Surfing the Internet the other day, I stumbled upon an advertisement posing as an article, which posed the question, “What is the Asian secret to strong lush hair?” I did a screen grab, so that you can see what I am talking about without having to click through the link:
As you can probably guess, my first thought upon seeing this ad was to wonder why it did not look like this:
With no major new horror, fantasy, or science fiction films in nationwide release this weekend, I need something to write about, so this seems as good a time as any to answer a question that plagues many Western viewers. The real secret is why so many J-Horror films feature ghostly women with long, black, usually unkempt hair, like THE GRUDGE’s Kayako (seen in the mock-up ad above).
As is sometimes the case with questions like these, there is no simple answer, because the tradition has been around so long that many modern practicioners of horror probably follow it simply because it is a tradition – without necessarily understanding the underlying implications.
Basically, what the cauldron boils down to is that traditional depictions of female ghosts featured unkempt hair because, long ago, Japanese women kept their hair up while alive; it was let down when the body was prepared for a funeral. Hence, a woman with undone, flowing hair looked like a dead woman.
Okay, that explains the look, but in some cases (such as “The Black Hair,” from 1964’s KWAIDAN), the hair almost has a life of its own, or at least some kind of lethal quality is suggested. I don’t have a specific explanation for that, but a Japanese friend informs me that there is a folk belief in the country that hair has an almost magical quality, as if it represents some kind of spiritual essence of the person. For that reason, combs and brushes, which we regard somewhat casually in the West, have more personal significance in Japan, and if you were to find one lying around in that country, you would avoid touching it, for fear of what might “rub off” on you.
Of course, these traditions and folk beliefs are re-imagined and sometimes altered when committed to celluloid. One good example occurs in the Korean film PHONE (2002), which features a fairly typical Asian ghost gaining possession of a very young girl. When her parents take her to a child psychiatrist, the doctor interprets one of the girl’s drawings, of herself with long, black hair, as a wish-fulfillment representation of her sexually mature self. The suggestion, then, is that long hair represents the power of female sexuality, which gives these ghosts – often helpless victims while alive – incredible power after death.
It is tempting to interpret this as a sign of a male patriarchal society fearful of what will happen if demure women escape from their traditional society roles – it’s a classic example of what Freud called “The Return of the Repressed.” This would also help explain why so many Asian horror films focus on female ghosts. Another reason is that in Asian countries, women are considered to be physically weaker but spiritually stronger than men; a female ghost, being all spirit, would naturally be more powerful than one of the opposite gender.
No doubt some will take issues with some of these answers and explanations, but I will remind readers that these explanations are not meant to be definitive. “The Long, Black Hair of Death” is a great image at least partly because it is the cinematic equivalent of a Rorschach inkblot, open to many interpretations. For instance, the fact that the hair so often covers the ghost’s face is not only a good suspense device – sort of an organic version of the Phantom of the Opera’s mask – it also raises questions about identity and personality, as if the individuality of the formerly living person has been partly erased in death, leaving only a faceless spirit behind, one with little connection to its own lost humanity.
In short, this is one of those secrets whose power derives at least partly from its secrecy. We can theorize and guess, but we will never really understand that long black hair, any more than Ishmael will ever fully know the White Whale.
UPDATE (7/25/2012): In his book J-Horror: The Definitive Guide to The Ring, The Grudge and Beyond, author David Kalat adds another kink to this theory. Referring to the seminal Korean ghost film, WHISPERING CORRIDORS (1998), set in a repressive girl’s high school, Kalat points out that the strict dress code of such institutions forbids free-flowing hair. Thus, a woman who “lets her hair down” is a rebel undermining the authoritarian system. These female ghosts, unable to fight back while alive, return defiantly, finally able to turn the tables on the system that destroyed them.