So MERS has been the big news story this summer, and as a result, much of South Korea is walking around in surgical masks. I can understand the impulse. Everybody wants to protect themselves. But there've been side-effects from an unexpected direction - creepy urban legends. This one doesn't originate with MERS. Heck, it doesn't even originate with Korea. It comes from Japan, apparently all the way from the Nagasaki prefecture. But since it's crossed the waters, it's grown in scope and awfulness. And with everyone wandering around in masks, it's taken on a whole new level of horror, as you will soon see.
The story goes that late one night, a teenage girl is on her way home from school. She is alone, probably with her face buried in a smartphone, when she meets a woman on a dark street. From a distance, the woman is pretty, but she's wearing a bright red surgical mask over most of her face. As they grow closer, the girl notices that the woman is staring at her, coming toward her with an unsettling intensity and purpose.
Before the girl can say anything, before she can run, the woman asks, "Am I pretty?"
The girl is polite, so she answers yes. The woman reaches up, unties her surgical mask, and lets it fall away. Underneath, the woman's face has been slit, ear to ear, in a joker's smile. Her teeth are horribly visible, her gums, even the edges of her skull. It's a hideous grin, like something from a nightmare.
The woman asks again, "Am I pretty?"
The girl tries to run, but the woman reappears in front of her, impossibly fast. Her eyes stare, unblinking. And always the question, always the frightening visage.
At this point, there are few good options for our teenage hero. If she answers no, the woman literally tears her in half with a supernatural strength (this, by the way, is what would happen if she was rude and answered no straight off). If she answers yes, the woman pulls out a pair of scissors and slices the girl's face to match her own. It's grisly, either way.
But there are some small means of defense, assuming the girl came prepared. Some legends say the woman can be distracted by offerings of fruit, or a lit candle. Others say she is oddly terrified of dogs, and having the Korean word "dog" written on your hand, brandished like a cross to ward off evil, will make the woman shy away. Still others say you can chase her off with sheer ambivalence... answer "Maybe," or "So-so," and the woman supposedly becomes confused.
And teenage girls aren't the only target. Another version of this legend has the woman in the red mask stalking a young man. Or a drunken reveler out late at night. Or pretty much anyone wandering the streets alone. Always with the same question, and always with her hidden, terrible smile.
There are a number of origins for this story. In Korea, the woman in the red mask is frequently a victim of botched plastic surgery, driven insane by her ugly appearance. Sometimes she's the ghost of a wife, murdered by a jealous husband.
But whatever the reasons, if you happen to be in Korea, and you see a woman in a red mask coming toward you... run. Far away. Fast as you can. Before she has a chance to ask any questions.
Or at least keep some fruit in your pockets.