Onryō: the vengeful Japanese spirits that inspired ‘The Ring’ and ‘The Grudge’

Onryō japanese ghosts legends spirits

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.

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Onoe Matsusuke as the Ghost of the Murdered Wife Oiwa, in “A Tale of Horror from the Yotsuya Station on the Tokaido Road” painted by Utagawa Toyokuni I in 1812. Image via The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

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.

Yūrei (Japanese Ghost) from the Hyakkai-Zukan” created by Sawaki Suushi in 1737. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

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.“

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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.

Featured Image via SamkillGhost (left), The Metropolitan Museum of Art (right)

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