December 13, 2016

Who's Who: Korean Ghosts, Goblins, and Gumiho

With Halloween festivities in full swing here in Seoul, it's hard not to be in the spirit.

Jack-o-lantern cutouts plaster the windows of restaurants, costumes have been donned, and posters in the city's nightlife districts advertise Halloween-themed dance parties. Vampires, zombies, and mad scientists wander the streets, snapping photos with other cleverly costumed folks.  And while Halloween would not be complete without these classic characters, it would not be Korea without a few of their own mythological creatures mingling in the mix.

But who are these creatures, you ask?  Read on for a who's who guide to Korea's most famous ghosts, goblins, and monsters.

Dokkaebi bear a striking resemblance to Western trolls. Photo Credit
Dokkaebi (도깨비)

Appearance:  Dokkaebi take many different forms but are most commonly depicted as demonic or goblin-like, with horns and distorted faces. Still others resemble humans while some can only be sensed as certain sounds, such as the trotting of horses' hooves.

Favorite Hangout:  Dokkaebi reside in sparsely populated areas, such as thick woods, graveyards, and abandoned houses.

Characteristics:  These mischievous little tricksters are known for their pranks and are fond of games, particularly ssireum, a type of Korean wrestling. They often challenge passerby to these games for the right to pass. As the Robin Hoods of the Korean monster world, dokkaebi are known for stealing from the greedy and rewarding the worthy. Their invisibility hat and magic club help make their trickery more efficient.

Fun Fact:  Although this creature is often seen in traditional folklore and was once believed to be a symbol of an ancient religion, these days the dokkaebi is the mascot for the Red Devils, the fanclub of Korea's national soccer team. Furthermore, the hit 2016 drama Guardian: The Lonely and Great God is centered around the story of a contemporary dokkaebi, who is played by actor Gong Yoo.

Contemporary Korean goblins look slightly different from their predecessors, don't they?

Beware the stare of the jeoseung saja, the Korean Grim Reaper. Photo
Jeoseung Saja (저승사자)

Appearance:  Korea's version of the Grim Reaper is always seen dressed in a billowing black robe and a gat, a Joseon-era black hat. Pale skin and sunken eyes meet only the eyes of those that are close to death.

Favorite Hangout:  Jeoseung Saja wander the areas where death is imminent: hospitals, villages plagued by sickness, or scenes of accidents.

Characteristics:  Although they appear to be human, they are spirits under the command of King Yeomna, ruler of the underworld and judge of the spirits of the recently departed. Jeonseung Saja are dispatched where needed to collect and guide the spirits down Hwangcheon Road to the afterlife. It is impossible to escape Jeoseung Saja when one's time comes, as he cannot be reasoned with or bribed.

Fun Fact:  Korean superstition states that dreaming about Jeoseung Saja is an omen of death. Guardian: The Lonely and Great God also features this Korean folktale character who is played by the popular actor Lee Dong Wook.

The modern day jeoseung saja, or grim reaper, as portrayed by actor Lee Dong Wook in Guardian: The Lonely and Great God

A virgin ghost clad in sobok gives a vengeful stare. Photo Credit
Cheonyeo Gwishin (처녀귀신)

Appearance:  Cheonyeo gwishin, or "virgin ghosts", are most often depicted wearing sobok, a white hanbok worn at death. Older traditions demanded that single women not wear their hair up, so these ghosts are always seen with their hair down, partially hanging in their faces. 

Favorite Hangout:  Korean virgin ghosts tend to wander around their living family and friends, in hopes they will arrange a "ghost wedding," a paper matrimony with another deceased member of the village.

Characteristics:  In times past, a woman's role in Confucian Korea was to serve her father, her husband, and her son. Still today, this role remains to be important. Because cheonyeo gwishin meet an untimely death before finding a husband, they are unable to fulfil their purposes in life and because of this unfinished business, are unable to leave the worldly realm. When they choose to haunt a village, they are usually bitter and attempt to create hardship among their former families and neighbors.

Fun Fact:  In the past, when villages have suspected the presence of vengeful cheonyeo gwishin spirits, they have erected phallic sculptures to pacify the bitter ghosts. Haesindang Park (Penis Park) in Samcheok is a perfect example of this.

A gumiho shows off its characteristic nine tails. Photo Credit
Gumiho (구미호)

Appearance:  The gumiho is a fox that has lived for 1,000 years and has thus been given the power of shape-shifting.  More often than not, it usually presents itself as a beautiful woman, but with fox-like characteristics such as a pointy nose or nine tails. 

Favorite Hangout:  Gumiho are often spotted in graveyards, digging up the recently deceased to gorge on human flesh and organs.

Characteristics:  Because of the gumiho's shape-shifting powers, it has the ability to seduce unsuspecting humans (usually men) in an effort to eat their livers or hearts. Although the gumiho was originally depicted in folklore as a kind but naive creature, it was later regarded as a feral, blood-thirsty monster to be feared by all humans. Gumiho that were able to abstain from eating humans for a period of 1,000 days were allowed to permanently change into human beings and lose their inherently evil traits altogether.

Fun Fact:  The 2010 drama My Girlfriend is a Gumiho featuring Lee Seung-gi and Shin Min-ah sparked a great amount of international interest in this folktale character.

Bathtubs are common hangouts of mul gwishin, or water ghosts. Photo
Mul gwishin (물귀신)

Appearance:  Mul gwishin are water ghosts, forever soaking wet with deathly pale skin and unusually long arms.  

Favorite Hangout:  Lakes, rivers, oceans, bathtubs and abandoned water wells like the one in The Ring are the hangouts of these Korean ghosts.

Characteristics:  It seems that many deaths in Korea in the past and even in recent times have involved drownings, either accidental, homicidal or suicidal. Mul gwishin are the souls of those who have passed this way. These ghosts are particularly popular in horror flicks and never seem to be fully exposed. Instead, their long, lanky arms tend to rise up from the water, attempting to pull under unsuspecting swimmers to join them in the cold murky depths as companions in the afterlife.

Fun Fact: America's Saturday Night Live used a Korean mul gwishin as the main character in its sketch "Aw Nuts! Mom's a Ghost." 



What ghosts or goblins are unique to your country's folktales or pop culture?  Share your favorites in the comments box below.


Words by Mimsie Ladner of Seoul Searching.  Photos credited to the source.  Content may not be republished unless authorized.


12 comments:

  1. Thanks for sharing this! One of our favourite restaurants in Busan that we call the Penis Restaurant has a huge wooden penis outside...I wonder if it has anything to do with this legend? Interesting!

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    1. It could definitely have something to do with that! I think the penis is also a symbol of fertility here in Korea as well. Too funny, though!

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  2. Good rundown of the characters

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  3. It was very fun to read, thank you!

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  4. Now December 2016, your 도깨비 article probably get the highest search and you might thinking to change the Grim Reaper image with Lee Dong-wook picture ..yeay \(",)/

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    1. Thanks for the suggestion! Done and done! ^^

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  5. Thanks for updating this page with Dong Wook and Gong Yoo and for the information you put up here. Really interesting and useful. I wandered around here after watching Arang and the Magistrate a few months ago, and now because of Goblin I am back here again. Happy holidays! :)

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    1. Hi there! Glad to see you're back!! Hope you are enjoying the series. Happy holidays, to you, too, and hope that 2017 is a good one for ya!

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  6. the penis statue for a virgin ghost made me chuckle a little in Hawaii any rock formation that looked like a penis was called a fertility rock and in ancient times women who had a hard time getting pregnant would spend the night sleeping on these rocks to help conceive a child having children was important to ancient Hawaiians

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