The Curious Case of Fan Death

2012-9-13

Cases of voodoo death have long provided grist for the mill of medical anthropology. Voodoo death occurs throughout the world, and it involves people who believe they have been cursed through witchcraft falling seriously ill and even dying. The classic exposition of the phenomenon is provided by Walter Cannon (1942).

Cannon examined a number of possible explanations for voodoo death, drawing on field reports from explorers, doctors, and ethnographers. After rejecting poisons on the grounds that the people in question were "too ignorant" to know about them, Cannon concludes that voodoo death is probably the result of shocking emotional distress. Cannon goes on to provide a number of medical tests to be carried out in order to prove his claim.

Since Cannon's article appeared, various other explanations have been put forth. These include psychological explanations, pharmacological explanations (poison again), and modified versions of Cannon's physiological argument (Lex 1974). What all of these have in common is a recourse to Western medicine as the ultimate explanatory power.

With cases of voodoo death the afflicted are aware of their impending doom. While the initial symptoms can appear quickly, the actual death often occurs much later, often after several days. A case of mysterious death which follows a different pattern is that of fan death. Fan death occurs when people are killed by electric fans.

Fan death, while virtually unknown in the rest of the world is widely accepted in South Korea. It is so prevalent that electric fans come with warnings and timers that automatically shut off the fan after a certain period of operation. In spite of these precautions, every summer at least a few South Koreans succumb to fan death. Unlike voodoo death, victims of fan death are unaware of their fate, so we can easily rule out psychological explanations. Pharmacological explanations can also be ruled out, as when investigating such deaths the police are keen to rule out foul play.

Traditionally, there are a number of factors that contribute to increasing the lethality of fans, including: being very old, being very young, and being very drunk. Crucially, the room in which the fan is operating must also be closed - opening the window of the room in which a fan is in operation is a trusted precaution.

There are three main explanations for fan death. The first explanation is that the fans are so effective that body heat drops significantly, causing death by hypothermia. This is frankly absurd as anyone who has sat in front of an electric fan will attest, especially in the hot summer months when fans are likely to be in operation. The second explanation is that fans move the air too quick make breathing difficult. This explanation is also implausible as it is linked to a belief that humans are capable of (and require) skin respiration for a significant portion of their oxygen. The third explanation is that fans turn an enclosed room into a giant convection oven. This view is endorsed by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which issues the following warning:

> Don't direct the flow of portable electric fans toward yourself when room temperature is hotter than 90°F.

As with voodoo death, we have an explanation for fan death which is curiously rooted in Western medicine and physiology. The reason for this is neatly summed up by Bruno Latour:

Culture is but one of the possible ways of relating to others, one perspective on otherness, and certainly not the only one. Multiculturalism is nothing more than the flipside of what may be termed mononaturalism. (2007:312) By "mononaturalism," Latour refers to the fact that it is the West which provides the final explanatory framework into which all causality must be made to fit.

If fan death can be explained in terms of Western medicine, why is it that South Koreans seem to be the only group for which it is a concern? Mononaturalism starts to become a procrustean standard when we consider the role culture plays in informing our own beliefs about health. When encountering fan death, a typical reaction is one of incredulity or derision. As with voodoo death, the failure to take fan death seriously is more about the belief's origins than its underlying explanation.

For more on fan death, consider this informative post at Ask A Korean! which provided a lot of useful background.


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