One of the things I find really interesting is the use of ghosts in Asian shows. Most Western shows treat ghosts as either evil beings or guest stars. We have shows like Medium or Ghost Whisperer which have ghosts, but none of the ghosts stick around for more than a couple episodes. Occasionally you’ll have a ghost as a regular guest star on shows like Charmed, but the only Western tv show with a ghost as a main character I can think of is Being Human.
Contrast that with their use in Asian dramas. Sure, we still get the evil beings and guest star versions of ghosts (think Master’s Sun), but we also get ghosts as main or supporting characters. Even when we don’t get actual ghosts characters still talk about them.
One of the grey areas is whether the spirit of a person in a coma counts as a ghost or not. I am going to say they are since in every instance I know of the person has the same rules as a ghost and many times they don’t even know know about the coma at first.
My criteria for the shows to be discussed are that they must include actual ghosts, not just mentions of them or one character having a vision of a dead person one time, and have aired since 2010.
Who Is the Ghost?
Ghost as Main Character
Interestingly enough, the shows which have a female ghost as a lead are Korean. In Arang and the Magistrate (2012) Arang is a virgin ghost with memory loss and a mystery about how she died. In Oh My Ghostess (2015), Soon Ae is a virgin ghost with limited memory loss and a mystery about how she died (anyone else see a pattern here?). In 49 Days (2011) Ji Hyun is in a coma and gets chance to live if she can accomplish some tasks as a spirit.
The only male ghost I know of that gets top billing is Lin Hong Pei in the currently airing I’m Sorry, I Love You (Taiwan). Hong Pei is a little different because his presence is directly tied to a watch he was holding when he died.
Ghost as Supporting Character
Here is where see most of our ghosts, and the majority of the male ghosts. Some of these are secondary leads while others are more of recurring characters, but all of them have names and a significant impact.
In Diary of a Night Watchmen (Korea 2014) we have the ghostly trio of Minister Ddoong, Eunuch Song, and Rang Yi who act as as minions and advisers for Prince Lee Rin. Lee Hyun Joon is amazing in Who Are You (Korea 2013) as Shi On’s silent, comatose partner. 49 Days gives us another male ghost in the Scheduler, though he is a bit out of the traditional mold. Bo Hai from Love Cheque Charge (Taiwan 2014) is similar to the Scheduler in that he is a ghost that now has a job to do, but unlike him Bo Hai is a coma ghost and wakes up for almost the last third of the show.
Bride of the Century (Korea 2014) only gives us one ghost, but the God of the House is a haunting and heartbreaking being whose presence resonates throughout the show. Oh My Ghostess has the malevolent spirit who possessed Choi Sung Jae. This one is interesting in that the spirit is only seen out of his host’s body once and we never get any backstory or development of him as a character, yet his actions are what set the plot in motion.
I vacillated a lot on where to put this next ghost, but finally decided he is a supporting character since while we don’t see him every episode he is still there for the entirety of the show, and that is Kim Joon Bae in Producer (Korea 2015). He is the only ghost in the show and no one, neither the audience nor the characters, knew he is one until the last episode.
Cheo Yong (Korea 2014) gives us one of our few females ghosts in a supporting role. Na Young is a high schooler who is stuck in the police station until Cheo Yong shows up and things start changing. A second season is scheduled and I’m curious how they will utilize Na Young in the new season.
Ghost as Guest Star
In this case we get ghosts who are around for just a couple episodes, usually as murder victims. For Cheo Yong and Who Are You the guest ghosts are mostly part of the murder of the week while in Master’s Sun (Korea 2013) the ghosts have a task they want Kong Sil to accomplish for them. A few ghosts do help out as spies/scouts in Arang and the Magistrate, in addition to just being around. We also see them as background characters and occasional drop-ins in everything except Bride of the Century and 49 Days.
Sometimes we never actually see the ghost. In My Lovable Girl (Korea 2014) our lead’s dead sister makes phones work and does other things to bring the leads together, but we never actually see her.
Also several shows have people who dream or have visions of the dead, but we don’t get actual ghostly interactions, like when Tae Hyun dreamed of his mom in Yong Pal. Dreaming or having visions of dead parents or lovers is pretty common, even in shows with no other fantastical elements.
Who Can See Ghosts?
What makes things interesting here is when the power to see ghosts is gained. Kong Sil (Master’s Sun) and Shin On (Who Are You?) could only see ghosts after they were in major accidents as adults, while Bong Sun (Oh My Ghostess) and Do Ha (Night Watchmen) had the ability from birth or childhood with no traumatic triggering event.
Something I just realized is that, at least for the women, those who gained the ability as an adult have more of the case of the week format while the others don’t. Too bad the sample size is too small to really call it a trend.
Several of our men have had the ability to see ghosts from childhood. There is a split between second sight gained through a near death experiences for Eun Oh (Arang and the Magistrate) and Prince Lee Rin (Night Watchmen) and inborn abilities for Cheo Yong (Cheo Yong).
Hu Bu Fan (Love Cheque Card) can see Bo Hai, but that is the only ghost he sees. Wang Shu Hai (I’m Sorry, I Love You) can only see Hong Pei, but only when he is wearing the watch. Seung Chan is the only one who sees Joon Bae (Producer) in the course of the show, but Joon Bae is the station ghost and so others have seen him in the past.
For some shows only the leads can see the ghosts, but in others we have supporting characters who can also see them. Usually the supporting character who can also see ghosts is either neutral or an ally, and almost always they are shamans. In Who Are You? we have a shaman who helps Hyun Joon. Night Watchmen has some members of the Night Watch who can see ghosts. Oh My Ghostess has the shaman who is chasing Soon Ae, who is definitely a friend and ally. The shaman in Arang can only hear ghosts so she gets an honorable mention. The only male shaman on the list is in Bride of the Century, and he averages out to be neutral.
Interestingly, it’s the historical shows that have antagonists who can see ghosts. Sadam and some of his henchmen can see ghosts in Night Watchmen, and they are most definitely the bad guys. Arang is more of a special case because while the Taoist fairy who escaped from heaven can see ghosts she’s not mortal even though her vessels are.
Anyone or No One
In 49 Days no one living can see ghosts, but the Scheduler can choose who sees him, while in Bride of the Century the God of the House can show herself to whomever she pleases.
I have more to say, but I decided to break it into multiple posts since this was getting long, and it takes a while to go back and check shows I watched a couple years ago (even if just reading the recaps) to make sure I didn’t remember things incorrectly. Things to be discussed next time include the role of the ghost, reactions to having second sight, possession and jobs in the afterlife.
Let me know if I missed any shows with ghosts from the last few years.