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Views Frightfully Fun: Japan’s Ghosts, Ghouls, and Haunted Houses
Gomi Hirofumi and Japan’s Scariest Haunted Houses

Gomi Hirofumi has been producing haunted house extravaganzas around Japan for 25 years. We interviewed him to find out more about the man who has been scaring audiences out of their wits for a quarter of a century.

Gomi Hirofumi

Gomi HirofumiBorn in Nagano Prefecture in 1957. Haunted house producer and president of the Office Burn company. Has worked on numerous haunted house projects around the country since creating a revolutionary attraction at Tokyo Dome in 1992, which broke attendance records. Many of his haunted houses give visitors a mission and involve them in a story. Has also published several books, including a study of the nature of fear.

Summer: Season of Ghosts

The mention of summer conjures up all kinds of associations for people in Japan. Watermelon. Fireworks. Shaved ice. Mosquito coils. And haunted houses.

The history of the haunted house in Japan dates back to simple entertainments that were popular during the Edo Period (1603–1868). Today no amusement park in the country would be complete without its own haunted house. Most of these are year-round attractions, but it is during the summer “ghost season” that they really come into their own. One reason for the association with this time of year is the traditional belief that ancestors’ spirits return from the realm of the dead during the festival of Obon. Numerous special attractions around the country open for one summer season only, vying to attract visitors with new twists and tricks guaranteed to bring a shiver even during the hottest months of the year.

Gomi Hirofumi is a pioneer—the inventor of an entirely new type of haunted house and probably the first person in Japan whose business card describes him as a “haunted house producer.” For a quarter of a century now he has designed and produced ever more inventive and ambitious haunted house extravaganzas. His success has been instrumental in developing a new role for haunted houses, transforming them from an old-fashioned fairground ride for children to a sophisticated form of entertainment capable of thrilling and terrifying adults as well.

We interviewed Gomi in late May as he got ready for the busiest time of year in the run-up to the summer season. “I’m working on nine separate projects this summer,” he says, totting them up on his fingers. Most are limited-time specials that will run for one season only. One of these projects, Zakuro-onna no ie (The House of the Pomegranate Woman) has already opened inside the home stadium of the Hiroshima Carp baseball team. The event will run till the end of the baseball season in September. Gomi is also working on a permanent attraction due to open soon in Tateyama in Chiba Prefecture.

One of Gomi’s productions is Makai no koibumi (Love Letter from the Demon Realm), a year-round haunted house inside Tokyo Dome City Attractions. From mid-July through late September the haunted house is replaced by a special summertime-only attraction.

The Birth of a Pioneer

One thing makes Gomi’s haunted houses stand out more than anything else: audience participation. Visitors are given a “mission” and take part in a narrative that unfolds as they make their way through the house. And much of the excitement, fear, and tension comes from a cast of live actors who play the ghosts and ghouls that pop up to frustrate visitors in their task.

Gomi’s distinctive take on the haunted house tradition began at the Kōrakuen Amusement Park, the forerunner to today’s Tokyo Dome City Attractions. In 1992 he was a member of the planning and management team for a special summer attraction called Luna Park. With help from Maro Akaji, leader of the world-famous Dairakudakan butō dance and theatrical troupe, he came up with a haunted house project in which dancers painted entirely in white, their shapes grotesquely deformed by costumes and makeup, would suddenly appear and crawl toward visitors as they made their way through the house.

At the time, most amusement park haunted houses were tattered and faded, their popularity waning. The majority were simple rides in which visitors sat in a car and followed a fixed loop through unconvincing displays of stationary dummies and clunky mechanical tricks. Haunted houses that used real actors were all but unknown. Gomi’s recreation of the haunted house was soon one of the park’s biggest attractions, drawing huge crowds to its nighttime openings. Waiting times were sometimes as long as three hours.

A Sequel, Twenty Years Later

Tokyo Dome has since become something of a home base for Gomi, and he has produced a special haunted house there every year since 1992. It was in 1996, with Akanbō jigoku (Baby in Hell), that he first had the idea of giving visitors a mission and having them take the role of characters in a narrative that unfolded over the course of their visit. At the entrance to the haunted house, visitors were handed a baby doll. Their mission was to protect the “baby” from the ghouls that lurked in the darkness and deliver it safely to its mother at the exit.

“We’ve been running events here for 25 years now. People’s expectation levels get higher every time, which makes the challenge more difficult every year. But this summer, I knew from the time I made my pitch last year what I wanted to do. I’ve been looking forward to this for five years, waiting for the girl from Baby in Hell to grow up and come of age. And now the time has come. So this summer we’re doing a sequel. The idea is that the original baby has grown up and now has a child of her own.”

The mission—to escort a baby safely through the spirit world to a waiting mother at the exit—is the same. “But there are quite a few new touches,” Gomi says. “I’ve developed a lot in the 20 years since the original show,” he explains, a disarming smile breaking out over his features.

  • [2016.07.14]
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