Mention Japanese urban legends and you’ll probably think of kuchisake-onna, the slit-mouthed woman who terrifies children by removing her surgical mask to reveal a bloody grin. Or maybe toire no Hanako-san, the ghost-girl in a red skirt who haunts the third stall of the third floor girls’ bathroom in any school. Until last week, though, I’d never heard of the “red room” legend, which seems crafted specifically for the internet age.
As described in a series of flash animation videos produced in the early 2000s, the “red room” is a popup that appears on your screen. You see the words “Do you like ___?” and hear them spoken by a garbled female voice. When you try to close the popup, it just appears again and again, the voice repeating. Gradually that missing word is revealed until you see and hear the full message: “Do you like the red room?”
Next you see a long list of names, with a familiar one at the bottom. These are the victims of the “red room curse.” It’s understood that once you’ve seen the popup and the list, you’ll commit suicide and spray your blood all over the walls of your room. There’s no clicking away, no vampire to stake—once you’ve laid eyes on the list, it’s all over.
The red room legend gained particular notoriety through its association with the Sasebo slashing. In 2004, an 11-year-old girl, known only as “Girl A” in the Japanese media, killed her classmate, 12-year-old Mitarai Satomi, by slashing her neck with a knife. The media reported that Mitarai had apparently made fun of Girl A and called her a “goody-goody” on the internet.
It turns out that Girl A’s number one internet bookmark was a video describing the legend of the red room, which only fueled speculation that the red room truly had the power to coerce people to do evil.
Several years before the Sasebo slashing and before the red room legend became widely known, Kurosawa Kiyoshi’s horror film Kairo (Pulse) imagined a similar setup. This time the popup says “Would you like to meet a ghost?” The victim’s computer screen then cuts to an image of a person sitting at a desk with a bag over their head. The words “help me” are written in red on the wall behind them. If the victim continues to watch, the person on the screen slowly removes the bag, holds a gun to their head, and pulls the trigger. Rooms where such hauntings have taken place are sealed by survivors from the outside with bright red tape.
A few years before Kairo, of course, there was Japan’s most familiar encounter with scary screens: the cursed video cassette of Ringu and the disturbing black-and-white images on the television screen that condemned anyone who saw them to death seven days later. Then the ghosts invaded cell phones in One Missed Call, dooming anyone who heard a mysterious ringtone to violent death. 2002’s Suicide Club even had an element of haunted media, with the hint that an omnipresent pop group were somehow hypnotizing viewers to commit suicide with their televised performances.
Like the urban legends themselves, the media and messages of scary stories have adapted to the times. The social media experiment Take This Lollipop played on our fears of online privacy invasion by constructing a personalized short film for every viewer that featured a stalker invading your Facebook space and sifting through your private information. The recent horror film Unfriended takes place almost entirely within the confines of a Skype group chat screen, trapping both the characters and the viewer within a claustrophobic frame. The characters’ weapons of choice against the digital ghost attacking them are virus scans, hurried Google searches, and desperate attempts to block or unfriend the attacker.
In this context, the red room legend seems to play on multiple anxieties that certainly aren’t unique to modern Japan, but that have taken hold here with particular strength. In Precarious Japan, Anne Allison writes that the country’s high unemployment / underemployment rates are exacerbated by a feeling of muen shakai (relationless society), with more and more people lacking the social safety nets and meaningful human relationships that can often sustain a person through difficult times. Literal and metaphorical homelessness is a real problem—even those who do have a place to live speak of lacking an ibasho (space of healing or refuge), a place where they feel that they can truly relax and be themselves. Some of them seek these spaces out in cat cafes, maid cafes, or anonymous online forums, all of which have proliferated in the past decade.
The red room is frightening not just because of its connection to violence and death, but because it projects an image of horror that’s mundane: a person alone in their room, seated in front of a computer screen, maybe reaching out for some kind of connection and instead being met with something destructive. It even presents itself as friendly at first, simply asking the viewer if they like something. And like the loneliness that’s both fed and assuaged by spending time on social media, it’s inescapable. Click as much as you want, once you’ve seen it you’re done for.
It’s also intriguing how quickly an internet-based urban legend becomes dated. Popup blockers are so common now that insistent popups are hardly the threat they used to be (though just the site of a fake one in the “red room” simulations was, for me, enough to bring back traumatic memories of frantic button-pushing and hurried virus scans). Kairo‘s dial-up modem noises are from another world, as is one character asking another whether he’s “into the internet.” Ringu‘s video cassette might not even make sense to audience members under the age of 18.
Isolation and the fear that comes with it, though, will never be dated. Near the end of the film, one of Kairo‘s ghosts says that hell was “eternal loneliness.” It may be presented via Skype, a VHS, a cell phone screen, or a ghost in the mirror, but the everyday horror of an eternally lonely existence is always lurking.
(Thank you to Frida Spang and Christoffer for sharing the red room story with me, and also for info about Take This Lollipop.)
(originally published at Adventures in (Post) Gradland)