By Chris Capps 4/23/11
It’s a cold and dark night. From the darkened depths of a well a pale slender hand pulls itself up and out crawls a young girl. Her face is obscured by the long shadows stretching across Himeji Castle in Hyogo Prefecture, Japan and there’s a hint that she may not actually be a real person, but something from another realm. In a harsh whisper she counts to nine, screams violently with a rage built up over time immeasurable, and then falls backward into the well. This isn’t a horror movie, it’s the legend of a ghost that’s been spotted for centuries.
But she wasn’t always a terrifying spectral figure. Once she was a much envied servant to the famous warrior Aoyama Tessan. When he fell in love with her, she rejected him as a lover for reasons that are not always clear in the legend. And so Aoyama Tessan came up with a way of tricking her into accepting his advances. He hid away one of the family’s ornate delft plates. Delft is a stylized kind of plate that can be very expensive from some sellers. Needless to say Tessan’s were of the very fine variety. All the more tragic for Okiku who was convinced she had somehow lost one as she would no doubt be put to death for it. After searching tirelessly she eventually came to Tessan who told her he would spare her if she became his lover. Not wanting to betray her heart which felt no love for him, she refused. The enraged warrior then murdered her by throwing her into a well. Struck by grief after the moment was over, he found himself late at night unable to sleep. The girl, he told others, was crawling out of the well at night and then counting the nine plates only to then scream in an unearthly voice and then fall back into the well reenacting the scene of her death again and again.
The legends came back that Okiku was tormenting her killer. There have been hundreds of versions of the story over the years as time went on, and various locations have been attributed to it, but the numbers always stay the same. Okiku is never able to find the tenth plate and returns to the well after screaming.
Since the story first started circulating there have been a number of people who have claimed to have calmed the spirit of the killed girl, either by yelling back to her the number ten or by discovering the final resting place of the plate where Tessan had hidden it. But she always returns regardless, still tormented either by the rage of being murdered or the guilt of thinking she betrayed her killer by losing one of his family’s prized possessions.
But it does have a familiar “ring” to it. The image of a girl crawling out from a well was later used in the 1998 Japanese horror film, “Ringu” in which a girl with supernatural powers crawls out of a well at one point to unleash her wrath on her enemies. The film drew heavily from Japanese folklore and Okiku’s tragic story was no doubt an influence as well. Ringu would later become “The Ring” as it was remade to reach western audiences.