The legend of Aranggak narrates the story of Arang Shrine, located in the bamboo grove near the pavilion Yeongnamnu in Miryang, South Gyeongsang Province, and the haunted spirit of Maiden Arang.
The narrative was transmitted orally in the verse form of gwachesi (state examination verse) among the literati of the Yeongnam region in late 19th century, in various different versions. A version of the poem is included in Dongyahwijip (Collection of Tales from the Eastern Plains) and the tale is also documented in story collections like Cheongguyadam (Tales from the Green Hills).
Arang, the beautiful daughter of the magistrate of Miryang, was lured by her nanny to go on a night outing to watch the full moon, and was raped and killed by a man who had been her secret admirer. Since this incident, each newly appointed magistrate dies on their first night in Miryang. When a courageous new magistrate encountered the ghost of maiden Arang on his first night on the post, he learned that his predecessors had all died from the shock of confronting this haunted spirit. Arang told the magistrate her grievance and the following morning, he assembled his entire staff in the courtyard of the government hall. Arang transformed herself into a butterfly and sat on the clerk who had killed her, resolving her grievance.
The myriad variations of the tale share the following plot: A Miryang magistrate’s daughter Arang loses her mother while young and is raised by her nanny, who one day takes her on a night outing, during which Arang is tragically killed. The magistrate, in despair, resigns and leaves for his hometown, or falls ill and dies. The maiden’s name or last name, the venue of the murder, the name of the murderer differ by version. Arang is depicted as a courtesan in a version that demonstrates a striking departure in plot, recorded in the form of a transcription of an oral recitation from 1923. The male character who encounters Arang’s ghost has varying names and status in the many different versions of the tale, and meets the ghost under different circumstances: a former military official expelled from public office twenty years ago; Yi Sangsa, knowledgeable and spirited but unsuccessful in society; Bae Ikso, a young man; Lord Yi, who travels through the scenic places around the country after failing to be appointed to public office past the age of forty—all unfortunate men deprived of social recognition, who, after resolving Arang’s grievance, achieve success in the world. Resolution of Arang’s grievance and the mourning of her spirit also take on various different froms: In some versions, Arang appears as herself and leads the people to where she is buried; in others she transforms into a red banner or a butterfly to reveal the murderer, who confesses where he buried Arang.
The legend is one of Korea’s most widely recognized haunted spirit (wongwi) narratives. Arang, who was denied her own voice while alive, acquires the ability to cross the boundaries of the human world and the supernatural world as a ghost, and upon returning to the human world, resolves her grievance. The resolution, mediated by a male nobleman / literati, is interpreted as the return of a victim of male violence to the Confucian patriarchal social order; or as Arang becoming an agent of her destiny by arranging a public mourning for herself. Both interpretations share the perspective that the haunted spirit is given her voice in the story, accusing and criticizing male violence and the patriarchal order.