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If you want to hear a terrifying ghost story this Halloween, look to Japan. The country has an uncanny tradition of hair-raising tales known as kaidan, which samurai often told to show off their courage. According to tradition, the Edo period warriors would gather at night in a room lit by 100 candles. Each would blow one out after sharing his own ghoulish encounter, until a single flame was left burning. It was up to the last brave soul to snuff it out — if he could.
Unsurprisingly, these ghost stories piqued the artistic imagination, and many printmakers in 18th- and 19th-century Japan translated them into colorful woodblock prints. Some are now on view in the Art Institute of Chicago’s Ghosts and Demons in Japanese Prints, an exhibition not meant for the easily spooked.
Among images of the demon queller Shoki fighting off goblins, the show includes several eerie prints from Katsushika Hokusai’s series One Hundred Ghost Tales (Hyaku Monogatari). One from 1831 depicts the murdered actor Kohada Koheiji pulling down the mosquito netting around the bed of his treacherous wife and her lover. Another shows the gruesome demoness Warai Hannya, who represents the soul of a jealous lover, holding the decapitated head of a child. You can see why even burly samurai warriors might have gotten a little freaked out.
Read on for more creepy tales.
Katsukawa Shunsho’s 1783 print depicts the Buddhist monk Seigen who fell in love with Princess Sakura and later haunted her.
This print by Hokusai depicts a traveling actor murdered by his wife and her lover. He haunts the couple while they are in bed, pulling back the mosquito netting to get a closer look.
Also by Hokusai, this one shows a “yamauba,” a woman whose romantic jealousy turns her into a demon that feeds on infants.
“Oiwa (oiwa-san)” became facially deformed after her husband poisoned her. She died of insanity and then returned to haunt him, often in the form of a paper lantern.
Katsukawa Shunsho’s 1773 print depicts Matsukaze, one of two sisters who tragically fall for the same man, who jilts them both. The heartbroken Matsukaze later sees her lover’s face in a pine tree.
Shoki was a physician who wanted to serve in the Chinese imperial palace, but he could not do so because of his ugliness. After he commited suicide, the Emperor Xuanzong took pity on him and awarded him the title “Doctor of Zhongnanshan.” From then on, Shoki’s spirit protected the emperor from demons. He readies for battle in Okumura Masanobu’s 1725 print.