Visiting Some Haunted South Korean Sites

In South Korea, children don't get dressed up and go door to door asking for treats or tricks on Halloween, but there are a lot of places reputed to be haunted. Korean palaces, the Han River — even a U.S. Army Garrison.

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GUY RAZ, host:

One of the most popular classes at George Mason University is known as Zombies 101. And in a moment, we'll pay a visit. But first to South Korea, where on this Halloween Sunday, we asked reporter Doualy Xaykaothao for an audio tour of some of Seoul's spookiest places.

(Soundbite of drum)

DOUALY XAYKAOTHAO: On the grounds of Gyeongbokgung, perhaps the most popular of the royal palaces in Seoul, a ceremony to mark the change of guards is taking place. About 155 years ago, in this exact month, Empress Myeongseong Hwang, or Queen Min, was apparently murdered by Japanese assassins. Since then, there have been tales about how she returned and other ghost sightings.

We asked an elderly woman sitting nearby about ghosts. Does she see ghosts?

Unidentified Woman: (Through translator) She didn't see, but she can feel.

XAYKAOTHAO: At this point, security guards are starting to gather, and one even winks with laughter, listening to our conversation. So we approach him.

Have you ever heard anything or seen anything?

Unidentified Man: (Through translator) No, not at all.

XAYKAOTHAO: But then, he starts talking about another guard, who saw moving lights on the palace grounds long ago.

Unidentified Man: (Foreign language spoken)

XAYKAOTHAO: He says a security guard saw some white moving objects, but he feels the man probably just mistaken shadows behind windows as ghosts or something.

Dr. LAUREL KENDALL (Anthropologist, American Museum of Natural History): Who are the dead?

XAYKAOTHAO: Anthropologist Dr. Laurel Kendall of the American Museum of Natural History in New York has been studying shamans, gods and ghosts in Korea for three decades.

She says ideally, the dead are ancestors, people who lived a long life surrounded by family. The ghosts, however, are none of the above.

Dr. KENDALL: At the far end extreme of ultimate ghostness is this absolutely detached being. And battle sights, of course, are full of ghosts, very haunted.

XAYKAOTHAO: She says Korea has a history that many Koreans feel is deeply unresolved.

Dr. KENDALL: This is a divided country. This is a country that has never effectively ended the war. As long as the memories of people who left people in the other half of the country persists, then, yes, Korea is haunted both metaphorically and, in the shaman world, it becomes a literal haunting.

XAYKAOTHAO: Some 144 years ago, not far from the Yanghwajin Foreign Cemetery in Seoul, where we're standing now, Christian missionaries were brutally murdered, then taken to the nearby Han River as a warning to the incoming French fleet.

Park Eun-mi(ph) and her friend Han Dong-man(ph) are Catholics, visiting the cemetery on this cold evening. She says she's never seen a ghost, but believes in them.

Ms. PARK EUN-MI: (Foreign language spoken)

XAYKAOTHAO: She says her friend goes to this deep mountain path, sits there and prays for the dead. She says she sees spirits take rice because their hands leave imprints in the rice basket. Oh, we start to get goose bumps, and didn't want to hear anymore. So we scurried out of the cemetery before friendly, hungry Christian ghosts visited us.

As the sun began to set along the Han River, 67-year-old Ryu Seung-hwan(ph), our taxi driver, told us he absolutely does not believe in ghosts.

Mr. RYU SEUNG-HWAN: (Foreign language spoken)

XAYKAOTHAO: He explains that in the West, although people do not ignore ghosts, they do not worship or seek them as Korean ancestors have. He joked that if there were ghosts, then his two dead wives would have returned from their graves.

For NPR News, I'm Doualy Xaykaothao in Seoul.

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