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Ghost Stories From Korea
'There was something outside my door ... it HATED me'
Robert Neff (neff)     Print Article 
  Published 2006-10-22 12:46 (KST)   

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As the end of October rapidly approaches many of us in Korea, especially Westerners, begin to think of Halloween, and invariably thoughts of ghosts and other nefarious creatures cross our minds. Although Halloween is a recent introduction to Korea, its culture is filled with stories of ghosts.

Most Koreans are familiar with the whimsical bathroom ghost that queries potential victims about whether they prefer red or blue toilet paper and, depending on their answer, kills them or lets them go.

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From a more serious and historical point of view, many Koreans are familiar with the Sapsal dog, a wooly poodle-like breed of dog taken into battle by a Korean general during the era of the Three Kingdoms. This breed's name basically means "dog that chases away spirits." It was brought to the battlefield to chase away any wayward spirit of the dead that might seek revenge on the living.

An early visitor to Korea, Count Vay de Vaya and Luskod, who arrived in Seoul in early November 1902, gave his first impressions on the evening he arrived:

"The broad streets seem an immense cemetery, and the mean little flat-roofed houses graves. One might think it is All Saints' Day, for on each grave a little lamp is burning. A lantern hangs from the eaves of each roof, showing a yellowish flame.

But the people themselves are returning like ghosts to their homes, each robed in white -- each and all mute. Without a sound they flit over the roads of the endless graveyard, until they disappear into the depths of some one of the illuminated tombs."

Of course, the count was using a metaphor to describe what he saw, but there were others who had ghost stories to tell. Horace N. Allen, the first American doctor to live in Korea, noted in October 1884 that the few Westerners living in Seoul were living in houses "haunted by spirits of their owners who were killed in [the rice revolt of] 1882." One of the foreigners he was obviously talking about was Paul Georg von Mollendorff, the German advisor to King Kojong.

Mollendorff's home had previously been owned by Min Kyom-ho. He and his family were murdered there during the Imo Revolt of 1882. This house was later given to Mollendorff, who merely laughed at the rumor that it was haunted by "a ghost appearance." There are no records of Mollendorff ever seeing this ghost, but evidently, it was an issue of gossip among the very small Western community.

Sometimes Westerners used Koreans' fear of ghosts for their own ends. At the American gold mines in northern Korea, after a series of supply thefts, the Western miners had a message recorded in Korean upon a gramophone and played in the depths of the mines. Many of the Korean miners, unaware of what a gramophone was, were startled to hear a voice -- seemingly coming from no where -- warning them that evil spirits would haunt the graves of the ancestors of those who had stolen supplies from the mine. It was highly effective. Within 24 hours, all of the pilfered supplies were returned.

Of course, ghost stories and haunted houses involving Westerners are not only relegated to Korea's past:

In a recent visit to a well-known American businessman's house, the owner confessed to me that he had purchased his home for a much lower price than expected because it was commonly understood among his neighbors that it was haunted. The ghost's origin is from many decades ago, when a young woman who was jilted by her lover hanged herself from the main beam in the maru (living room).

No one, including the owner and his many guests, has ever claimed seeing the jilted lover's ghost, but many have felt and heard her. She is described as a cold presence who wanders from room to room -- her passing noted by the creaking and trembling of the wooden floorboards, and by the soft padding of her feet. On a couple of occasions, much like an obstinate child throwing a tantrum, she stomped and kicked the floor violently alarming all that were present. She has never harmed anyone and appears less and less frequently -- perhaps the passing of time has eased the pain of her broken heart.

Nearly two years ago, encounters with Korean ghosts were discussed on one of the largest blogs in Korea -- The Marmot's Hole. Several readers added their own accounts. One soldier in Taegu wrote that he and his wife were regularly visited in their quarters: "We never saw him directly, just in the periphery of our vision." The "visitor" did not appear hostile and never caused them any harm, but others reportedly have not been so lucky.

One English teacher wrote about his experience in the late 1990s. He, and three other teachers, moved into an older building with a central living room. The first night he went to sleep excited. But unexplainably, he woke up in the middle of the night.

"There was something outside my door it HATED me. The feeling was powerful enough to make me cower under the covers, almost sobbing. At some point of cowering, I went back to sleep," he wrote.

The following morning he and his roommates were alarmed to discover that they had had the same "nightmare." And yet, it never happened again. He reasoned that the spirit was more afraid of the Westerners than they were of it.

Several years ago, an American soldier at Camp Casey in Tongduchon claimed he had been beaten severely by a ghost in the barracks. No one heard anything, and the medics who later treated him viewed his explanation with great skepticism.

Even the diplomatic community in Seoul is not exempt from ghostly experiences. At a small dinner party several months ago, a member of one of the diplomatic missions in Seoul (who, for obvious reasons will remain anonymous) confided to her fellow guests an experience she had at her residence. A very large jar suddenly rose from the table and flew across the room. Her husband verified her account.

It is interesting to note that an artifact known as a "ghost-catcher" graces the living room in another diplomatic community member's home. Its purpose, however, is not to catch ghosts. It is merely decorative.

Homes are not the only places where ghosts have allegedly been encountered. There is at least one alleged sighting along the Han River, and one that allegedly took place aboard a Korean aircraft and was reported last year by the Chosun Ilbo.

According to the article, in January 2005 a flight crew aboard a Korean airliner bound for Incheon, Korea, from Sydney, Australia, was horrified to discover the body of a Korean woman in one of the rear bathrooms. The 36-year-old woman was severely depressed when she boarded the flight. At some point, she entered the bathroom and hanged herself.

In the months that followed, strange occurrences continued to plague the aircraft. Some crewmembers felt a cold presence and heard voices. Perhaps the most chilling account was given by a male crewmember. It was late at night and the first class section of the airplane was extremely dark. The only other person in the cabin was a Buddhist monk who suddenly began chanting quietly to himself. The unnerved crewmember went over and asked the monk what was wrong. Almost like a scene out of The Sixth Sense, the monk turned and answered, "There were dead people sitting in each of the empty seats."

What became of the aircraft is unknown. When the Chosun Ilbo interviewed a member of the airline's management, he declined to give any credence to the story and instead offered his own interpretation of the events: "It's possible that working in a closed space place for extended periods leads them [the crew] to overreact and sends their imagination into overdrive."

Ghost stories are found in all cultures and, whether you believe them or not, provide us with a morbid form of entertainment on Halloween or on dark overnight camping trips.

I would love to hear your ghost stories -- from Korea, or elsewhere.

- Ghost Stories From Korea by Robert Neff (Read by Claire "Pumpkin" George) 

©2006 OhmyNews
Other articles by reporter Robert Neff

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