting dynamic, as Yuki does genuinely fall for Yuno when she is calm and caring, but when hell breaks loose, she becomes frightening, overprotective, and unreasonable—yet, that approach often turns out to be the right one after all. The rest of the participants are all varying flavors of psychotic themselves, with dramatic back-stories to clue you in on how they became what they are. Some anime antics may annoy you from time to time, but it’s a neat show that can be streamed on Hulu, though the actual ending was never brought overseas.
My opinion on Hellsing is a bit biased, as it was one of the first anime intended for adults that I ever watched. The show takes the familiar story of the Dutch vampire hunter, Abraham Van Helsing, and gives it its own spin; rather than an individual, the Hellsing Organisation is a group of protestant vampire hunters operating out of England. Their most powerful trump card is Alucard, a vampire who has allied himself with the organisation’s head family.
Both versions of the show start off with a police agent called Seras Victoria having her life almost saved by Alucard during a battle that leaves her fatally wounded, who decides to best course of action is to make a vampire out of her too. This saves her life, but also forces her to join Hellsing and do all the questionable things that vampires tend to do (drink blood, sleep in a coffin, etc.) As the story continues, Seras, Alucard and their comrades fight off evil vampires, a rival catholic organisation with similar goals and, in the case of Hellsing Ultimate, future nazis.
The original anime aired from 2001 till 2002, so it has aged a bit and is notorious for ending rather abruptly. Hellsing Ultimate is a series of 50-minute episodes that aired from 2006 to 2012 and most people agree its the superior version, though I must say the original has a more serious take on the story, whereas Ultimate has a lot more comedy to it.
Umineko: When They Cry
Serving as a spiritual sequel to Higurashi, Umineko tells the tale of the fabulously rich Ushiromiya family during a meeting on an island, where the various brothers and sisters want to decide how to divide the assets of the dying head of the family. That is when a string of unexplainable murders occur in rapid succession, killing all people on the island. That is when a witch called “Beatrice the Golden” shows up and claims she did it all with magic.
The main character is Battler Ushiromiya; he firmly believes that magic does not exist and thus refuses to believe Beatrice’s explanation. In response, she challenges him to a game where she will restart the events on the island over and over again, until he can find a way to explain the murders with human methods. In true When They Cry fashion, each of these cycles changes the events around slightly and provides different information than the preceding arcs, but unlike Higurashi, the show drops the anime-styled humor a lot faster in order to focus on the strained family relations.
Umineko is a show with a ridiculous amount of style; the mansion shines with a golden radiance, goat demons and pentagrams provide a satanic theme, and even the opening song focuses on loud choirs and Latin. Most of the story plays out like a gruesome whodunnit with an Ace Attorney-like debate game between Beatrice and Battler tying it all together. It can be a bit difficult to follow at times, but it’s reliably intriguing, and atmospheric enough to compensate for that. The show is distributed by NIS America, but can’t be legally streamed from any of the usual websites.
With that, our Halloween dive into anime comes to an end, but if you have some titles to recommend that I missed, then feel free to share them. I would also love to hear it if you want us to do more with anime in the future (episode reviews, manga, industry news, DVD/Blu-ray reviews and so forth). Happy Halloween!