File photo
File photo

Fear of the fan: Urban legend heats up Korean summer

by ChiHon Kim
Stripes Korea

Every time I clean the electronic fan in this devilishly hot weather, I recall an old urban legend from my childhood: death by fan.

Some Koreans believe that if you sleep with a fan on in an enclosed space, like a room with the door shut, you will die. This may sound absurd to you, but it’s no joke to some, and it dates back decades. Even in the 1990s, I remember my parents keeping the legend alive and telling me to keep the door open when I slept with the fan on.

Where did this improbable story start? Depending on who you ask, the origin differs. One of the stranger stories is that the South Korean government created the myth as propaganda to reduce the energy consumption of households during the 1970s’ energy crisis. Never proven, this is more conspiracy theory than truth, especially since the rumor about fan death dates back further to Japanese colonial rule.

Although the origin of the myth isn’t clear, the superstition about fan death has been fueled by the media throughout the years. The fears about electric fans date back to 1920s, when newspapers wrote about the risks of anoxia, which is a lack of oxygen.

In the early 1970s, a couple of newspapers warned readers about medical risks such as hypothermia. These reports also coincided with a few mysterious deaths in the summer. Of course, many believed they were fan deaths, and inaccurate reporting fueled that belief.

Even as recently as 2007, the media reported an unfortunate situation involving five college students who attempted suicide by fan death. The five survived, but the media said the reason they did was because one of the five turned off the fan, further fanning the flames.

Still, for the most part, people have begun to realize that there is no validity in so-called fan deaths. However, many older Koreans still fear death by fan.

Thanks to this fear, the electric fan industry has had to adjust. Fan makers added time functions and some fans even feature 32 different speeds. To find a fan without a timer function is extremely rare in Korea because of the fear of fan death.

Though I know the idea of it is a little silly now, I must admit that I still set the timer on my fan. Sleeping with the air conditioner on is not part of the urban myth, so these days that’s how I sleep. And whenever there is a fan on in a closed room, I am somewhat uncomfortable. A feeling that I’m sure I won’t shake anytime soon.

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