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Ghost, ghost, everywhere: why all the schools in South Korea are haunted(25 May 2016)
By Eugene Kim, Kingston University
Most of the early memories from my childhood are fragmented, but there is one that vividly lingers. It was my first day at primary school; I was six, as was everyone else in the classroom. Whilst others were busy chatting and introducing themselves to one another, I was shy, sitting quietly alone in the allocated desk where my name was written. A girl suddenly approached, leaned towards me, and whispered in my ear.
“You see that white statue of a girl reading out the window? My brother graduated from this school, and he warned me not to bother it or you will be cursed. ‘The school is haunted’, he said… his friend saw the girl turning the pages after midnight! We are not supposed to know what is written in the book. If you dare to find out the secret, she will visit your room at night to snatch your foot.”
My heart started to pound with fear, which was followed by a thrilled curiosity. Why is she after a foot? I couldn’t help but wonder. After class, I found myself loitering around the building. Pretending I was walking by, briefly I glanced at the statue and studied it. There was no sign of eeriness or resentment on the countenance; it cast a rather benign smile towards the book on her knee. The book, on her knees, was also just a clear white piece of stone. With a little sigh of relief, I shrugged, thinking this would be a daft trick of my classmate.
When I turned around, however, my eyes accidentally caught the feet of the statue. My heart froze. The girl only wore a shoe on one foot. How strange is it, a statue with a missing shoe! I looked everywhere around but couldn’t find the other shoe. ‘This is it’, I thought. The missing shoe was the reason why the statue was after a foot. And the prey would be mine. Her face did not seem benign anymore. On the way home, I was shivering with horror for the oncoming night. My mother, ignorant of my doom, cheerfully suggested “Now you are a grown up schoolgirl, why don’t you turn off your bedroom light from tonight? It will help you sleep better so that you can concentrate well at school during the day.”
That night, I wet my bed.
Later I came to realize what really happened to the missing shoe. The rumor was partly based on fact: my school, built in the 1930s, went through many historical events, including the Korean War. The other shoe belonging to the statue, originally placed on the ground, was destroyed and lost when the school was bombed. When I shared my story with my college friends from different cities, I came to realize that I was not the only one who dreaded the curse of the haunted school. Most primary schools in South Korea, it seemed, had rumors about ill-shaped statues, such as a tiger without a tail or a general without a sword. Various though the themes are, all the schools in South Korea were, and maybe still are, haunted by the memories of the war. The missing pieces of the statues should have been parts of history in the first place, but now what they connote has outgrown the recorded history. It is the power of rumor that has exaggerated, distorted, if not recreated the fact.
There is something particularly gothic in the rumors surrounding a haunted school. In fact, any objects from the pre-war period became the ingredients of the narrative. This trend reflects the way in which the national anxiety for the potential crisis is reproduced through children’s eyes. Their curiosity, out of the parents’ concerned conversation at the dinner table, has taken the narrative form of what Freud would call the ‘return of the repressed’. Mutated through the gothic imagination, a school is one of the communal spaces where children unpack different boxes of curiosity from different families. The sum of the boxes shows one side of a forbidden history, deliberately put aside in people’s memory. They displease and alarm the collective forgetfulness of the post-war Korean society. However when we went on annual field trips to war memorial museums to ‘remember the past’, we were told to remember selectively. It is interesting to observe that the narrative structure of a haunted school, the past of which you should not know, resembles the words parents often lectured us with. “It is better not to know”, they used to warn; why there are sometimes leaflets from North Korea spread on the school ground in the early morning and why we should not go hunting in the mountains or sing wartime songs when playing in the backyard. Their reticence to answer their children’s questions manifested as macabre tales that threaten the most common place in children’s life: school.
If a school is the last station where the surplus of recorded history passes by, haunting in South Korea is still ongoing. When it comes to a new school, the shuddering impact of rumors overlap both the past and present as a dream-like sequence. This mixed temporality signifies, as Andreas Huyssen(2003) defines, the “present past” mode of the haunted school narratives. As Huyssenwrites “modernity has brought … a very real compression of time and space”(4), so that schools in South Korea built after the 1990s have a more evolved pattern of horror narrative than the old ones, embedded with the loop of the “imagined past”(10). Although I later moved to another school, newly built with no trace of the past, the spectre of a haunted school was still around. I remember that on my first day everything was so clean and new. I remember that my face was burning when the head teacher saw me changing into slippers at the building entrance and said with a small laugh, “No need, this building is not wooden floor. Gosh, you must have come from an old town!”. However, in contrast to my anticipation for a new start at a new school, a boy sitting next to me responded to my first greeting in a rather uncanny way. Leaning over, he whispered in my ear, as the girl did years ago:
“You know why your desk was vacant before? A construction worker had fallen down from the top while building this school. The girl, sitting on your desk previously, was the daughter of the dead man. She was found dead, too, in the piano room, you see, at the end of the corridor! Don’t you dare to go to the room after class; you can actually hear someone playing. It’s the girl’s blood-dropping sounds on the piano!”
There it was. It was the very chill I had on my first day of the old school. This time, the structure of the story was even more twisted, brutal and real. First, there is this piano girl; the vengeful female ghost is a typical trope, but the narrative has developed into more unpredictable patterns than before. The fallen man was an addition, which alludes to another reflective dimension of the gothic temporality in South Korean horror narrative. If my former school was possessed by the nightmare of the bygone age, my latter was by the shadow of the present, which the whole country could not recover from. In the 1990s, South Korea had few notable unfortunate accidents: one is the collapse of Sungsoo-bridge, a main bridge over Han-river, and the other is Sampoong-department store, also a main shopping center in Seoul.
Schools are always already haunted, as long as the shock from a trauma exceeds the limit of language. Deep down, there is a psychological mechanism in the making of the haunted school story. Schools, whether old or new, are identical places where the trauma not only manifests as collective memories but also constructs a spatial presence. That is why it can only exist in the form of rumor because it doesn’t need a root to be creative.
How, then, should we read this phenomenon? I think that it is better to let the rumors continue to haunt the schools and the children thereof than not. Passing rumors on in schools is, perhaps, the only way to mourn the ruin of which the access is forbidden to them. Haunted schools take a frame narrative, as many of the gothic tales take the form thereof. Children expose themselves in the imagined danger. By doing so, they perform the role of the victim, indirectly involved by attempting to ‘feel the same’. War, for children today, is something they haven’t experienced. Collapse, only witnessed on TV. But they want to know. Although they might be safe at home under their parents’ guidance, they are – luckily - not in school. The place is where their boundaries are threatened and imagination unfolds at the same time, as a means of forgetting.
Huyssen, Andreas. Present Pasts: urban palimpsests and the politics of memory.
Stanford University Press: 2003.