Suffocation, No Breathing!

Korean Urban Legends and the Stories We Grow Up With
July 3, 2013

It’s officially July and I am writing this piece in the furnace that is my bedroom and I’m miserable. I don’t fair well during the summer season; it is my absolute least favorite time of year. Having grown up around the greater NYC area my whole life, the annual returning of pungent humidity and overbearing heat in this East Coast city of thick concrete, brick, and pavement throws me back to my days as a sad and sweaty child in Queens.

I was raised by my Korean immigrant parents on the ninth floor of an insular building where I wasn’t allowed to play with the AC on for more than a few minutes at a time. At night, the AC was off limits and I was forbidden to even think about it. I was told that sleeping with an AC or a fan on at night was going to kill me because it would suck the air out of the room and suffocate me to death. (I mean, all of this feels ridiculous to write because none of it makes any sense). But I believed my parents who made it seem as though this was common knowledge. It was common knowledge to them—they grew up with this story too, a South Korean urban legend called Fan Death. It wasn’t until I was a college freshman in Boston (far from my parents) that I discovered the incredible joys of sleeping comfortably with the AC blasting arctic temperatures in my dorm room. I felt betrayed by my parents, that I was lied to and made a fool of. Up until that point, I pretty much spent 18 years buying into an absurd myth that fans and ACs were silent electronic killers. Looking back now, I should have felt so lucky that I didn’t just literally die of heat exhaustion as a young kid.

South Koreans certainly have a way of holding onto and passing down these urban legends that are so modernized and contemporary that they don’t seem out of the realm of possibility to be true. It then comes to me as no surprise why Korean filmmakers are also some of the most creative storytellers in the industry. (Incidentally enough, in Korea summertime is when the year’s scariest movies are released in theaters so that they would “chill you to the bone,” you know, seeing how AC’s are apparently null in that country.) I recall watching horrifying movies and TV shows with my mom and dad (they were on a roll with parenting) where I feared daily that I would be murdered by a Carrie-like woman with vindictive green eyes who went by the name “M” (short of murder, perhaps?), or that I would be killed by a good-looking man in a leather jacket who left chewed cigarette butts around people’s homes he was intruding in at night. Those are only two examples; I had many intense reasons to believe I wasn’t going to live to see my 10th birthday.

Just recently I was at a book reading where one of the speakers mentioned a Japanese-Korean-hybrid urban legend I’d never heard of. Referred to the Slit-Mouth Woman or the Red-Masked Woman it is the story (with variation) of a cosmetic surgery gone terribly wrong. A hopeful young woman awakes from a procedure to find her mouth cruelly slit from ear to ear. Living with this deformity now, she covers her face with a red scarf at night and approaches vulnerable men and asks them, “Do you think I’m pretty?” If they respond yes, she removes her scarf to reveal her grotesquely ripped mouth, calls them a liar and cuts their mouths similarly to hers with a scalpel—her weapon of choice—and runs away. If they respond no, she goes ahead and slits their throats. For me, this particular urban legend is far more chilling than anything else I’ve heard so far, given how the plastic surgery culture for young girls in South Korea is an epidemic. Cruel to think, but this is the kind of story I might want to pass on to my unborn daughter (and also my unborn son). On a personal level, I happen to be the only person in my family who was naturally born with monolid eyes, a trait that is typically considered “less beautiful” than the Western double-folded eyes. When I was younger I used to superficially fantasize about having huge folded eyelids like an anime cartoon. I used to Scotch tape thin pieces along my lashes to manipulate that look. Thank goodness those days are long past. At 28 years old, I proudly think of the monolid eyes that I was born with as something I can connect with, that inherently identifies me to my Asian ancestry.

For good final measure, about a week ago a brand-new Korean urban legend had been making the viral rounds. It came to my attention through this post on Kotaku, about “passengers getting drugged in taxis and then waking up minus a kidney.” At first thought it seemed so utterly ridiculous and unbelievable. But the frenzy was incredibly widespread, blowing up all over the social media networks. It made me wonder, “Why do Koreans do this to themselves? Why suffer through unnecessary paranoia and anxiety of metropolitan life? None of this is real!” But when I consider it a little deeper, I do also love it. It makes me appreciate an entire culture that voluntarily chooses to live in a world where magical realism, technological strangenesses, modern-day mythological and paranormal activity converge in a fast-moving 21st-century reality.

These stories that I—and we, in the South Korean culture—continue to grow up with are ingrained with the deepest of ongoing traditions. This is what “normal” is to them, and the numerous layers of unexplainable Korean urban legends are still explored daily and routinely without a question or mere hesitation. Over the years I’ve learned that this is not the world that I personally care to live in (and good thing I’ve outgrown that perpetual world of terror), but I’m happy to acknowledge it all the same. Me, I’ll take my summer nights with air-conditioning, thank you.