My 10 Favorite Spooky Manga

Whether by accident or design, the very first manga I read and liked were horror titles: “The Laughing Target,” Mermaid Saga, Uzumaki. I’m not sure why I find spooky stories so compelling in manga form; I don’t generally read horror novels, and I don’t have the constitution for gory movies. But manga about zombies? Or vampires? Or angry spirits seeking to avenge their own deaths? Well, there’s always room on my bookshelf for another one, even if the stories sometimes feel overly familiar or — in the case of artists like Kanako Inuki and Kazuo Umezu — make no sense at all. Below is a list of my ten favorite scary manga, which run the gamut from psychological horror to straight-up ick.

10. Lament of the Lamb
By Kei Toume • Tokyopop • 7 volumes
Kei Toume puts a novel spin on vampirism, presenting it not as a supernatural phenomenon, but as a symptom of a rare genetic disorder. His brother-and-sister protagonists, Kazuna and Chizuna, begin exhibiting the same tendencies as their deceased mother, losing control at the sight or suggestion of blood, and enduring cravings so intense they induce temporary insanity. Long on atmosphere and short on plot, Lament of the Lamb won’t be every vampire lover’s idea of a rip-snortin’ read; the manga focuses primarily on the intense, unhealthy relationship between Kazuna and Chizuna, and very little on blood-sucking. What makes Lament of the Lamb so deeply unsettling, however, is the strong current of violence and fear that flows just beneath its surface; Kazuna and Chizuna may not be predators, but we see just how much self-control it takes for them to contain their bloodlust.

9. School Zone
By Kanako Inuki • Dark Horse • 3 volumes
In this odd, hallucinatory, and sometimes very funny series, a group of students summon the ghosts of people who died on school grounds, unleashing the spirits’ wrath on their unsuspecting classmates. School Zone is as much a meditation on childhood fears of being ridiculed or ostracized as it is a traditional ghost story; time and again, the students’ own response to the ghosts is often more horrific than the ghosts’ behavior. Inuki’s artwork isn’t as gory or imaginative as some of her peers’, though she demonstrates a genuine flair for comically gruesome thrills: one girl is dragged into a toilet, for example, while another is attacked by a scaly, long-armed creature that lives in the infirmary. Where Inuki really shines, however, is in her ability to capture the primal terror that a dark, empty building can inspire in the most rational person. Even when the story takes one its many silly detours — and yes, there are many WTF?! moments in School Zone — Inuki makes us feel her characters’ vulnerability as they explore the school grounds after hours. —Reviewed at The Manga Critic on 10/29/09

8. Mail
By Housui Yamazaki • Dark Horse • 3 volumes
If you like you horror neat with a twist, Mail might be your kind of manga: a meticulously crafted selection of short, spooky tales in which a handsome exorcist goes toe-to-toe with all sort of ghosts. The stories are a mixture of urban legend and folklore: a GPS system which directs a woman to the scene of a crime, an accident victim who haunts the elevator shaft where he died, a possessed doll. Through precise linework and superb command of light, Hosui Yamakazi transforms everyday situations — returning home from work, logging onto a computer — into extraordinary ones in which shadows and corners harbor very nasty surprises. Best of all, Mail never overstays its welcome; it’s the manga equivalent of the Goldberg Variations, offering a number of short, trenchant variations on a single theme and then wrapping things up neatly.

7. After School Nightmare
By Setona Mizushiro • Go! Comi • 10 volumes
Masahiro, a charming, popular high school student, harbors a terrible secret: though he appears to be male, the lower half of his body is female. At a nurse’s urging, he agrees to visit the school infirmary for a series of dream workshops in which he interacts with classmates who are also grappling with serious problems, from child abuse to pathological insecurity. The students’ collective dreams are vivid and strange, unfolding with the peculiar, fervid logic of a nightmare; buildings flood, stairwells lead to dead ends, and characters undergo sudden, dramatic transformations. Making the dream sequences extra creepy is the way Setona Mizushiro renders the students, choosing an avatar for each that represents their true selves: a black knight, a faceless body, a long, disembodied arm that grasps and slithers. Attentive readers will be rewarded for their patient observation with an unexpected but brilliant twist in the very final pages.

6. The Drifting Classroom
By Kazuo Umezu • VIZ Media • 11 volumes
It’s sorely tempting to compare The Drifting Classroom to The Lord of the Flies, as both stories depict school children creating their own societies in the absence of adult authority. But Kazuo Umezu’s series is more sinister than Golding’s novel, as Classroom‘s youthful survivors have been forced to band together to defend themselves from their former teachers, many of whom have become unhinged at the realization that they may never return to their own time. (Their entire elementary school has slipped through a rift in the space-time continuum, depositing everyone in the distant future.) The story is as relentless as an episode of 24: characters are maimed or killed in every chapter, and almost every line of dialogue is shouted. (Sho’s petty arguments with his mother are delivered as emphatically as his later attempts to alert classmates to the dangers of their new surroundings.) Yet for all its obvious shortcomings, Umezu creates an atmosphere of almost unbearable tension that conveys both the hopelessness of the children’s situation and their terror at being abandoned by the grown-ups. If that isn’t the ultimate ten-year-old’s nightmare, I don’t know what is. —Reviewed at PopCultureShock on 10/15/06

5. Mermaid Saga
By Rumiko Takahashi • VIZ Media • 4 volumes
This four-volume series ran on and off in Shonen Sunday for nearly ten years, chronicling the adventures of Yuta, a fisherman who gained immortality by eating mermaid flesh. Desperate to live an ordinary existence, Yuta spends five hundred years wandering Japan in search of a mermaid who can restore his mortality, crossing paths with criminals, immortals, and “lost souls,” people reduced to a monstrous condition by the poison in mermaid flesh. Though the stories follow a somewhat predictable pattern, Takahashi’s writing is brisk and assured, propelled by snappy dialogue and genuinely creepy scenarios. The imagery is tame by horror standards, but Takahashi doesn’t shy away from the occasional grotesque or gory image, using them to underscore the ugly consequences of seeking immortality. —Reviewed at The Manga Critic on 10/29/09.

4. Dororo
By Osamu Tezuka • Vertical, Inc. • 3 volumes
The next time you feel inclined to criticize your parents, remember Hyakkimaru’s plight: his father pledged Hyakkimaru’s body parts to forty-eight demons in exchange for political power, leaving his son blind, deaf, and limbless at birth. After being rescued and raised by a kindly doctor, Hyakkimaru embarks on a quest to reclaim his eyes and ears, wandering across a war-torn landscape where demons take advantage of the chaos to prey on humans. Some of these demons have obvious antecedents in Japanese folklore (e.g. a nine-tailed fox), while others seem to have sprung full-blown from Tezuka’s imagination (e.g. a shark who paralyzes his victims with sake breath). Though the story ostensibly unfolds during the Warring States period, Dororo wears its allegory lightly, focusing primarily on swordfights, monster lairs, and damsels in distress while using its historical setting to make a few modest points about the corrosive influence of greed, power, and fear. For my money, one of Tezuka’s best series, peroid. —Reviewed at The Manga Critic on 7/27/09

3. Parasyte
By Hitoshi Iwaaki • Del Rey • 8 volumes
Part The Defiant Ones, part Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Parasyte focuses on the symbiotic relationship between Shin, a high school student, and Migi, the alien parasite that takes up residence in his right hand after failing to take control of Shin’s brain. The two go on the lam after another parasite kills Shin’s mother — and makes Shin and Migi look like the culprits. If the human character designs are a little blank and clumsy, the parasites are not; Hitoshi Iwaaki twists the human body into some of the most sinister-looking shapes since Pablo Picasso painted Dora Maar. The violence is graphic but not sadistic, as most of the action takes place between panels, with only the grisly aftermath represented in pictorial form. The best part of Parasyte, however, is the script; Shin and Migi trade barbs with the antagonistic affection of Oscar Madison and Felix Unger, revealing Migi to be smarter and more objective than his human host. Shin and Migi’s banter adds an element of levity to the story, to be sure, but their heated debates about survival are also a sly poke at the idea that human beings’ intellect and emotional attachments place them squarely atop the food chain. —Reviewed at The Manga Critic on 7/2/10

2. The Kurosagi Corpse Delivery Service
By Eiji Otsuki and Housui Yamakazi • Dark Horse • 13+ volumes
The Kurosagi Corpse Delivery Service is comprised of five members: Karatsu, a monk-in-training; Numata, a hipster with an encyclopedic knowledge of pop culture; Yata, an odd duck who communicates primarily through a puppet that he wears on his left hand; Makino, a chatty embalmer; and Sasaki, a hacker with an entrepreneurial streak. Working as a team, the quintet helps the dead cross over, using their myriad talents to locate bodies, speak with ghosts, and resolve the spirits’ unfinished business. The set-up is pure gold, giving the episodic series some structure, while allowing Eiji Otsuka and Housui Yamakazi the flexibility to stage grisly murders and discover corpses in a variety of unexpected places. Think Scooby Doo with less wholesome protagonists and scarier spooks and you have a good idea of what makes this offbeat series tick. And yes, the gang even has their own van. —Reviewed at The Manga Critic on 6/24/09

1. Gyo
By Junji Ito • VIZ Media • 2 volumes
From the standpoint of craft, Uzumaki is a better manga, but it’s hard to top the sheer creepiness factor of Gyo, which taps into one of the most primordial of fears: being eaten! Here’s how I explained its appeal to David Welsh at The Comics Reporter:

Like many other children of the 1970s, Jaws left an indelible impression on me. I wasn’t just terrified of swimming in the ocean, I was reluctant to immerse myself in any standing body of water — swimming pools, bathtubs, ponds — that might conceivably harbor a shark. That irrational fear of encountering a great white somewhere it’s not supposed to be even led me to wonder what it might be like to bump into one on land — could I outrun it?

I’m guessing Junji Ito also suffers from icthyophobia, because Gyo looks like my worst nightmare, a world in which hideously deformed fish crawl out of the sea on mechanical legs and terrorize humans, spreading a disease that quickly jumps species. As horror stories go, many of Gyo‘s details aren’t terribly well explained — how, exactly, the fish acquired legs remains unclear despite talk of military experiments gone awry — but the imaginative artwork appeals on a visceral level. Gyo‘s highpoint comes midway through volume one, when a great white shark chases the hero and his girlfriend through a house, even scaling the stairs (no pun intended) in pursuit of its next meal. The scene is utterly ridiculous, but it works — for a few terrible, thrilling pages I learned the answer to my long-standing question, What would it be like to be chased by a shark on land? In a word: scary.

In other words, this is my worst nightmare:

So those are ten of my favorite spooky manga! What horror manga are on your top-ten list? Inquiring minds want to know!

38 thoughts on “My 10 Favorite Spooky Manga”

  1. jenn says:

    Yay, Kurosagi Corpse Delivery! 🙂

    I’m generally not that big a fan of horror, so I’ve mainly stuck with lite ones like Pet Shop of Horrors. XD Not sure if Shinrei Tantei Yakumo would qualify… it’s a bit like Kurosagi but not as light-hearted, though I haven’t read nearly as much of it so I wouldn’t really know. 🙂

  2. Aaron says:

    The Cain saga by Kaori Yuki is the first that comes to my mind becuese I have always found the Victorian pretensions of moral uprightness while hiding a sordid personal life much more scarier then any monster that and it’s nice to see a Byronic anti-hero in a Manga.

    Also I wish Rumiko Takahashi did more horror I really think her best work is in horror the time she put in with Kazuo Umezu as an assistant served her well

    1. Katherine Dacey says:

      @jenn: I debated including Pet Shop of Horrors, as I also like that series a lot. Guess that leaves the door open for another list next year!

      I hadn’t heard of Shinrei Tantei Yakumo (a.k.a. Psychic Detective Yakumo) before, but after looking it up on Baka-Updates, it certainly sounds like it could work for an American publisher. Tokyopop has done a lot of short series — maybe it could find a home there? (For the curious, here’s a description of the series:

      @Aaron: I liked the first half of Godchild, but thought it went off the rails around volume five or six. I don’t mind an over-the-top story, but I found those later chapters so frantic and disjointed I wasn’t always sure what was happening. I found myself wishing that Kaori Yuki’s editor had reined her in a bit — there was a lot of very creepy, effective stuff in Godchild, but it was kind of overwhelmed by third act silliness.

      And yes, more horror from Takahashi would be great! I think people forget about the horror element in InuYasha (possibly because of the setting?), but it’s one of the things that keeps the series fresh and interesting.

  3. CJ says:

    Gotta say that I still liked Uzumaki more than GYO from a creepy standpoint too actually, I kinda found the premises of GYO almost comedic while Uzumaki just scared the hell out of me, I mean, you could not escape from those spirals no matter where you went! The town literally trapped you! You never look the same way at spirals after Uzumaki, that’s for sure.

    Did you ever play Blood Will Tell for the PS2? It’s Dororo, and aside from some issues with the game like horrible voice acting, platforming issues, and unpopulated villages, you do get to fight 48 bosses, most of which aren’t actually recolors (and even the recolors attack differently) so if you think that reading about some of the demons Hyakkimaru fights is creepy, just wait until you fight them yourself! I also went “wait a minute, how did he survive without that?” every time I got organs like a liver, a heart, a trachea, or a kidney back.

    Man, I really wish that Dark Horse would publish some more Museum of Terror too, I’ve only gotten to read Tomie, but it was still awesome!

    And I forgot how downright creepy Mermaid Saga was until I re-read it a few months ago, awesome stuff. Parasyte is great too (those are the only other ones on that list I’ve read, but some of those interest me, might check them out at some point).

    1. pam says:

      Ditto Here… Uzumaki has ledt an impression it was the first horror manga ive read and im havent stop looking for something like it… theres ibitsu wich i highly recommend…

      1. Katherine Dacey says:

        Thanks for the recommendation, Pam — I’m always on the lookout for new horror titles to try!

  4. Aaron says:

    I just remembered Higurashi now that’s creepy Moe aesthetic mixed with hostal style torture porn and psychosis that’ll give you some sleepless nights.

  5. Jade says:

    Coincidentally, the most recent update of Kingyo Used Books featured Kazuo Umezu. That stuff we were talking about? Yeah you were right, it features a shameless womanizer who is super scared of horror manga! Oh no! Also, Rumiko Takahashi started out as an assistant for Kazuo Umezu, so her ability to pull some creepy imagery out of thin air isn’t completely surprising.

    CJ, you might want to check out the first Tomie movie, it’s pretty cool. The sequels start getting silly though.

  6. Anonymous says:

    In my dream world, Rumiko Takehashi stops work on Rinne RIGHT NOW, and makes a continuation of Mermaid Saga, as well as a book length version of “The Laughing Target”. Also, everyone reads manga, the word “Rad” is used non-ironically, and everyone’s favorite color is orange, but this is all unrelated…
    I think there is actually a specific reason that horror manga is easier to take. Sequential Art is a fairly psychological medium, and horror is a very psychological genre, so they pair up quite nicely.

    1. Katherine Dacey says:

      @CJ: You’re right — Uzumaki is a better manga in just about every sense, but Gyo speaks to an old and deep fear of mine. I was learning how to swim during Jaws‘ original theatrical release in… well, let’s just say the Dark Ages… and the thought of something that big and terrifying lurking in the water really gripped my imagination.

      I haven’t played Blood Will Tell, but it sounds like an essential gaming experience for Tezuka fans!

      @Aaron: I’d almost forgotten about the Higurashi manga! Yes, they are very, very creepy, though the quality varies a lot from arc to arc.

      @Jade: Sounds like I’d better visit the SigIKKI site. I haven’t been there in a while, but the timing of an Umezu-themed Kingyo chapter couldn’t be better!

      @Anonymous: I’m with you on Rin-ne: it isn’t bad, but it feels like something that Takahashi could produce on auto-pilot. I’d love to see her do more short horror stories, or pick up Mermaid Saga again, especially since the series never reached any proper form of closure.

      Good point about horror manga — I hadn’t given it a lot of thought, but you’re right about reading comics. It definitely requires a lot more imagination than, say, watching a film, which makes it a great vehicle for telling stories that mess with the reader’s head.

  7. CJ says:

    Oh, that’s right! Future Diary 8 comes out this week (I know what manga I’m getting with my Borders coupon this weekend!) and that can act like a bit of a horror manga too, mostly because Yuno is so off the wall psychotic that you never know who she’s going to kill next in the name of love, all with those “excited to be killing” look of hers. If there was any one character I’d not want to be in the same room with ever, it’s Yuno Gasai. I think I seriously might feel safer with: one of those creepy fish things from GYO, a parasyte infected human, anyone high with Hinamizawa syndrome, or one of those creepy mermaids from Mermaid Saga. Of all of those options, I’d be the most frightened of being near Yuno and probably have the least chance of survival. The danger of yanderes, sheesh!

  8. jenn says:

    I read Gyo last night; thanks for the great rec! Though I thought it was more like Human Caterpillar (ugh) than Jaws. The oneshots at the back were interesting, too. There’s not much on wiki for Yakumo. XD It’s still pretty new..(only released last year, only 3 volumes in)

    Heh I like PSoH, but it does have its flaws. It -was- one of the manga that helped guide me towards ‘guro is not so bad after all’, though.

    Speaking of excited to be killing, would Kara no Kyoukai’s Shiki fall into that category too, I wonder? XD Though, of course, that’s anime (and light novel, though I never much cared for that) rather than manga.

  9. Anna Frohling says:

    My favorite horror manga would have to be Franken Fran. Imagine if Black Jack was a cute school girl… and all of his patients have horrifically gruesome ends, whether they deserved them or not. Some panels are just vomit-inducing, but so painstakingly rendered they’re beautiful at the same time.
    Here, let me just link you to a panel:

    1. Katherine Dacey says:

      @Jenn: Glad you enjoyed Gyo! Sounds like you’re much more on top of what’s being published in Japan than I am. What is Kara no Kyoukai Shiki?

      @Anna: It’s been a while since I looked at Franken Fran. I’d forgotten how unsettling — and good! — the artwork is. Thanks for the link!

  10. Guy Incognito says:

    Nothing by Hideshi Hino? I’d definitely put The Bug Boy or a couple of other things on my list. Otherwise it’s a pretty decent list.

    1. Katherine Dacey says:

      To be honest, I haven’t read that much Hino — just The Red Snake. I found parts of it very unsettling (in a good way), and other parts kind of silly. Would you recommend The Bug Boy, or is there another Hino title you prefer?

      1. Guy Incognito says:

        Yeah, The Bug Boy is probably one of the top Hino titles I would recommend, partially because it’s the first thing by him that I ever read. I think I responded to it because it seemed sort of like a cross between Kafka’s “The Metamorphosis” and a really, really demented children’s book.

        Oninbo and the Bugs from Hell is another one worth checking out even though I find that one is much more weird and funny than actually scary.

  11. Ckino says:

    I would like to suggest everyone that love horror manga to try Fuan No Tame (Seeds of anxiety)

  12. Claudio Piccinini says:

    Hi, my name is Claudio, I am italian.
    I found your pages while looking for information about the US edition of Kiseiju (Parasyte). I have been struck by this series originality as I saw it around 1990 in the Bologna’s Children Book fair, but unfortunately the italian edition is incomplete.
    So I bought #8 from the Del Rey edition to read the conclusion, but I see I also miss part of #7 (the 8 volumes vs. 10 volumes edition problem), which unfortunately is out of print.
    I am trying to purchase it from some seller online, but it seems difficult to find, at a decent price, taking also into account overseas shipping. Do you have any advice? I would like to consider collecting the whole series later on, but as of now i need #7.

    1. Katherine Dacey says:

      Hi, Claudio! If you’re looking for volume seven of the Del Rey edition of Parasyte, the best place to look is Expect to pay about $40 US for a copy in decent condition. (I’m not sure how much international shipping would cost for a single book; my best guess is about $6-10 US.) Unfortunately, that volume went out of print faster than the other ones, and copies are very scarce.

      1. Claudio Piccinini says:

        Hi Katherine,
        thanks. Of course I tried Amazon first, but I hoped to find a cheaper copy (besides, I don’t like to buy through their sellers’ chain, considered the book is OOP). Shipping prices with Amazon are OK, but 40USD is definitely too much for me, so I am trying other venues, and it’s not easy.
        I couldn’t believed when they started publishing Parasyte here in Italy, I thought it would have remained unpublished as most of the manga production from 1950 to 1990. Although we have had a TV broadcasting of most anime series of the 1970s (I saw Grendizer when it first aired, in primary school), and although Italy has a tradition of publishing comics productions spanning worldwide, we never had systematic editions of japanese comics until the early 1990s.

        Don’t know if it has been published in the US, but a key title, if we want to use genre labels, with “horror” themes is Kitaro (GeGeGe no Kitaro), see here:
        We have had a few issues in italian, and there are influences in the artwork which reveal artist Shigeru Mizuki knew (at least) the production of EC Comics (spanned from the seminal “Crime Does Not Pay” by Lev Gleason Publications) which ultimately led to the creation of the Comics Code.

        1. Katherine Dacey says:

          I figured you’d probably seen the prices on Amazon, but I couldn’t find any cheaper alternatives. Sorry I couldn’t be of more help!

          As for GeGeGe Kitaro, Kodansha published a bilingual edition (English-Japanese) in the early 2000s. Volumes two and three were hard to obtain, but I managed to buy and review a copy of volume one last year: Drawn & Quarterly just announced that they would be publishing the first English edition of Kitaro in 2013. I hadn’t thought about the Mizuki-EC Comics connection, but I will certainly keep my eyes out for it when Kitaro is released next year — thanks for the tip!

          1. Claudio Piccinini says:

            Actually, IIRC, the visual references to EC Comics artwork was already in issue #1, but I think there were more than a series of Kitaro. In Italy we have had published the first issues of the original series, which I think is from 1956.

            An author I consider really relevant is Kazumasa Takayama; we have had the great opportunity to read his “Kisotengaku”, which I think is unpublished in the US. There are horrorific elements in it, but as any other thorough work, genre labels are not relevant here. It is the first comic I have read with serious references to the esoteric aspects of buddhism, and not for the sake of them. The overall development and conclusion is amazing, and I believe pretty uncommon for the japanese thought, which had no metaphysics, and whose form of shintoism is very peculiar (the so-called “shinto of the two ways”, since it combines, in their syncretistic habit, buddhism).
            Of the same author I have read “Chrono War”, of which you have also had the follow-up published in the US. Less thorough but very dramatic, much in the same vein of Parasyte, with genuinely “apocalyptic” elements in it. I use the word in the correct biblical sense (of “ultimate choice”), not the common sense of “end of the world” often adopted in fiction literature.

      1. Katherine Dacey says:

        Thanks for the tip, Rose! Let’s hope that Amazon listing is accurate — it would be great to see Parasyte back in print!

        1. Rose says:

          It was Jason Thompson’s House of a thousand manga this week, so we got into a discussion about the reprints in the forums, just thought I’d pass the discovery along.

          1. Katherine Dacey says:

            That’s great news! Thanks for passing it along — I know a lot of folks will be excited to hear about a new edition.

      2. Claudio Piccinini says:

        Hi Rose, many thanks for the information.
        I just placed an order at an online shop buying #7 and #1 (while I am at it I planned to collect the english edition, since the italian one is incomplete), for which I spent around 28USD. I am having them sent to a friend in the US which will send them to me (to slash a little the shipping costs).
        Since I am a bit fixated on first editions I would prefer to collect the originals, considered the other issues are more or less available. I’ll keep my fingers crossed and see if the order goes through.

        As Katherine says, it’s great to see a reprint, so if I have to recomment Parasyte to some english friend he will be able to have it.

  13. Maty says:

    Just finished Uzumaki based on this thread. Please keep all spirals as far from me as possible.

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