What Is A Yurei? The Terror: Infamy Draws On A Japanese Legend To Create Its Villain

Photo: Courtesy of AMC.
"You ever hear of a thing called a yurei?" Chester (Derek Mio) asks in the fourth episode of The Terror: Infamy.
If we haven't, we're about to. A yurei, Chester's friend explains, is a ghost on a mission. "It has a crazed hunger for something. Maybe somebody wronged it in his lifetime. But whatever it is, it spends the rest of eternity trying to satisfy its end," he says, before writing off the yurei as a legend.
In The Terror: Infamy, Japanese legends are as real as the world war causing upheaval. Yuko (Kiki Sukezane of Westworld), the yurei in question, is vastly powerful: She can possess people and drive them to take their own lives. But if all yurei are motivated by a "crazed hunger" for something, then what's driving Yuko to destruction?
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The Terror: Infamy has ten episodes to coax out Yuko's character. In fact, episode six is entirely devoted to exploring Yuko's human life. Yuko isn't simply a monster — she's a figure as three-dimensional as the the show's other characters.
“In most Japanese horror, the monster is the monster. She barely has time to crawl out of the television set. That’s it," showrunner Alexander Woo tells Refinery29. "Here, we turn that on its head a little bit. You have a bit of sympathy for her and understand where she’s coming from. She comes from a place of powerlessness. When she comes back, she has all this power.”
Like classic J-horror movies like The Ring and The Grudge, The Terror: Infamy is inspired by Japanese ghost stories, called kaidan. Ju-on and Ringu in The Ring and The Grudge, respectively, are also yurei. The word "yurei" translates to "ruined soul," meaning that the ghost's soul is still restless and unable to pass onto the afterlife.
"Yurei are the ghosts of those who at the moment of death were deprived of the time to repose themselves," Tim Screech, a professor Japanese art history at the University of London, explains to Haunted Times. "The soul of the Japanese person cut off too soon is left to mope through a sorry existence until it is properly laid to rest, but it will never allow itself to be laid to rest until its purpose for remaining among the living (usually revenge) has been fulfilled."
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In traditional Japanese folklore, yurei are typically depicted as women with stringy black hair and white kimonos. Often, they have no legs and float slightly above the ground. The yurei's quintessential "look" dates back to the legend of Oiwa in Yotsuya Kiadan ("Ghost Stories of Yotsuya"), a horror show performed in 1825.
As the legend goes, Oiwa was a young, beautiful woman who married a rich man named Iemon. Unfortunately, Iemon treats Oiwa to a cavalcade of horrors: Facial disfigurement by poison, rape, and murder. So, Oiwa returns to get revenge. Passerbys recalled seeing a woman with long, black hair pushing Iemon to his death. Oiwa is Japan's most famous ghost — and she's been reincarnated throughout numerous works of J-horror.
As we learned in The Ring and The Grudge, it's impossible to destroy a yurei through the kind of tactics seen on Supernatural. Burning a yurei at the stake won't do it, nor will one through the heart. The tenacious spirits can only pass on to the afterlife once their mission is complete, or if they're exorcised by a priest.
Before Chester can face Yuko, though, he has to believe in her. "Chester rejects his parents' old country beliefs until it becomes clear they’re real. He has to connect with his own Japanese-ness in order to confront what's bedeviling this place,” Woo tells Refinery29.
Chester's superstitious parents already believe in yurei and the many other supernatural beings, called yokai, found in Japanese legend. In fact, Yuko might not be the only ghost in The Terror: Infamy. The episode "Gaman" mentions bakemono, a shapeshifter.
Believe in yokai or not, Yuko the yurei is undoubtedly behind the recent spate of deaths at the camp. Now, Chester and his family must contend with a crazed ghost on top of the daily horrors of life in a Japanese internment camp during WWII.
The Terror: Infamy really has two villains: The yurei, and the racial antagonism that put Japanese-Americans into internment camps. As the season goes on, the similarities between the two very different "villains" becoming strikingly obvious. Like Yuko, there's no escaping the internment camp — or the forces that imprisoned them there.
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