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[WHY] Beware fan death and evil mice doppelgangers

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[KOREA JOONGANG DAILY]
[KOREA JOONGANG DAILY]

Ever tried to press the button for the fourth floor in an elevator in Korea? You might have tried and failed because there often isn’t such a button at all. Many elevators in Korea simply go from the third to the fifth floor, as if the fourth doesn’t even exist.

This is because the number four is considered unlucky – one of many superstitions that are well-known in Korea.

Using the number four, whistling at night, and writing your name with a red colored pen are just some of the endless number of things almost all Korean children are taught not to do, most of the time with no specific explanation as to why we are to believe in such superstitions.

So what other superstitions are out there, where do they come from, and do Koreans really believe them?

A passenger presses the button for the fourth floor in an elevator. [SHUTTERSTOCK]
A passenger presses the button for the fourth floor in an elevator. [SHUTTERSTOCK]

 

What kind of superstitions are there?

First up are your classic “doing so-and-so brings bad luck” superstitions.

The number four is one of them, thus the lack of fourth floors in Korean buildings and elevators. Of course, just because it’s not called the fourth floor doesn’t magically make it a different floor, but people apparently feel more comfortable when the number four isn’t stamped on the elevator button or the entrance to a hallway.

Sometimes the fourth floor is identified by placing the letter “F” instead of the number, an alternative that is apparently considered more acceptable.

The issue some Koreans have with the number four is naturally reflected in some of the most famous buildings in the country, including Incheon International Airport, where there are no Gates 4, 44 or 244, and the 63 Building in Yeouido, Seoul, where there isn’t the 44th floor between floors 43 and 45.

Another thing that is supposed to bring bad luck is shaking your legs, with a saying that goes “shaking your legs will shake the luck away.” A more specific superstition regarding bad luck has to do with eating seaweed soup on the day of an important test – the slippery seaweed supposedly makes you slip up and underperform in the test.

According to a Korean superstition, you are not supposed to clip your nails at night. [SHUTTERSTOCK]
According to a Korean superstition, you are not supposed to clip your nails at night. [SHUTTERSTOCK]

Some superstitions have to do with things to avoid during the night, such as clipping your nails or whistling.

If you trim your nails at night, the story goes, mice will eat the nail pieces and transform into your evil doppelganger. The new mice version of you will go about doing generally evil things, before eventually stealing your soul.

The whistling-at-night superstition is a bit less convoluted and will either summon demons and evil spirits or snakes, depending on who you ask.

There are also superstitions about dating and relationships, such as the warning issued to new couples that if you take a walk with your partner on the Deoksugung Stonewall Path — the walkway surrounding Deoksu Palace in central Seoul — you will end up breaking up with your significant other.

Another superstition cautions people against giving shoes to their partner as a gift because it will make them run away in those shoes and leave them for someone else.

While these stories are somewhat amusing, the most notorious ones have to be the “do this and you will die” superstitions, where a single action is supposed to bring you death.

Writing a name with a red pen is considered a death threat. [SHUTTERSTOCK]
Writing a name with a red pen is considered a death threat. [SHUTTERSTOCK]

Writing someone’s name with a red pen is considered extremely rude because a name written in red will make that person die. Another superstition — perhaps the most famous of all Korean superstitions — is that leaving a fan on in an enclosed space while you sleep will kill you.

Can a fan really kill you?


This question has been bugging Koreans ever since electric fans were introduced to the country, with one of the earliest records of superstition being reported in a news article in 1927. The Korean “fan death” myth became so popular and well-known that it was investigated by a number of foreign media outlets such as The Atlantic, Reuters, Slate, and Euronews.

The answer is that no, an electric fan cannot kill you.

The theory is that leaving an electric fan on in an enclosed space such as a room with the door and windows closed will cause suffocation due to a lack of oxygen, but there is absolutely no evidence to support this.

“There is very little possibility that an electric fan can cause suffocation,” said Suh Hee-sun, a doctor of family medicine at Gachon University Gil Hospital in an in-depth interview with a local newspaper last year. “Not a single case of death caused by electric fans has been reported anywhere in the world.”
Korea Energy Economics Institute President Rim Chun-taek, who was formerly a professor at the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (Kaist), even embarked on an experiment to debunk the fan death myth.

Rim measured his own blood pressure, heartbeat, and body temperature while in front of an electric fan in an enclosed room, monitoring the numbers to detect any red flags. After a span of two hours, there was no change to any of the measurements, nor were there other signs of a health hazard.

Yet despite all the evidence against it, the superstition persisted for decades and was accepted to the point that even a government agency, the Korean Consumer Protection Board, put out a warning against fans in 2006.

A couple walk hand-in-hand on the Deoksugung Stonewall Path in Jung District, central Seoul, on Oct. 21, 2021. [YONHAP]
A couple walk hand-in-hand on the Deoksugung Stonewall Path in Jung District, central Seoul, on Oct. 21, 2021. [YONHAP]

 

Where do these superstitions come from?


While some superstitions’ origins are quite clear, others’ roots are harder to trace.

One of the superstitions that has a definite source is the one about the Deoksugung Stonewall Path. The reason it’s believed that couples who take a walk along the path end up separating is that the Seoul Family Court, which has jurisdiction over divorces in the city, used to be located near the palace, and couples who wished to file for a divorce had to walk along the path to get to the court building.

The Seoul Family Court moved to Seocho District in the southwestern part of the metropolis in 1989, but the superstition persisted.

Another superstition that has a clear origin story is the unlucky number four. The word four in Korean is pronounced as sa, which is coincidentally also the same pronunciation as the Chinese character for death. Many Korean words are based on Chinese characters, although Hangul is used for nearly everything nowadays.

But while the superstition surrounding the number four is linked with Chinese characters, this is not true for most of the other superstitions.

“Forbidding nail clipping and whistling at night came about because the nighttime was considered to be a time when the gods became active and so ordinary humans should lay low,” said Im Jang-hyuk, a professor of folklore at the Department of Asian Culture at Chung-Ang University. “The theory that superstitions came to Korea from China isn’t substantiated.”

An oriental magpie pecks at a persimmon on a tree in Gangneung, Gangwon, on Nov. 29, 2021. Magpies are commonly found in Korea, China and Japan, and have superstitions associated with them in all three countries. [YONHAP]
An oriental magpie pecks at a persimmon on a tree in Gangneung, Gangwon, on Nov. 29, 2021. Magpies are commonly found in Korea, China and Japan, and have superstitions associated with them in all three countries. [YONHAP]

Im explains that most superstitions originate from the characteristics of a community’s surroundings, the natural environment, and ecological systems, resulting in many superstitions in East Asian countries overlapping. For example, Korea, China, and Japan all have superstitions about magpies, a bird commonly found in all three countries.

Going back to the most notorious Korean superstition, fan death, there is still no validated origin of the urban legend, but there are plenty of rumors. In 2008, the American publication Hyphen Magazine reported that the government may have had a hand in promulgating superstition.

“Some believe that the Korean government wanted to purposefully discourage citizens from running fans at night… in the early 1970s,” reads the article. “A time when the growing nation was trying to manage higher energy prices.”

Since the fan death myth goes back to the 1920s, it’s unlikely that the government had anything to do with creating it. But it is an interesting theory and certainly a sensational one, claiming that the superstition that made Korea the butt of jokes worldwide was actually encouraged by its government.
 

People walk by rows of tents set up by fortune-tellers in Jongno District, central Seoul, on Feb. 24, 2017. [YONHAP]
People walk by rows of tents set up by fortune-tellers in Jongno District, central Seoul, on Feb. 24, 2017. [YONHAP]

Do people really believe in these superstitions?


It’s hard to tell.

There’s no denying that many of these superstitions have been passed through generations of Koreans, and most Koreans know at least a few of them and may even believe in some.

While a survey on the degree to which superstitions are actually believed has not been conducted comprehensively, one linguist looked into a specific type of superstition and how young people responded to it.

Kang Hee-sook, a professor of Korean language and literature at Chosun University, examined how college students in the Jeolla area perceived Korean phrases or sentences that forbid certain actions due to superstitious beliefs. Conducting the research in 2014, Kang took a survey of 142 students on 90 such phrases and sentences and found that seven out of 10 respondents reacted negatively, showing a “low cognition” of superstitions and myths.

Kang made the conclusion that these results showed a decreasing awareness in the younger generation of taboos and superstitions that had been part of traditional Korean culture.

However, there are contrasting views that superstitions not only still persist, but that belief in them is stronger than ever due to the growing uncertainties of modern society, according to Im.

“A lot of people still visit fortune-tellers and the number peaks especially when the economy is bad or during times of turbulence such as elections,” said Im. “Korean society changes so much and very rapidly, so the uncertainty that comes with it makes people rely more on superstitions and the supernatural.”

Since the rapidness of Korean societal change doesn’t seem to be slowing down anytime soon, superstitions are likely to stay with us for a while.

BY LIM JEONG-WON [lim.jeongwon@joongang.co.kr]