Thursday, July 22, 2010

A Korean Haunting

I apologise for how late this article is. Three months late. There may be postulations about Korea that have since been proven wrong but maybe there's a bonus to that. Hindsight without the...hind.

Seoul Land may not be Korea's most famous theme park but it certainly offered the most comedic comments: as James Brown would say, I'm in Seoul, man! It was small and beautifully surrounded, like a one-bedroom apartment overlooking a very big lake. In fact, there was a lake.

We had spent the day at Seoul Zoo, situated beside Seoul Land itself, a location I found to be a sick joke for parents treating their children to a day out: not one but two very extensive time commitments. And after the first we were tired. We were exhausted. The zoo took six hours to explore and it was an excellent zoo; we didn't rest and as day faded into evening all we did was seek out more food to energise our walking. Children were everywhere and their parents were still smiling though this may have been due to the soju sold in the zoo's convenience stores. It was early dark when we left for the steel blue gates of Seoul Land and already cold enough to necessitate the wearing of gloves. And the release of our childhood selves. We ran through the park, giggling and jigging for warmth and though our legs hurt we didn't stop and when we had to line up for the roller coasters we bounced on the spot to keep our blood moving. The coasters were underwhelming, the music pop-crazy and so we turned attention to the indoor entertainments: 3D films, a tilt house, shooting galleries and chewy Turkish ice cream served by an Indian man with an American accent. We were full of food, dripping adrenalin and dropping where we stood but half an hour before the park closed, five degrees from freezing, we visited the haunted house. It didn't look like much; a small building, black, rectangular, grown over with vines. Waiting between the cords we read a sign stating tours ran for fifteen minutes and the final was at 9:45pm. I appreciated the organisation but how would such perfectionism impact on my experience? Scheduled fear seemed less confronting than entering without expectation. I may glance at my watch and think 'ah yes, only five more minutes of fear to go. They'll be ramping it up any moment now.' But this was a small space and at a quarter of an hour, the haunted house was by far the longest ride in the park. Either the cars drove around in circles and an intricate series of backdrops were continuously looped upon the walls or it was a walking tour.

It was a walking tour. My interest piqued because suddenly a much more frightening possibility was realised. While walking we are vulnerable, weak and at prey to the many distractions of the curious human body. A car keeps us in check and contained but my legs can take me anywhere, far from the safety of other people and light. As we entered I felt faint stirrings of unease and took East's arm; a leather-bound, rained-upon and cold comfort. A Korean woman greeted us with a bow and offered hands. She explained what would come next and stood waiting for our reactions and here lay the inevitable hitch in our plans. We did not speak Korean, like it was a deliberate finger to the nation; we were rude in our ignorance. Even her requests that we stand at the edges of the room caused us to mill around uncertainly until she took our arms and pressed us to the walls. Five or six Koreans joined us and she turned and spoke to them and only them and I didn't for a moment blame her. When we were settled the floor began to shake, the lights flickered, a dial by the door counted us down an imaginary three, four, many floors. We looked at each other and felt awkward, not because we were outnumbered but because she was telling us a story and we were disrespectful enough to not understand a word she said. The language was beautiful but I began to think this was the tour and the foreigner in me felt I had wasted my time. I should have had more faith. These Koreans, they're crafty. The elevator, while in fact just a revolving room, ejected us into a different corridor and a second guide, clad in a robe and mask, came to wriggle a tambourine and usher us forward. His costume put him at a foot taller than East and I could see his eyes, tiny and black and when they met mine they crinkled like he was smiling. I thought he would care for us now that he was our leader but our original guide stayed, at the back. It gave me a warm feeling, like she was part of the family and didn't want to be left out. It didn't matter that she had seen it all before. We had lined up for her ride, listened to her story and committed to her walk. And walk we did, through corridors interspersed with red lights and dark portraits on the walls. Our masked guide stayed an allusive three feet ahead, directing our feet with a tremble of his tambourine. At the end of each hallway was a room, hosting a different setting played out by various animatronic characters. The first looked like this:

after which I was directed to put away my camera. Although these scenes were accompanied with haunting pipe music, they were quite beautiful and not the least frightening. Our guide spoke incessantly and with many gestures towards men conferring with weapons, a woman whose head bobbed up and down in a pond, children running and falling as though shot. He told me their stories, gave us their fear but without understanding the meaning of the words I was left with my own interpretation. One room contained a woman and man coming together underneath a pagoda to kiss and embrace, before being dragged away, heads turned aside, weeping. I didn't hear their pain, I only saw their movements and so this became not a horror story but a tale of love. I was entranced by these characters because I had the opportunity to write their lives for them. Without language I reached for whatever my imagination could grasp and what I created was tender and sad. So perhaps I never entered the haunted house wanting to be scared. What I wanted was the ability to choose and so the language barrier became the most freeing obstacle I'd ever experienced.

My whole life I have believed that we fear what we do not understand but this is a matter of psychology. Childhood fear comes from a lack of experience and logic, adult fear from what has no easy explanation. In that way, we do not understand why we are afraid. But Korea has offered up another possibility. What happens to fear when we can't interpret what we hear? As our haunted house proved, atmosphere alone can not hope to communicate what words so wonderfully portray. In those rooms, with the lights and mask and music, we couldn't be scared because there was no story to be afraid of. If the words we hear are impenetrable, are they still words or do they become mere sounds from which we pick what we desire? I'd like to think the power of language transcends translation but this is just not true. And what a beautiful lie to discover. The tour ended at a pair of wooden double doors and our guide bowed us out, leaning so low the top of his mask touched the rain drying on the ground.

Lara S. Williams

Lara is quite fond of the dark but don't mention zombies. Zombies are going too far.

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