When there is yin, there is always yang. When there is an action, there is always a reaction. Mankind has, over the ages, developed a more and more sophisticated civilization. As it evolved, so did the cultures and lifestyles of people. Alongside mainstream culture, other underground cultures emerged, as yin and yang always struggle to strike a balance. The world of spirits depicted in literature, art, and records reflect another version of history, one written before the advent of science, but one that still has its practitioners and believers.
Stories of ghosts, the undead, although manifested in different forms, can be found in most cultures around the world. The origin of human beings’ fascination with the supernatural world can be traced back to prehistoric times. Early humans lived with and sometimes against nature and used stories to explain its ways. Some such stories became old wives’ tales; others grew into myths, including those associated with Thor, the god of thunder. Others became the foundation of animism, the belief in a supernatural power that organizes and animates the material universe. Everything has a spirit, including the dead, the ghosts that haunt and watch over the living.
Role of Ghosts
According to Professor Kang Sangsoon (Research Institute of Korean Studies), who has specific research interests in the spirit world and ghosts, stories of the supernatural world have profound meanings behind them. He argues that stories of ghosts were used to explain phenomena that could not be understood rationally. He said to take Korea, for example, “Even though the main philosophical and governing ideology of the Joseon dynasty was Confucianism which emphasized ancestral rites, the dilemma of whether ancestor ghosts actually existed was neglected by the mainstream ideology.” The ghost narrative supplemented the logical and philosophical gap in such instances.
Some ghost stories referred to social problems that needed to be fixed. In a way, these ghost stories served as signals that something wrong or inappropriate was going on in a particular society. The common ghost narrative, including those of Korea, was that ghosts lingered on the earthly plane of existence, and sought vengeance or held grudges due to their unjust deaths. They left only after their
demands were met, usually by an authoritative figure such as a government official.
▲ Professor Kang Sangsoon (Research Institute of Korean Studies). Photographed by Suh Jaehee
“However, ghosts did not always rebel against the existing social structure and point out social problems,” Kang said. “In some cases the ghost narrative was used to justify the elites’ powerbase, violence, and their vested interests.” A paradoxical element is contained in the stories of female ghosts who rose from the dead to seek revenge for—although such narratives protest the violence against women, the ghosts in the stories plead to a male authoritative figure for the justice they seek, reinforcing the patriarchal social structure.
Kang also said that, natural disasters, and epidemics that swept across nations, were blamed upon the spirit world. Although the spiritual world was usually dismissed as superstitions, in these exceptional cases, even the ruling class used the ghost narrative to assuage an insecure public. Finding a scapegoat was essential for the rulers to keep an angry public from rioting.
Ghosts and the Psyche
Apart from explaining the anomalies of society, and the vagaries of nature, ghosts were also used as psychological devices. One reason the stories of spirits are so prevalent, is that there is an underlying psychological mechanism behind them. As humans mature, most learn to control harmful emotions such as jealousy, greed, and rage. However, when people slip and behave in a way that is unacceptable in society, they often look to find a scapegoat to blame or other ways to rationalize their licentious behavior.
Kang used the Korean snake-son story to explain this sort of behavior. In the story, a man kills his son because his son was glaring at him, and leaves the corpse in his house. The man leaves and when he returns, sees the body of a large snake where his son had been. Unable to accept that he has killed his son, an unforgivable act, the man imagines he killed a dangerous snake instead.
Although ghosts and spirits were often used as psychological scapegoats, the idea of supernatural beings, on its own has always appealed to many human beings. According to Sigmund Freud, when mankind encounters uncertain beings that cannot be defined, humans feel unheimliche, or the opposite of what is familiar. This concept is also noted as uncanny in English, a feeling that can arouse great curiosity, leading to stories about the spirit world.
Spiritual World of the East
The ghost narrative and animistic culture in Asia is a shared one. Due to their common Buddhist and Confucian ideological roots, Korea, China, and Japan share somewhat similar but unique ghost narratives. One distinct feature is that due to the Confucian culture of respecting ancestors, ghosts were sometimes viewed in a more positive light compared to their Western perceptions.
Dokkaebi—How Ghosts Change
"Until the Joseon dynasty, Korean ghosts were affected by Chinese ones. Later, Japanese ghosts changed the forms of Korean ghosts," said Kang. Like how people living in different countries and time periods all have their own special characteristics, in literary works of every time period, people
depicted the same form of ghosts as having distinguishable traits according to their origin.
▲ Traditional Korean Dokkaebi. Provided by EBS
The traditional Korean spirit that was the most distinguishable from those of China and Japan is dokkaebi. In many literary works from the past, such as the Samguk Yusa, Korean dokkaebis are portrayed as demonic or goblinlike creatures that have no horns. Dokkaebis are depicted as mischievous creatures thought to be obscene or troublesome rather than scary or harmful, lifting women's skirts and playing practical jokes on people.
However, since the late 1910s after Japan colonized Korea, the form of dokkaebis changed into what we know them as today. Horns were added because of the Japanese form of dokkaebis, called onis, during the 1920s in magazines that the Japanese spread to the Korean public. Moreover, the bat that dokkaebis carry was from Japanese stories told in order to create a frightening image to the colonized.
▲ Japanese Oni. Provided by changelingthedreaming.wikia.com
Despite originally having different forms and personalities, dokkaebis and onis are now described as being practically the same creature. In such a way the time and place in which ghost stories are passed on play a large role in the changes they undergo. However, the example of dokkaebis gives another lesson. The Korean dokkabi has been superseded in the Korean public's imagination by the Japanese onis, demonstrating how cultural hegemony leaves its mark.
Cheonyeogwishins—Why Ghosts Haunt
Although many of the main characters in the ghost stories of former times were male, many of the most popular ghost characters today which haunt humans and prey on their flesh have female forms. The most renowned of these ferocious ghosts is the cheonyeogwishin. Although they are depicted as being one of the scariest ghosts, their stories explain their actions.
Ever since the story Janghwa Hongryeon from the late Joeson dynasty, cheonyeogwishins, also known as virgin ghosts, have been portrayed as ghosts who haunt the men of society, hoping to cause them hardships. The stories of cheonyeogwishins were told in Korea because women there had a particularly hard time, having no rights to speak for themselves. However, through cheonyeogwishin stories, women could speak to the public, expressing their han (heartache) to the men of the society.
▲ Cheoneogwishin. Provided by kwangdae.kr.
Although there are other stories of ghosts that represent oppressed women, cheonyeogwishins are important to Korean culture because they have been depicted with the same form since they first appeared. These female ghosts still have long hair, wear white dresses, and still haunt those who unfairly oppress those whose voices have been silenced by the powerful. Underneath all the hair and the blood, there remains a creature that is actually friendlier than other creatures that simply eat humans for fun.
Spiritual World of the Rest
There are friendly spirits and ghosts in the West, such as Casper, but most are seen as evil, at least in stories. Monsters such as vampires, werewolves, and witches are the most common types that have appeared in stories of today and the recent past.
▲ Monsters. Provided by monsterkidclassichorrorforum.yuku.com
While stories of monsters that subsisted by sucking blood from other creatures can be found in many cultures, the notion of a vampire that is burned by the sun, fended off by garlic, and killed by a crucifix became popularized through Bram Stoker’s novel, Dracula. The name Dracula was taken from the historical figure named Vlad III, Prince of Wallachia, also known as Vlad the Impaler. Vlad III,was praised as a patriotic hero in Romania and Bulgaria because he fought ruthlessly to protect his people from the Ottomans. However, due to his cruel methods of torture and execution, in which he impaled or pierced people on sharp sticks until they bled to death, he was depicted as a devilish tyrant in Europe.
These contrasting views demonstrate how stories of demons reflect the culture of the time. Europeans who feared foreign forces tried to portray leaders from distant lands as demonic tyrants, while Romanians praised Vlad III for his patriotic achievements.
Tales of werewolves, or shape shifters, according to historians, reflect the ancient fears of Europeans. People believed that the moon was an eerie entity that led some people to act irrationally or violently. The fear of nature, or in this case the moon, was further developed into the concept of human beings who turned into giant wolves when the full moon appeared. No wonder the word—“lunatic”—comes
from the French lune, or the moon.
Social phenomena were also reflected in European ghost stories. Stories of witches, usually old or single women who lived alone out in the woods, demonstrated the social stigma against women at the time. Lone women were often blamed for social problems, disease, and bad crop as they were easy
to target, as they did not have anyone to protect them. These malicious notions materialized into witch hunts not only in continental Europe but also in the United State (U.S.).
Spooky tales of monsters can also be found in the Middle East. One of the most interesting among them is the Jewish monster, the golems. According to traditional Jewish stories, golems were created by rabbis to do the biddings of their masters and protect them. They were the source of power for the Jewish population who were persecuted throughout history.
▲ Zombies. Provided by cornersofchaos.blogspot.kr.
The origin of zombies is a more tragic one. The concept of zombies, where the dead came back into life to follow the biddings of their masters was inherent in the voodoo cultures of Africa. The white slave owners in Haiti, who relied upon slave labor to sustain their plantations, used this voodoo notion to prevent their slaves from committing suicide. They instilled fear in them by saying that if they committed suicide, they would reawaken as zombies, forever forced to be slaves against their wills.
Ghosts in Contemporary Culture
According to Professor Kang, the commercialization of ghost stories in Korea first started in the 1920s. During the Japanese colonial era, the Japanese published ghost stories in magazines and newspapers. That was the beginning of the use of ghost stories by the media for commercial purposes. Nowadays, Korea and the rest of the world employ numerous ghosts and monsters in their media to both scare and entertain people.
Vampires in the Media
▲ Movie Twilight Poster. Provided by mystoryneo.egloos.com.
Vampires are a media darling. Beginning with Bram Stoker's Dracula, vampires have sucked their way into the public's imagination. The most prominent examples of vampires in modern culture would be the movie Twilight and the TV series The Vampire Diaries, which are noted for starting a brand new era of vampire stories. Although the creature is not of Eastern origin, vampires are being widely used in all parts of the world, including Korea.
Many of the most popular internet comics in Korea about vampires like Orange Marmalade and The Man Who Walks the Night have been so successful that they have been made into TV shows. Vincent H., who works for the media relations team of the TV series The Man Who Walks the Nightsaid, “That we combined vampires and the Joseon dynasty is what makes our show special.”
He said he thought that the topic of vampires seems to be especially popular because the fear or imagining of something that does not exist entices people. Just as the main character Kim Sung Ryul
▲ The Man Who Walks the Night Provided by mbc
wears a black hanbok in order to avoid the light in The Man Who Walks the Night, traditional ghosts will adapt to the changing tastes of the public. “I am not sure if the topic of vampires will be unconditionally popular in the media. But since fantasies are always loved, as long as new contents come out we will be able to see many fresh ghost stories,” added Vincent.
Gumihos – Auspicious Not Brutal
Gumihos, the nine-tailed fox known for living on human livers, originated in China. Although many people might think the creature is ferocious, gumihos in Korea were originally numinous ghosts that struggled to become human. However, since the colonization by Japan, the Korean gumiho’s original traits changed until it became a violent creature that hunts human flesh. Despite these changes in the gumiho’s form, the media is now representing Korean gumihos in their original form.
▲ Thousand Years Old Fox with Nine Tails. Provided by Gi Ryang.
Gi Ryang, the writer and painter of the popular Internet comic Thousand Year Old Fox with Nine Tails, said, “Through my work I wanted to show that gumihos are actually goodnatured creatures that do not harm humans.” Although there was no particular reason why she chose gumihos as the main protagonist, she seemed to be attempting to convey the original meaning of the gumihos after she began writing the comic. According to Gi, Korean people from the past originally worshiped gumihos, and that is why she believed in the need to introduce gumihos as auspicious rather than brutal.
Another interesting feature of Thousand Years Old Fox with Nine Tails is that many other Korean traditional ghosts like dokkaebis and bonghwangs appear in the story, while no foreign ghosts appear. Gi Ryang said that, like Japanese comics that feature their traditional ghosts, she wanted to show that there are many ghosts in Korea too. “Korean ghosts like humans,” said Gi Ryang, “They are nosy, friendly, and can be very naïve.” Some ghosts like dokkaebis are depicted as always returning a favor, and according to Gi Ryang, she believes that that was the nature of Koreans in the past.
Humanly Ghosts in the Media
Reacting to different tastes or to the necessity of telling new stories to keep selling books, commercials, and movies tickets, the media is looking at old monsters in a new light. For example, the media used to portray the cheonyeogwishin as a very terrifying ghost with blood dripping down her face and very long hair covering her wounds. However, this trend of scaring people with cheonyeogwishin in horror movies seems to have ended. In the recent TV series Oh My Ghost, the
main character was a cheonyeogwishin who died at a young age. However, unlike ghosts from the past, she was portrayed as a cute character who knew how to love others.
▲ Oh My Ghost Poster. Provided by tvn
Although originally described as being a blood drinking monster, some vampires in the media are becoming more of a friend than enemy. After the popularity of the Twilightseries, in which a vampire desperately falls in love with a human and fights to protect her, other media also started to portray vampires as dangerous but handsome and lovable. Likewise, the conventional depiction of ghosts is slowly beginning to change as some forms of ghosts on the media are becoming more and more humanlike. The traditional ghosts that originally had a spot only in the horror movie industry are now spreading their territories into action and romance genres.
This interest in traditional ghosts was maintained because their forms have changed in a way to fit the public’s ever-changing tastes. Therefore, just as how ghosts have changed their appearance in a way to fit the changing era, the ghosts will keep evolving to meet the demands of the public. Nobody knows whether or not the scariness in traditional ghosts will be completely excluded from the media, but the continual transformation of ghostly images is indeed positive that they will not stay the same.
Ghosts are Literally Everywhere
Going beyond media, traditional ghosts have broadened their territories into many parts of contemporary culture. In other words, even though many people might not be aware of it, these ghosts have influenced the lives of modern humans in many ways. From a nation’s mascot to a holiday, ghosts have taken a large part of our daily lives.
For Koreans, the most familiar usage of traditional ghosts is Korea’s mascot Red Devils, the fans of the national soccer team. Although the name itself has the word devil in it, the mascot is based on Korea’s traditional creature dokkaebi. The face is influenced by Chiwoo Cheonwang, a figure who stood for victory and guardianship in Korean and Chinese mythologies. As a representative of Korea, the seemingly scary creature has become one of our best friends.
▲ Halloween Costumes. Provided by onsecrethunt.com
Going beyond Korea, the most prominent influence of traditional ghosts on the lives of people can definitely be seen on Halloween. On October 31, children all over the world dress up as one of these traditional ghosts. In fact, other than batman, the top four most worn costumes in last year’s Halloween included witches, vampires, and zombies. Traditional ghosts have taken an enormous part in this event for many years as the witch costume has dominated the number one spot, unchallenged for more than a decade. Without the traditional creatures, Halloween would have been a bland and insipid day that would not have been loved for centuries.
Message from the Undead
Ghost culture can be important in understanding the evolution of culture. Ghost narratives have served roles ranging from primitive explanations of nature, social propaganda, to psychological defense mechanisms. The symbols and interpretations of the same ghosts have changed over time, reflecting the change in society. The dokkaebi that was once considered a mountain god lost its original status became a symbol of lust and games over time. Similarly, gumihos, or fox ghosts were considered gods of agricultural production but were transformed into demonic creatures as shamanism was shunned in Asia.
Stories of vampires represented a clash of cultures, those of werewolves portrayed Europeans’ fear of the moon, and one about witches reflected rampant discrimination against women. Notions of golems and zombies depicted the persecution of a particular group of people, and a device to either fight back or reinforce existing power structures.
In the light of commercialization, especially through the magic touch of the media, some ghost stories have been transformed completely. Ghosts that appear on TV today have become more, humanlike and attractive in order to appeal to the public. Their original messages have changed or evolved to adapt to the changes in society. The initial role of ghost narratives, explaining the inexplicable has been passed on to modern science. Nevertheless, ghost stories provide important insights that can illuminate human psychology.