Tales From The Dark Side
A darkness lurks beneath the Seoul concrete. This bright neon-lit metropolis was borne from a violent scandalous history. Power struggles, of which there were many, regularly ended in bloodshed, right next to where currently stands a Face Shop. If you’ve never looked at Korean history, and I mean the deep stuff, you should grab yourself a book. It’s tumultuous, intriguing and tragic. It’s Game of Thrones in Asia. I personally lead Korea’s only ghost tour, The Dark Side of Seoul (www.koreafoodtours.com), and it covers the ghostly haunts, the massacres and the hidden sex scandals of the city. Here are a few stories to tell.
The Alley of Ashes
In the 1500s, a 12-year-old king was on the throne. Unfortunately he had a very ambitious uncle, Prince Suyang. One evening, King Tanjong and his entourage were progressing through an alleyway outside the palaces. Suyang and his men were waiting there in ambush. They struck, and there was a great battle in the streets. Tanjong escaped, but by the end of the battle, there were so many dead that they couldn’t count the bodies. The stench was so bad that they ended up burning the area to the ground. After that, the area was known as Jaegol, or the Alley of Ashes. Today, the area is officially called Jae-dong, or the Neighborhood of Ashes.
The Tomb Bridge
The founder of the Joseon dynasty, Yi Seong-gye, had two queens (hey, it’s good to be the king). He was very much in love with his second queen, Sindeok. However, the sons from the first queen didn’t like her so much, mostly because Sindeok kept trying to promote her sons ahead of them to be in line for the throne. Unfortunately, the king’s beloved Sindeok died and he was so broken-hearted that he built an elaborate tomb for her. While the king was in mourning, the prime minister hatched a plot with Sindeok’s sons to assassinate the first queen’s sons. The boys got wind of the plot and made a pre-emptive strike, killing Sindeok’s sons. This became known as First Strife of Princes (a very Game of Thrones name). The king was so distraught that he abdicated the throne and gave it to the first son from his first queen. Later, one of the younger sons, Yi Bang-won, convinced his brother to let him have the throne.
Soon after Yi Bang-won took the throne, a flood came through the Cheonggyecheon River, washing out one of the bridges. This man hated Sindeok so much that one of his first acts as king was to dismantle her tomb and use the stones to rebuild the bridge so that people would always walk on top of her grave. It’s still there today. Lovers and tourists continue to obliviously walk on her grave. Most don’t notice the plaques in Korean and English that tell what they’re walking on, even though the plaques demote Sindeok to concubine.
The Bloody Hospital
The second half of the 19th century, when the Joseon dynasty was in decline, witnessed a lot of bloody revolts. One such rebellion was the Gapshin Revolt of 1884. Pro-Japanese collaborators, who wanted the Hermit Kingdom to open up and modernize, tried to strike a coup. This resulted in a three-day battle in the middle of Seoul, mostly in the area between the main palaces, where the yangban aristocracy lived. The powerful and very kick-ass Queen Min was prepared. Sensing this was coming, she secretly requested aid from Qing dynasty China, who sent troops down. When the revolt started, the Chinese troops quelled it.
The next year, westerners were first being allowed in Korea. These were mostly diplomats and missionaries. They introduced themselves to King Kojong. The king greeted them but asked them to be patient because they had trouble finding proper housing for them. The king’s advisors reminded him that there were these newly empty houses from officials killed in the Gapshin Revolt. The king was appalled. He didn’t want to insult his guests by housing them in haunted houses. Yet when the westerners saw how cheap those houses were going for, they took them.
Missionary doctor Horace B. Allen took over the house that belonged to a Korean official, who was killed along with his family in the revolt. Dr. Allen converted the house into Korea’s first modern hospital, which later became Severance Hospital, which we still have today. In his journals, Dr. Allen recorded that they had to scrub the place down because of all the blood and gore. Two people, who have taken our tour, have said that they saw the ghost of a little girl near the site.
This is but one of many stories we tell on The Dark Side of Seoul Tour. It runs every Friday and Saturday until December, when it closes for the winter season. You can sign up at KoreaFoodTours.com.
What: The Dark Side Of Seoul Tour
Where: COEX Convention Center, Seoul
When: Every Friday and Saturday until December (then closed for winter)
Dark Side Of Seoul
Regular Version: KRW 38,000 (single ticket), KRW 32,000 (group ticket of 4 or more)
Extended Version: KRW 43,000 (single ticket), KRW 38,000 (group ticket of 4 or more)