South Korean TV series feature a whole typology of ghosts. Alexandra Tarasova, visiting lecturer at the HSE School of Media, Associate Professor in the Faculty of Cultural Studies at the Russian State University for the Humanities, spoke about all main types, their origin, features and behaviour of ghosts at the first open seminar to be held as part of the ‘Media Culture of East Asia: Discourses, Industries, Fandoms’ project.
According to traditional beliefs in South Korea, many spirits who have not left this world live among people, which means that Koreans often have to deal with them. Neo-Shamanism implies constant communication with the spirits of the dead via mediation of a shaman or, more often, a shamaness. Neo-Confucianism involves honouring deceased ancestors. Traditional funeral rites include, for example, the ritual of displaying specially prepared food, which in essence is spirit feeding.
All this contributes to the introduction of ghosts into popular culture — above all, in South Korean doramas, which have recently gained popularity not only in Korea, but all around the world. Fantasy and mystic series are popular genres on South Korean television. In these series, ghosts often act as central or at least episodic characters.
The full version of Alexandra Tarasova's report at the first open seminar of the ‘Media Culture of East Asia: Discourses, Industries, Fandoms’ project.
The ghosts in the doramas have common features. They are all disembodied and mostly invisible to people. They more or less retain their personality and individuality. As a rule, they may have memory problems. Most often they do not remember the moment of their death, but sometimes they completely forget who they were during their lifetime. They each have their own features and different stages of accepting their ‘ghostliness’.
Anyone can be a ghost — both an adult and a child. In the series ‘Tale of the Nine Tailed’ (directed by Nam Hyeong Jo and Shin Hyo Kang, 2020), there are two ghostly sisters resembling the famous phantom girls in Stanley Kubrick's ‘The Shining’. Their nature is demonstrated by a detail — mixed up multi-coloured shoes.
When the girls talk to the main character, they immediately recognize him as a gumiho — a shapeshifter fox (although throughout the series he remains in human form). At the same time, they are childishly happy that they have seen a real gumiho and dutifully listen to his lectures. In other words, they behave like ordinary living children in many ways. Although they died quite recently, the sisters have already managed to acquire a new ability that is not available to the living - to recognize a shapeshifter.
A ghost can be an animal, including a dog. However, animal spirits don’t often appear in TV series.
Another type of ghost is a spirit that has separated from a living person, which can happen both by his will and against it; after separation, the disembodied entity wanders like a ghost.
A voluntary ‘living’ ghost can be found in the series ‘The Master's Sun’ (directed by Jin Hyuk, 2013). This is a ghostly lady who has settled in a luxury hotel where she visits the swimming pool, sauna and restaurant and sits in the lobby with a magazine. When they try to expel her from the room, she shows a gift certificate proving her right to stay there.
The managers establish the identity of the woman based on the information in the certificate. Not long ago she really won a certificate and spent a few days in a luxury room at this hotel. The staff remembers how happy she was about it. But now the woman is in hospital where she is in a coma, and, apparently, is deliberate about not wanting to ‘resurrect’ because life has exhausted her. Her relatives are desperately quarrelling, blaming each other for her mysterious illness. She finds ghostly hotel life much more attractive than reality.
In the end, however, they persuade the woman to return to her family. Her family forgets about the quarrel as they witness the mother of the family return to life.
An involuntarily ‘living’ ghost is a much more common case. Usually this is a person in a coma, which is not his or her fault. The main character of the series ‘The Ghost Doctor’ (directed by Boo Seong-cheol, 2022) is a young cardiac surgeon who lost consciousness after a car accident. He wanders around the hospital as a ghost, occasionally possessing one of the residents and saving patients with his hands.
He's not the only ghost in the hospital. There are three more ghosts who have become friends. From time to time, some patients join them, but most of them later recover safely. The main group has a good time eating, watching movies on their phones, drinking coffee in the cafeteria, and even stealing alcohol from the cleaning lady. At some point, a small child joins them. They take care of him, although the endless hide-and-seek play annoys them.
Pseudoghosts represent another interesting case. In the series ‘Memories of the Alhambra’ (directed by Ahn Gil-ho, 2018), the plot is created around a computer game with augmented reality. At the beginning of the series, the main character in the game defeats his opponent and kills his game character. However, it turns out that this person also dies in reality, after which he begins to pursue the character in the form of a digital ghost, both inside and outside the game.
The series ‘The School Nurse Files (directed by Lee Kyoung-mi, 2020), features a rather non-standard, almost ‘atheistic’ concept of ghostliness. The main character says that she has the ability to see ‘jelly’ — clumps of human emotions, which are unfulfilled desires and regrets that remain after a dying person leaves the world of the living. This ‘jelly’ can transform into a human ghost. In the series prologue, an anxious mother supports the main character during a conversation with a child psychologist, but in the next scene, the mother herself melts into a puddle of ‘jelly’ in front of the girl.
South Korean TV series pay considerable attention to the daily life of ghosts. Two TV series in 2022 stand out — ‘The Ghost Doctor’ and ‘From Now On Showtime’ (directed by Lee Hyeong- Min).
Like living people, ghosts react to external circumstances. They may feel dizzy, experience the effects of poison or enjoy the sun or a massage. They often don’t stick to the clothes in which they died, and they regularly change outfits. They also have height, weight and other parameters that can be measured.
Ghosts cannot eat material food (they only absorb its essence), but they can experience pleasure from eating, especially in good company. After all, eating with someone else is an important element of neo-Confucian culture. Ghosts sometimes retain their life professional skills, something that can also apply to animals, such as a police dog. They also maintain etiquette. For example, two spirits in the ‘Ghost Doctor’ try to find out who of them is older so they can address each other properly.
Ghosts can have complex, sometimes ritualistic relationships. In the ‘The Master's Sun’ there is a ritual of an afterlife wedding in which two dolls in wedding dresses are used. This is an attempt to marry deceased young people, because from the Confucian point of view, people who die before they can get married do not fully realize themselves, which prevents them from resting.
However, there is a problem — the young man won’t accept the bride. It turns out that he is in love with a real girl. Ghosts, therefore, can retain feelings for the people they loved during their lifetime.
We may assume that only shamans can see ghosts. Indeed, they sometimes have this ability. But, oddly enough, this is not the most common case. Children and grandchildren of shamans see ghosts more often and are able to talk to them. Perhaps they are helped by the lack of ‘ready-made’ knowledge that ‘closes’ the mind of professionals. On the other hand, lack of life experience sometimes prevents them from understanding that they are in the presence of ghosts. They may think they see ordinary people.
People who have been on the verge of death are often able to interact with ghosts too. Another reason for spiritual vision may be the special connection of a living person with a particular spirit, which sometimes occurs not in this life but in the past.
Ghosts in doramas have individuality and the ability to build relationships with each other and with living people. One possible prospect for a ghost is to go to another world or to reincarnate, so their stay in a ghost form becomes a significant period in the character's story. It helps them to detach themselves from human life with its vanity, busyness, and delusions. It helps them to truly know themselves and to realize their true relationship with living people.
When they don’t have to worry about human affairs, ghosts can use what they have. Most often it's only time, and it's infinite, which is both the main advantage and the main problem of the ghost.