Zombies! Shadows! A Giant Teddy Bear! Thriller Bark has it all!
Before anime latched onto me, digging its claws under my flesh and demanding that I call it my master, horror movies were my first love. I dived into them as a little kid, devouring Godzilla, Frankenstein, Michael Myers and Pinhead. Then, as a teenager, I discovered the works of filmmakers like Dario Argento and Takashi Miike. And finally, as an adult, I began to actually analyze them, sifting through every theme and shot and bit of dialogue in the original The Texas Chain Saw Massacre until I was convinced that it was the best movie ever made.
Side note: It is the best movie ever made. Casablanca and Citizen Kane WISH they were as good as Texas Chain Saw.
However, when I began reading manga and watching anime, I hoped that horror would find its way into them. And yeah, I know that there are plenty of incredible creators of horror manga. We should consider ourselves blessed to be able to inhabit the same plane of existence as Junji Ito. But I'm talking about the horror genre influencing non horror genres. I'm a Shonen Jump boy, and if you can get me invested in your story about spiky haired gentleman that only know two languages (Japanese and fist fighting), I will follow you to my last breath. And if you can drop some horror tropes in there along the way, well, I'll not only consider you my leader...but my friend.
I've written about this before, but One Piece is my best pal. And that's partly because it contains the Thriller Bark arc, which is filled with ghouls and zombies and stitched together abominations and shadow monsters and a giant teddy bear fellow. TV shows are usually known for their special "Halloween" episodes where Ross and Rachel dress up like vampires, but they didn't TELL each other that they were gonna dress up like vampires, so load some coal into the engine because the Hijinks Train is leaving the station. But in the next episode, they're back to normal and ready to be boring in NYC again.
One Piece, however, has a whole "Halloween" season. The Straw Hat Crew find themselves trapped in Thriller Bark, a gigantic ship that eats other ships. There, they must take on Gekko Moriah, one of my favorite villains, who has lost his entire crew to another bad guy and plans to create a zombie army with the souls of the people that he captures. Along the way, though, they meet talking skeleton (and eventual crew member) Brook.
For those that haven't seen the show yet and think that this sounds awesome enough to check out, I won't spoil Brook's backstory. However I will drop a single hint: It's sad, y'all. It's one of the most tragic in all of One Piece, even though, at times, it feels like One Piece is playing round after round of Somber Backstory Olympics.
"But Daniel," you ask, hanging out with me because you want to and not because my Mom invited you to my birthday party at the skating rink, "This all seems very spooky AND scary, but what about the fights? Decrepit zombies don't sound like much of a threat against Luffy and the gang." And you'd be right. Gekko Moriah isn't much of a physical threat, as he's kind of shaped like an evil hamburger with a neck. And most of his cohorts wouldn't be on any of my brawl invitations. That's why we get a GIANT ZOMBIE NAMED OARS.
Many Straw Hat Crew fights against evil teams tend to break down into "Okay, Luffy, you fight the leader. Zoro, you fight the quiet guy. Sanji, you take on the cocky one. And Usopp, you take on any awful children and/or pets that they might have." So it's really cool to see them all have to work together to take on a massive foe, even if they have some growing pains in the form of the Tactics 15: Big Emperor plan. Don't feel bad, Franky. I bet that your method of having all of the Straw Hats grab ahold of one another to form a makeshift robot would've totally worked against some enemy at some point.
And on the opposite side of the spectrum from Oars is Perona, a woman whose power is making you too depressed to fight. She wins fights by literally lowering your self esteem to the point where YOU can't believe that you can win. And so the only crew member that can take her on is Usopp, who has his "That's my secret, Cap. I'm always angry" moment by revealing that he's the perfect person to stop her because he's already depressed. And then he nearly gets beaten to death by a teddy bear, and only survives because he switches to his braver alternate personality of Sogeking. So, yeah. Weird, wonderful stuff.
However, the real scary foe comes in the form of Bartholomew Kuma, a pirate warlord that visits to make Gekko Moriah feel inferior and then takes on Zoro at the end of the arc. And while Kuma isn't horror themed, he's so outside of the realm of what the Straw Hat Crew is able to take on that you can't help but feel a little frightened for the crew. THIS is what lies ahead of them on the Grand Line? Maybe they should turn around and just settle down somewhere nice. It wouldn't be that bad. Luffy would never become Pirate King, but maybe he could find work as someone that makes...jean shorts? He seems to be pretty good at that. And Zoro can nap and Chopper can be a pediatrician. Look, I know that these options don't sound very exciting. I'm just trying to ensure that the Straw Hat Best Friends Club doesn't get pounded to a pulp in the prime of their lives.
That said, I know that the Thriller Bark arc occurs hundreds of chapters and episodes into the One Piece story, and it's admittedly hard to let yourself enjoy something when you think that you'll have no idea of what's going on. Luckily for you, Thriller Bark is the closest that One Piece gets to having a standalone arc (outside of Skypeia). It's also helpful if you look at it as the story of a lonely skeleton bro that re-finds his place in the world thanks to a loud man that's made out of rubber, rather than One Piece Building Block #3,072.
So, if you find that you want to dig into some horror-themed anime, but you've already rewatched all of Berserk, Death Note, Monster and Gantz this year, then maybe give Thriller Bark a shot. No, it's not as unsettling as the anime that I just mentioned, and it also includes copious amounts of people yelling as they slam their fists into other, larger people, but it's a nice mix of Shonen and spooky and is the perfect way to get both a One Piece AND a Halloween fix.