This one comes via Devon Edwards. If you stumble upon a strange or interesting or funny or suspiciously exhaustive Wikipedia page, please send it my way.
From the Wikipedia: Fan death.
Fan death, here, refers to “the widely held belief in South Korea that an electric fan left running overnight in a closed room can cause the death of those inside” and not the Vancouver-based synthpop band Fan Death.
According to the Wikipedia, fear of fan death runs so deep in South Korea that electric fans sold there are often equipped with sleep timers that consumers are urged to use for safety. As recently as 2006, the government-funded Korea Consumer Protection Board published a report citing fan death as one of South Korea’s top five most common summer seasonal accidents, claiming that 20 cases of fan (or air-conditioner) death were reported between 2003 and 2005. In fact, per Snopes.com, South Korea’s leading fan manufacturer even prints a warning label on its fans that reads, “This product may cause suffocation or hypothermia.”
About that: It doesn’t. Fans don’t kill people; people kill people. Also, heart and lung disease and old age and drug addiction kill people. Dr. Lee Yoon-song, a professor at Seoul National University’s medical school, has performed autopsies on several of the supposed victims of fan death and found that most of them “already had some sort of disease.” As he explained:
Korean reporters are constantly writing inaccurate articles about death by fan, describing these deaths as being caused by the fan. That’s why it seems that fan deaths only happen in Korea, when in reality these types of deaths are quite rare. They should have reported the victim’s original defects such as heart or lung disease, which are the main cause of death in these cases.
The Wikipedia page features a bunch of other doctors saying similar things. Essentially, fans can not cause death by hypothermia because fans don’t actually lower the temperature of the rooms they’re in and because someone doomed to death in his sleep from hypothermia would most likely wake up long before that happened from the cold and go find another blanket. And fans can not cause death by asphyxiation because they don’t change the constitution of the air in the room and very few non-astronauts sleep in airtight chambers anyway.
Most likely, it seems, South Korea has on its hands one of the greatest and most widespread cases of confirmation bias in recent history, perpetuated, apparently, by the media. People die in their sleep all the time everywhere, for a variety of reasons. When it happens in South Korea with a fan or an air conditioner running, someone inevitably says, “oh no! Another fan death.”
The Wikipedia isn’t clear on this, but I assume many or most South Koreans today realize that fans don’t actually kill people and that the urban legend lives on as an old wives tale and/or a force of habit. This is, after all, the contemporary culture that has provided the world, among other things, delicious food, hundreds of awesome and crazy-ass horror films, a growing appreciation for food bloggers, Shin-Soo Choo and my car.
Plus, every time I swallow gum I consider how it’s going to stay in my intestines for seven years even though I know that’s not true, and I try to give myself time between eating and swimming and I nod knowingly when someone mentions that we only use 10 percent of our brains.
Which is to say that people — or me and maybe some South Koreans, at least — have a weird way of continuing to act like they believe something even long after they stop believing something. In South Korea, it so happens that some people think fans left running in the night will kill you. I, for one, need the white noise.
Oh, where did the urban legend come from? No one’s entirely sure, but some believe it was spread by the government during a time of high energy prices in the 70s. If that’s the case, all blood from fan death is on the South Korean government’s hands. Luckily there isn’t any, because fans still don’t kill people.