Scariest Scene in Pulse

(Welcome to Scariest Scene Ever, a column dedicated to the most pulse-pounding moments in horror. In this edition: Pulse proves you don’t need a jump scare to induce goosebumps.)

20 years after its initial Japanese release, Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s supernatural chiller Pulse (Kairo) hits closer to home than ever. The similarities between the film’s events and the global pandemic lends a prescient quality to Pulse that reads differently today. Kurosawa’s unsettling ghost story draws basis from a terrifying concept; a heavily overcrowded afterlife caused the dead to spill over into the world of the living. It spreads like a viral infection, plunging the globe into despair and death through the very thing meant to connect us – technology.

Everything about Pulse set it apart from the J-horror craze that swept through horror at the turn of the century. Instead of long-haired ghosts in white or jump-scare laden curses, Kurosawa opts for a slow-burn atmosphere that coils the unease tighter at every turn through the power of suggestion. Never is that more evident that the movie’s scariest scene that shows the ghostly invasion in action. Kurosawa transforms the seemingly mundane into pure nightmare fuel with the surreal appearance of a haunted figure.

The Setup

Written and directed by Kiyoshi Kurosawa, Pulse revolves around an apocalyptic event that spreads through Tokyo. Told in two halves, two varying groups of people discover that ghosts are invading through the internet. The first group sees Michi (Kumiko Aso) and her friends struggling with the haunting aftermath of their friend’s suicide. The second follows college student Ryosuke (Haruhiko Kato) on a quest to solve why his computer connects to disturbing videos on its own accord. The narratives dovetail as humanity faces extinction.

The Story So Far

After the shocking suicide of Taguchi (Kenji Mizahashi), his colleagues Michi (Kumiko Asô), Junko (Kurume Arisaka), and Toshio (Masatoshi Matsuo) seek answers for the cause. It leads them to the discovery of Taguchi’s internet addiction and the existence of “Forbidden Rooms,” haunted spaces marked by red tape outlining the doors and windows. The trio begin to experience strange phenomena, including foreboding sounds and visions.

Toshio is working alone at the plant nursery when he receives a phone call of someone repeatedly asking for help. The caller won’t provide their identity, but an image of Taguchi pops up on the screen. One empty bus ride later, Toshio arrives at Taguchi’s apartment and finds a grimy outline of his deceased friend’s body on the walls and a printout that explains the “Forbidden Room.” He then sees Taguchi standing in the room where the stain was, but the image turns back to dusty ash when Toshio speaks. Unnerved, Toshio leaves the apartment, only to find another apartment a short distance away with a red tape lined front door. Curiosity gets the better of him.

The Scene

Toshio peels back the tape and enters the apartment. The place is dark and empty. Toshio heads downstairs and walks all the way to the end of the room, where the wall is covered in tape behind the couch. Creepy music kicks in as the camera pans behind him, facing the darkened corner beneath the stairs. From the pitch-black shadows, a silhouette of a woman in a dress emerges. As if moving through water, the woman walks toward him and stumbles out of step in an unnatural manner. Toshio, cornered and afraid, attempts to hide behind the couch, but the woman slowly crawls over it and peers down at him.

This spine-tingling moment arrives hot on the heels of the scare inside Taguchi’s apartment. Both Toshio and the viewer are already on edge and trying to catch their breath. The eerie music, reminiscent of ghostly howls, combined with the stark red colored tape against the neutral stones of the apartment serves as a visceral warning of doom.

In this case, however, this utterly chilling moment is less about the compounded scare and more about the way Kurosawa stages it. The barren, concrete setting with dim lighting feels otherworldly; nothing about this place suggests a standard apartment. It’s as though Toshio stepped into a monochrome hellscape. The banshee-like music only heightens the intensity of the visuals.

Toshio ventures deeper into the apartment until he reaches a dead end. He’s unwittingly left himself vulnerable and trapped. It’s then that Kurosawa keeps the camera focused on what initially appears to be the empty background, causing the viewer to scan for a focal point. That’s when the woman appears in the frame, slowly becoming more pronounced as she grows more corporeal. The woman doesn’t look like your typical horror movie ghost; she looks like an average, living woman in dress and mannerisms. Until she walks, that is. Her conventional look contrasts the ethereal way she moves, triggering the uncanny valley to unsettle.

Perhaps most interestingly, it’s only when the woman stumbles that we see her face at all. Outside of this dip, the woman remains obscured by shadows. She fades in and out of the darkness as Toshio scrambles backwards in panic. Toshio must go forward through the space occupied by this ghost if he hopes to escape, but she can come from anywhere. Knowing that this woman is drawn to him, he hides. Through his perspective, the camera pans back and forth beneath the couch, searching for her. Her hands emerge above him just before revealing her face in full, signaling Toshio’s impending doom.

This entire scene is devoid of jump scares, despite multiple opportunities to implement one. Kurosawa instead creates one of the most terrifying scenes in horror through melancholic dread. It’s a vampiric feed off of hope.

The drab color palette sets the mood, creating a soulless atmosphere. The red tape pops against the dingy gray and shadowed walls. The rigid geometric design of the set further exacerbates the coldness. It’s further compounded by the frightening sound design. All of which trigger fear when the seemingly normal woman first appears.

Pulse’s ghosts retain a very human quality, and choice goes a long way in contributing to the depressing tone. These are restless spirits unleashed through the internet, trying to regain some semblance of the life they lost. Kurosawa finds a visually distinct means of blurring their world into ours, delivering a viscerally haunting and unconventional experience in the process.

Through this scene, Kurosawa proves that you don’t have to rely on genre tropes or jump scares to unsettle. Sound design, camerawork, lighting, and unique movement combine to showcase the disconcerting power of suggestion. It’s not just the inhuman quality about an otherwise average looking woman that terrifies here, but the implications behind why she’s there, locked away in a Forbidden Room. It gets under your skin and lingers, long after her face fades back into the shadows.

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