By MINJU PAK
In the ’80s in Southern California, there was only one channel with Korean-language programming: It aired for a few hours only in the evenings. This was during that sweet spot of Korean immigration in America — a decade or so after the arrival of the first major waves but before their descendants bastardized the cuisine with their kimchi tacos. In those days, there was a mystical angle to some of the television dramas the channel showed, which were creepier and more experimental than today’s Korean versions of ‘‘This Is Us.’’ One evening, I watched one of these dramas, which happened to co-star a ghost — a woman in white standing hunched over in a swampy rice field. Her eyes were wide open, her body taut. It was terrifying.
But it was the ghost’s hair — jet-black, tangled, lank and impossibly long — that most impressed me. She was the latest offspring of generations of her kind, scorned Asian women back from the dead and seeking vengeance, who historically have been a staple of Asian popular arts, from 19th-century Japanese woodblocks through 21st-century horror films. She represented something restless and feral, the rebuke to a lifetime of restriction. Her hair, wild and free, was symbolic: For many centuries, Asian women were expected to wear their hair pinned up, tidy and neat — death was a kind of release.
These days, Nicki Minaj, Ariana Grande and a number of other celebrities have begun wearing a sleek variant of this hairstyle. Kim Kardashian West, who until recently had been showing off an extra-glossy, extra-ironed version, credits Cher as an inspiration. It’s reasonable that someone from Kardashian West’s generation would find the style’s architect in a ’70s pop icon, but in fact, there have been many other progenitors. Crystal Gayle’s floor-length hair introduced the style to country music fans, who looked on as she glided across the stage without stepping on a strand. Then there’s the Japanese noise artist Keiji Haino, who is instantly recognizable by his long silver hair. When he performs, it flies through the air. Watching, you can’t help but think you saw a ghost drifting past.
Gayle and Kardashian West aside, though, the most iconic contemporary example of ghost hair might be found in the Japanese movie ‘‘Ringu’’ (1998), the inspiration for ‘‘The Ring’’: In its most frightening scenes, its female villain crawls out of a television set, her face buried under her mane, an eyeball occasionally poking out. In ‘‘The Black Hair,’’ one of four ghost stories in the 1965 Japanese horror film ‘‘Kwaidan,’’ ghost hair is a central character: It is the hair that attacks an unfaithful husband after he returns to the wife he abandoned.
The same year I encountered ghost hair, the most popular girl at school cut all her tresses off into a modified Dorothy Hamill bob. She tended to her new look multiple times a day, flipping it over, flipping it back, parting it to the right, then brushing it out. She trained it, like a docile creature. Ghost hair, though, is the opposite. The women who wear it remind us that while demons and the undead are scary, to some people there is nothing more alarming than an untamed woman.
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