Monday, November 15, 2010

Ghosts, Spirits, Dieties and the Haunting of Seoul

Robert Neff, a long time resident of Korea and who researches and writes about the late Joseon period (1880-1910), gave a presentation through the Royal Asiatic Society last week on ghosts and the haunting of Seoul, from which these notes were taken. Not only does he present on themes related to Korean history but he also has articles appearing in a number of local and international newspapers as well as having a regular column in Jeju Weekly. His recent publication is a book entitled Korea through Western Eyes.

Korea's history has been long and turbulent and thus filled with han, the untranslatable emotionally evocative word perhaps meaning 'unexpressable sorrow locked within' or perhaps 'the ache of loss and longing'. Han is culturally unique to Korea and has been a part of Korean history for ages, well, that is until the late 1980s. The current university students born in the 1990s have little conception of what han really means as they grew up in a more expressive and certainly more opulent and non-suppressive society. Be that as it may, it seems that han and the intense belief in ghosts and spirits are interrelated on some levels - at least that is my opinion. Ghost, spirits and the like are unhappy and their deaths and/or demeaning burials were the result of great sorrow, which they as yet cannot express.

Ubiquitous Ghosts, Spirits, Dieties

Many kinds of ghosts, spirits and dieties exist in Korea - the 장승 or totem dieties seen along roadsides to ward off evil or at times famine or drought; small pox demons that came to capture children and take them away; spirits of the housebeam, roof, kitchen and other areas of the house, and many more like bathroom spirits. Surprisingly, the bathroom spirit is still believed in, or at least that belief has become part of a superstitious ritual much like the Western superstitious ritual of "knock on wood". Long ago there were many fears about the outhouse and many deaths due to children falling into the hole and suffocating in the crap. Spirits were believed to lurk in the out-lying building and so Koreans always cleared their throats before entering because they didn't want to surprise the spirit, especially when the spirit (always a long, wild-haired female) had become bored and was counting her hairs while waiting for something to do. Whether people carry this belief or not, the clearing of the throat is still done when people enter bath-houses.

Ghost babies or spirit babies - especially after the Korean War in the 1950s and 1960s unmarried women and divorced women did NOT have sexual relations but when they DID become pregnant, they said it was due to being attacked by spirits and that's how they got pregnant ... so their children were called "spirit babies". For those wanting to double-check the truth of this esoteric group of babies, there were occasional accounts mentioned of the spirit babies in the newspapers.

Places of Haunting around Seoul

Mulberry Palace was one of the most famous haunted buildings and resulted in wasteful abandonment, or so this viewpoint existed from Westerners. By the time Westerners were arriving in Korea the palace had fallen into major disrepair and was slowly being dismantled. It was reported to be so haunted that Queen Min, on a visit there, couldn't sleep because she kept hearing the moaning, "Why was I killed? Why was I killed?" Spirits that had not had honorable burials due to decapitations, mass burial or no burial at all are believed to be restless spirits, and therefore unreliable. Queen Min never again attempted to sleep in, or maybe even visit, the Mulberry Palace.

In the mid-1880s when Mullendorf and the American legation arrived, they required places to live, and the only nice homes for the American dignitaries were the haunted homes of people who had been killed in the recent 1882 riots. Mullendorf and the legation were very happy with their elegant homes, but the king feared they would be angry when and if they found out about the inferior homes that they had been allowed to live in once they heard of the death of the former owners. Mullendorf and the legation did find out but, not having the same beliefs, lived quite happily in the upper-class homes.

Yangwajin Foreigner Cemetary was haunted even before foreigners were allowed to bury their dead in the alloted plot. In the mid to late 1800s this is where the Christian massacre took place, and it has since been a place of great haunting.

Ironically, Queen Min was murdered and her body burned, a very non-Confuscian treatment of the body which must remain whole even after death. She was murdered in Kyungbokkung, the grandest of palaces, and yet surprisingly, no one seems to talk of Kyungbokkung being haunted.

Independence Gate, which was famous for wandering tiger sightings, was also infamous as the place where Korean men who were visiting Seoul were emasculated. That is, their top-knot, which was a symbol of the honor and dignity as a man, was rudely cut off by the Japanese in one of their control policies. When the "emasculated" men returned to the countryside, they told their rural friends that it was the 토계비 or goblins around the Independence Gate that had attacked them and shorn their manhood. Being shorn by a 토계비 was much less demeaning than being shorn by a fellow, but unfeeling, human-being.

Hauntings in the Heart of Seoul

Six (actually more) landmark areas in the downtown Seoul area are believed, by some, to still be haunted. Actually, Robert Neff said that within the past five years or so he has heard very little about ghosts, spirits, demons and hauntings, at least in the urban areas. The supernatural beliefs of the past seem to be finally sealed on the lips of even those who believe as Christianity denies the talking spirit world and knowledge in science has displaced beliefs in the supernatural.

Anyway, those six haunted places are Chong-ro, now a major downtown street, but formerly a place where people were executed by being hacked up or hung. Chonggyecheon, the beautiful riverside touristy park area recently developed, was where people were boiled to death. These two places are haunted by the executed spirits while in Chongro-3-ga, a former and still present red-light district, the place seethes with unhappy spirits of women who died violently. One more haunted place is Sejong-ro, another street and one which intersects Chong-ro; it is supposedly so filled with ghosts that if pictures are taken at night, the picts will be marred by the ghosts. Even in this place, foreigners have reported strange behavior of Koreans at night, that is, Koreans were seen to jump in front of taxis and other on-coming cars, but of course running so fast that they wouldn't be hit. When foreigners reported this strange behavior, others were able to inform them that the Koreans believed in the spirits and that they were being chased so they would run in front of cars, but they would be so fast so that they wouldn't be hit but the spirits behind them would and so would quit chasing them.

The place which seems to be a very propitious ground due to containing a national treasure, a tall pagoda, is the former temple grounds of Pagoda Park located on Chong-ro. The top was and had been missing for whatever reason when the Japanese took Korea over as a colony. According to a legend, if the whole pagoda were completely rebuilt, Korea would fall, so Japan immediately rebuilt the full pagoda ... and of course history does show that Japan ruled Korea as a colony for 35 years. The pagoda had been already or became (the time is unclear) a haunted place, a place where people like opium addicts, jilted lovers and social outcasts would go to commit suicide.

It seems that people in these modern times still do believe in ghosts and spirits of people who died unhappily. The National Assembly building is one such site, as it was built on the ground of what used to be the burial place of palace women. One man (he had to have some clout) complained that whenever he walked near the building on a certain walking path he felt he was being raped. Evidently he was heard and believed because in 2008 a 65-ton stone - actually a phallic symbol - was constructed at the whopping sum of ₩200,000,000 to protect men in that area. In 2009 the very next year, the phallic symbol had been removed due to complaints of vulgarity by locals and other citizens. It was replaced by a tree.


  1. Very nice posting - I think you did a much better job with your posting than I did with the presentation.
    Robert Neff

  2. Haha, thanks Robert, but not true. I really enjoyed your presentation ... otherwise I wouldn't have posted on it. And too bad I was in such a hurry so couldn't linger at the coffee shop :( Another time for that I guess :)