YONGIN, SOUTH KOREA (Reuters) - On a rainy South Korean summer night, Na Won-ju, eyes shut tight, is glued to her boyfriend in a desolate village in Yongin as pale figures in white with loose black hair dart out at them from the shadows.
Unlike in the West, where spooky activities like Halloween are concentrated in the darker months of the year, visiting haunted houses at amusement parks and watching horror movies are a popular summer pastime in South Korea, with people believing a good fright will help them keep cool.
Na, 25, is one of the thrill-seeking young Koreans spending the night in a village in Yongin, 40 km south of Seoul, where people dressed up as ghosts roam at will.
“I came here just to beat the heat, but it was spookier than I thought,” said Na, clutching her boyfriend’s arm.
Summer is the season of horror in South Korea, when traditional spooks called “gwishin” - the souls of the dead trapped on earth - are believed to roam the countryside.
The Yongin village - otherwise used to shoot historical dramas - puts on the ghosts for the summer, the only such event in the country. But people interested in spirits also gather to visit houses that are said to be haunted.
Most Korean ghost figures are female or so-called “virgin ghosts” with long hair who wear white sobok, traditional mourning clothes. They existed for years as a warning to society, since to die a virgin - which in those days meant single - was a disgrace in patriarchal Korean society.
Children thrill each other with tales of a bathroom gwishin, who lives in squat toilets and asks people if they would prefer blue toilet paper or red toilet paper. Urban legend has it that one recording studio is haunted by the silhouette of a ghostly singer or echoes of songs - though seeing a ghost while recording is believed to guarantee a hit.
Some Korean parents use ghost stories as a way of imparting moral lessons.
Yet the return of the dead also contains a deeper meaning in Korea, where rapid industrialization and urbanization has lifted the country out of poverty to rich nation status in a generation.
“Gwishins appear when we have to move forward but they are being a drag on us,” said Baek Moonim, professor of Korean Language and Literature at Yonsei University in Seoul.
“As Korea has many such unforgettable scars, I think that’s why they keep showing up,” referring to the Korean Peninsula’s long history of colonization and its present division.
Korea’s ghostly traditions were revived by the popularity of horror films from the 1960s to the 1980s, but their stories date back centuries, said Baek, who has written a book on Korean female ghosts in Korean horror movies.
Horror movies returned to popularity in the late 1990s at a time when “profligate” women were blamed for the 1997 Asian financial crisis, Baek said.
“(The presence of gwishin) gets stronger when there is a need to deal with women socially or culturally,” she added.
Just as the image of Korean women is changing to one that’s more pro-active and positive, so are the images of ghosts in popular culture.
Broadcaster MBC’s romantic comedy drama “Arang and the Magistrate” is based on an old Korean ghost story and features a bubbly female ghost named Arang who suffers amnesia after her death, and tries to find her killer with a magistrate who can see ghosts.
Reporting By Jane Chung, editing by Elaine Lies