Background: This story is a common one told to children by their parents in Korea. According to the informant, it is especially told when the parent wishes to emphasize filial piety or when the child misbehaves. It is also a popular tale during camping trips.
Context: The informant conveyed this story to me over a video call, in the daylight at their house. They told the story with energy and passion, emphasizing certain onomatopoeia with gestures and carrying animated expressions throughout.
Relation to story: The informant learned this story from her parents and teachers. She explained that her parents would tell it with relative frequency and casually make references to it semi-frequently, every few weeks. They consider it a chilling tale, reiterating that it “made the hairs on the back of her neck stand up” when she heard it as a child. She states that the details were graphic and suspects it was likely told to get her to behave as a child, mentioning how she was unruly when she was younger.
*(Notes: The informant will be referred to as “M” in the following text. Furthermore, this was originally told in Korean; it appears here in its translated form, translated by the interviewer.)
I: When did you first hear this story?
M: I heard it first from my parents, then my teachers, then on TV on a program called “Korean Ghost Stories”. It’s commonly told in summer. Something about summer makes people want to tell ghost stories, to “get a chill” I guess.
I: Thank you. Could you tell me this story in full?
M: A long, long, time ago, there was a respected grandson who lived in a village. He was living with his grandmother, whom he assisted. However, this grandmother was very sick, and there wasn’t enough money in the house either, and he was trying to buy whatever medicine he could with the small amount of money he did have, living day to day just trying to stay alive.
I: What happened to his parents?
M: Oh, it doesn’t really say in the story. Maybe they’re at work far away, or maybe they died. It wasn’t that weird for grandchildren and grandparents to live together anyways, so it doesn’t really matter.
I: I see.
M: So, one day, he was preparing to cross a river, and in the middle like shaaa there was this massive bridge. Then, while he was preparing to cross the river, there came a wise man crossing from the other direction, who went plop! into the stream. The grandson rushed over and pulled the wise man out of the water, and the wise man kept saying “Oh, thank you so much, thank you so much, is there anything I can help with? Anything that bothers your mind?”. The son responded, “Oh, lately my grandmother is very sick, but no medicine can help her, and my mind is full of worry because of it.” He said it exactly like that. The wise man responded, “Go to the local cemetery nearby, and find a corpse who hasn’t been dead for more than 3 days, and cut off its leg. Then, if you boil it in water and make a soup, and have your grandmother drink it, she’ll be better.” He said it like that, and the grandson kept saying “How could I do that, Wise Man, oh, how could I do that,” and then he noticed that the wise man had disappeared without a trace.
I: So the wise man was a ghost?
M: Maybe he was, or maybe he was just a vision sent by the gods or something for being hardworking. It doesn’t really matter.
I: Kind of like a reward, then. (laughs) Although I don’t know if that’s really a reward, being told to go dig up a corpse.
M: Super grotesque. So, the grandson went back home, and the grandmother kept coughing like she would die at any moment, and just then he saw a funeral procession go by the house, and he started to think. The first night after he saw it, he worried and worried, not sure whether he should do it or not. The second night—remember, he has to get the corpse within 3 days— the second night, his grandmother was so ill, coughing “Oh, my child,” and he felt like his heart was going to tear. He couldn’t stand it, so he went to the kitchen and grabbed a knife, and went to the graveyard. He went to the graveyard, and was tearing up the dirt everywhere, and suddenly it started to rain and thunder—Boom! Clap!—and lightning started to flash. He was so scared but what could he do? Thinking, “For my grandmother,” he gritted his teeth and kept digging furiously, windmilling dirt around. So then, a corpse finally popped out—tuk!—and he chopped off the leg—tuk!—and was turning around to go home, when suddenly something (tuk!) grabbed his leg, moaning “Give me back my leg.” So the grandson screamed, “AHHHH!” and scared, sprinted like crazy away from the graveyard, but since the corpse was missing the leg, it kept chasing kong kong kong after the grandson, still moaning “Give me back my leg”. It was so scary that he was dodging this way and dodging that way and tripping and falling and he finally arrived at his home near-crawling. Then he went inside and quickly boiled a pot bugulbugul and tossed the leg in and when he finally turned to look outside, on the floor, there was ginseng—you know, how ginseng can be in the form of human-like shapes—ginseng with one of its “legs” cut off lying there on the floor. Waow, he was wondering what it could be, so he quickly grabbed it up and put it in the pot too, and closed the lid tight, and boiled it papapa. He was thinking “Oh, I have to save my grandmother,” and when he opened the lid, the ginseng—the cut-leg ginseng from earlier and its “leg” which transformed into ginseng too—was boiling away. So he went “Oh, what is this? This is so weird” but anyways since he remembered the wise man’s words from earlier, he put some in a bowl and put it in his grandmother’s mouth, and once she drank it she was completely better and bulduk (onomatopoeia for getting up) stood up, healed.
I: That’s so scary! So why’d it transform like that?
M: My parents always told me it was because they wanted to test how far the grandson was really devoted. Or maybe it was so I would eat the ginseng they bought sometimes at the market. (laughs)
Interpretation: This story consistently emphasizes elder worship and rewards the grandson for being an attentive and helpful family member. As the informant says, this story was commonly told from parents to children, likely with the intention of imparting lessons about respecting one’s elders and the concept of filial piety. Taking the informant’s Korean background into consideration, we can gain further perspective on the key themes. The inclusion of the wise man in the story is especially interesting; historical Korea tended towards an emphasis on spiritualism and shamanistic practices (although in recent years they have increasingly been adopting Christianity) and the “wise man” is a callback to this time. However, according to the informant, the wise man’s identity as a ghost or a spirit isn’t the main focus of the story. The nonchalance with which he is treated by the informant reveals that these kinds of spiritual experiences were not entirely uncommon in stories. The corpse’s leg transforming into a ginseng root also holds significant importance. Ginseng root is commonly prescribed as a panacea by various herbal medicine stores, which suggests that this could be an origin story for the practice. The transformation also adds an additional meaning to the horror story, as it removes the horror element of the grandmother drinking human-flesh broth and shifts the story to one of ultimate filial piety. The informant says that their parents said it was to test the grandson’s devotion to his grandmother; I hypothesize that the ginseng root transformation helped ground this story to reality and create a more easily teachable lesson to the children that heard it.