Notice to all faculty and students: I am going to kill you.
—A note found in Corpse Party
For whatever reason, I’ve spent a lot of time recently playing video games from Asia, all of which are horror games. I just started playing the Japanese horror game Corpse Party, having just finished up the Korean horror game The Coma, and just before that I played a Japanese horror duo, Danganronpa:Trigger Happy Havoc and Danganronpa 2: Goodbye Despair. Besides being developed in Asia and featuring a lot of gore, the other thing that all of these games have in common is that they all occur in school settings.
As noted, I’ve only just started playing Corpse Party, but it is a game that begins with several high school students being extra-dimensionally transported and trapped in a school called Heavenly Host Elementary, the site of several child abductions and murders in the past. The Coma is about a Korean high school student who enters a coma during his exams and is transported to a shadowy version of his high school where he is stalked by his teacher, a killer wielding an axe. The Danganronpa series concerns a number of exceptional students imprisoned in school settings by a psychotic teddy bear. The bear, Monokuma, directs the students to murder one another in order to “graduate”.
We Americans and Europeans are fond of supernatural home invasion, the haunted house story, as a means of terrifying us by making our horror protagonists vulnerable in the place that they should feel most secure. I am only passingly familiar with Asian horror cinema, but I am aware of movies about “haunted schools” that come from Japan, Korea, and Thailand.
Like the home, a school is a place that most people should think of as being fairly sacrosanct and unlikely to be a place of any particular danger. I suppose that setting a horror story in school also has the added advantage of threatening the most vulnerable members of society, kids, which should evoke some degree of terror from an audience. However, what I think is most interesting about the games that I have been playing is their frequent focus on the anxiety produced by school itself.
Asian schools and parents have a reputation for often placing an extreme pressure on students to perform well, and many a news story has been penned about high suicide rates among high school students that ate then related to parental and scholastic expectations. Indeed, the catalyst for the plot of The Coma is a student who has been doing poorly at his studies entering a coma during an exam period and “waking” into a nightmare where the teacher that he both lusts for and longs to please (by performing better for her academically) wants to eviscerate him with sharp pointy objects. In some sense, this, the main monster in the game, embodies his fears about success and performance. Talk about test anxiety.
Likewise, a central concept to the Danganronpa series is the idea that the students selected to attend Hope’s Peak Academy are the very best at what they do. Thus, Monokuma’s plot to get them to execute one another is an effort to destroy hope by killing off these particular students, the very best hope for the future of the nation of Japan and for the world. The killing game is grounded on the idea of high level competition and exceptional performance, since the only way to escape the game (that is, to “graduate”) is for students to pull off an absolutely perfect murder.
The protagonist of the first Danganronpa is anxious about his status as the Ultimate Lucky Student as opposed to his fellow Ultimate Students, who have been recognized for being things like the Ultimate Swimmer, the Ultimate Martial Artist, the Ultimate Writer, etc. He concerns himself with the fact that he really lacks a skill that can be developed. In the second game, the protagonist suffers amnesia and can’t recall what his Ultimate ability is at all, leaving him afraid that he may not actually be exceptional in any way, the ultimate nightmare.
Additionally, some characters from the games find themselves imprisoned not only in Monokuma’s prison, but also imprisoned by expectation. One character from the second game is the son of an infamous Yakuza, while another from the first game is the Ultimate Affluent Student, heir to an empire of wealth that he will be responsible for in the near future. In both cases, those characters express concerns at one point or another about the pressure of the expectations that their families will require of them. In other words, both games focus on the pressures of expected outcomes and current performance as a source of tension and anxiety for the characters themselves.
I honestly can’t think of any horror games set in high school among American and European games. However, there are games in which high school is the setting or one of the major settings in which the story takes place. Interestingly, games like Bully (a game set in America developed by a team in the UK) and Life is Strange (a game also set in America but developed by a French team) hardly focus on academics at all.
Both of these Western titles are much more intimately concerned with social success and how to fit in than they are with the business of education or educational performance. While neither game is a horror game, both do concern anxiety, though, again, mostly with conquering social anxiety. In Bully, everything that Jimmy Hopkins does in the game is in service to making himself a part of a larger social group. In Life Is Strange, Max Caulfield’s ability to turn back time is probably used more often than not to correct her own social faux pas, how she speaks and, thus, how she is seen by others, than for anything else.
Life is tough for both Jimmy and Max, but their psychological and emotional concerns are not embodied in anywhere near the bloody and gory ways that they are in the other four games that I have mentioned. Even when these anxieties do get physically embodied (as they certainly do in a game called Bully and through the serial killer subplot that runs throughout Life Is Strange), still the physical pushing and pulling remains more representative of social pressure, rather than emblematic of the concerns of intellectual achievement.
These Western games seem to see school as a source of mere melodrama. However, these Asian titles see school as a source of horror, in which only blood sacrifice is a sufficient means of symbolizing the terror of performance failure. High school is not merely “strange” in The Coma and in Danganronpa, it is downright brutal.