|A tour group visits Gyeonghui Palace. / Courtesy of RASKB|
By Peter Juhl
Halloween is not traditionally celebrated in Korea, although the elements are in place, from the availability of pumpkins and other gourds and a love of costumes and candy, to the widespread belief in ghosts and demons. A higher proportion of Koreans believe in the supernatural (up to 51 percent in Gallup polls) compared to Americans (32 percent) and Canadians (25 percent). The belief in the paranormal is nearly ubiquitous across Korea, due to a unique combination of cultural and historic factors.
Various types of spirits and monsters are thought to inhabit different specific sites, including burial sites and areas "associated with historical trauma," according to Jennifer Flinn, a lecturer at Kyung Hee University and an East Asian Studies scholar with expertise on the subject.
Flinn has been leading walking tours of Seoul's spooky side for years, but this weekend she offers her "Spooky Seoul" tour to everyone through the Royal Asiatic Society Korea Branch (RASKB). She will bring participants to sites associated with supernatural stories and legends in the Sinchon, Seodaemun, Gyeonghui Palace and Cheonggye Stream areas.
Flinn, an American, is an anthropologist by training and brings a scholar's perspective to the subject rather than a sensationalist one. She characterizes her aim with the "Spooky Seoul" tour as "placing different areas and events associated with Korea's ghost stories in a sociocultural context." Her tour covers "historical events and topics by going backwards in time from recent events to the beginning of the Joseon era, and weaves in folklore."
Flinn first came into contact with this country's ghost stories in the late 1990s, while here as an exchange student. She has since gained considerable knowledge not only on specific stories and legends but also on people's underlying beliefs and attitudes towards the supernatural.
She recommends the 1913 book, "Korean Folk Tales: Imps, Ghosts and Fairies" to those interested in the subject. "It's a fun book and a good read for anyone who wants an introduction to folk tales about the spirits in Korea," she said.
The book offers Korean legends ― many of them supernatural ― that have been compiled, translated and published by James Scarth Gale, a Canadian Christian missionary to Korea who arrived in Busan in 1888. He was also present at the RASKB's first meeting in 1900.
Some of Gale's stories were republished in 2013 by the current RASKB president, Brother Anthony, in "Eerie Tales from Old Korea," another collection of supernatural stories.
"For years the Korean scholars [Gale and Homer Hulbert] met swore that no such stories existed in Korea," the book says on the back cover. "Eventually, they discovered that Korea, too, had a plentiful supply of ghosts and spirits, celebrated in many eerie tales. However, because the stories had seemed too frivolous or were connected with shamanism and Buddhism, the scholars had been ashamed to talk about them."
Regarding the role of religion in Korean supernaturalism, while "all the major religions in Korea have spaces for spirits," Flinn said, "their roles vary considerably." She adds that these beliefs are always "tempered by folk ideas about ghosts and individual experiences."
She plans to share tales and legends, both horrifying and humorous, dating from Seoul's distant past to the present day. She will touch on supernatural folklore including Seoul's geomantic layout and its relationship with the surrounding mountains, as well as looking into more historically veracious events, shedding light on some of the most tragic chapters of Korea's modern history.
Attending costs 28,000 won, or 23,000 won for RASKB members. Visit raskb.com for more information and to sign up.
Peter Juhl has lived and worked in Korea for several years. He holds an MA from Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies with a concentration in Korea Studies and has most recently worked at a think tank in Washington, D.C.