The Korea Herald


'Revenant' a ghost story about lost generation

By Park Soong-joo

Published : Aug. 29, 2023 - 16:04

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Actor Kim Tae-ri in a promotional poster for an occult thriller series 'Revenant' (SBS) Actor Kim Tae-ri in a promotional poster for an occult thriller series 'Revenant' (SBS)

SBS' "Revenant," an occult thriller series crafted by star screenwriter Kim Eun-hee, ended with an 11.2 percent viewership rating last month. The positive response for a terrestrial broadcaster whose ratings have plummeted in recent years is thought to be a result of the use of folklore to shed light on today's social issues.

"Revenant" takes familiar characters from folklore and puts them in a modern setting, dealing with day-to-day life problems. While the story revolves around the occult, Kim says the real story is that of today’s youths and adults.

"I started with the idea of youth possessed by an evil spirit. I thought about an evil spirit that encroaches on vulnerability taking over a struggling youth who feels lost, and I wanted that evil to be something around us, and so I thought of folklore," said Kim in an email interview.

Kim’s idea of using folklore as a tool for dealing with social issues struck a chord with viewers, and "Revenant" achieved mainstream popularity. Kim says she came across some folklore practices during research and sympathized with the children sacrificed for someone else’s greed.

“The ghosts in folklore, including the spirits of those sacrificed by those with power, ghosts of those who succumbed to greed and those who died while chasing a mirage away from home, resonate with this generation, so I wanted to dissolve these characteristics into the characters,” Kim said.

While “Revenant” is far from unique in dealing with folklore, the series stands out as its folklore-inspired occultism pairs well with mundane struggles within society, shedding light on inextricable social issues, critics say.

"By evoking social empathy relatable to many, these TV shows were able to draw a wide-ranging audience despite the niche appeal of the occult genres,” said Jung Deok-hyun, a pop culture critic.

“Korean ghost stories center on figuring out why ghosts haunt, and these reasons reflect relatable causes existing in the real world," Jung said, adding that is the essence of Korean occultism.

Function of ghosts in Korean folklore

Ghosts and supernatural beings take up a substantial portion of Korean folklore. Yi Yong-bhum, a professor of folk religion at Andong University, said that is because ghost stories hold a mirror up to society.

"Korean ghost tales revolve around the 'relationship between the dead and the living,' rather than telling stories about the ghosts. By that, these narratives go beyond the dead and reflect the real-life experiences eliciting us to contemplate about and apply to our lives," he explained.

This is how the ghost stories stay grounded in reality. "Revenant" tells a story of ghosts and superstitions, but resonates powerfully with the audience with added crime thriller elements in the narrative. "Korean shamanism is distinctive in its way of bringing out the cultural features, but it can also be used as a social metaphor when it is entwined with realistic components like crime," Jung said.

The pine tree located in Uiryeong, South Gyeongsang Province which was designated as a Natural Monument, that was depicted as a tree where villagers held children's corpses in the occult thriller 'Revenant.' (Cultural Heritage Administration) The pine tree located in Uiryeong, South Gyeongsang Province which was designated as a Natural Monument, that was depicted as a tree where villagers held children's corpses in the occult thriller 'Revenant.' (Cultural Heritage Administration)

Root of evil stem in 'Revenant'?

To understand the metaphor and social commentary in horror stories, Jung suggests looking into what begets the ghosts and what impels these beings to hurt the living.

Jung interprets the evil spirit that possesses protagonist San-yeong, played by Kim Tae-ri, in "Revenant" as a symbol of vice. The spirit that possesses San-yeong originates from a small village that sacrificed children to escape poverty.

The plot is based on the practice of "yeommae," a practice of killing a child and using the corpse to threaten and extort money from the wealthy. In the practice, those carrying out the act would claim that the spirit of the murdered child would bring ill fortune and plague the village. A description of the practice can be found in an editorial by neo-Confucian scholar "Seongho" Yi Ik written between the 17th and 18th centuries.

Jung sees that the yeommae practiced in "Revenant" mirrors the capitalist exploitation of Korea, where the young were sacrificed for the wealth of the nation, which only got the rich richer.

Social commentary of 'Revenant'?

Through “Revenant,” Kim aimed to tell a story about the youth and adults, and each of their journeys of finding their place in society. The protagonist being possessed by an evil spirit is the result of the wrongdoings and mistakes of previous generations, which Kim says in a metaphor for today’s youths having to pay the price of older generations’ decisions and mistakes.

Kim explains that the protagonist grows as she struggles to fight the evil spirit, and she comes to understand the past and recognize the value of people around her who care about her. She was also able to reflect on herself and come out stronger.

“Being young and inexperienced can make young people succumb to temptation, but I wanted to tell the young people that I believe they can stand up and make choices that will lead them to the life they want,” Kim said.

While the protagonist represents today’s young people and their struggles, Kim conveys the hope of older generations changing and taking responsibility for their mistakes through the character Yeom Hae-sang, an older professor played by Oh Jung-se. In the drama series, the character tries to make reparations for the wrongdoings of his ancestors.

"Yeom Hae-sang represents the older generation trying to undo their mistakes in the past by helping San-yeong, and the message 'Revenant' holds is that we need new kinds of adults like Hae-sang helping the young people," Jung said.

In “Revenant,” the evil spirits go after young people struggling to live.

"Many of those possessed by the evil spirit end up dying by suicide or making bad choices, which depicts the evil innate in humans and the inability to overcome desires and temptations. One reason younger generations resort to making bad choices is that previous generations have sacrificed the younger generations for their monetary-focused missions," Jung said.

“Revenant” is streaming now on Disney+.