HAVE YOU ever felt a sudden chill swooping over you? Well, you’re lucky that you’re still alive! Korean myths say that these sudden chills mean that a ghost was hovering over you, seeking its chance to scare. In the hot summers of Korea, mythical creatures are often the heated topics of conversation, featuring numerous Korean TV shows and movies debut under nap-yang, meaning, “seeking coolness to avoid the heat.” Korean ghosts and mythical creatures vary in their origins, characteristics, and appearances. So pull up your blanket and get ready for some goosebumps, because The Yonsei Annals will introduce you to four prominent Korean ghosts who have chilled the sizzling summers of Korea.
Once upon a time in Jo-seon dynasty, Mr. Han had a young and beautiful daughter. Like every young woman in the era, she was to follow the patriarchal customs of marriage and bear children. However, the beautiful virgin died just a few days before her wedding. Nobody knows why. From then on, people witnessed a female ghost who wept at night and tormented the town’s female virgins. The townsfolk believed the ghost was Mr. Hans’ daughter, who could not rest in peace due to her resentment of dying before being wed. People began to call her, cheo-nyeo gi-shin, a female virgin ghost.
Cheo-nyeo gi-shins are manifestations of female virgins who are filled with hon-gi* but have failed to marry before death. Their aggrieved souls are known to be stronger than any other Korean ghosts. If the virgin ghosts’ resentments are not relieved, the dead virgins’ families and in-laws will become bankrupt or will begin to face death one by one.
It is believed that there are various ways to relieve the han** of cheo-nyeo gi-shin. The previous generations would bury dead female virgins with men’s clothes, such as their pants, to pacify their resentment for dying before having husbands. Passersbys who traveled at the time were mostly men; therefore, burying dead female virgins along the road was another way to appease them. These days, people believe that one should arrange spirit weddings with male virgin ghosts in order to pacify the spirits.
The signature image of cheo-nyeo gi-shin originated from a famous Korean TV series in the late 1990s, Hometown Legends. First broadcasted in 1977, A Legendary Home was Korea’s first horror series which brought about numerous buzzwords, icons of ghosts, and mythical creatures that are still prevalent to this day. Hometown Legends depicted cheo-nyeo gi-shin as a tall, thin female with her face covered in long black hair. She is also often associated with having long nails that stick out from her white han-bok***.
Korean legends have it that a fox can grow multiple tails throughout its span of life. When it finally gains its ninth tail in its thousandth year, the fox will become a gu-mi-ho, a nine-tailed mythical creature that has the ability to turn into a beautiful female ghost. While ghosts are temporary beings, the gu-mi-ho seeks to become fully human; yet the means to achieve it scares many. Korean folktales describe the human soul to be located in the liver. In this light, the gu-mi-ho must eat nine human livers to secure its place in the mortal realm. Because of its ability to turn into a beautiful female ghost, the creature uses its beauty to seduce and lure in its prey.
In the past, gu-mi-ho was described as a beautiful woman with blood dripping from hands and mouth. However, the 21st centuries have taken a comical twist in transforming this image. Korean TV series, My Girlfriend is a Gu-mi-ho (2010), gave the terrifying creature a modern makeover. The protagonist, gu-mi-ho, falls in love with a male human after waking up from a thousand years of sleep. Taking place in modern day Korea, the silly and foolish behaviors of gu-mi-ho, who is unfamiliar with the drastic change of the human society, leaves an amiable impression to many Korean viewers.
If My Girlfriend is a Gu-mi-ho gives a novel impression of the nine-tailed fox to Korean viewers, Naruto, a world-hit Japanese comic book, imprints a humorous image of the creature to different age groups around the world. Naruto morphed gu-mi-ho as an adolescent ninja with its protagonist, Naruto. Naruto is a ninja that has a spirit of a gu-mi-ho sealed inside of him. When he is infuriated, he unleashes the nine-tailed fox and manifests great powers to fight evil. His funny, whimsical, jaunty character and his dream of becoming the Hokaga**** to protect his people have turned the Gu-mi-ho into an admired hero to fans around the world.
If you meet a dok-gae-bi, try striking their magic wands, bang-mang-yi. A single strike of what looks like a baseball bat will summon gold coins out of thin air, along with anything else you wish to have in your hands. Dok-gae-bis are Korean goblins. Unlike other Korean ghosts, these creatures are playful, friendly, and sociable. Traditional songs, such as “Dok-gae-bi’s Panties,” illustrate how ancestors comically perceived the goblins by teasing the awful the smell of its underwear.
Like the other traditional ghosts, dok-gae-bi also underwent significant changes. They were originally known as big, furry, human-like creatures who held a bang-mang-yi and wore han-bok pants. However, a famous Korean TV series, Dok-gae-bi (2016), shattered the established conception of Korean goblins by staging a handsome famous Korean actor, Gong-you as its protagonist. With its attractive, funny and kind characteristics, 21st century dok-gae-bi has wooed and won the hearts of many females. For some, the Korean goblin has, in fact, become their ideal, perfect man!
If North America has Bigfoot, Korea has jang-san-bum. Jang-san-bum is a mythical creature that inhabits Busan’s Jang mountain. It is known for having long, white fur and is famous for devouring humans. Unlike other ghosts and mythical animals that have their roots in folktales, jang-san-bum originates from witness stories on the Internet. The features of jang-san-bum that are commonly described by the witnesses are as the following: crawling on four legs, walking on two feet, resembling a sloth and having big and sharp eyes. According to rumors, they reel in humans by imitating the voices of their loved ones.
Early records of a mysterious animal that roamed in the times of the Jo-seon dynasty fit perfectly with the stories that swarm on the Internet today. The following quote is from The Annals of the Joseon Dynasty: “There was a monster living in Pyongan Province. Its forepaw resembled that of a tiger’s, and its rear paw resembles that of a bear’s. It had a face of a horse, the nose of a wild boar, and its body was as white as a mountain sheep. This ‘monster’ easily bit humans, was bigger than a tiger, and it frequently killed humans which became a problem among citizens of Pyongan Province.” Those who believe in the existence of this mythical creature argue that these accounts are concrete evidence that jang-san-bum has existed since centuries’ time.
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Besides the aforementioned Korean ghosts and mythical creatures, countless ghouls are waiting to be summoned for the coming summer season. Remember, these supernatural entities are tied to no rules and regulations that will keep them from their happy haunting. So beware, keep out, and get yourself ready for a spooky summer!
*hon-gi: desire for marriage
**han: Korean traditional word for resentment
***han-bok: Korean traditional clothing
****Hokaga: Meaning “fire” in Japanese, it is used to refer to a president in Naruto.