By: Catherine Kim
Halloween, a universally loved and timeless celebration. Teenagers have their eyes glued to the visceral experience on screen – a girl pushes a creaking door of a dark room and cautiously peers inside. A warped, rotting hand claps her on the shoulder, and screams in the dark follow. Outdoors, toddlers, swathed in bandages or draped in pillowcases, fixed on a dogged mission to collect bag after bag of candy shuffle forward into the impenetrable nighttime, accompanied by wary parents. Pediatric dentists will deal with a cataclysm of cavities and fillings the morning after.
South Korea, like many other countries, puts in a great deal of effort for Halloween. Clubs and bars adorn their stores with cobwebs and ghouls to host events; what will perhaps be the most memorable party of the year will follow.
We Koreans held expectations higher than ever this year as it was the first public celebration of Halloween since the lifting of COVID-19 restrictions. Blinded by the excitement, no Halloween reveller could see the shadows of an encroaching tragedy.
On the Halloweekend of October 29th, over ten thousand young Koreans gathered in Itaewon, one of the most commercially thriving districts in Korea, to join its first major Halloween celebration. Overflowing, bustling crowds swarmed their ways into every bar and club within the Itaewon district.
Itaewon district is structured with numerous narrow and steeply sloped alleyways severely incapable of holding larger numbers of people. Thousands gathered in these near-labyrinthe passages; the massive crowd conflated with deafening noise from clubs and bars generated an extremely chaotic atmosphere.
As even more people amassed, the mob grew to the point where it was now impossible, even for bystanders, to leave the area.
Then, a lone person from the crowd, cramped and panicked, stumbled over and fell. At that moment, people leaning against one another too lost their balance and toppled, in what would become a deadly domino effect.
Intoxicated and blissfully unaware of what was happening at the front of the crowd, people at the back relentlessly shoved forwards in an attempt to get to their designated destinations.
Hands reached out in desperation. People began to fall unconscious under the great physical duress applied to their bodies. Others cried out fruitlessly for medical attention, for any kind of help. Within minutes, agonised screams replaced loud, vibrant music. Screams in the dark echoed through Itaewon.
Victims of the stampede were laid out on sidewalks. Under the instructions of the emergency medical dispatchers, people made desperate attempts to carry out first aid, praying for the injured to regain consciousness.
There were over 150 people killed with another 100 injured in the crowd crush. Most were younger, female civilians, completely unprepared and unable to defend themselves against what was to come.
The sidewalk; once filled with thrilled, young people dressed in costumes, had left nothing more than terrified survivors and heart-breaking cries of those that lost their loved ones.
Passports, phones, and other personal paraphernalia were recovered from fallen victims. Their families were invited to retrieve the items, but this is just the start of a harrowing and painful grieving process.
The Yongsan-gu Office, the office in charge of Itaewon, was under extreme criticism after the Itaewon crowd crush. Citizens condemned the lack of preparation of the Yongsan-gu Office, arguing that it should have placed more police forces to control and facilitate the massive crowd. Outraged, they pointed out that the gathering of a large crowd should have been expected as this was the first Halloween celebration after COVID-19, and Yongsan handled the situation in an inadmissible manner.
Halloween, once regarded as one of the most exciting and sensational celebrations in Korea, has now become a harbinger of heartbreak and grief to Koreans.