Sleeping with a Fan on Can Kill You! Or not …

Most outsiders who’ve spent time in Korea, especially in the summer, have heard the warnings about fan death [Wikipedia]. If you shut the bedroom door, close your windows, turn on your fan, and go to sleep, YOU WILL DIE. The fan will, depending on the person explaining the threat, either suck all of the oxygen from the room, leaving you to suffocate, or will lower your core body temperature (especially if the fan is pointed directly at you) so much you will succumb to hypothermia.

While it may sound strange to outsiders, the belief in Korea is quite strong, with frequent stories in the media about people forgetting the rule and getting killed by their fans. In one of my books I mentioned Korea’s fan death belief as an example of a cultural difference between Korea and the U.S., only to be scolded by my editor (who left it in the book only under strong protest) and by several readers for espousing such dangerous, unscientific views. I once mentioned on my radio show that I didn’t believe in fan death and slept with one on nearly every night. At the next break my co-host, the staff, and the show’s director all got into a heated discussion about my dangerous comments, worried that the network could be held liable if someone believed my comments and slept with a fan on (which, of course, meant certain death). The issue was only laid to rest when I volunteered to add a disclaimer that the views were my own and not the network’s. For days afterward everyone was on pins and needles, waiting for a death caused by my comments, but somehow our listeners managed to make it through the Great Fan Death Crisis of 98 unscathed.

Given the utter seriousness with which this idea is taken, I was shocked to find an article in a Korean paper questioning the idea that fans can be dangerous sleeping partners. Normally articles on deaths caused by fans are completely uncritical, ala “the man died of an apparent heart attack,” “the man died from falling asleep with his fan on,” “the man died of cancer.” The fan death articles, like the others, normally include a quote from a doctor or medical official citing the cause of death. This new article though, is different. It examines the issue from the perspective that it might not be true, even quoting from local medical officials who say fan death is groundless. A stunning change from past practice that equated questioning the widely-held belief with heresy and wanton endangerment.

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