Chilled to the bone: Korean ghosts and urban legends

Written by on August 22, 2011 in Arts, Lifestyle

Have you ever wondered why so many Korean horror movies feature girls with loose long hair in white hanbok? And why most of them are so pale with sorrow? And why so many of them seem to be haunting schools?
Summer is the season for horror. Among many Korean ways to beat the heat, a favorite method is to break out in a cold sweat by scaring oneself silly. As a result, many horror movies are released in the summer and horror specials are broadcast on TV.
So why are long-haired girls in white hanbok the stars of summer horror? Let’s take a look:

Most horror movies star the long-haired gwishin

Korean ghosts, or gwishin (귀신), are mostly souls of dead people unable to go over to the other side; those who are either full of deep sorrow or resentment, sometimes victims of unjust circumstances who can’t leave this world until their souls are appeased. Traditionally, many shamanistic rituals have been developed to this objective.

A 1967 poster for the movie “Cheonyeo Gwishin”

The most famous of Korean gwishin is probably the cheonyeo gwishin (처녀귀신), the virgin (girl) ghost. Being born a woman in traditional Korea was hardship enough, when she was taught the best virtues were to serve her father, her husband, and her son. To die a cheonyeo meant you didn’t fulfill your life’s purpose, your life was meaningless; it would be impossible to tear yourself away from this world.

Virgins who die early linger on in this world

The white hanbok which these gwishin wear is the sobok (소복), the traditional mourning clothes. Their hair is down, because being unmarried, they do not have the right to put it up.
Although there is the male equivalent of cheonyeo gwishin called chonggak gwishin (총각귀신, bachelor ghost), the woman is featured so much more in popular culture. They have been the main attraction in Korean horror films for a very long time.
In a shamanistic tradition, sometimes “soul weddings” (영혼결혼식) are held for a cheonyeo and chonggak “couple” so their souls may rest in peace. Other shrines for cheonyeo gwishin may feature phallic carvings and sculptures, and will have annual rites offering food and drink to the souls.

Mul gwishin hate to be alone in the water

Summer brings many drowning accidents. Or are they? Mul gwishin (물귀신) are water ghosts, the lonely souls of those who have drowned. They don’t like being alone in the cold water, so they will grab swimmers and drag them down into the deep waters for company.
Mul gwishin is such a familiar gwishin that it has found itself into the Korean lexicon in the expression, “mul gwishin tactic” (물귀신 작전). It is used when you deliberately want to sabotage someone, in the vein of “if I’m going down, I’m not going down alone” kind of thing. Like when you’re suddenly dumped with extra work at the office, you casually mention to your boss that your teammate is an excellent worker so he has to stay late, too. Classic mul gwishin tactic, that.

Nine-tailed fox Gumiho disguise themselves as girls

Another popular gwishin is the gumiho (구미호), the nine-tailed fox. Gumiho are 1,000 year old foxes, who if good, are honored by going up to the heavens to be placed in the palace of the Great Jade Emperor, the ruler of the heavens. Gumiho are known to disguise themselves as beautiful women in the human world and prey on men, turning into true femme fatales.

The various faces of gumiho

Despite the original legend mentioned above, Korean ghost stories focusing on gumiho have a negative perspective, with tales of gumiho feasting on people’s livers in order to become truly human. Other “romantic” interpretations say that if a gumiho falls in love and marries a human man, and manages to live with him for 100 days without getting caught, she will become a true human.
The 2010 romantic comedy K-drama “My girlfriend is a Gumiho” starring Lee Seung Gi and Shin Min Ah was a play on this notion. A “ghost” that isn’t at all scary!

Many horror movies take place at girls’ schools

Have you noticed how long Korean students stay at school to study? There even is something called ‘nighttime free study period’ (야간자율학습) which practically means you’re stuck at school until midnight. High school, in particular, when you were studying for the college entrance exams, meant long, long hours at school.
Even if you’re stuck at school that late, it doesn’t necessarily mean the whole school is brightly lit up. There are dark corridors, empty biology classrooms full of strange objects, music classrooms where instruments lie untouched, and basements full of who knows what. Unfortunately, high schools with a long history undoubtedly have students who have committed suicide at school. Stories of sorrowful souls lurking in the dark corners exist in every school, all a bit different yet all a bit the same.
These stories have been the main theme for many, many Korean horror movies, featuring the standard long-haired girl gwishin, only in school uniform.

Every school has statues that come alive at night

If the gwishin of middle schools and high schools are those lost souls, in the elementary schools the stories are a bit different. Kids are innocent, and the source of fear is much more, well, elementary.
Most Korean elementary schools have statues of famous historic figures, or one of the most common statues ever, the “reading children”. And of course, these statues come alive in the dead of night and prowl the school grounds.

The portrait of patriotic martyr Yoo Kwansun also comes alive

The other scary figure for kids is somewhat unexpected, the martyr Yoo Kwansun (유관순). Yoo was only 17 when she was arrested and incarcerated during the Japanese occupation while protesting in the independence movement. She eventually died from torture in prison and is revered as a historic figure.
However, these facts alone are scary when you’re a kid, and although we knew she was important and someone to be admired and respected, having her portrait in your classroom was a keen reminder of that scary history. It’s not surprising that there are so many legends regarding her portrait or statue (which some schools had): Her statue would walk around on in the night of Independence Movement Day (March 1st, 삼일절) shouting “Korea Independence Forever!”, her portrait would move if you stare at it and call her name, you could see her tortured face if you look at her portrait upside down, and a myriad of other variations.
To be frank, I don’t think I’ll be comfortable being in the same room with her portrait at night, even now. Scary childhood stories run deep

Beware of passengers in the night

In a more modern setting, the “Jayuro gwishin” (자유로 귀신) surprisingly boasts many witnesses. Jayuro is the strip of the highway that links Goyang to Paju, situated to the north of Seoul and used by the people in the well-known district of Ilsan to commute. The highway follows the Han River and is infamous for being frequently enveloped in deep fog, resulting in many car accidents.
Some blame the accidents on something else, though. Many people who drive on the highway have mentioned seeing a person standing on the side of the road, – a young lady in distress, seemingly in sunglasses. Upon a closer look, it turns out she isn’t wearing sunglasses at all; her eyes are gouged out and hollow.
There’s also the story of the cab driver who picked up a young lady on a rainy day near Jayuro, and after punching in the address in the GPS system, just followed the directions to a remote area. When he looked in the back mirror to ask his passenger for detailed directions, he discovered she wasn’t there anymore. Stopping in surprise he realized he had stopped in front of a public cemetery. His passenger was home.

At Oksu station: a drunk girl, she was not

A guy updates in real-time about a pretty “drunk girl” at Oksu station on a forum post. People leave comments; telling him to talk to her, to make sure nothing bad happens to her. But one moment she’s there, another moment she isn’t. The guy reports that he’s going to investigate and no one hears from him again.
A webtoon tells this story of the Oksu Station gwishin:
http://comic.naver.com/webtoon/detail.nhn?titleId=350217&no=5

Don’t look up when you’re on the toilet

A chilly factor closer to home: the bathroom gwishin. Have you ever been to an old lavatory or outhouse? We still had a lot of those in the countryside when I was young, and let me tell you, those were really scary. Far away from the house, dark, and cramped; it’s no wonder stories about gwishin who haunt them were rampant.

Even in modern times, stories about bathroom gwishin rage on. Especially concerning the bathroom stalls at school (of course) and the office, where students study and employees work until late at night, and where the ceilings are high enough for a gwishin to hang upside down and swing to play with your hair. Swish~!

There is also the urban legend of gwishin in the recording studio; either with their voices showing up randomly in the recording, or their silhouettes shown lurking in the recording booth. In any case, the singer who witnesses a gwishin while recording is rumored to have a hit album, so in some cases singers’ management companies would make up stories and release them to the press as noise marketing tactics.

There are so many more stories out there; it’s impossible to list them all. But perhaps one of the most well-known stories is the one about a child’s mother who wouldn’t answer even after being called multiple times:

“Moooooom! Moooooooom! MOOOOOOOM!!!!!”

The mother finally turns back and faces the child.

“MOM, I CALLED YOU A HUNDRED TIMES! WHY DIDN’T YOU ANSWER ME???”

A sly smile crosses the mother’s face and she answers,

“Do I look like your mother to you?”

***

Muhahahaha~! Enjoy the rest of your chilly summer.

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About the Author

Suzy Chung

Suzy Chung is a multilingual writer, editor, and translator with a marketing background. A coffee addict, bookworm, art junkie, foodie, oenophile, K-pop enthusiast, and occasional painter, she has been online since the mid ’90s when the internet wasn’t really the internet but a blue screen with text only discussions. She has lived in three continents but truly believes that Korea is the place to be and is willing to convince anyone who will listen!