October Mythology Special: 100 Ghost Stories (Hyakumonogatari Kaidankai)

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High in the mountains, a group of samurai gather, bringing the youngest of their class with them. It is long after the wars between clans have ended, and so the samurai’s grasp at the chance to feel brave, to prove themselves the warriors they once were. The cave they come to is dark, eerie even. Slowly they set up their game. One hundred candles are lit and the group gathers around as the light sends flickering shadows dancing along the walls. One by one they tell a story. A story of horror, of demons and ghosts, those stories meant to scare children or even the strongest among them. Each one tries to outdo the other, pushing their companions to fail, to drop out and admit they are scared. One by one, the candles go out until there is only one remaining. The last storyteller plunges the cave into darkness as the last candle is extinguished. From the shadows, a great black hand descends, reaching for the samurai, scattering their courage as they flee from the cave.

The above story is one of the earliest accounts of the Hyakumonogatari Kaidankai (a gathering of 100 strange stories) or more commonly known as the 100 Candles Game. The story itself doesn’t quite end on that spooky of a note. The black hand is revealed to be the shadow of a spider as one of the samurai takes a swipe at it with his sword. However, the intent and legend of the game live on. It is said that after the last story is told and the last candle extinguished, something will be waiting in the dark for the unlucky storytellers that unwittingly summoned it. The stories acted as a sort of summoning ritual, with the candles thought of as a protection against the supernatural. Once you take away the light, you would be leaving yourself open to those beings that lurk in the shadows.

It was made popular in the Edo period (early 19th century) among the aristocracy, but eventually made it down to the working class and became a major fad all over Japan. In a way, this is similar to the supernatural and seance craze going around the US in the early 1900’s where people would regularly attend seances for entertainment. In Japan, people would gather and try to tell the scariest ghost stories, which resulted in people scouring every corner of the country and recording folklore and the occasional personal experiences to use at these parties. It also resulted in a boom in the printing business as companies capitalized on the need for spooky stories by printing collected volumes for people to prepare themselves for these parties. This essentially created a whole new genre of writing, collected anthologies of horror stories.

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One of the biggest examples of this game appearing in popular culture is Anthony Bourdain’s comic mini-series Hungry Ghosts published by Dark Horse. The whole series is based off this game, taking the structure of telling short and scary stories and turning it into comic form where each story comes alive through a variety of different artists. We see the storytelling room set up, with 100 candles and a mirror laid out for the game’s participants, all chefs and restaurant workers unwittingly called together for a dinner party. One by one, they step into the room and tell their stories, two per issue. It’s a great representation of the history and culture surrounding Hyakumonogatari Kaidankai, and you can read more on Bourdain and Joel Rose’s inspirations in an interview they did with Newsweek.

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In the manga and anime sphere, Hyakumonogatari Kaidankai appears in Chapter 13 and episode 10 of xxxHolic. In this iteration, the four main characters of the manga get together at a shrine during the height of August heat and try to complete four-rounds of storytelling. In Japan, August is the month most closely comparable to our October as it holds the festival of Obon, a time to remember those who have passed away. Yuko recognizes the game for one of its other uses, that of a summoning ritual. She uses the candles as wards and lets the other characters tell their stories until the summoning is complete, drawing the spirits of the dead towards them until they all break through the wards and try to grab Watanuki. The One Hundred Candles game becomes her tool to draw the spirits out to ultimately be exorcised.

Other notable appearances of this game:

 

 

Let me know in the comments if there are any other comics or animes where this appears, and if you’d like to try the game for yourself, you can find instructions here (though be careful you don’t inadvertently summon something by mistake). Also let me know what you thought of the first installment in the October Mythology special. Suggestions for topics will be open all month long.

~~Thanks for Reading!~~


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