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Haunted Seoul
Old and new accounts of ghosts and goblins in Korea
Robert Neff (neff)     Print Article 
Published 2008-10-31 14:05 (KST)   

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Korea has a long and violent history and, according to some people, it is haunted not only by its past, but by ghosts as well. While we, Europeans and Americans, often associate abandoned homes, old castles, and palaces as the haunts for our nefarious spirits, and are able to avoid them, the average Korean during the Joseon period was not. George Heber Jones, an early American missionary to Korea, wrote in the 1890s:
"In Korean belief, earth, air, and sea are peopled by demons. They haunt every umbrageous tree, shady ravine, spring and mountain crest. On green hill slopes, in peaceful agricultural valleys, in grassy dells, on wooded uplands, by lake and stream, by road and river, in north, south, east, and west they abound, making malignant sport out of human destinies. They are on every roof, ceiling, oven and beam. They fill the chimney, shed, the living room, the kitchen -- they are on every shelf and jar. In thousands they waylay the traveler as he leaves his home, beside him, behind him, dancing in front of him, whirring over his head, crying out upon him from air, earth, and water. They are numbered by thousands of billions, and it has been well said that their ubiquity is an unholy travesty of Divine Omnipresence. This belief, and it seems to be the only one he possesses, keeps the Korean in a perpetual state of nervous apprehension, it surrounds him with indefinite terrors, and it may be truly said of him that he 'passes the time of his sojourning here in fear.' Every Korean home is subject to demons, here, there and everywhere. They touch the Korean at every point in life, making his well-being depend on a continual series of acts of propitiation, and they avenge every omission with merciless severity, keeping him under this yoke of bondage from birth to death."[1]
Several of the other early Westerners spoke of haunted areas including the grounds of the present American Ambassador's residence, and Horace Allen, then a missionary in Korea but years later the American Representative, noted the positive side of haunted houses in Seoul.

"The foreigners here have purchased places former occupied by noblemen who were killed in the revolt some two years since. As the buildings were supposed to be haunted they were sold quite cheap."

The Independence Arch on the northern side of Seoul was said to have been haunted at night by restless spirits and mischievous goblins and was avoided by all who could. Even Korea's nobility and upper classes were haunted. Lillias Underwood described one of the Korean palaces which was the site of the 1882 rice revolt as:

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"Fancy has not to look far, or listen long, to read in all this deserted and neglected beauty the story of that one night of blood and horror, and to hear in every chilled whisper of shuddering foliage the word 'haunted.'"

For the most part these evil Korean spirits and ghosts avoided, or at least did not bother, foreigners, but not always.

In 1921, a very popular restaurant patronized by Japanese and Korean collaborators in the Nagwon area of Seoul was suddenly plagued with vengeful Korean ghosts who eventually forced the restaurant to close. "Apparently from nowhere, blood fell on the proprietress and her customers. Whenever anyone in the restaurant raised his head, blood would drop on his face and clothes. The police were called in, but they could not solve the mystery. At the end of a year the restaurant had lost all its customers and the proprietress had been driven mad and was wandering in the streets."(2)

But those were the ghost in the past, where are the ghosts now? An elderly Korean taxi driver when asked if he believed in ghost explained that a long time ago, meaning when he was young, there were many ghosts in Seoul, but as time passed the ghost stories became fewer. Modernization was to blame he insisted and then added, "If your body is weak, tonight you will see a ghost, but if your body is strong, you will not see a ghost."

Apparently there are still some people with weak bodies. Not too many years ago, an American and his wife observed Koreans in front of their hotel dodging in an out of traffic, barely avoiding being struck by the racing cars, in an attempt to shake the ghosts that were supposedly following them.

An area near Dongdaemun was once said to be very haunted up until the mid 1980s when a church was built and the restless spirits were either appeased or conquered. Apparently, prior to the church being built, the young and curious (foolish?) would go there in the evening to satisfy their curiosity but after darkness fell they soon fled the area in fright -- their curiosity sated.

An American businessman living in Seoul claims his house was once haunted by the restless spirit of a young Korean girl who committed suicide, but over the years the activity has ceased -- apparently his body has grown stronger or the ghost has grown weaker.

There are stories from English teachers who claim to have been bothered in their homes and apartments by Korean ghosts who resented their intrusion. Speaking of education, one of Seoul's largest and most prestigious universities has the reputation, at least on the internet, for having haunted dormitories. The ghosts that haunt these halls are not violent but rather mischievous and, other than the occasional push, do no real harm except frighten their unfortunate victims with their ominous whispers and the foul smell and sinister coldness that they emit in passing.

Some members of the diplomatic community in Seoul have claimed to have had ghostly encounters in their homes. Even Yongsan, the American military base in the heart of Seoul, is said to be haunted. A building that is rumored to have been used as a crematorium (although there is no evidence that it was) during the era of Japanese occupation is said to be haunted by the restless dead who make their presence known with fleeting shadows and bumps in the night.

Even the banks of the Han River are said to be haunted.

The Han River is a popular site for families to escape the hustle and bustle of everyday life in Seoul, but it is also the site of a bloody and violent past. Following the French-Korean war of 1866, large numbers of Christians were taken to Yanghwajin, near Hapjeong station, where they were cruelly executed so that their blood would purify the river which was believed to have been contaminated by the presence of the French fleet. So many people were executed on the high bluff that it became known as Chuldu-san, or Cut Head Mountain.

It is, ironically, the site of the Seoul Foreigners' Cemetery. This cemetery was established in 1890 after it became obvious that the ever-increasing number of Westerners dwelling in Seoul also meant an increasing number of their deaths. Several sites were chosen by the Westerners and rejected by the Korean government before Yanghwajin was mutually agreed upon. Some speculate that it was chosen by the Korean government because of the rumors of it being haunted, but apparently the many Western missionaries who are buried in its hallowed grounds have appeased the restless Korean spirits. Present residents of the area, now populated with a large number of churches, disclaim any rumors of hauntings.

Other places along the river are not so lucky. One morning, in February 2003, an American walking his dog along the river claims to have witnessed a Japanese ghost. He wrote:
"...it was actually over the water but not making any kind of ripple just two or three yards from the bank. At first I couldn't tell much about it; it looked like a small wisp of white dust, but it glowed just over the water. It started to materialize (for lack of a better word) and in disbelief I could see what it was. It was what looked like a Japanese soldier in a battlefield uniform. I could make out his boots and his very distinctive hat, and the buttons stick in my mind. He had a rifle slung around his back and seemed to walk toward the bank. I couldn't see much detail in his face, but he seemed to be looking for something."
Fortunately the apparition soon disappeared leaving the American badly shaken and the dog perplexed.

A couple of years ago, a bar in the popular Hongdae area of Seoul was claimed to have been haunted by its former owner who drowned while swimming in the Han River. The bar has since gone out of business leaving one to wonder if it was the economy that ruined the bar or its former owner

Perhaps the most notable haunting along the Han River is near Kwangnaru in Seoul. Since the 1960s people have claimed to have seen ghosts in the area, but it wasn't until the late 1990s that these ghost stories were really examined. It was during the taping of Lee Soong-hwan's music video at the Kwangnaru subway station that a ghost was apparently witnessed and caught on tape in the driver's compartment of a passing subway.

Apparently the ghost was of a female high school student, Kim Hak-cha, who was murdered near a Han River bridge on April 6, 1961, by her cousin. Her cousin, who later admitted his guilt, had confessed his love for her along the bank of the river, but she spurned him and in anger he shoved her causing her to strike her head upon a large stone.

Convinced he had killed her, he threw her body into the river to hide his evil act, but she didn't immediately sink. Several people later claimed that she had called out for him to help her but he callously turned away and left her to die. Now, at least up until the late 1990s, her restless spirit continues to wander the banks of the river and the surrounding area looking for peace -- a peace that no one knows how to grant, even in the Land of the Morning Calm.

Sources for major quotes:
(1) J. M. de Groot, a scholar of China and Japan's beliefs, but his account is very similar to, and more than likely taken from, Isabella Bird Bishop, Korea and Her Neighbours, pp. 403-404, which predates Groot's writing. Bishop cites her source as Rev. G. H. Jones.
(2) Yi Kyu-tae, "Korean Ghosts Have Lived Long Busy Lives Opposing Changing Ideas, Occupation Laws," The Korea Herald, Jan. 18, 1970, p. 4
©2008 OhmyNews
Other articles by reporter Robert Neff

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