Supernaturalism is a genre that the Korean entertainment industry has seemed to have mastered to perfection. Even though it is quite prevalent in the West, the “supernatural” often takes the form of the ‘paranormal’ and is transformed into horrors. Korean supernatural entertainment in the form of dramas and films, on the other hand, is laced with intricacies of Korean mythology, bringing out the core of Korean culture rather than using it as a “bit” or a plot device. Here are some Korean folklore and/or urban legends that inspired some of your favorite K-Dramas.
Familiar to those who are fans of the K-Drama ‘Goblin’, the dokkaebi (Korean Goblin) is one of the most popular entities of Korean mythology. They may seem god-like but they do not reign supreme. Dokkaebi are known to have many varied abilities, the most accurate record of which happens to be from a fifteenth-century work titled Seokbo Sangjeol. According to the records, the dokkaebi is called upon to wish for good fortune, health or longevity. As such, they’re creatures to be worshipped for they appear in need. The belief about the dokkaebi bringing good luck still persists to this day, justifying our Goblin’s primary generous and philanthropic nature. The very word dokkaebi comes from a compound of ‘tot’ and ‘abi’: abi denotes an adult male and tot means fire or seed. The combination, therefore, signifies a male god capable of creating great riches. We see Gong Yoo’s Goblin create bars of gold on a whim. A crucial distinction between Dokkaebi and other such creatures is the fact that the dokkaebi wishes to live among people. According to Professor Kim Jong Dae, also known as Dr Dokkaebi, they persist in having themselves known to mortals and to seek ties with them. They are not human-like tricksters but innocent and even forgetful. They love drinking, eating meat, and enjoy playing games. They may very well be the manifestation of our deepest desire for our own selves.
The Grim Reaper (Jeoseung Saja)
In the same K-Drama, 'Goblin', we’re met with a handsome grim reaper facing punishment for a terrible crime but with no recollection of the same. We also find grim reapers in other K-Dramas such as ‘Arang and the Magistrate’, ‘Black’, ’49 Days’, ‘Mystic Pop-Up Bar’, and the mega-hit film franchise ‘Along With the Gods’. The Jeosung Saja (grim reaper) is an afterlife messenger, guiding the departed from the mortal realm to the afterlife. The reaper is considered neither morally good nor bad but they're impossible to reason with and are incorrigibly on the pursuit of the person they need to take. Traditionally, Jeosung Saja is dressed in a black hanbok (Korean attire in the Joseon era) with a traditional Korean hat, referred to as the ‘Gat’ (갓). As such, the modern portrayal of the grim reaper in a long black coat and a brimmed hat (yes, the same hat Goblin calls “vulgar”) is quite an appropriate rendition of the entity.
The Nine-Tailed Fox (Gumiho)
The subject of the widely anticipated upcoming K-Drama featuring Lee Dong Wook, Jo Bo Ah, and Kim Bum, ‘Tale of the Nine-Tailed’ as well as of other K-Dramas such as, ‘My Girlfriend is a Gumiho’ and ‘Grudge: The Revolt of Gumiho’. In Korean mythology, when a fox lives to be over 1000 years, it transforms into a shape-shifting spirit. Its favorite form to take on is that of a breathtakingly beautiful woman who lures men to their demise. On the other hand, in order to turn human, a gumiho (nine-tailed fox) can abstain from feeding on humans for a thousand days. According to ‘Gu Family Book’, over a period of 100 days, the gumiho must not show its true form to a human, take no human or animal lives, and help anyone that needs aid. If the gumiho does not complete this quest, it will lose any chance of becoming human and will be a demon for 1,000 years. While some variants of the myth suggest that gumihos are kind and naïve, others view it as malicious. The difference creates enough scope for dramas to play around with the myth, bringing us some of our favorite nine-tailed foxes.
The Virgin Girl’s Ghost (Cheonyeo Gwisin)
The cheonyeo gwisin (Ghost) is the virgin ghost who could not fulfill her purpose in life. In the olden days, a woman’s life in any society was considerably harder than a man’s. The only reason for their existence was boiled down to serving her father and then her husband and children. Having been unable to fulfill this duty, a lifelong wish or harboring resentment at the time of death would not let her pass on to the light and her soul would be stuck in the mortal realm, in a state of limbo – neither here nor there. This myth was even used as a fear-mongering tactic to make sure young women got married early. This ghost is dressed in traditional white mourning clothes called “sobok” (소복) and wears her long hair down, having lost the right to wear her hair up, as married women traditionally did. In modern versions of the myth, perhaps to reduce the severity of it, the cheonyeo gwisin is said to be haunting the living because she has not been appeased and was still a virgin when she died. They cannot cross over from the mortal realm until they’re pacified – traditionally by erecting phallic statues. Some of these statues can still be found in Haesindang Park, located in Samcheok. K-Dramas, as always, decided to take a lighter approach to the myth by showing a comical side of such ghosts who roam around only in the search of love. Contrary to the darkness of the myth, such K-Dramas are actually pretty fun to watch, such as ‘Oh My Ghost’ and ‘Arang and the Magistrate’.