While You Sleep

Whirring blades, blasts of hot air, a dark night. If you give your imagination a chance, Korean Fan Death can begin to sound very scary.

No one knows why or how the legend began, but only in South Korea does the average Kim confidently maintain that leaving a fan on overnight is a sure way to die. The most popular explanation is suffocation, which includes a host of subtheories: some think that fan death occurs when a sleeper closes her window and breathes up all the oxygen, or when the fan’s blades slice up air molecules to create a uniquely Korean gas chamber. Others suggest that an electronic fan’s tiny motor suffocates by generating enough carbon dioxide to flood the room.

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From 2003-2005, Twenty deaths were reported to the Consumer Injury Surveillance System in Korea involving asphyxiation caused by leaving electric fans on while sleeping in an enclosed space.

The Korea Consumer Protection Board worries that a fan might induce fatal hypothermia, but others insist on the hypERthermic explanation, also called the “convection oven” theory. It goes like this: most ovens have an internal fan to circulate heat evenly around whatever cake is being prepared. In an already hot room (similar to an oven), the toasty breeze generated by a nocturnal fan dries you out by evaporating your sweat and relentlessly circulates heat instead of letting it rise, effectively baking you to death.

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According to, Korea’s industry experts take this danger this seriously. Despite the marked general uncertainty about what causes fan death, manufacturer warnings rival those of cigarette packages. “This product may cause suffocation or hypothermia”, claims fan-maker Shinil Industrial Co.  

This deadly consequences of nightime fanning have not been documented outside South Korea.

But Fan Death is real. And it is the convection oven effect. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (via authoritatively-named blogger "The Korean"), “Portable electric fans…can increase the circulation of hot air, which increases thermal stress and health risks”. American climatologist Dr. Laurence Kalkstein confirms: “One piece of advice we tell them not to do is to sit in front of a fan in a hot apartment because it has a convection effect [sic]”.

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Of course, you’re still more likely to die under a falling vending machine or be trampled by an angry cow. But given the planet’s quick-rising temperature (the United Nation’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change predicts a jump of 4C worldwide by the end of the century), it doesn’t hurt to think like a Korean. No one wants to die in a freak fan accident.


All images copyright Ginny Huo
Courtesy of the artist. 
Installation: 20 Fan Deaths. 2010. 8'x 7' x 6'. wood, blanket, pillow, fans.