I’ve been thinking about fan death a lot lately. Many of the recent news stories I’ve been following have centered around powerful cultural myths and institutions, with defenders of the entrenched cultural forces dismissing the critics outright as ridiculous or evil. Each time I find myself caught up in these conversations, I find my mind wandering back to “fan death” and how so many people can’t shake their belief in it.
Sorry: let’s back up. What the hell is “fan death”?
“Fan Death” or “Sudden Fan Death” is a widely believed urban legend that running a fan in a closed room can kill you. I’ve heard multiple second hand accounts of a Korean person explaining their relationship with the fan death myth, each following this format:
I know fan death isn’t real, it’s ridiculous of course…… but you know it does happen sometimes right?
They are acutely aware that fan death is absolutely batshit insane, but that (of course) it DOES happen. Sometimes. Probably. Or, at least, it HAS happened. (maybe).
Newspapers go out of their way to mention when fans were found running in rooms where dead bodies are found, people are known to freak out when people shut the doors when they have fans running, and there is just a general sense that even though fan death OBVIOUSLY isn’t real - it is real.
This is one of my favorite phenomena because it underscores a basic human emotion: being 100% confident that something is not true, yet simultaneously unable to escape the feeling that is can’t be completely untrue. Fan death is such a beautiful illustration of this phenomenon, because unlike other popularly cited examples of this phenomenon (aliens, adherence to a specific religion, even ghosts) - it doesn’t really come with any agenda. It’s so specific and easily refutable beyond any doubt that it truly underscores in absolute isolation: cultural mythos is so powerful that it can make people believe things they know to be untrue without even offering them anything in return.
Most myths that, depending on your agenda, could be attributed to this particular kind of DoubleThink offer the believer something in return. A chance to belong, hope, something to believe in, the ability to carry on - there’s something in it for you to believe. Even believing in ghosts or vampires offers the chance to escape into a reality where anything is possible, even if that reality is terrifying. Fan Death, however, doesn’t offer anything. It offers you a world in which you have to be scared of fans, and what kind of offer is that? It’s a belief that can only result in your being extra afraid and extra sweaty, and that just sucks. However, buying into a myth created by the culture to which you belong apparently doesn’t require extra incentive. The ability to believe in the myths of your culture, that in and of itself is enough.
That’s why I’ve been thinking about fan death a lot recently. I just can’t shake the fact that one of the most technologically advanced cultures in the world can’t be convinced that fans don’t chop up air molecules leaving the air unbreathable. Every fan in South Korea has an automatic shut-off feature - you can’t even buy a fan that will run all night. Impossible to purchase. If we can be convinced to avoid fans for no reason, what else have we been convinced to give up without getting anything in return?