Theories about Fan Death

Every summer Korea is plagued with concerns about the menace known as “fan death.” This  danger is apparently isolated to the Korean peninsula– as I’ve never heard of such a thing anywhere else.

Many of the older generation in Korea believe that sleeping with a fan in a closed room is extremely dangerous. In fact, if you do sleep with a fan, you may not see another sunrise. Some say that the fan will “slice up the air molecules” and make the air unbreathable. Like all urban legends, many people know it is ridiculous, but some people persist in passing around this story. I would have been dead many times over if it were true. So I have spent the last three summers in Korea wracking my brain about why people might believe this (even news reports will apparently cite fans as a possible cause of death!). Here are three theories I’ve come up with.

Dehyrdration: If it is ridiculously hot and humid (aka: all summer in Korea) you can get dehydrated very easily. Combine this with the warm weather tradition of sitting outside and drinking large amounts of soju late into the night and not drinking appropriate amounts of water afterwards. If you fall asleep in front of a fan a little drunk and sweaty, the fan will only further dehydrate you. In fact, a US climatologist said something similar and  had everyone believe he was a supporter of the plausibility of fan death. In extreme cases dehydration can lead to coma and death.

Elderly People: Every summer, even in the US, elderly people end up dying in hot apartments. If they have pre-existing health problems, summer heat can be too much for them and they are unable to regulate their body temperature. Especially if they don’t feel hot (because the fan makes them feel a bit cooler) they may not use an air conditioner in order to save money. This can lead to elderly ones dying in their sleep without an obvious cause. It’s understandable in that case that they fan my get blamed. The fan of course is not the reason, so much as the summer heat.

Cover Up This is my most conspiracy-theory-tin-foil-hat theory. You’ve been warned. But in Korea there is a great sense of public image and “saving face.” Your bad actions have an effect on your whole family. Emotional problems and mental illness are still considered a bit shameful. So perhaps if someone in your family dies of suicide, perhaps in the night, it is less shaming to blame it on something unexplained like fan death. It’s less controversial than saying that they overdosed on a lot of pills, or even that they died of something like alcohol poisoning. It might be easier for the whole family to let their friends and neighbors believe that it was a freak accident than something possibly intentional.

These are the theories I’ve pieced together after three years of collecting fan death warnings by older Koreans. Many of my younger Korean fans don’t believe it’s true, but my students tell me they still worry about it and tell me to be careful. But what do you think? What are your theories about fan death?


  1. I recently learned about “fan death” and thought it was just hilariously ridiculous. It’s so interesting how different cultures have these funny superstitions. For example, I flip out whenever my students open their umbrellas inside… And they have NO idea that there’s a belief this is unlucky. Really makes me question my beliefs, haha! But more seriously, the heat this year has literally been deadly… Very scary. My kids barely drink water which is concerning.

  2. I read about this extensively before I moved to Korea mainly for the reason that I couldn’t wrap my head around the concept of such a thing. I find difficulties walking under ladders and I’m not sure why but I’m positive it was ingrained in me through American culture nonsense. Overall, it’s a goofy concept but glad you’ve delved into the goofy aspects of this beautifully ridiculous country.

  3. It’s super ridiculous but even my Korean boyfriend told me about this. Basically he says it’s when the fan is super close to someone’s face and there’s no other air ciculation (open window or door). But still it seems like a little too much……

  4. Ahh Korean superstitions… This one is easily my favorite and the most interesting. From what I’ve ready, fan death was started as a rumor by the government to reduce energy usage at night, but it spiraled into what it is today. While most Koreans (younger ones, at least) acknowledge that it’s not true, you are correct that it is an acceptable cause of death and is sometimes used to explain away suicides, thus furthering the legend as another person died from this mysterious peril. I’ve done a few lessons on superstitions and “Old Wives’ Tales” in my High School, and I never tire of hearing the outlandish and creative explanations my kids come up with for these superstitions.

  5. I friend told me about fan death last year and I actually didn’t even believe it until I looked it up myself. Every country has their own set of unique superstitions though. However, I can tell you that every time I go to bed with the fan on I think about fan death and admit I do wonder if I am tempting fate! haha. But in all seriousness, I just don’t like to sleep with the fan on because I feel like it is a waste of electricity and it’s so loud!

    Rae | Love from Berlin

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