Thanks to commenter Kevin Kim, I’ve been spending some time poking around in Korean blogs. All cultures, of course, have their odd little quirks and idiosyncracies (the United States is no exception, of course, what with our drive-thru wedding chapels, monster truck pulls, and our penchant for Mespotamian nation-building), and I’ve run across one that seems to be unique to Korea. No, it isn’t kimchi. I’m referring, of course, to fan death.

South Korea has a warm and muggy climate, and as in most warm places where electricity is available, people there often cool themselves with motorized fans. The difference is, in Korea the practice is believed to put one’s life at risk.

This seems preposterous, of course, because it is. All that electric fans do is create a breeze, and a breeze makes us feel cooler because it disturbs the microlayer of warm moist air that hugs our skin. This layer of air is, in hot conditions, saturated with water vapor, and moving it aside allows drier, cooler air to take its place, and permits the mechanism of evaporative cooling do do its work. All of this seems harmless enough, and can offer blessed relief on a warm sticky night.

But apparently Koreans see using an electric fan as thumbing one’s nose at Death, right up there with eating fugu or playing drums for Spinal Tap. The seemingly beneficial appliance has a variety of lethal arrows in its quiver, we are told: hypothermia, suffocation, and “paralysis of the heart and lungs”, to name just a few, and fans there are sold with a timer mechanism that turns them off after a little while (presumably sometime between the onset of sleep and the moment of death). When folks point out that nobody outside Korea seems to die from using electric fans, the response is that there is something about the physiology of native Koreans that makes them susceptible; when skeptics adduce the further observation that people of Korean parentage who grow up elsewhere seem able, somehow, to survive a night in a warm room with one of these whirling assassins, no further defense is made, but the belief persists nonetheless.

Want to learn more about this bizarre cultural tic? Of course you do, and you’re in luck — the thanatopic lore surrounding this phenomenon is extensive. Wikipedia has an excellent treatment here, there is an entire website devoted to the issue here, and a quick Google search will turn up a good deal more besides. Just don’t stay online too long. If your CPU gets too hot, you know what might happen.

One Comment

  1. Kevin Kim says

    Many thanks for the shout-out. My own take on the matter is here.


    Posted October 9, 2006 at 1:55 am | Permalink

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