When you think of Japanese horror, you may picture a creepy girl wearing a white dress with long black hair covering her face. While this image does have its roots in Japanese folklore—specifically the yurei, or vengeful ghost—it is limiting. Japanese horror has a rich tradition that goes well beyond the popular trope so pervasive in the U.S. J-horror movie fad from a decade ago. You need only look at a shelf of horror manga to see that variety in action.
But like other manga genres, it can be difficult to figure out where to start. Thankfully, there are many kinds of horror manga out there—ranging from action horror to downright disturbing “I can’t go to sleep at night” horror—so I firmly believe there’s something out there for everyone. Here, I’ve collected 12 titles that you should give a try if you’re interested in reading a horror manga, whether you’re new to the genre or even if you’re a bit of scaredy-cat. (No shame in that!) And if you’re well-versed in your horror manga series, maybe you’ll find something new to you.
The Drifting Classroom by Kazuo Umezu
This classic from the early 1970s follows the students of a school that is mysteriously teleported into a post-apocalyptic wasteland. Not a great turn of events, especially when the children discover that this is the future. The Drifting Classroom delves into the ways this stressful environment affects people. Some teachers turn into homicidal maniacs. Others abandon their main responsibility of looking after the kids. Left on their own, the children must band together to survive this wasteland filled with monsters, plagues, and limited resources, in the hopes of finding a way home again.
Domu by Katsuhiro Otomo
Before he penned the seminal science fiction manga Akira, Otomo wrote this single-volume horror manga about an apartment complex plagued by a series of apparent suicides. But when investigators begin looking into the case, they discover something more sinister going on—specifically a senile old man with monstrous psychic powers who has turned the housing complex into his own personal playground. What can regular investigators do against that? Nothing, as it turns out. But that changes when a new family moves into the complex, including a little girl with psychic powers of her own. Domu is currently out of print, but I highly recommend tracking it down if you can. It’s worth the effort.
Parasyte by Hitoshi Iwaaki
Parasyte is an alien invasion story gone awry. In this manga, the aliens are Parasites, worm-like creatures that take over human hosts by entering their brains. Thankfully, this process is not fool-proof. High school student Shinichi wakes up while an alien is attempting to take over his brain. The interruption causes the Parasite to take over his arm instead. Now Shinichi must learn to co-exist with the alien invader in his hand while protecting the human race from other Parasites and keeping the source of his new abilities a secret. Sounds like a tall order, if you ask me.
Higurashi When They Cry by Ryukishi07
Higurashi When They Cry is a Japanese visual novel series. If you’ve played last summer’s hit game, Dream Daddy, then you have an idea about this specific format. The manga adaptation features different artists over the course of the series, which is why I’ve only listed the writer here. Higurashi is a series that’s better when you go in not knowing anything about it, so I’ll keep it brief. Higurashi is about a seemingly peaceful rural village where an annual festival dedicated to a local god takes place. Unfortunately, a murder has occurred every year at this festival. A boy who recently moved to this village finds himself delving into the mystery.
Doubt by Yoshiki Tonogai
Have you ever played Mafia? It’s fun, right? Now imagine if you played a real-life version. Not so fun anymore. Doubt is about a cell phone game called Rabbit Doubt. The rules are simple: the “rabbits” must find the “wolf” (aka the killer) hiding among their group before they’re all dead. The characters of Doubt, however, find themselves playing the real-life version when they’re trapped in a building.
Gantz by Hiroya Oku
The horror genre is filled with stories about what happens after death. You go to some type of afterlife. You get reincarnated. You become a vengeful ghost. In Gantz, you are recruited to hunt down aliens who have infiltrated the earth. That is the opposite of restful. To make matters worse, this existence is structured like a video game where hunters accumulate points based on the number of aliens they kill. Gain enough points and they can obtain a powerful weapon, go back to a normal existence and forget that these alien hunting missions ever happened, or bring back someone who died.
Franken Fran by Katsuhisa Kigitsu
Want more humor in your horror? Franken Fran may be more up your alley, provided you like your humor black and dark. The titular Fran is a girl who was created by a brilliant surgeon. (Get it? Franken Fran?) While the doctor’s name isn’t Frankenstein, the parallels are obvious. Fran follows in her creator’s footsteps, taking on his cases while he’s away, often with gruesome results. If you like your manga episodic with fewer sprawling plots, this is one to check out.
I Am a Hero by Kengo Hanazawa
Wondering where the zombies are? Well, I don’t think zombies are the only notable monster in horror, just like I don’t think yurei are the only significant figures in Japanese horror. Even so, I do think there should be a zombie story on a list of horror manga. I Am a Hero is about a manga assistant named Hideo who considers himself a supporting character in his own life. Kind of depressing, right? His outlook changes in a major way when a disease outbreak causes people to attack and eat other people. What follows is a survival story as Hideo and his trusty shotgun struggle to stay alive.
Ajin: Demi-Human by Tsuina Miura and Gamon Sakurai
Imagine being hit by a truck and then discovering you can’t die. That’s what Kei learns in Ajin. In this manga, immortal people—or Ajin—are wanted by the government because they’re considered dangerous when they mingle with the general population. Alas, the government also wants to experiment on them, often in horrifying ways. As a result, Ajins who have been captured by the government want to escape and, if they succeed, become very determined to seek revenge. You reap what you sow and all that. Kei wants no part of this but finds himself drawn into the conflict anyway when one escaped Ajin named Sato begins a violent campaign to rule Japan.
Happiness by Shuzo Oshimi
If there’s a monster more iconic to the horror genre than zombies, it’s the vampire. In Happiness, a regular high school student is attacked by a vampire girl. The girl, however, doesn’t kill him. She gives him the option of becoming like a vampire like her. Oshimi is a master of creating psychological dread in his works, and Happiness is no different.
Tokyo Ghoul by Sui Ishida
Speaking of young men who are attacked by young women and then proceed to wake up as monsters, Tokyo Ghoul chronicles the secret world of ghouls who live in modern-day Japan. The protagonist, Ken Kaneki, grapples with the opposing sides of his dual nature, sometimes succeeding and sometimes failing. Tokyo Ghoul, and its sequel Tokyo Ghoul: re, has one of the more unpredictable plots you’ll find in manga, so if you want something with more twists and turns, give this one a try.
Uzumaki by Junji Ito
No horror manga list would be complete without the master himself, Junji Ito. In fact, you could make a list dedicated solely to Junji Ito’s works. His entire catalog is vast and brilliant. It was difficult to choose one title, but I ultimately settled on Uzumaki because if there’s one Junji Ito series you must read, it’s this one. Uzumaki tells the story of a town plagued with a supernatural curse involving spirals. If you like the atmospheric terror of Lovecraft’s works (without the rampant racism), Uzumaki is the horror manga for you.
What about you guys? Have you read any of these titles? What do you think is the best horror manga out there? Can’t get enough horror? Check out our recommendations for horror comics. Want to read more manga in other genres? We have some posts about that too.