Terror Cult: Korean Ghost Stories

Each week on Terror Cult, CraveOnline’s Devon Ashby selects a particular niche of the horror genre and picks it apart to see how it works. This week, our focus is on Korean supernatural horror of the 2000s, which is operatically tragic, staggeringly bloody, and contemplatively restrained in its storytelling.

Supernatural horror is a subgenre that flourishes more or less worldwide, probably because such films are easily able to channel multiple sources of unease and discomfort simultaneously. A solid ghost story can provide as many opportunities for extreme violence and gore as a vintage slasher or knockoff straight-to-streaming torture porn, but with the added attraction of at least ostensible suspense, chills, and psychological intrigue. Even relatively modest cinematic contributors like Chile, Indonesia, and the Philippines have logged at least one or two internationally distributed gore films inspired by the darker annals of their local folklore.

From an international perspective, supernatural horror is ripe for analysis specifically because of how rich with cultural subtext it tends to be. As noted a few weeks ago, Hong Kong has produced a rich tradition of films inspired by ancient folk beliefs, particularly the fear of curses and black magic. More recently, Korean horror has shown a similar propensity for very specifically approaching stories about hauntings and possession. The cultural influences in this case are more buried than in the case of Hong Kong’s frenetic ‘70s exercises in Psychotronia, but the stylistic unity is just as remarkable, and just as telling.

Supernatural horror films produced in Korea during the late 1990s and early 2000s are typically brimming with extreme gore set pieces, yet paradoxically, their pacing is languid and contemplative. Their plots involve a lurking, mysterious presence that gradually corrupts and corrodes the realities of its characters. The story is very often revenge-themed, and the overwhelming mood is one of painful and inevitable tragedy, underscored by a mounting chaos of jaw-dropping bloodshed. Aside from shared plot elements, what ties these movies together thematically is their focus on the disintegration of personal relationships, and the guilt and shame associated with private ethical ambiguities – jealousy, selfishness, and past mistakes.

Whispering Corridors (1998)

Widely considered to be the first noteworthy Korean horror film (at least of its era), Whispering Corridors takes place in a girls’ high school following the mysterious suicide of one of its least-loved instructors. As weird, unexplained deaths on school grounds begin to accrue after hours, it becomes apparent that the recent upswing is related to the death of a student, which took place several decades previously. Whispering Corridors touches on several themes related to the pain and torture of academic competition, but its most powerful focus is on institutionalized education as a violent destroyer of individual identity and creativity.

The Uninvited (2003)

Somewhat uncharacteristically featuring a male protagonist, Uninvited tells the story of a shy building contractor who becomes emotionally unhinged after witnessing the deaths of two small children on a subway car. Haunted by the apparitions of the two dead children, he eventually becomes serendipitously involved with a second witness to the crime, who appears to be the only other person capable of seeing them. Uninvited is more restrained than many other Korean horror films from the same period, focusing mainly on the emotional struggle of the central character and its haunting, ominous mood.

Acacia (2003)

Once again addressing issues related to home life and marriage, Acacia explores problems in Korea related to adoption and foster care. An infertile couple adopts a young boy from an orphanage only to unexpectedly conceive their own child a few months later. Consequently, the boy is marginalized and neglected, forcing a huge, supernaturally possessed tree in the family’s backyard to come to his rescue. Apparently because of Korean culture’s incredible emphasis on family lineage and continuing bloodlines, adopting children carries a profound social stigma, and consequently most kids in Korea who are orphaned or given up for adoption end up being raised in foster care. The condemning attitude of the film toward its protagonists reflects a disdain on the part of the filmmakers for the callous selfishness that allows those cultural attitudes to persist.

A Tale of Two Sisters (2003)

Probably the strongest example on the list, Tale of Two Sisters catalogues a teenage girl’s attempts to readjust to everyday life in the wake of a traumatic event. Already struggling to maintain her emotional equilibrium, she’s forced to contend with powerful horrific memories associated with her family home, as well as the acidic presence of her new stepmother. Two Sisters’ captivating atmosphere and skin-crawling violent tendencies make it a truly chilling and captivating example of the subgenre, one of the most genuinely chilling Asian horror films ever made, and one of the most stylish and poignant as well.

The Wig (2005)

Impressively gory and surprisingly well conceived, The Wig is the story of two adult sisters, one of whom is suffering from untreatable cancer and is consequently forced to wear a wig made from real human hair, which turns out to be possessed by the vindictive spirit of its former owner. Hoping to ease her sister’s suffering, the older sister lies and claims her cancer has been cured, to the ultimate detriment of her relationship, her sanity, and both hers and her sister’s lives. Beneath the surface, The Wig is a story about sibling rivalry, jealousy, and the conflict between family responsibilities and personal desires, as well as the fear of sudden tragedy leaving such tender issues eternally and painfully unresolved.

Cello (2005)

Also a particularly gory installment, Cello opens with a red herring revenge premise that’s later revised and expanded upon so profoundly it’s reduced to little more than vague foreshadowing. After being confronted by a vindictive former student about a failing grade, a cello instructor and former soloist begins to experience a number of strange, horrific occurrences. The source of the bizarre havoc appears connected to a tragic event from her adolescence, but to what extent remains tantalizingly unclear. Cello deals with issues of betrayal and remorse, and the fear of losing undeserved blessings as punishment for past wrongdoings.

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Devon Ashby is a featured contributor on CraveOnline. Follow her on Twitter at @DevAshby