Itaewon, a popular nightlife district in Seoul known for its cultural diversity and international flair, has always been considered the place to go for Halloween festivities.
On Halloween weekends, young people in their late teens and 20s wearing costumes of zombies, ghosts or famous characters would fill the streets, using the holiday with traditional Irish roots to express themselves in a way that is not usually considered socially acceptable here.
On Saturday, when a fatal crowd surge late in the night would result in the loss of at least 153 lives, Itaewon was celebrating its first Halloween since the end of COVID-19 restrictions.
The incident occurred as tightly packed crowds surged into narrow, sloped alleyways, police said. Around 100,000 people are estimated to have gathered in the area, which officials said was not much beyond the size of previous years’ Halloween crowds.
Coronavirus-battered retailers in Itaewon were looking forward to a boom in sales of Halloween-themed products, food, drinks and various other consumer goods after the government phased out long-enforced strict antivirus restrictions.
Because Itaewon is packed with night entertainment venues, the area was under strict measures during the Halloween weekends of the past two years, amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
In 2020, the Seoul Metropolitan Government toughened its on-site inspections on nightlife businesses, including those in Itaewon, to verify their compliance with antivirus measures.
In 2021, large clubs refrained from actively publicizing their Halloween parties, apparently aware of the current quarantine circumstances.
For a long time, Halloween here was mainly celebrated by expats and some party-loving youngsters in certain areas of Itaewon and Hongdae in Seoul. Many Koreans did not even know what month or day the Western holiday is celebrated.
But in more recent years, the holiday of witches, ghosts and zombies has been highly popular with young generations as a fun day of exotic experiences.
Celebrations of the annual spooky holiday have notably increased, as evidenced by the growing number of cafes and bars decorated in Halloween themes around this time of year.
“Children were among the first to experience Halloween culture, centering on English immersive kindergartens. Then, it spread to adults, mainly young people,” culture critic Ha Jae-geun said.
“Celebrities competitively took photos of their Halloween makeup and posted them on social media, which also affected the spread," he added.
Lee Taek-gwang, a professor of cultural studies at Kyung Hee University, said that youngsters appear to have accepted Halloween as a holiday because of its fun factors.
Dressing up in costumes and partying hard has been the typical way for Korean youth celebrating Halloween, and it grew bigger and bigger as many boast about their fun night on social media, he explained.