The ghosts of Seoul
Searching for spirits in a city with a long and gruesome history
In 1866, as a French fleet came down the Han River in preparation for an invasion, thousands of Korean Catholics were gathered by the Daewongun (a Joseon Dynasty regent to the king) and mercilessly decapitated. After the brutal execution, it is said that he rolled their heads down into the river below to cleanse it of foreigners. He was determined for Korea to follow an isolationist policy and set out to purge the country of all foreign elements, including the Catholic religion.
The site of the massacre, Jeoldusan, which translates to “Cut Head Mountain,” stands near what is now the Yanghwajin Foreigners’ Cemetery. Foreign residents in Seoul were allocated this site for a cemetery in 1890, after years of difficulty in obtaining appropriate burial places. However, some speculate that this land was only offered to the expat community because it was considered to be haunted; it was believed that the ghosts of those who were murdered still roamed the area, unable to rest after their wrongful execution.
Seoul is certainly not the only city in which gruesome murders have taken place; most large cities with a long history have had their share of cruel tyrants, war-mongering generals and violent criminals. That being said, most history aficionados will find Seoul a veritable treasure trove of fascinating and gory incidents: familial betrayal, assassination plots and espionage. Because of this, Seoul also has a high number of intriguing accounts revolving around ghosts — especially those of a vengeful and violent nature. It is not surprising, then, that since the Joseon Dynasty, both Koreans and expatriates living in Seoul have reported personal experiences with the supernatural. Ghosts are widespread in Korean pop culture as well, appearing in horror films, reality TV shows and dramas. Recently, popular webtoons depicting the frightening tales of the Bongcheon-dong ghost and the Oksu Station ghost have become Internet sensations.
Joe McPherson, the founder of ZenKimchi Korean Food Journal, runs Seoul’s only ghost tour. On the Dark Side of Seoul Tour, participants are taken on a three-hour walk through Seoul’s darkest alleyways and historical sites. Instead of the more sanitized version of history found in tourist brochures, McPherson’s tour offers an in-depth look at the massacres, executions and murders that have occurred in Seoul’s past. Participants also visit supposedly haunted places around Seoul and learn the history that gave rise to these ghost stories.
A self-confessed fan of dark-themed tours and a good ghost story, McPherson notes, “A lot of people come to Korea with little knowledge or appreciation of Korea’s history. ... The major historical sites don’t help at all, preferring to give nerdy statistics on the square meterage of a building rather than the stories that actually make it interesting.” For him, the stories of Seoul’s bloody past and its supernatural inhabitants are what give the city character, and learning about this history adds “another layer of depth in understanding and appreciating where this city has come from and what it has gone through.”
Glen Hempstock, a Canadian tourist visiting Seoul for a week, attended one of the tours on a cloudless, chilly November night. He, like McPherson, also believes that learning about a city’s history — both the good and the bad — is necessary for a better understanding of the place in which you are traveling or living.
“For expats,” he says, “I think it could help (them) to learn about and adapt to local superstitions and lore. … For expats and locals alike, I think it offers context to what is now a very modern, bustling city; seeing where the city … came from can really make them appreciate its modern form.”
In addition to enhancing one’s historical knowledge, the ghost stories of a particular country can give outsiders some cultural insight. In most Western cultures, for example, ghosts have tended to be male — deceased knights, spirits of male ancestors — whereas in Korea, the most powerful ghosts are female. This can be seen most clearly in Korean cinema, as almost all Korean horror films dealing with the supernatural feature female monsters, ghost women or the spirits of dead schoolgirls. One reason for this is that women are supposedly the strongest holders of “han,” a Korean concept roughly translating to anger, disillusionment or a feeling of resentment over past injustices. A popular Korean ghost exhibiting han is the “cheonyeo gwishin,” or virgin girl ghost, who is often depicted wearing a “sobok” (white traditional mourning clothes). Because she has died young and without having experienced the pleasures of marriage or having children, it is impossible for her to leave the earthly world. So, her spirit remains, forever haunting the living.
One of the first Westerners to recount an experience with the supernatural was George Heber Jones, an American missionary who arrived on the peninsula in 1887. He believed that Korea was the most haunted place in the world, with spirits “haunt(ing) every umbrageous tree, shady ravine, spring and mountain crest.” While this belief in ghosts has certainly waned since the Joseon Dynasty, it does still exist, and reports of hauntings and ghost sightings continue to this day.
Indeed, McPherson states that his tour has attracted several ghost enthusiasts, as well as people claiming to be sensitive to paranormal energies. Two different attendees — who went on separate tours and didn’t know each other — claimed that the ghost of a little girl was following them for the first half of the tour.
Within the last few years, ghost stories have even made their way into the Korean news. In 2005, a deeply troubled woman committed suicide in an airplane bathroom. After a series of frightening and inexplicable events that occurred on the plane over the next few months, and after several unsuccessful attempts to appease the spirit of the ghost, the crew members claimed that the plane was haunted and refused to fly on it again.
In another incident, a politician claimed in 2008 that he was being violated by female ghosts near the National Assembly building. It was discovered that this building was located atop an old burial ground for palace women, and in order to protect the male National Assembly members from these vengeful spirits, an unseemly 65-ton phallic stone sculpture was constructed near the building. (It was removed the following year due to complaints by residents of the area.)
Robert Neff, a Seoul-based historian and author of “Letters from Joseon” (2013), has written extensively about ghosts in Korea. Through his interviews with people of varying ages, ethnicities and occupations — taxi drivers, diplomats, business owners — he has heard countless anecdotes related to the paranormal.
“I knew (a) member of the diplomatic corps,” he says. “She and her husband told me that while they were in their kitchen, a large jar lifted up and flew across the room and smashed into the wall. They were convinced they had a ghost.”
Neff notes that most may be loath to admit a belief in ghosts at first — believing is seen as an embarrassment and marks people as being out of touch with Korea’s enlightened, high-tech society. Eventually, however, his interviewees open up, especially if the question is posed seriously and without judgment. Although belief in the supernatural is lessening — “with modernization, ghosts are disappearing” — it still exists in some form, and it is a way to explain the unknown.
According to Neff, “A lot of the original ghost stories, they stem from not knowing. You hear a whistling sound, and you’re in the next room. … Now we know that it’s probably the wind, but back then, we didn’t know what it was. It’s just the unknown, and we’re fascinated by something that we don’t know … I think anybody believes in a ghost when it’s dark and you’re alone and it’s scary outside. Everybody has some fear.”
Although there are countless intriguing tales of the paranormal in Seoul’s history, not everyone is interested. On a previous ghost tour, McPherson recalls how angry a Korean attendee became. Accusing him of besmirching Korea’s name and of spreading false information to foreigners, the attendee was irate at the stories McPherson was sharing with the group. Despite having prepared for the tours for over a year, and having done an impressive amount of historical research, McPherson was asked by the attendee for his credentials and the sources of his information.
Similarly, Pak Sang-gap, a young man working full-time while on break from his university studies, thinks that learning about the ghosts of Seoul isn’t important: “Personally, I think that it’s just the past, so it isn’t necessary to learn about that.”
While he professes a belief in ghosts and has personally experienced mysterious occurrences that he cannot rationally explain, he thinks it is more beneficial to “just forget (the past) and (look toward) the future.”
Regardless of people’s stated beliefs, ghosts still play an important role in Korea today, and not solely in pop culture. In the “jesa” ritual, a traditional memorial ceremony, food and drinks are offered to the spirits of ancestors on the anniversary of their death. And every February on Ganghwa Island, which has been the site of numerous violent confrontations since the Joseon Dynasty, people offer sacrifices to the “mul gwishin” (water ghosts) to appease the spirits of those who have drowned and still lurk in the murky depths of the Han River.
“There’s (still) some honoring of the ghosts, but they don’t address them as ghosts now,” Neff points out. “Spirits, ancestors … what’s the difference? Aren’t they (all) ghosts?”
So, is Seoul haunted? Do vengeful ghost women stalk male National Assembly members? Do the victims of a wrongful execution wander the streets seeking justice? Does the spirit of a young woman haunt the airplane where she met her untimely end?
Whatever the answer, ghosts will likely retain a place in Korean folklore, pop culture and traditional practices for years to come.
GrooveCast host Chance Dorland and writer Christine Pickering take a tour of ghostly Seoul. Check out the episode at groovekorea.com.