Ghostly Encounters of Modern Korea

Robert Neff
Tuesday, January 24, 2017 -
7:30pm to 9:00pm
Second floor Residents’ Lounge, Somerset Palace
10,000 won for non-members and 5,000 won for students (student ID checked at the door); free for members

In the late 19th century, Korea was described as one of the most haunted places in the world – a land populated by ghosts who terrorized the mortal inhabitants of the peninsula. American missionary, George Heber Jones wrote:

“In Korean belief, earth, air, and sea are peopled by demons. They haunt every umbrageous tree, shady ravine, spring and mountain crest. On green hill slopes, in peaceful agricultural valleys, in grassy dells, on wooded uplands, by lake and stream, by road and river, in north, south, east, and west they abound, making malignant sport out of human destinies. They are on every roof, ceiling, oven and beam. They fill the chimney, shed, the living room, the kitchen - they are on every shelf and jar. In thousands they waylay the traveler as he leaves his home, beside him, behind him, dancing in front of him, whirring over his head, crying out upon him from air, earth, and water. They are numbered by thousands of billions, and it has been well said that their ubiquity is an unholy travesty of Divine Omnipresence. This belief, and it seems to be the only one he possesses, keeps the Korean in a perpetual state of nervous apprehension, it surrounds him with indefinite terrors, and it may be truly said of him that he ‘passes the time of his sojourning here in fear.’ Every Korean home is subject to demons, here, there and everywhere. They touch the Korean at every point in life, making his well-being depend on a continual series of acts of propitiation, and they avenge every omission with merciless severity, keeping him under this yoke of bondage from birth to death.”

In the 20th century much of this was dismissed as mere superstition – remnants of the past. The belief in ghosts and other supernatural phenomena has been dispelled through modernization and knowledge. But has it?
Stories circulate amongst students of haunted university dormitories, soldiers experience ghostly encounters while on guard duty at night and businessmen returning home late at night have had unreal experiences that they dismiss as hallucinations until the morning paper dispels their disbelief. Accounts of gumiho (Nine-tailed Foxes) were reported in the media in the 1980s, subways were haunted in the 1990s, airplanes and the National Assembly in the early 2000s and, even now, stretches of highway in the northwestern part of Seoul are avoided by some for fear they will encounter a female ghost whose eyes have been gouged out.

Robert Neff is a writer and researcher of the late Joseon era. He has written or co-written several books including Letters from Joseon, Korea Through Western Eyes, A Westerner’s Life in Korea. He and Brother Anthony have just published Brief Encounters: Early Reports of Korea by Westerners. He also writes a weekly column for Korea Times.

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Royal Asiatic Society Korea Branch
Room 611, Korean Christian Building, Daehak-ro 19 (Yeonji-dong), Jongno-gu, Seoul 03129
[03129] 서울시 종로구 대학로 19 (연지동) 한국기독교회관 611호

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