If there’s one ghost who has taken on multiple incarnations in pop culture, it’s the girl from “The Ring.”
The character, who seems rarely referred to by name — it’s Sadako Yamamura, for reference — has lingered in our collective consciousness since the original Japanese film was first released in 1998, haunting horror movie fans for more than 20 years. But the inspiration for Sadako has been part of the Japanese imagination for a lot longer.
Sadako’s appearance is a direct reference to Japanese legends. The ghosts in these stories are often characterized by long black hair obscuring their faces. They typically have pale skin and wear white clothing, which references the traditional Japanese burial kimono. These ghosts also often lack feet and hands, floating just above the ground. The general term for these ghosts is yūrei, but Sadako is specifically an onryō, a category of vengeful spirits.
The Origins of onryō
Legends about the onryō trace back to the eighth century. As vengeful spirits, the onryō not only target specific people who wronged them in their search for retribution, but are also said to cause large-scale destruction, including natural disasters such as earthquakes and tsunamis. Although onryō as a term does not refer specifically to a female ghost, many of the most famous depictions — both in older legends and pop culture — are women and girls, often wronged wives or young children.
Onryō have appeared in Japanese literature, theater and, of course, film. It was during the Edo period, when Kabuki theater became popular, that the portrayal of these ghosts was developed, including the signature details of their hairstyle and clothing. This look has proven consistently terrifying across cultures and time periods, making the onryō one of the most distinguishable ghost legends, even if many people don’t know their exact origins.
Besides appearing in “The Ring,” onryō can also be found in the similarly popular “Grudge” franchise, as well as the J-horror films “Kairo” and “Dark Water.“
An easily identifiable and undeniably spooky fan-favorite Halloween costume, Sadako and the onryō who inspired her continue to provoke the fear that any wrathful ghost should.
Many people might not know this, but NextShark is a small media startup that runs on no outside funding or loans, and with no paywalls or subscription fees, we rely on help from our community and readers like you.
Everything you see today is built by Asians, for Asians to help amplify our voices globally and support each other. However, we still face many difficulties in our industry because of our commitment to accessible and informational Asian news coverage.
We hope you consider making a contribution to NextShark so we can continue to provide you quality journalism that informs, educates, and inspires the Asian community. Even a $1 contribution goes a long way. Thank you for supporting NextShark and our community.