Death By Fan: Cooling Killers In Korea
A favorite Halloween costume among expats in Korea is ‘Fan Death,’ a theme inspired by the (completely genuine and widespread) belief among Koreans that staying too long in a room with an electric fan will kill you.
To most foreigners, this is bewildering and certainly not scary. It’s comical really, and so a fan death themed Halloween costume makes perfect sense. I saw a great one that involved half a fan, which the wearer had taken the time to chop from the other half, attached to their chest and then surrounded by fake blood.
A fan flying out of its cage, across the room and slicing into you isn’t the actual threat of fan death (although incidentally I remember a fan did fly out of its cage and across the room towards me when I took Jesus Christ’s name in vain once), the reasoning that Koreans give is much more vague and mysterious and is along the lines of ‘it does something to the air.’
Terrified Koreans are most at risk when in a closed room, asleep and using an electric fan. Fans aren’t completely banned or avoided in Korea, they are just handled with extreme caution, like when an amateur takes a chainsaw to the trees in the yard. If you do risk using a fan, make sure to leave the doors open and don’t in the name of Christ (excuse me while I duck) fall asleep without switching it off.
Some conspiracy theorists suggest that the fears began or were encouraged in the 1970s by the South Korean government in an attempt to help solve the energy crisis which Korea, like much of the world, was facing. It was, perhaps not coincidentally, around that same time that Koreans began to worry that washing machines had dishonourable intentions towards their daughters. Okay that second bit isn’t true.
Whatever the basis for the conspiracy theory, it is the case that the Korean government plays its part in the perpetuation of the myth. In 2006, the Korea Consumer Protection Board (KCPB), a South Korean government-funded agency, warned in a consumer safety alert that “asphyxiation from electric fans and air conditioners” was in the top five causes of injury or accident during Korean summers. The media doesn’t help matters either, as they still regularly report cases of ‘possible’ fan death, although they are usually non-committal about definite causes.
Vaguely scientific/medical attempts at explaining fan death include the suggestion that hypothermia could result from a fan causing a room to be too cold. But in reality the room doesn’t become any colder, fans just aid the effects of a person’s own cooling system, such as perspiration, and carry heat away from the body by convection. None of these things could cause hyperthermia.
Asphyxiation is another theory, because fans (supposedly) contribute to a dangerous imbalance between oxygen and carbon dioxide. However, according to John Hopton (2013) ‘no they don’t contribute to a dangerous imbalance between oxygen and carbon dioxide.’ If they did, some of the other countries that use fans, which is all of them, would have picked up on the problem by now.
Maybe unfounded fears that death could be around any corner are healthy in a way, though. We get to hold on to the precious gift of life and live each day as if it were the last, without there actually being anything to harm us. And it makes a good Halloween costume.
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