In my case, my view of anime expanded a little further beyond that of most of my peers since I went on to see a few more shows during my college and grad school years. These were mostly romantic comedies or cutesy comedy shows for the most part. It's no wonder then that Higurashi hit me like a shovel to the face. Metaphorically speaking, of course.
Higurashi no Naku Koro ni (When the cicadas cry) is my first encounter with anime as horror/thriller. I know some anime shows in the past have liberally splashed blood around like a lawn sprinkler, but this was the first encounter I've had where an anime set such a terrifyingly creepy mood and then used violence to punctuate its point like a dagger to the chest. I'm not a huge fan of animated blood and gore, personally, having seen Akira once early on and absolutely loathing it. As opposed to there where it seemed like ridiculous violence for violence's sake, Higurashi uses it to set some absolutely incredible atmosphere. Reviewers aren't kidding when they say it's absolutely chock full of 'wet the bed creepiness'. If you want to know what the general mood of the first season is like, I found the perfect youtube video which uses clips from the show.
Higurashi began as a sound novel, which is basically the PC version of those old Choose Your Own Adventure books we used to read as a kid, except in this case you have few real functional choices. Its main goal is to tell a story through setting a mood. You read the captions on the screen which will provide a picture of the characters you're talking to or what your character is seeing, and of course it will have music playing in the background to set the atmosphere. You travel around collecting information and clues by interacting with the environment and slowly the plot unfolds. The original sound novels were released in 2 batches of 4. The first 4 were 'question arcs', meant to set up the general plot and conflict through different POV characters and the latter 4 'answer arcs' which give more information and resolve the storyline.
I have to say that I found the plot to be pretty incredible, and that I didn't see any of the twists coming. There's a reason one of my favorite literary devices is the unreliable narrator. It always catches me off guard, because I tend to take what I'm seeing/reading as being the Word of God in most cases. It never usually occurs to me that the person telling the story might not have all their marbles. I won't go any further so I don't ruin the plot, though it's unlikely that's an actual danger given that no one reading this likely has the slightest interest in actually watching the show.
The first season of Higurashi covers the first 4 question arcs and 2 of the answer arcs, while the second season finishes off the story. There's a very distinct mood change between the two seasons, and you might suffer a bit of whiplash if you were expecting as much blood, terror, and/or creepiness in the second as there was in the first. After all, by the second series, you know the general plot and it's now time to try to find an answer to the puzzle. The thing that generates the most fear is the unknown after all, and the first season takes that uncertainty and beats you over the head with it. Higurashi uses that to set the mood and introduce the story, but at the core the show is really about the power of friendship. I meant to add this as an edit to tvtropes, but the main takeaway message of the series might as well be 'Friends may help you move, but Nakamas help you move bodies.'
I really enjoyed Higurashi and I'm looking forward to watching the next show in the series. It's also based on a second batch of visual novels which is still releasing in Japan and is only up to 6 of 8. That means that though the first season of the anime adaptation is already out, there will almost certainly be a second season once the game is completely released.