Korea's Urban Legends
Urban legends, myths, and superstitions—every culture has them. The realm of the mythical is often a projection of a society’s values, fears, and its tendency towards mob mentality. Though legends are often irrational, if you say it enough, lots of people will believe it’s true! While last month’s article covered the historial founding myth of Korea, I thought we’d look at something a bit more fun for this month! So below, I’m going to take you through three popular Korean urban legends. Don’t worry—there’s really no reason to believe any of them!
The “Real” Dangers of Taxi Cabs
If you’ve ever been a foreigner in Korea, then you may know that some taxi drivers tend to take advantage of the typical clueless traveler (or foreign resident). If you’re not careful and don’t know Korea’s monetary system well, you could end up paying a lot more for that ride back to your hostel! While not all taxi drivers are out to take advantage of foreigners, it’s certainly a real problem. But did you know that in the past, taxi drivers have been blamed for much worse?
In 2013, and a few years prior, organ harvesting urban legends were common in Korea. One that went viral was a screenshot of a conversation on Kakao Talk in which the sender described how a friend ended up in an abandoned farmhouse bleeding from his abdomen, all after simply taking a ride in a taxi. The friend then went for surgery at a hospital and was told his kidney was missing. Though it was just a simple screenshot of a conversation, that anyone could have easily fabricated, there was definitely a portion of the population who took it seriously. News stations covered the urban legend, and some people were definitely more wary of stepping into a cab, especially when drunk. Like most urban legends, there was never any evidence to back this story up.
Virgin Ghosts (처녀귀신)
Though virgin ghost legends aren’t unique to Korea, they’re definitely well-known in the country. You may have seen the so-called virgin ghosts if you’ve ever watched Korean TV. They’re usually depicted as young females dressed in white with long, black hair. The explanation for virgin ghosts is that they are doomed to wander the earth as restless spirits because they failed to get married in life. Though virgin ghosts appear as females, some Koreans believe that their unmarried sons may be restless in the afterlife as well. For this reason, some families have turned to matchmakers for the dead. These matchmakers, typically women, would match a male spirit with a female spirit so that they could be married in the afterlife. People believed that by holding the spiritual marriage, both spirits could finally move on. That might seem a bit out there to some of us, but the thinning threads of superstitious thought still permeate many modern-day cultures.
Korean society was (and still is) quite patriarchal, so the stories of these ghosts were there to basically scare everyone into getting married, because failure to do so would have been disgraceful. Ghost stories have been around since the dawn of humankind, and with the modern horror genre, they’re not likely to go anywhere anytime soon. However, it’s interesting to note how virgin ghost stories are common in several Asian countries but practically unheard of in the West.
Woman with the Red Mask
This legend is actually based off of the Japanese myth of Kuchisake-onna. Translated, this means “slit-mouthed woman,” and she was allegedly a beautiful woman who was abused by her husband. He cut her mouth from ear to ear, leaving her with a terrible, grotesque grin that she could never get rid of. Supposedly, this story is from the Edo period in Japan (roughly 1603 to 1868), but it has reappeared more than once in modern times. In modern Japan, the story goes that Kuchisake-onna appears in front of victims while wearing a surgical mask. She’ll ask “Am I pretty?” and really, it doesn’t matter what you answer—you’re probably dead either way. If you answer no, she’ll simply kill you, but if you answer yes, she’ll remove her mask and ask you again. If you still answer yes, she’ll give you the same horrible smile that she has.
When the legend appeared in Korea in the early 2000s, the story changed a bit. Of course, there are several versions of any story like this, but one of the most common reiterations has the woman in a red surgical mask. The woman meets a man on the subway at night, when there’s no one else around. He thinks she’s beautiful, and surgical masks are not uncommon in Korea, especially around plastic surgery clinics. So nothing seems out of the ordinary, right? Well, she too asks the man, “Am I pretty?” When he confirms that she is, she removes her mask to reveal her smile, asking him again. The man in the story runs away when the subway doors open, thus escaping a terrible fate. However, the story is quite similar to the original Japanese one, in that if you answer no, she’ll kill you. And if you answer yes, she’ll slit your mouth too. The only way to escape in the Korean version is to run away! For Koreans, the story took on the additional backstory of a plastic surgery gone wrong as the explanation behind the woman’s smile and her raging ghost.
Though it’s clear these are just urban legends, it’s still fun to see what other countries fear, respect, or find abhorrent. What urban legends does your country have?
Header Image Credit: seoulsync