Death By Fan

Not long ago, I was instructed to create some writing and communication lessons for our ESL classes. Wanting to spice things up a bit, I focused them on fun topics like tabloids and celebrities. My favorite, however, was the lesson on superstitions.

Step on a crack and you’ll break your mother’s back. Break a mirror and you’ll have seven years bad luck. Make a wish on a star and it will come true. We have all sorts of crazy superstitions in America. For the entirety of my life, I’ve knocked on wood to avoid jinxing my good fortune. If I see a black cat walking in my path, I take a different direction. You better believe I walk around a ladder rather than under it. I don’t know why I’ve done these things, as I don’t really consider myself a superstitious person. But, why risk bad luck when you can take an easy alternative? I had to laugh at myself when I began to read the origins of our superstitions. Ladybugs have been considered good luck since before Christ’s time, signifying a good crop season. Saying “God bless you” in response to someone sneezing began as a law in medieval Europe, mandated by the Pope, in a last ditch effort to keep people from dying from the plague.

In researching the information, I learned a lot about Korean superstitions, as well. For instance, crows and ravens are bad luck while magpies are consider lucky birds. Study-conscious Koreans believe that if one washes his or her hair before taking a test, all of his or her memories will be washed away by the water. I guess there’s a lot of greasy dos during exam weeks. One shouldn’t clip his nails OR sing at night… ghosts don’t like these things. Many Koreans I’ve talked also seem to believe in this night paralysis thing where you wake up, can’t move, and can only see a spirit standing over you. A handful of my friends SWEAR that this has happened to them. Still, above all these seemingly absurd notions, one Korean superstition supersedes all others in terms of illogicality.

Fan death: the belief that if someone is sleeping in a sealed room (all windows and doors shut) with an electric fan blowing directly on his or her body, they will die. Not might. Will. Damnedest thing I’ve ever heard. I’m sure you agree. Koreans, however, take this urban legend as fact. As I read about this common belief, I turned to Donny, a Korean co-worker- who lived in America for a number of years, mind you- and asked him about it. He laughed a bit, but then agreed that it was true, as did all of the other Koreans in the room. After looking on the internet, I found that this death by fan phenomenon was conceptualized by a Korean and is only taken as truth in Korea. So much so that the South Korean government and health officials continuously issue warnings regarding the use of electric fans in small rooms. The Korea Consumer Protection Board (KCPB), issued a consumer safety alert in 2006 warning that “asphyxiation from electric fans and air conditioners” was among South Korea’s five most common seasonal summer accidents or injuries. These days, oscillating fans are sold with timers and warning labels to prevent such an epidemic. Gotta appreciate that primary prevention.

죽고싶어? (“Do you want to die?”) If not, you better check to make sure that timer on your electric fan works properly. [Retrieved from Google Images.]

An ad warning about fan death. [Retrieved from Google Images.]

Expats living in Korea get a kick out of the fan death urban legend. [Retrieved from Google Images.]

Koreans attribute fan death to a number of reasons. There’s much debate (including controversy circulating on the WWW), and some seemingly logical (though improbable) theories as to how it could occur. One theory is that the fan creates a vortex, sucking oxygen from the enclosed room. Others explain that fans can create an overproduction of carbon dioxide, or even suck the oxygen right out of the human, keeping them from breathing. Asphyxiation and hypothermia are still other beliefs. Simple scientific laws applying to such cases negate many of these theories. It still amazes me, though, that an entire country’s population- an educated people at that- defend their belief (based on zero facts) and refuse to sleep in the direct path of an electrical fan.

I’m in no way putting down Korean beliefs or culture. I’m no rocket scientist. Hell, I’d be lucky if I could recall any of Newton’s Laws off the top of my head. There may actually be some sort of truth to this fan death urban legend after all, but until the proof is in the pudding, you won’t see me cracking my windows on the hot-as-Hades summer nights when sleeping with the fan on. No way, no how. But, if someone does find me dead in my room with no other explanation than a blowing fan, make sure to pass on the word that FAN DEATH IS REAL!