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And So, He Said

OZ Episode
Shinjuku Underground

The Two of Us

Korean Ghosts
Does This Dress Make Me Look Uncute?
Movie Review: Survive Style 5+
Personal Essay: Schedenfreude
Personal Essay: Pessimism

The Ghost of High School Girls Past.

A magazine article written about Korean horror cinema's tendency to often focus on schools, and its link to corporal punishment in Korea. Fall 2010.

Spend enough summers in Korea looking at the rotation of different horror movie posters that come and go, and you very quickly realize that it's all just part of a long, long serenade to a couple themes that are continuously rehashed. Pale girls with long stringy hair (present in just about any Korean or Japanese horror film, immortalized in pop culture by the image of Sadako crawling out of the old well in Ring) are by the far the biggest loves of Asian horror, but there are a few considerably close runner-ups: family-related grudges, ghosts that harness the power of modern technology and -- quite often -- schools.

Not old schools, or the ruins of schools, or even schools-that-used-to-be-something-else-that-was-haunted. Just plain old schools that everyone should be able to identify with. Your typical Korean middle or high school plays the setting to a wide variety of horror movies, starting with the massively popular Whispering Corridors series (including Memento Mori and Wishing Stairs), spanning to films like Death Bell, Bunshinsaba and To Sir, With Love -- the last of which had just about the most terrifying teaser-trailer I've ever seen in my many years of having to sit through numerous horror movie trailers whenever I went to the theaters in the summer.

Allow me to elaborate. I'm a huge fan of gory horror movies, and it's rare for me to cringe away from simple bloodshed and violence. And while I'm a bit weaker against supernatural (or "creepy") horror movies, it's not that I'd run shrieking from just anything. (Paranormal Activity, which was toted as "the creepiest movie ever" made me jump, but didn't give me nightmares, and I thoroughly enjoyed Saw.)

To Sir, With Love, originally titled Teacher's Mercy in Korean or Bloody Reunion for its Tartan DVD release, was released in the summer of 2006. Summer is the prime season for horror movies in South Korea, as there's the saying that scary stories that send a "chill down your spine" will ward off the summer heat. Unfortunately, this tends to overlap with the flood of summer blockbusters, courtesy of the United States, and moviegoers are often stuck in an awkward position between these two camps.

My father, an avid film fan, had taken me to accompany him to the third X-Men film (because he liked having company at the theater but my mother refused to keep him company for "such a crass movie") and I had expected nothing but two hours of mindless, mutant-filled entertainment. There was no way I was prepared for the trailers.

There must have been at least four or five trailers, of which I'm sure one or two were for standard horror films. (Scary girl ghosts, hands reaching from the dark, maybe a cursed cellphone or two.) The teaser for To Sir, With Love, came last and -- according to the version I found on YouTube for the express purpose of reliving my nightmare -- went a bit like this:

The teaser is presented in black and white, except for blood, which is a vivid red. Children who look to be in elementary school, dressed in uniform, sit in a strangely spacious classroom. The female teacher is in a wheelchair and neckbrace, for some unexplained reason. A mounted deer head on the wall begins bleeding from the eyes, as one girl reads from her textbook, complete with exact illustrations, "Jill goes to school. Jack goes to school. Jill and Jack are good friends. Jack bullies Jill. Jack and all of his friends bully Jill together." A different girl busily stabs her desk with the point of her drawing compass, drawing beads of blood. "Jack keeps stabbing Jill." The teacher hits the palms of a boy with a ruler -- when the camera cuts to her anguished face, then back to her hand, the ruler has turned into a sickle. All of this, and more, set to the backdrop of forest noises, the slow grind of an unknown heavy object, and a ghostly woman's humming. The title floats at the top left corner, in blood-red, Teacher's Mercy.

I think I was perfectly justified in whimpering like a little kid and burying my face rather pathetically in my dad's shoulder. My dad, grumbling disapprovingly under his breath, muttered that this was one of the cruelest horror film teasers he'd ever seen, especially because it precluded such a (comparatively) innocuous film. I can't help but wonder if any other stupid, young teenagers in the audience that day were traumatized.

It wasn't until years later that a combination of morbid curiosity and a stupid desire to prove myself courageous (to who, I'm not sure, since I watched it alone and no one I knew had even heard of the film) drove me to sit through To Sir, With Love. Not only did it turn out to be more of a thriller than a supernatural horror, but it also didn't use any of the horrific footage from the teaser. The film, as a whole, wasn't anywhere near as terrifying as the teaser had been. The only things that remained consistent between the teaser and the film were the presence of a wheelchair-bound female teacher and the constant feeling that schools are inherently creepy.

The question that this raises, of course, is -- why schools? Many American horror films do place college students at the mercy of vengeful monsters or leave young people in the hands of hockey-mask-clad murderers, but the fixation on school-centered horrors seems to be a fairly "Korean thing." Part of the matter maybe simply be that schools are easy to identify with; most everyone has, at some time or the other, attended school. And Korean schools do look a bit creepy -- mostly made of cold concrete, with long, featureless corridors and very few lights at night, they look a bit like how one might imagine a decrepit mental institution. But the tendency for schools to be so often painted as the perfect home for a vengeful ghost probably has some deeper roots -- roots dealing with corporal punishment that are more exclusive to Korean culture.

The phrase "corporal punishment," for most of the English-speaking world, probably brings up the mental image of an old schoolmaster beating some unruly student with a willow switch, both parties still dressed in stuffy uniforms. This was a practice originally drawn from the caning of boys in British schools which has since become the standard of corporal punishment for most of the English-speaking world.

But such sights would be comparatively more uncommon in modern days. Thirty U.S. states have banned corporal punishment in public schools (private schools are often exempt from this law, except for in New Jersey and Iowa where corporal punishment is banned for all schools), and even within the states where paddling is still allowed (mostly the Southern states, including Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Louisiana, Oklahoma, and Texas), its use has been in steady decline. According to the anti-spanking campaign Center for Effective Discipline, federal statistics indicate that "the number of students spanked or paddled in 2006 in U.S. public schools was about 223,000." Furthermore, many schools have started using an "opt-out" or "opt-in" system where students and their parents may decide whether their children may be given a spanking as punishment -- a system probably put in place to avoid any lawsuits.

Corporal punishment has been similarly banned throughout most of Europe, and in countries such as South Africa, Japan and New Zealand -- curiously, it is also technically banned in countries such as Russia, North Korea, and mainland China. And thus, it remains in practice mostly in Africa, the Middle East, and Southeast Asia. Singapore and Malaysia keep South Korea company in the rather small list of countries where applying a blunt object to a student is still accepted without question.

That is not to say that the practice goes without controversy. Foreigners visiting the country to teach English (a rather common profession for any native English speakers who stay in Korea long enough to hold a job) are often appalled by the student-beating practices at public schools, and it takes little more than a few clicks through an internet search to find long squabbles about whether corporal punishment is necessary and, even if it is, whether these punishments are being wielded in an appropriate manner.

Because while, technically, there are guidelines for the use of corporal punishment -- the government recommends that a teacher deliver no more than 10 blows with a stick that's no thicker than 1.5cm in diameter, which may already seem cruel to an unsuspecting individual -- corporal punishment can get very brutal very quickly in Korean schools. Several videos float around YouTube and its video-hosting ilk, showing a teacher punching a high-school girl across the head or beating a clearly-cowering male student with a bamboo sword. Not the best pictures of restraint. And there is no shortage of horror stories about teachers who can be more 'creative' -- teachers who will force students to take off their skirts in front of other students, or make them stand in the hallway in stress positions for hours.

Personally, I was lucky enough to attend an American school in Korea full of rich yuppies and teachers who would never hit their students for fear of the repercussions, but I knew there were a few students who'd transferred in from Korean schools. My best friend throughout high school was one such transfer, and when I one day asked her about the ghastly rumors concerning punishments in Korean schools, she only thought for a moment before solemnly saying yes, they were very true.

She then proceeded to tell me about the time that one student's mishap in class earned everyone in class the punishment of kneeling on their desks, holding their chairs above their head for hours. Though it sounds ridiculous, but anyone who has spent a significant amount of time on their knees will know that it is no laughing matter.

A common Korean joke that floats around discusses how lax Americans are -- the joke goes that some American was arrested for hitting his dog, what a strange country America is, where you can be arrested even for hitting an animal! Ha ha ha! (Of course, this can be countered with English jokes about dog-eating Koreans, but that's neither here nor now.) And while I don't know enough about animal cruelty laws in Korea to see a man would be arrested for the same crime in Korea, I think the existence of such a joke proves that corporal punishment still exists in Korea more because of the cultural mindset associated with it, rather than because of its supposed effectiveness.

Corporal punishment in schools and in homes has long since been accepted without question in Korea, and unless the teacher or parents has taken this to the extreme and severely injured a child (which has happened before), such cases are rarely pointed out as problematic. In some cases, the logic goes that "a teacher who will hit his students is a teacher who cares for his students" -- most likely the same logic that drives parents to spank their children, but taken up a notch. And many Koreans who defend the corporal punishment system say that the reason they have grown to become law-abiding, fully-functioning adults is because they were disciplined as children.

But the validity of such a cause-and-effect argument aside, it cannot be denied that beatings at school -- especially the unregulated, public affairs that take place in Korean schools -- tend to cultivate an atmosphere of fear. Korean schools are already notorious for their high stress levels: students often sleep less than six hours a night, supplementing their time at school with hours of studying at private "cram schools," all in preparation for the suneug test -- a test taking place once every year which will determine a student's post-secondary education and, in essence, their future. Suicide rates tend to soar around the time of the suneung tests, as students crack under the pressure of high expectations and Spartan study schedules. According to a government report released at the tail end of 2006, "In 2005, 26.1 out of every 100,000 South Koreans committed suicide, a dramatic increase from 11.8 people in 1995." And while there is no concrete statistic on how many of these are victims of the Korean school system, it's rare for the suneung season to go by without at least one suicide every year.

Add to this the threat that a teacher may give the entire class a beating due to one student's mishap, and many Korean children probably grow up loathing their school. While some may argue that this strict discipline is the driving force behind the large number of intelligent, well-trained math-whiz Korean scholars, it's hard to ignore the fact that schools are rarely painted as healthy environments to learn in. A lot of people hate their high school past, as a general rule, but the Korean sense of dread about school is unique.

And it is this deeply-ingrained fear response that Korean horror movie artists probably love to prey upon. An American horror film set in a high school explaining the grudge that a students holds for a cruel teacher would seem a bit unrealistic and raise a plethora of questions about the plot -- why isn't the teacher being punished for manhandling the students, why aren't the students speaking out about their cruel treatment, why was this matter not legally pursued? But the 'do whatever it takes to discipline the kids' approach that is almost universally accepted in the Korean public school system means that it doesn't take much effort for an audience to suspend their disbelief while watching such a movie and take pity on the tormented protagonist.

In one interview, director Ki-Young Park, the man behind Whispering Corridors, said of the Korean school system, "I personally think that a teacher-student relationship is a power game, with one a victim and one a master. So the master has the power to do anything, and the victim has no choice but to be subservient, to follow. I do not have a positive outlook on the Korean educational system." Given that his film paints the story of tormented high school girls, a vengeful spirit, and an abusive teacher with the subtle nickname of "Mad Dog" who swears at and backhands aforementioned girls, it's not difficult to see that yes, Park does not like the Korean school system. And maybe he has a valid viewpoint on the matter.

In Whispering Corridors, the character of the Mad Dog teacher is introduced pacing before a line of female students as they stand with their heads bowed. Mad Dog threateningly slaps a wooden baton into his palm, and pokes it against the chest of a girl he seems to particularly dislike. In the aforementioned To Sir, With Love, the female teacher supposedly beat a student badly enough to cripple him, ruining his prospects of a career in professional sports. And the basic premise of Death Bell is that, during the final exam period for a high school, some unknown authority figure will give exam questions to a class and kill a student for each question that is answered incorrectly.

The general vibe I'm getting here is that a student's life is at stake, when it comes to school. Forget about detentions and suspensions, take a step out of line and you might end up dead, or as a vengeful ghost. 

I dare not attempt to tackle the issue of corporal punishment as a whole, as it's such a giant, tangled mess. The matter of a parent or instructor's right to wield violence as a method of discipline, versus the negative impact it may have a child's development must take so many factors and variants into consideration, and there is probably no single definitive answer to the question. But I do think that the cultural divide when it comes to acceptance of corporal punishment is a very, very deep one.

And while horror movies are not necessarily the pinnacle of political commentary, they do tend to exploit what people are most afraid of. The best horror movies are the ones that prey upon the fears that are most deepset in people's minds. So the fact that every summer, I have to spend a significant amount of time cringing in dark corridors in fear of a vengeful schoolgirl coming to haunt me after she cursed her abusive teacher to death must mean something.

Maybe that I need to find a better way of avoiding horror movie trailers.