Feminism Horror Pop culture

Sympathy for the ōnryo

I’ve been terrified of Kayako from The Grudge since I was 13. However, over the years I’ve actually started to feel sympathy for her as a character. Trigger warning: domestic violence.

“Klimakostáphobia” (A fear of stairwells)

A few months ago, I returned to my apartment building to find that the lift was out of order and I would have to take the stairs. This bothered me for two reasons: one, I had just had my first exercise session after a long, sofa-indulgent, lockdown-induced break and I was having difficulty walking, let alone climbing six flights of stairs to our apartment, and two, I have a deep and persistent fear of stairwells.

Bird's-eye view of a stairwell spiralling downwards.
The “innocent” stairwell in my apartment building…

This is not the fault of my building’s stairwell; I live in Norway, and stairwells here tend to be very well lit with very clean, white walls. Yet it still gives me the same spine tingles that I used to get from my apartment building when I lived in China, which was not very well lit, nor were its walls clean and white.

So, why do I have such an indiscriminate fear of stairwells?

I watched The Grudge when I was thirteen and have never fully recovered.

While the stairwell phobia was inspired by this scene in particular (click at your peril), I don’t think I’ve ever been as terrified of a character as I am of Saeki Kayako aka the Grudge (with the possible exception of Maleficent from Disney’s Sleeping Beauty when I was four).

Hello darkness, my old friend

It’s not just that she looks terrifying, with her chalk-white skin, long black hair and rolling wide eyes, or that the mere thought of her signature death rattle makes me break out in a cold sweat. What really gets to me about Kayako is the fact that all you have to do is step inside her house and that’s it. It doesn’t matter where you’re from or how good of a person you are – sooner or later, she will get you and there’s nothing you can do but wait.

You are, in the most final sense of the word, screwed.

By Source, Fair use,

Kayako has been the embodiment of all my anxieties for thirteen years – as of the time of writing, that’s just over half my life. Every dark room I’ve walked into, every time I’ve woken up inexplicably in the middle of the night, every power cut or unexplained noise, it’s been Kayako that I’ve glimpsed in my mind’s eye, lurking in the shadows. One time, I was lying in bed and my partner made a noise in his sleep that vaguely resembled her death rattle… I nearly bludgeoned him with the lamp.

It took about five years before I could rewatch The Grudge, and I’ve subsequently built an appreciation for the franchise. I watched the original Japanese film, Ju-On, which I really loved, and the subsequent American and Japanese sequels, which I loved less but still enjoyed to varying degrees. The Grudge also introduced me to The Ring/Ringu, another Japanese horror franchise, and I was more excited than I will ever admit about watching Sadako vs. Kayako (side note: it was cheesy and glorious, and everything I expected from a movie that had the two characters play baseball against each other for promotional material). However, as I got older, I also started to build an appreciation for Kayako not just as an antagonist – but as a character.

(Note: this article mainly refers to the character of Kayako as portrayed in Ju-On (2002) and The Grudge (2004), due to the fact that the various remakes and sequels change the canon a lot, and not necessarily in corresponding ways. Also, the later films aren’t as good. Fight me.)

Will the real monster please stand up?

I love horror movies – and no one is more surprised by that than myself, as I’d definitely start crying if something remotely spooky happened to me in real life. While horror is an extremely broad genre, the horror movies that have left the biggest impact on me are the ones about something deeper than the monster itself.

From Frankenstein to King Kong, monsters are often representations of a much deeper fear or anxiety. According to Jeffrey Jerome Cohen’s seven theses on monster culture, he writes that “The monster’s body quite literally incorporates fear, desire, anxiety and fantasy… giving them life and an uncanny independence. The monstrous body is pure culture” (1996:4). Or, in the words of video essayist and pop culture critic Lindsay Ellis, “The folkloric monster is always a sort of embodiment of cultural anxieties” (2:12 – 2:16).

A perfect example of this is The Babadook, a 2014 Australian horror film about a single mother and her son who become increasingly targeted by the titular monster after reading a children’s book (the word “babadook” is an anagram for “a bad book”). It’s an extremely well-made movie with excellent acting and a chilling concept – but what gives it its extra weight is that it’s not actually about the monster at all; it’s about grief, and how the mother’s grief over losing her husband affects her relationship with her son.

“Grief is a part of us, living with loss is a part of us. We do not “get over it.” Grief, like the Babadook, never leaves. Terrible loss may never be surmounted. But it needn’t warp us, destroy us, kill us. You can accord it a place, and then – hopefully – like Amelia and Sam find a way to get on with your life.”

Tim Teeman, The Daily Beast

Kayako shares a lot of similarities with the Babadook and not just in the sense that they both scuttle around the place making horrible, guttural noises like the world’s worst, over-sized beetles. Like the Babadook, Kayako also embodies a deeper cultural issue – although, unlike grief, the issue is not one that we should learn to accept and “accord a place” in our lives.

Bearing a grudge

The original Grudge movie, Ju-on was directed by Shimizu Takashi and released in 2002. Its American remake, The Grudge, was also directed by Shimizu and released in 2004. Both movies centre on the various people who enter a haunted house, and their subsequent demise at the hands of the ghosts who remain there. While Kayako is the main antagonist and source of the curse, her son Toshio and her husband Takeo also play a part in the deaths.

Despite her ruthlessness in death, Kayako’s life was rather tragic. She fell in love with her son’s teacher, an ex-classmate named Kobayashi in Ju-On and an American named Peter Kirk in The Grudge. Takeo found out after reading her diary, became paranoid that she was having an affair and that Toshio wasn’t his son, and violently killed her in a fit of rage before stashing her body in the attic. In Ju-On, Toshio and Takeo are Kayako’s first victims, while in The Grudge, Takeo also kills Toshio by drowning him in the bathtub, before hanging himself in Toshio’s bedroom.

Shimizu has confirmed that he was influenced by the rise of domestic violence in Japan at the time: “Kayako’s victims, who often disappear completely, point to the hidden nature of domestic violence” (Pulliam & Foncesca: 2016, 185). This influence is not only evident in the fact that Kayako is killed by her husband, but in her physical attributes as a spirit. Her limbs creak and bend strangely because of Takeo’s violent attack on her. She crawls towards her victims because she tried to desperately crawl away from Takeo. She has a death rattle because it was the only noise she could make after Takeo had snapped her neck but she hadn’t yet died.

When I watched the movie as a thirteen-year-old, this was all just part of the general horror of her character. Now that I’m older and have a better understanding and awareness of issues like domestic abuse, there’s no way I can ignore the fact that Kayako is much more of a sympathetic character than any vengeful, murderous, curse-spawning ghost has any right being.

I’m not the only one who has sympathy for Kayako either. In a behind-the-scenes feature of The Grudge 2, Fuji Takako, the actress who originally played Kayako, talked about her own changing feelings on the character:

“At first, I only expressed anger, but then Shimizu–san asked me to release more feelings. Kayako is crying out for help, she is very sad. By showing these different feelings, Kayako became more like a human being. Now I try to show a mix of feelings, not just anger when I play Kayako. Her spirit is not at rest yet, that’s why she’s a ghost. She had an unrequited life. She wants to be loved, just like Toshio. Takeo loved Kayako. She wants to be heard; she wants to be understood.”

Fuji Takako, (3:26 – 4:20)

A bad hair day

The folklore behind The Grudge is not entirely separate from narratives of power and abuse either, particularly in relation to marriages. Kayako is an onryō, a wrathful ghost motivated by revenge. In a lot of stories, the onryō are the spirits of dead wives who were betrayed in some way by their husbands, either in life or after their death, and return to wreak havoc on the husband or his new wife, or both.

A lot of Kayako’s appearance is heavily influenced by descriptions of onryō, namely the deathly pale skin and wild, messy hair. She shares these descriptors with Sadako, the onryō-inspired antagonist from The Ring, whose long hair covers her face completely. In an article for The Telegraph, Robbie Collins notes that their unkempt, loose hair is particularly significant, as women would traditionally have been to keep their hair tidy and out of their faces: “The opposite signalled female potency unleashed, and overturning of the (male-dominated) natural order” (2014).

However, as tempting as it is to believe that people feared the onryō because they defied the social expectations of what women should be (aka silent, beautiful and definitely not out to seek murderous revenge on their husbands and their new wives), Valerie Wee argues that it was the men in these stories who had broken with societal norms by failing to fulfil their duty as husbands. The purpose of the onryō is to dispose those who challenge the system, not challenge the system themselves. (2019).

By Utagawa Kuniyoshi – English Wikipedia, Public Domain,

In folklore, the onryō disappear once they have enacted their revenge. Kayako doesn’t disappear though, and arguably her relevancy to current society hasn’t disappeared either. While both Ju-On and The Grudge have their cultural roots in Japan and the early 2000s, domestic abuse is just as significant an issue today – and not just in Japan.

Even the Nordic countries, which boast the highest levels of gender equality in the world, are not free of domestic violence and have higher levels of intimate partner violence against women than other European countries (a phenomenon known as “the Nordic paradox”).

Furthermore, since the start of the covid-19 pandemic, there has been a global increase in violence against women in connection with the lockdowns, referred to by the UN as “a shadow pandemic”. This violence has particularly taken the form of domestic abuse.

Clearly, the cultural anxieties that helped birth Kayako are still giving her life.

Gazing into the abyss

I don’t mean to claim that after thirteen years I can now happily watch The Grudge movies alone in the dark without needing to follow up with at least five hours of cartoons – it wouldn’t do me any good if it was, as I’m sure that any friends reading this would be more than happy to call my bluff. Nor is this an attempt to excuse or justify Kayako’s actions: she’s absolutely the antagonist of the franchise, and the vast majority of victims do nothing to “deserve” their death except for potentially wear their shoes inside her house (which, you know, if that’s the case then fair play to Kayako really).

However, the thought of Kayako no longer fills me with the paralysing, goosebump-inducing terror that it used to (even though she doesn’t seem to appreciate this, given that I had dream where she was chasing me just last night).

I’m fortunate enough to not have experienced domestic abuse and I can’t begin to imagine how those who have must feel. But I’m sure that most people can understand what it’s like to be made to feel powerless, be it in a relationship, in the workplace, or in society in general. While there’s no one correct way to feel in these situations, in my own experience, feeling powerless did make me furious – not just at the person responsible but at everyone vaguely associated with them. I can’t understand Kayako’s drive for revenge, yet it’s not completely foreign and unfathomable to me either.

In short: I gained a lot more sympathy for Saeki Kayako when I realised that the real horror was what had created her in the first place.

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