The Korean virgin ghost legends may be based on the ideals that all a woman needs is a husband, but the anger of these spirits tells of a woman with another purpose. And that is mostly vengeance. 

There are according to legend, several signs that can occur when encountering a Korean virgin ghost. The temperature may suddenly drop, the wind may change direction. And the eerie feeling of chills on your whole body will take hold. 

The Korean Virgin Ghost or Cheonyeogwisin (처녀귀신), in Korean, is one of those old legends in Korea that just won’t die, and so won’t the spirit either. The ghost is considered to be a staple of Korean ghost lore and is probably the most seen and used ghost in movies, books and good old ghost stories. They are originally from Korean folklore, but also make an appearance in modern urban legend and contemporary ghost stories as well. 

What is a Virgin Ghost?

The legend of the virgin ghost in Korea is the belief that unmarried women that died before they were wed off, are so full of remorse they are unable to go on into the afterlife. The name was coined during a time where an unmarried woman was in theory the same as a virgin. And the reasoning and purpose of the ghosts are also modeled after very old and strict ideals of a woman. 

The legend of the unmarried ghosts is spurned after Confucian ideals of how to be a woman and the dangers when breaking the rules. In the old days, unmarried people were regarded almost as children and it was a shameful thing to be unmarried, especially for women. 

Women have always been told, or at least used to be told, that their purpose in life was to first serve their father, then marry and serve their husband and then have children to serve. And if she died before fulfilling her purpose, her life would have been meaningless and she could turn into a virgin ghost, haunting empty houses and buildings, schools and forests.  

But when we take a closer look at the legends of the supposed virgin ghost, there are many that don’t fit the criteria at all of the “unfulfilled woman”, but rather, young women filled with rage and in search of justice for themselves, or in some cases, revenge on those who wronged them. Not unlike the legends of the Onryō.

Onryo English: Yūrei ゆふれい from Bakemono no e (化物之繪, c. 1700), Harry F. Bruning Collection of Japanese Books and Manuscripts, L. Tom Perry Special Collections, Harold B. Lee Library, Brigham Young University. Date circa 1700 Source https://archive.org/details/bakemonozukushie00 Author Brigham Young University

Onryō — the Vengeful Japanese Spirit

In many cultures, ghosts are put in different categories. Such is the case with Onryō (怨霊 onryō,) It basically means “vengeful spirit” or “wrathful spirit” in Japanese and is a mythological spirit of vengeance from Japanese folklore. They also have ghosts, called yurei, but these differ in the will of the ghost. As opposed to the yurei, these ghosts doesn’t just get over their revenge thoughts.

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Famous Virgin Ghosts

There have been many tales of the Cheonyeogwisin, or virgin ghost throughout Korean history. Two of the more famous Korean virgin ghosts are in the Korean folktale from the Joseon era, The Story of Janghwa and Hongryeon. A story of two sisters that died at the hands of their evil stepmother before their wedding. They came back as ghosts to get their revenge and set things straight. This story was also adapted into the modern horror movie from 2003, titled A Tale of Two Sisters, directed by Kim Jee-woon.

The legend of Janghwa and Hongryeon that turned into virgin ghosts, is a classic Korean ghost story that continues to inspire and scare. A Tale of Two Sisters | Netflix
Famous Ghosts: Many adaptation of the story has been made over the years.//Screenshot from the movie, ‘A Tale of Two Sisters’

In modern times the ghost can still be spotted in both horror movies, as in, almost every Korean horror movie as well as romantic k-dramas like “Oh My Ghost”, “Arang and the Magistrate”, “Hey Ghost, Let’s Fight” we meet a Cheonyeogwisin in true ghost story style, but in some modern retellings of the old myth, they are not always unmarried, and not always a virgin in the strictest sense. 

Appearance Of The Virgin Ghost

Most often the Korean virgin ghost or Cheonyeogwisin is depicted wearing a white hanbok, a traditional attire in Korea called Sobok (소복) which is a traditional mourning hanbok. In most Korean ghost stories she usually has her hair down as the married women traditionally tied their hair up. And as this particularly ghost legend is not, she has no choice but to let her hair down.

Originally the virgin ghost was often mistaken as a living person because they looked like it. Like in the famous Korean folktale ‘The Story of Janghwa and Hongryeon’ they are described like normal people:  “A beautiful woman dressed in a green jacket and a scarlet skirt came in quietly and bowed.” The ghost looked so great and real that the governor had to ask: “Are you a human or a demon, tell me the truth!”

But over the years the ghost has become more dramatic in the way it looks, perhaps in large part to scare factor in horror movies. Korea and the ghost story culture of the old times changed drastically, especially post colonialism and globalisation in the modern era, so many of the traditional ways of looking at things are now influenced by Japanese, Chinese and also Western influence and many of the original things with the virgin ghosts have been put in the background.

Nowadays the spirit is sometimes reported to have a pale face with dark circles with small drops of blood on the side of her mouth. Sometimes she is even shedding tears of blood or fully covered in it. As stated earlier it is very much reminiscent of the Japanese Onryo or vengeful spirit, but recontextualised in a Korean suit.  

The Korean virgin ghost may be based on the ideals that all a woman needs is a husband, but the anger of these spirits tells of a woman with another purpose. And that is mostly vengeance. Gisaeng House Ghost Story - Hometown Legends S01E06 | TVmaze
The bloody version: The virgin ghost has evolved into a more bloody and violent ghost than before.
Source: Screengrab from Hometown Legends: Gisaeng House Ghost Story.

There is a male version of this particular ghost as well, called Chonggakgwishin (총각귀신) or the Korean Bachelor Ghost in old Korean folktales, although they are not portrayed as intimidating as their female counterpart. There are also not really many famous stories where the bachelor part of the ghosts identity is in focus. As with all Korean ghosts or Gwisin, especially those who seek vengeance or have something unfulfilled, are most often female. 

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‘Han’ The Grudge

Han is a Korean expression and even a cultural phenomenon that holds a lot of different meanings throughout the years. But one of them is a deep sense of grudge that can linger even after death. This is similar to many types of ghosts in Asian culture, like onryo or the vengeful or hungry ghost that we can find stories of in many Asian countries. 

It was thought the virgin ghost directed their resentment against other women their age, harassing and harming them for getting the chance to have something they never would. Couples in love and newlyweds were also a target for the woman with a grudge.

Frost can fall even in May and June, if a woman harbors a grudge [han].
(A woman’s vengeance knows no bounds.)

여자가 한을 품으면 오뉴월에도 서리가 내린다.

This is one of many Korean proverbs about the resentment of a woman and alludes to just how dangerous that can be. Since the old times they thought the resentment was deep when a virgin died, and the fear of the living being possessed by one was huge. Because they believed that if you got possessed by a virgin ghost, you too would become resentful and not be able to get married. 

In today’s rereading of these stories the conclusion of the why has changed somewhat as the view on a woman’s place in society has changed drastically in most cases. Perhaps the ghost is not manifesting because the woman was robbed of the chance of knowing marital bliss and raising children.

Modern perspective reads more of the woman’s rage after all the years of oppression and being ignored throughout history rather than her inability to fulfill the wishes of the patriarchy. The modern Cheonyeogwisin is perhaps a more fitting image for the rebelling female. And perhaps that is also why the appearance of the ghost has changed from a neat perfect lady in hanbok to a bloodsoaked women with unkempt hair and revenge in mind. 

Scared of the Virgin Ghosts

The best way to not turn into a virgin ghost according to old tradition, was to get married as soon as possible, problem solved, no Cheonyeogwisin in the afterlife for you. But even after death there were steps taken to prevent a virgin ghost from taking hold over the deceased spirit. The steps was not only for the dead in question, but also for the family, friends, and the entire village as they were terrified of these ghosts. 

One of the things they did to prevent a virgin ghost from taking hold over the spirit of the dead woman was to place small dolls of straw in the coffin. The dolls were made with mens clothing and a huge emphasis on the male genitalia to help ease her suffering. It was believed she wouldn’t miss the contact of men as much because she would have something phallic to comfort her in her grave and her afterlife. 

The diseased woman was then buried with the coffin upside down so that she wouldn’t be able to get out and turn into a Cheonyeogwisin. It was all complete when thorns were placed around the coffin. This all shows just how much the Korean virgin ghost was feared back in the day and how only phallic motifs could help preventing them.

How To Get Rid Of A Virgin Ghost

So that is how to prevent a virgin ghost from forming, but how did they deal with the Cheonyeogwisin already existing? It was thought that the only way to get rid of them was a ritual of some sort of exorcism, or ‘soul wedding’ (yeonghongyeolhonsig 영혼결혼식), as it was called.

It was most often held for the virgin and the bachelor ghost, making them a couple in the afterlife so that their souls could finally rest in peace. Korea was not the only country who practiced these weddings of dead people as ghost marriages was also a tradition in China.

Ghost Marriage — The Chinese Way to Marry the Dead

In China there was a tradition of ghost marriage where the family of the dead arrange a marriage from beyond the grave, and there are still cases where the old tradition is not quite dead. 

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And if there was not a ghost of a bachelor in need of a ghost bride, there are also cases where very phallic statues were erected, making the virgins go off into the afterlife apparently. There were also shrines dedicated to the Korean virgin ghost with phallic carvings and sculptures displayed.

The Penis Park

Some of these phallic statues made to penetrate through the veil of revenge and appease the soul still exist today. One of the places you can still behold the phallic statues is Haesindang Park in Samcheok for instance, with over fifty penis statues in all shapes and sizes, ready to serve the wrath of the virgin ghost. It is otherwise known as the ‘penis park’,

The Korean virgin ghost may be based on the ideals that all a woman needs is a husband, but the anger of these spirits tells of a woman with another purpose. And that is mostly vengeance. The remedy: One of the statues found in Haesindang Park in Sinnam. This one appropriately titled, The Smiling Penis.
The remedy: One of the statues found in Haesindang Park in Sinnam. This one appropriately titled, The Smiling Penis.
Photo: Steven16091984
/Wiki

The main legend behind this park is in fact about a woman that died before being married. The local legend is known as: Legend of Auebawi and Haesindang. She was left behind on a rock in the sea by her husband to be when he went out to sea to fish. He was supposed to pick her up again on his way back, but when he returned, she had died by being taken by a big wave and drowning. After this the fish disappeared from the area and they all believed it was the woman’s remorse and sadness that was at fault.

So how does this relate to penises? Well, a young man urinated into the same water and it was like this was what the fish had all been waiting for and they returned to the area. It was believed that all that was needed was a penis in the mix, and the spirit was appeased. In its honour the fishing community decided to build the penis park filled with these statues.

Since then biannual religious gatherings known as Haesindang is held on the rock, known as Aebawi Rock. They have also built a shrine in the virgin ghost’s honour, all to make sure they won’t be bothered by the wrath of her ever again.

Today, the tales of the virgin ghosts are not necessarily about getting married like in the old folktales, but fulfilling the things you couldn’t do in life. Therefore there are many ghost stories about virgin ghosts being able to pass on after fulfilling their purpose unrelated to getting married. And according to some of these stories, the purpose of the ghosts are releasing their full fledged anger.

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