October 16, 2012

The Sinister Side of Seoul

Halloween is just around the corner and though it may not be a traditional holiday here in Korea, it is gaining popularity among younger generations.  Kindergartners carve pumpkins, dance clubs hold costume parties and local amusement parks host haunted houses. I'm happy that there are outlets such as these to celebrate the holiday, but, let's face it--some of us need a bit more horror in our Halloweens. Fortunately, there is a darker side of Seoul to be explored during this spooky time of year.

The Seodaemun Prison History Hall (map/info) is not only informative, it's super creepy.  Once a jail for Korean independence activists during the Japanese colonial rule, it's now a history museum and a monument that celebrates Korea's fight for independence. Although it is educational and very moving, one cannot ignore the bone-chilling sensations when walking its halls.

Pictures of the torture methods used by the Japanese hang on the walls and individual cells and holding pits can be walked into. A noose still hangs in the building where executions were held and from it emanates a palpable dark energy. Even more unsettling than the execution building is the corpse removal tunnel near the building's exit that was only discovered in 1992. It was here that the Japanese attempted to cover up their horrendous actions.

Although eerily quiet, the halls of Seodaemun Prison convey so much tragedy.

The sight of the execution building sends chills down visitors' backs.

A mannequin represents one of the many Korean independence fighters held captive by the Japanese.

The corpse removal exit leads into a bleak darkness.

Just a short walk from the Seodaemun Prison is Inwangsan Mountain.  Accessible from Dongnimmun Station, it can be a bit tricky to find (this page has great directions) but the experience is well worth getting lost a few times. Inwangsan is a mountain not only known for its beauty, but for its shamanistic inhabitants. 

Korean shamans, or mudangs, are usually women and are seen as the intermediaries between humans and the heavenly gods and nature spirits. They are easy to spot on the mountain, as they are often chanting or dancing, performing gut, traditional services to bring luck, cure illnesses, or exorcise evil spirits. The other-worldliness of the chanting combined with the eerie rock formations found on Inwangsan make it the perfect place to be spooked.


"Skull Rock" sits atop of Inwangsan.

Korean shamans, or mudangs, can be seen performing rituals on Inwangsan.

You can also personally meet one of the city's many shamans to receive your own tarot or saju (Korean astrology) reading.  As using shrinks is still quite taboo here, many Koreans will visit fortune tellers when faced with a certain dilemma or need advice about an important upcoming event. Many young Koreans will also visit shamans for fun with friends or on a date.

Tarot card and saju readers can be found in droves near Hyehwa Station (Line 4) and along the walls of Tapgol Park in Insadong.  Most of them do not speak English, however, so bring along a Korean friend to help translate. Or, enjoy a cocktail while your destiny is revealed (you may need it) at Wit's End, a hip new bar in Itaewon that offers bilingual tarot readings. (Update: As of October 2013, Wit's End no longer offers this service.)

Couples listen to their saju readings in Hyehwa near Marrioner Park.

If sinister is what you are looking for, head over to Ansan Mountain near Yonsei University (info/directions). Although it was originally known as the peaceful site of Bongwonsa Temple, recent events have given it a darker reputation. Yoo Young-Chul, a serial killer and cannibal, went on a killing spree from 2003-2004 killing 21 people, mostly prostitutes, female students, and wealthy elderly men. He confessed to torturing, killing, and mutilating his victims, all the while eating a few of their livers. Hannibal Lector much? He went on to bury their remains in Ziploc bags at Bongwonsa, which were later found in 2004. 

Yoo is currently on death row with 60 other convicts, but capital punishment is not currently carried out by the Korean government. His fate is uncertain, but there's no doubt that Ansan Mountain is one of the most unsettling sites in Seoul.

Yoo Young Chul is pictured being brought into custody after being convicted of 20 murders.  (Photo: MurderWorld.com)

Other spooky locations around the city include the dormitories at Seoul National University, where poltergeist activity has been said to occur, and the Blue Fairy Cafe, which houses hundreds of menacing dolls.

For a guided experience, ZenKimchi is hosting "The Dark Side of Seoul" walking tours throughout the month of October.  Check out their website for dates and booking information.

Whichever sinister site you chose to visit this Halloween, remember to bring along a vial of kimchi and a strand of garlic, as strong flavors tend to ward of Korean ghosts. An extra pair of underwear might come in handy, too.

Words and photos by Mimsie Ladner of Seoul Searching unless otherwise noted. Content may not be reproduced unless authorized.


  1. Nice article. Yoo sounds like a really bad guy. He creeps me out. Happy Halloween from the United States!

  2. Hello! What an interesting post. I'm doing some research for a new Nat Geo series and would love to hear more about your personal experiences or any of your friend's at Seodaemun Prison. If you know of someone who has a spooky/unusual account waiting to be told, please also feel free to send them my way!

    Email: huijia@infocusasia.com

    Appreciate any suggestions you might have,

  3. Wit's End is a cool place, they did away with the Tarot reading but they remodeled the bar. More beers, more scotch, and no Itaewon drama/hassle.

    1. I stopped by the Wit's End, cool place and you are allowed to smoke there to. Perfect.

  4. The prison sits between inwangsan and ansan, so you can walk between all three if you wanted.


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