The “Red Mask” refers to the most prominent variation of an urban legend that was widely circulated in South Korea around the year 2004. As an urban legend originating from Japan’s story of the Kuchisake-onna (slit-mouthed woman; popular urban legend during 1990s Japan), the story itself was in circulation in Japan as early as the late 1970s, and first circulated around South Korea circa 1993 before re-emerging a decade later.
The informant is a South Korean native born in 1997, being seven years old during 2004 – the peak of the urban legend’s circulation. He recalls his classmates talking about the Red Mask, some with worry and others with possibly feigned bravery. Transcript of my conversation with him is as follows:
“So the Red Mask thing… it went like this, I think. A woman wearing a red mask asks a person if she looks pretty. In some stories, the person replies yes, and the woman makes her ‘look the same as her’ – she rips open both ends of the mouth until the mouth extends from ear to ear like the Joker from Batman, just with a bigger laceration! But if you say ‘I don’t know’, she only rips one side of your mouth. Some dudes also used to say that they saw different masks: For example, the Blue Mask is the Red Masks’s girlfriend. I’ve even heard stories where the Red Mask is goddamn five stories tall!”
The “Red Mask” urban legend is pertinent for a number of reasons: Firstly, it is an example of urban legends going across borders and experiencing changes in the process of doing so; as a nationally famous and well-documented example, the urban legend gives anthropologists opportunities to better understand how different national identities can affect representation of that culture. Secondly, the changes made in the iteration that circulated in South Korea in the 2000s were very different from the original urban legend – although the stories both told of a mysterious woman wearing a mask, the woman is quiet, mysterious and unsettling in the Japanese version, whereas in South Korea the woman is depicted as wearing a red mask and possesses inhuman strength and size. Many suspect the initial circulation of the legend to be from parents’ scaring stories meant to keep their child away from strangers. Therefore, the embellished description of a fearful figure may be just as significant in describing the Korean psyche of fear and not just transformations in folklore across borders.