Photo/Illutration Monsters featured in a haunted mansion at Tokyo's Toshimaen amusement park (Asahi Shimbun file photo)

“I would like to discuss stories about monsters as seriously as possible and as much as I like.”

With this intriguing sentence, Kunio Yanagita (1875-1962), a pioneer of Japanese folklore studies, started his “Yokai Dangi” (Discussions of monsters), a collection of essays.

I share a similar feeling today. Rumor has it that ghosts are having a hard time these days. We are in a new era, now that we all have to live with the new coronavirus. Haunted houses are no exception.

Guidelines for preventing infections at amusement parks and other entertainment facilities call for ghosts to keep as much distance as possible from human visitors and avoid raising their voices.

Those rules render haunted houses decidedly not scary for anyone. Kenta Iwana, 25, racked his brain to find a way to keep them a worthwhile attraction.

The haunted house producer came up with a drive-in version to avoid the “sanmitsu” situation, where many people come in close contact with each other in a confined environment. Visitors drive in and face terrifying ghosts while staying in their cars.

When the attraction was launched in Tokyo in early July, it became an instant hit. Visitors buzzed about the sensation as if they had strayed into the world of a horror movie, and the operator was flooded with booking requests.

It may seem odd to see a haunted attraction become popular in these virus-haunted days. But there is a theory that social anxiety often creates a horror boom.

“Many people feel fearful and concerned about death,” Iwana says. “That seems to make them interested in scary things.”

Indeed, a haunted house allows visitors to simulate stepping into the world of death.

What is death? What are ghosts? When I ruminate on these esoteric questions and come up with no answers, I start to feel as if a ghost is confronting me with the question of how I am living my own life now.

July 26 is designated Ghost Day. It marks the day when the famous Kabuki play “Tokaido Yotsuya Kaidan” (Ghost Story of Yotsuya in Tokaido) was first staged. It features Oiwa, a disfigured and revengeful ghost of an abandoned wife.

In an Asahi Shimbun survey four years ago, 49 percent of respondents said they believed in the existence of “spirits.” The reason cited by the largest number of those respondents was that “there is no reason to deny them.”

--The Asahi Shimbun, July 26

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Vox Populi, Vox Dei is a popular daily column that takes up a wide range of topics, including culture, arts and social trends and developments. Written by veteran Asahi Shimbun writers, the column provides useful perspectives on and insights into contemporary Japan and its culture.