Is a monster frightening because it can physically kill you or is it more terrifying when it robs you of your individual humanity? I’ve often wondered what makes a monster truly terrifying to me. Some monsters are relentless stalkers, hunting their prey the way a werewolf or vampire might. Others are relentless forces of nature in the vein of Godzilla and other kaiju who wipe out entire cities like volcanic eruptions before disappearing into the nothing. But these are monsters that can be overcome, triumphed from in their passing by the indomitable human spirit. But what about a monster that robs us of who and what we are at our core, that absorbs us into its very being until there is nothing left of who or what we were. There are lots of examples of hive minds and collectivist dystopian societies but the monster I’m talking about is more personal and unassuming.
Tomie is quite possibly the most perfect horror story I've ever read. Written by Junji Ito the manga series is the ongoing story of a creature that mimics a beautiful teenage girl who exudes a supernatural control over men that drives them so mad with passion that they eventually murder her and dismember her. Each time, however, the individual pieces regenerate and regrow into new Tomies, all of whom possess this ability to drive men to madness. It’s an ongoing cycle of lust, mania, murder and rebirth as she spores and spawns like a mushroom. The she creatures thrive on the genuflect and adoration of these men, feeding their own vanity and egotism while capriciously tormenting anyone and everyone they encounter. In many instances, the Tomie feeds on the flesh of hapless men and women alike and even uses their bodies to generate new Tomies. The idea of this creature in literature is absolutely horrifying on so many levels.
Tomie represents the perfect embodiment of malignant, virulent evil. Everything we fear about the unknown, about an inescapable, unstoppable force literally and figuratively consuming everything about who and what we are thrives in her very nature. She also represents those same fears on a societal level. The customs and niceties of society, the traits and unspoken vows that keep order and organization to our lives are swallowed by the vainglorious obsession with physical and social perfection. Ego and self image over true substance is personified in who she is. The idea of losing our individuality, being completely consumed into a homogenous and uniform mold cries out against every last fiber of human independence. Who we identify as within society is arguably what keeps that society alive and thriving. The evolution of our culture depends on individuals continuing to change and grow and create. But introduce a force so overwhelming, so maddeningly powerful that feeds on all the most puerile notions that mankind has been known for that amuses itself in the petty torment of others all the while choking out the individual spirit to replace it with the uninspired, incipient desire of a substanceless oneness horrifies like nothing else. It’s the Utopian ideal devouring individual thought and sensation until nothing is left.
We see this so much in zombie and alien fiction, where a single minded consciousness overtakes the world. It's the body snatchers or the Borg but on a much more personal level which makes the horror all the more real. When a threat is geographical and swallowing a wide subset of people, it’s easy to compartmentalize it and push it away. Like the tragedies and terrors of real life on the evening news, we can look at it and simply ignore it because it’s happening far away to people we don’t know. But it’s much harder to do that when the threat is literally sitting in the desk beside us. Unlike zombies flooding the streets, munching on neighbors or spilling over walls into fortified towns, Tomie is a much more subtle monster who claims her victims the way a cultist or a serial killer might while being an unrelentingly hive minded organism. You can outrun a zombie horde, out fight the robot uprising but how can you combat your friends and neighbors whose very souls have been possessed by this fanatic allegiance to a single minded creature? History books are replete with lessons learned from human monsters who did the same thing on a global scale. Men who inspired both fear and devout allegiance committed genocides across Europe and Asia to the tune of tens of millions of deaths. Their names still ring out still in living memory and are synonymous with the monstrosity and darkness that can exist inside of us.
Tomie inspires this allegiance to an extreme, using her followers to both feed her own vanity while also crushing the spirit of young girls who, before her arrival, were loved and cared about by the men who have fallen under the creature’s spell. She’s not just satisfied in being revered and desired before spreading her seed across the land. She has to rob anyone who isn’t capable of loving her of everything they hold dear in the process. It’s the highest order of egotism, of psychotic self love that consumes everyone it can. Tomie isn’t just narcissistic, she’s driven to inspire fanaticism to worship and serve that narcissism as she grows, expands, and gradually becomes the world. She uses the vanity and the raging desire of others to be socially accepted as a means to her end. As her lovers, her devotees and slaves hack her into pieces or as young girls striving to be as desired the way that Tomie is accept small pieces of her into their bodies where the creature grows like an all consuming cancer, the monster becomes more powerful and driven.
Any monster can threaten your life but few can threaten the essence of who you are on a personal and spiritual level. Some monsters don’t even realize that they’re monsters. Werewolves like Lawrence Talbot (The Wolfman) or David (An American Werewolf in London) know what they are becoming but are powerless to stop it. Other creatures are acting on an even more primal level, defending their territory from threats and perceived predators like the unnamed monsters in the movie Animal. There’s nothing directly malevolent or ill intentioned in their murder spree, they’re simply doing what any animal would do in the wild to protect itself. Even zombies and other hive minded menaces aren’t necessarily intent on destruction so much as propagation. The twisted alien hybrid played by Michael Rooker in Slither turns the town of Wheelsy into a graveyard as it grows and expands. The conflict comes from the human persona craving the love of his wife Starla while the alien organism wants to grow and expand. The human emotion, warped by a desire to propagate and survive beyond what the human mind can comprehend becomes a bizarre, unintentionally murderous search for the last connection he has to his fleeting humanity. Even the Borg from Star Trek can’t be viewed as totally malevolent. They organized into a hive mind, sharing culture and technology in a search for perfection and enlightenment. Once they found this “perfection” they decided that they needed to share it with all life within their reach, whether or not that life could comprehend the sort of “gift” that was being offered. They want to rule the universe not because they’re an evil empire, but because they want to save sentient life from the hardships and dangers that still exist. A Utopian ideal consuming the individual until nothing is left.
Tomie, on the other hand, is pure evil. She delights in making young girls suffer psychologically, playing on those universally common expectations and standards of beauty and behavior forced upon young girls. You have to look a certain way, act a certain way, be desired by a certain person, and make your life revolve around what the world expects or else you are nothing. As if that cruelty created by society wasn’t bad enough, you have a creature who delights in tormenting young girls by convincing them that they will never achieve those standards so long as Tomie lives. She plays cruel tricks and turns people against one another to suit whatever passing whim amuses her. Meanwhile, she takes men and young boys and breaks them down systematically, robs them of who they are and what they could become with an indiscriminate zeal. Old men, teenage boys, even small children fall prey to her desires as she uses them to help spread herself throughout the world. Enslaving them in passion, driving them to psychotic acts that dehumanize them and leave them forever broken, anyone unlucky enough to cross her path suffers a fate far worse than whatever gruesome death she will eventually bestow upon them.
So how do you kill a monster that grows from the carnage of its own demise, that physically disperses itself in tiny parcels of gore that can grow from little else than her own pooled blood to become a fully realized being? How do you guard yourself against a force that takes away every last trace of the individual self, robs you of even the most basic elements of your humanity to replace them with servitude and worship of its own ego? How do you maintain your individuality when the individual is so easily expunged from existence? Junji Ito is a genius, taking the notion of the individual self being consumed by the societal constraints of some singularity and adding a completely relentless, inhuman element that is inescapable at its very core. Tomie takes the cringe inducing poor traits of humanity and exploits them in order to make chaos and, unlike other monsters, is not only unstoppable, but will giggle with glee as she drives you to madness. If that isn’t terrifying, I don’t know what is.
Tomie is available in eBook and hardcover formats through Amazon and other book retailers. The manga itself was made into a series of films in Japan during the late 90’s and early 2000’s. If you get a chance and can handle subtitles, be sure to check them out.
Dan Lee is a horror fiend and freelance writer with a special place in his heart for monster movies and demonic possession stories.