Halloween is here, that means changing leaves, cooler weather and scary stories of ghosts and other spooky creatures to frighten kids (and sometimes adults). While Halloween isn’t a holiday that’s celebrated in Korea, spirits, grim reapers and goblins are no strangers to Korea and in fact, very prevalent in Korean culture and folklore.
While Halloween and scary creatures are normally associated with the fall season in western culture, its the opposite in Korea. Korean ghost stories and scary movies are often related with the summer season, with many horror films and dramas being released during the summer season. This trend began in 1998, with the release of the popular horror film, Whispering Corridors. Similar to Steven Spielberg and his release of Jaws creating the trend of the summer blockbuster, Whispering Corridors created the trend of all things scary debuting in the summer.
The reason behind horror being popular in the summer, is to escape the humid and sweltering heat of Korean summers by cooling off your body. According to film critic Yu Gina, horror films and scary stories are best enjoyed in the summer heat where body temperature drops and the less energy is used when experiencing fear. A lower body temperature combined with a cool theater makes for a literally chilling experience to beat the summer heat.
The Origin of Things that Go Bump in the Night
Korean supernatural mythology comes from the word seolhwa meaning ‘tales’. Seolhwa can be divided into three different categories: shinhwa meaning myth, cheonseol meaning legend and mindam meaning folklore. Most of the stories of ghosts and creatures fall into the shinhwa and mindam category with ‘shin’ literally referring to spirits ghosts and monsters.
A gwishin is ghost or spirit who still lingers in the living world. Like other spirits from different cultures, gwishin have unfulfilled tasks and continue to haunt the living world until they can complete their tasks and move into the afterlife. There are several variations of gwishin in Korea, with the most popular ones commonly seen in movies and drama. Check out
Cheonyeo Gwishin means virgin girl ghost. They typically are seen wearing a white hanbok called a sobok, usually worn during death. They are also characterized by their long black hair, due to the fact that tradition stated that single women should always wear their hair up.
In Confucian Korean tradition, it was a woman’s role to serve her father, husband and sons. If she died before being able to fulfil this goal she would be cursed to walk the earth for eternity. Because of this, most cheonyeo gwishin carry with them strong bitterness and anger and often haunt the villages or towns of their former families, hoping to cause hardship for them. Interestingly enough, villages in the past thought to host angry cheonyeo gwishin would create phallic statues to pacify them. Haesindang Park in Samcheok is an example of this.
Another method to pacifying the rage of a cheonyeo gwishin is introducing it to an eligible ghost bachelor. Chonggak Gwishin are the male equivalent of a cheonyeo gwishin, male ghosts who died before marriage, looking for someone to marry so their soul can be at peace. Ancient shaman rituals would have try to unite both ghosts, allowing them to become happily married in the afterlife and able to move away from the mortal realm.
Mul Gwishin are water ghosts. Most often seen near lakes, oceans and even bathtubs, they are often characterized by their constantly wet clothes and freakishly long arms. Due to many deaths past and present coming from drownings. Interestingly enough, mul gwishin are usually never fully seen, with only their arms and sometimes heads briefly appearing above the water. Mul Gwishin have also been known to grab onto unaware swimmers, using their long arms to drag them to their watery demise.
The dalgyal gwishin or egg ghost is a ghost that lives primarily in the mountains. Their features are unique among gwishin due to the fact that they, in fact, lack most features associated with a face. A dalgyal gwishen has no eyes, nose or mouth, with some even lacking arms and legs. These are by far the most frightening and deadly spirits in Korean folklore, as simply looking one of these spirits can result in instant death. Dalgyal gwishin have been known to haunt hikers who travel in the mountains and have been known to stalk them in the dead of night.
Joseung Saja are Korea’s equivalent of the Grim Reaper, appearing only to people whose time on Earth is nearly over. Joseung Saja appear near places where death is heavy, often seen around people in cemeteries, hospitals and at the scenes of large accidents. Dressed in flowing black robes and a traditional black hat called a gat, Joseung Saja appear human, but have pale complexions and sunken eyes.
Joseung Saja work under the command of King Yeomna, the king of the underworld. Their job is to guide recently departed souls along Hwangcheon Road, the road that leads to the afterlife. Completely dedicated to their job, they cannot be bribed or reasoned with and will relentlessly pursue their target until their job is complete. It has also been said that dreaming of a Joseung Saja is a bad omen. Seeing them in your dreams means that death is close by, and only a matter of time before he comes to visit you.
Finally there is the gumiho, a shape shifting nine tail fox that most often takes the shape of a beautiful woman. Despite their human appearance, Gumihos can always be spotted pointy nose or nine white tails. While early folklore has depicted gumihos as kind and naive, later folklore described them as vicious creatures who hunger for human liver. Gumihos would often use their beautiful human form to seduce men, and then kill them to take their liver. Gumihos could also be seen in cemeteries, digging up graves in the hunt for liver.
In more recent times, the image of the gumiho has changed from being vicious back to the naive and sometimes cute creatures from before. Popular dramas like My Girlfriend is a Gumiho has given them a playful appeal, focusing more on the light-hearted parts of the legend, such as any gumiho that avoids eating liver for 1,000 days can lose its evil nature and become fully human.
Like many other cultures, ghosts and spirits are things that never seem to go away but remain a part of culture and continue to scare people year after year. While stories of Korean ghosts may continue to age, their interest to people will never go away, with their stories being told and retold through various entertainment mediums, gaining new fans to carry on their creepy legacy.