Many Asian countries have a more intimate relationship with ghosts than we do in the West. Perhaps it has to do with with their traditional beliefs of ancestor worship, Shamanism, Taoism, Buddhism, etc. or perhaps it is their close ties to the natural world and the land. Whatever the reasons for their relationship with ghosts it peaks in ‘ghost month’.
On the traditional Chinese calendar ‘ghost month’ falls on the 7th month of the year ( Aug.1st – Aug 29th in 2019 ). This is often why spooky Korean movies and Kpop MVs come out during late summer rather than at Halloween. (Korea has started to ‘celebrate’ American style Halloween in some places, but more as a ‘party time’ than as a real connection with the dead.) Ghost month is a time when the barriers between the three realms, Heaven, Hell, and the Land of the Living, weaken. On the 15th day of the seventh month ( Aug. 15th in 2019 ) the doors between the three realms open wide. The doors of Hell are opened as the sun sets. The deceased are said to visit the living to seek food and entertainment, but as we know from watching Kdramas not all ghosts are benevolent.
Many Asian countries hold Ghost Festivals to assuage the visiting ghosts with lots of traditional music and dancing. Food is an important aspect of the festivals too. In Korea many of these festival take place in a more agricultural setting and are harvest orientated, which makes sense as the harvest bounty can be shared with both the living and the dead.
Korean ghosts fall into a number of categories, and we have seen these portrayed in various ways in multiple Kdramas and movies. In general many ghosts hang around after death because of unfulfilled tasks, or for vengeful purposes. Korean ghosts tend to be a little more like monsters or vampires than western ghosts in that they can sometimes take over a human body, or can drain away a person’s life energy. They can also kill people. A Korean ghost is not something to take lightly.
Korean ghosts often appear legless and seem to float just above the ground. The main types of ghosts ( Gwisin ) include the virgin ghost, or Cheonyeo Gwisin, who is often bitter and angry. In order to appease her villages in some parts of Korea often erected phallic statues. Another ghost is the Chonggak Gwisin who is a bachelor ghost who hangs around looking for a wife. Sometimes a Korean Shaman, or Mudang, can perform a marriage between between the two.
The ghosts become more frightening with the Mul Gwisin, or water ghost who wants to drown everyone. Constrained by the limits of needing to be in, or very near, water, it appears with extra long arms to drag you down under the water until you die. Occasionally seen on land where it appears dripping wet. It is a vengeful angry ghost.
Even more fearful is the Dalgyal Gwisin who haunts the mountains and wilderness areas of Korea. With a featureless face it looks kinda egg like, but don’t let that fool you as it stalks hikers and drives them to their deaths. In some versions it also has no arms or legs. Not perhaps a traditional Korean ghost as it can’t be found in the old folktales. It might have arrived in Korea during the Japanese Occupation of Korea, however it has now become part of the Korean lexicon of ghosts.
And last is the Joseung Saja who is somewhat similar to the Grim Reaper of the Western World. In Korea he is a messenger of death and leads the recently departed into the afterlife. He is a familiar feature in Kdramas in his black robes wearing a gat, a type of traditional Korean hat.
Even the modern version of the Joseung Saja seen in the Kdrama Goblin wear’s a hat, although he has updated it to a fedora. Most Koreans see the Joseung Saja as a category of ghost rather than a separate class of supernatural being. They do not necessarily believe there is only one, but rather a whole cadre of them.
There are multiple Kdramas featuring ghosts with some notable ones being Let’s fight Ghost, Oh, my Ghostess, The Master’s Sun, Arang And The Magistrate, Bride Of The Century, and of course Goblin. Korea makes exceptional horror movies, many with a focus on ghosts. Being faint of heart I can’t recommend very many but To Catch A Virgin Ghost was weird, and horrific, and in some parts, charming. Spellbound was a much lighter take on a ‘ghost’ story. Kpop music videos can be quite scary, but many feature monsters and vampires rather than traditional Korean ghosts.
Many Kpop idols have ghost stories to tell, and it is said if they see or feel a ghost before they release a song it will be a success. T-ara have said their dorm was haunted, SM has a practice room ghost, and Big Bang’s ghost followed them when they moved out of their dorm rooms. There are also multiple stories of ‘shower’ ghosts. While this doesn’t prove the existence of ghosts, it does however let you see how Koreans believe in ghosts in a much more familiar way than perhaps we do.
Have a great day everyone, and remember to feed and entertain your ghosts during ‘ghost month’ and particularly on Aug. 15th this year. (2019)
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You may also enjoy reading Beolcho: A Korean Tradition Of Maintaining Ancestral Grave Mounds, and Juldarigi: An Extreme Form Of Korean Tug Of War.