In Korea, when summer sweeps around the bend, it means horror is afoot.
Blood-curdling tales of restless specters and trips to haunted house-attractions send chills down the spine and bring out the goose bumps; a more than welcome reaction to a hot, sticky day.
So where should one go for some bone-chilling fun?
Here’s a look at the latest thrills, along with new small screen twists to the classic genre and an exploration of why Korean ghosts tend to be single women.
An increasingly tech-savvy audience demands a new spin on the haunted house-concept.
Yeouido’s 63City and amusement park goliaths Seoulland and Lotte World rose to the occasion with their 5-D and 3-D attractions.
While Lotte World’s Ghost House caters to children with its mini 3-D film-experience, both 63City and Seoulland brought in a state-of-the-art system from Japan to give thrill-seeking adolescent and adult viewers a scream-inducing jolt.
At 63City’s Wax Museum, where the 5-D theater is located, and Seoulland, the viewer enters a circular room and picks one of the stools in the middle. The door shuts, leaving the audience enveloped by a wraparound, ceiling-length, seamless screen. Stools rotate, encouraging viewers to catch the action from every angle, but they come in handy, in fact, for ducking and evading.
The little girl featured in the 5-D short “The Room” is one of the scariest aspects of the experience. Make sure to look at where she is pointing.
Glasses -- designed to curve around your face so you can have a 3-D experience even when looking sideways -- go on, lights dim.
Mosquitoes come at you, kicking off the Japanese-produced horror short, “The Room,” and building up tension.
What happens next cannot be fully revealed, but it involves dismembered body parts, blood, gore, fangs and a little girl, who, quite possibly, is the scariest part of the whole experience.
Though the film lasts no more than six or seven minutes and has zero dialogue, it feels a lot longer, thanks to the excessive sweating and the constant flinching or screaming it induces. The strategic spurts of air that shoot out and catch you off guard don’t make it any easier.
Needless to say, the technology is so off-the-charts it feels like everything is either touching you or, even worse, passing through you; an effect, which, according to Seoulland Park operation team manager Lee Jeom-soo, is made possible by the 360-degree, wraparound screen.
“If an arrow flies towards you, you feel like the arrow is going through you and out your back,” Lee explained.
For lack of a better word, the sensation is uncanny, and, well, kind of awesome.
For those who want to bring kids along for the ride -- only adolescents and adults can watch “The Room” -- check out Lotte World’s Ghost House.
A considerably milder take on the 3-D-style experience, the place, done up like a gothic castle, invoked a standard haunted house with a spooky trip to the theater entrance, and an even more thrill-rigged exit out. No need to fear, though; costumed employees did not pop out at visitors. Everything seemed age appropriate.
Unfortunately, due to a computer-related problem, the short 15-minute film could not be screened at the time. A PR representative, however, said that everything is up and running now.
The theater itself was a standard viewing space, with rows of wooden, cathedral-like seating facing a huge screen. Ashen walls and candelabra-type fixtures promised to heighten the film experience, which features a cat’s foray into a haunted house filled with dolls and dog zombies.
“It is family-oriented,” said Lotte World employee Yi Ho-young.
Name any standard K-Horror flick, drama or tale and it will most likely center on a female ghost looking for resolution and peace of mind.
In fact, the white-garbed, long-tressed specter has become something of a horror icon in Korea.
So where did she first make her appearance?
The Korean girl specter goes as far back as the Three Kingdoms period, says “Female Ghosts” author Choe Key-sook, from which a tale detailing a romance between a living man and two female ghosts supposedly originates.
By the 15th century, says Choe, a series of novellas were featuring strong-minded, individualistic female spirits who fall in love with ostracized male intellectuals.
“During the Joseon Dynasty, one of the characteristics of unmarried female ghosts was that they harbored a strong sense of identity,” she said, hinting that perhaps the reason they remained in the human realm was because their unwillingness to conform to the confines of society left them with some unfinished business.
Remember, these were simply tales, many of which (at least the ones researched by Choe) came from “yadamjip” (storybooks featuring unofficial tales of historical romance).
During the Joseon Dynasty, “yadamjip” were, in essence, the comic book equivalent of fun reading. They were penned and read by male intellectuals. But, said Choe, only around 10 stories out of a total of 1,000, for example, were about ghosts.
“During the Joseon Dynasty, actually, ghost stories were taboo,” she explained. “But because they were told not to tell such stories they wanted to do it more.”
Nevertheless, despite between being few and far between, these ghost stories seem to have made a lasting impression.
The question remains, however, as to why female ghosts were portrayed as resentful beings with unresolved issues.
“First, one must focus on who wrote ghost stories in Korea,” she explained.
According to Choe, male intellectuals created wronged female ghosts as a vehicle for the true protagonist of these tales: the heroic male government official. The official, once approached by the specter, would successfully uncover the injustice done upon her and clear her name.
Here Choe notes that these specters were benevolent, bestowing good luck upon the officials who restored their reputations. The scary nature of these traditional ghost stories, she says, comes from somewhere else.
“You could say that there is a terrible truth hiding behind the reason why they had no choice but to become ghosts,” she explained. “The irregularities and inconsistencies of society are condensed into the cause behind why they could not help but become ghosts and when we come face to face with that, we feel fear.”
While female ghosts receive most of the spotlight, appearing in cult classics like “A Public Cemetery of Wolha” (1967) and KBS’ “Korean Ghost Stories,” male ghosts were also cast in these “yadamjip” of yore.
According to Choe’s “Female Ghosts” (“Munhakdongne,” 2010), in a leading “yadamjip” from the late Joseon Dynasty, nine out of 12 tales featuring spirits were about male ghosts. Only one was about female ghosts.
These male spirits, however, harbored no sense of resentment and took on authoritative roles, says Choe. In some stories, they demand sexual relations from their wives or teach their children to write. In essence, they pretty much carried on as they did when they were alive.
If that is the case, then, it should come as no surprise as to why these traditional male ghosts have faded into the background. A wronged ghost with unfinished business makes for a better horror film or drama than a spirit with no problems or issues.
Nine-tailed fox revamped
The realm of Korean horror is not restricted to ghosts.
Every culture seems to have its own version of a femme fatale. In Korea, it would have to be the nine-tailed fox.
Called “gumiho,” the nine-tailed fox is often depicted as a sly animal that transforms into a beautiful woman, seduces men and consumes their livers.
KBS’ “Grudge: The Revolt of Gumiho” revamps the frightening image of the nine-tailed fox. KBS
Sound familiar? Yes, she is a man-eater.
While Hollywood may have upped the gore-ante on the prototype with Karyn Kusama’s “Jennifer’s Body” (2009) -- a bloody flick about a man-eating demon (played by Megan Fox); Korean television is going in the opposite direction with their femme fatale icon.
KBS’ “Grudge: The Revolt of Gumiho,” which started airing on Monday, centers on a nine-tailed fox who is intent on protecting her half-human, half-fox offspring from harm.
“The most important theme of the drama is a mother’s instinctive love for her daughter,” “Grudge” actress Han Eun-jeong, who is playing Gumiho, said at a press conference last Thursday.
SBS is taking it a step further with their upcoming drama “My Girlfriend is a Gumiho,” where “Brilliant Legacy” actor Lee Seung-gi plays a wealthy hero who falls in love with a nine-tailed fox (played by “The Naked Kitchen” actress Shin Min-a). The series promises to be more of a romantic comedy than a tale of horror.
“Grudge: The Revolt of Gumiho” airs on Monday and Tuesday nights at 9:55 p.m. on KBS 2 TV.
“My Girlfriend is a Gumiho” is slated to start on Aug. 11 on SBS.