Drama

Strangers From Hell: The Forgotten Menace

This article contains major spoilers for Strangers From Hell. Proceed with caution!

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Of the many things Strangers From Hell does right, one aspect I’ve always had a profound connection to was the wide array of psychologically interesting characters that pioneer the drama’s harrowing descent into the human condition. Undeniably, the two main characters, Jong Woo and Moon Jo, are some of the most intriguing and thrilling characters I’ve had the pleasure of watching, and their screen presence is so dominating that majority of the cast is overshadowed by them. Their disturbed dynamic and the manipulative twists in their respective arcs made them a wild ride to watch. However, there was another character that stood out to me and he seems to have been forgotten by most of the fanbase. And that is none other than Yoo Ki Hyuk, room 302’s resident.

Ever since my first viewing of Strangers From Hell I’ve always felt a magnetic pull to Ki Hyuk, and my few rewatches only made my interest and attraction to him as a character stronger. It’s not uncommon to latch onto supporting characters, wishing they had more screen time and even favouring them over the main leads. In this case, despite Ki Hyuk appearing in a minuscule part of the drama, I love his character as much as the leads and find him almost, if not equally, as intriguing and psychologically interesting.

Thus, I wanted to explore just why my attachment to this character is so strong and give him the spotlight he deserves through this article. Without any further delay, let’s get started!


Who is he?

Yoo Ki Hyuk (played by Lee Hyun Wook) is a supporting character in the psychological horror OCN  drama, Strangers From Hell. He’s present for two episodes, and  afterwards makes some minor appearances in various flashbacks and for a short time at the beginning of episode three. He’s a resident at the Eden Goshiwon, occupying room 302, and an eager member of the tenants’ deranged murderous club. He’s shown to be a dominating figure amongst the other residents, inspiring fear and obedience from them, and is rather arrogant. It is also established that Ki Hyuk is one of Moon Jo’s projects, much like Jong Woo, who was taken in by the group once he began living there and encouraged to join in on their homicidal activities.

In the original webtoon he was known as King Eyes and was also the main antagonist. Moon Jo was a new character created for the drama and he filled Ki Hyuk’s role as the leader of the group and goshiwon.


Character Analysis

Before I discuss why I think Ki Hyuk is worthy of an appreciation post, I thought I’d quickly give my two cents on his character as a whole. This section will be very brief as there is little content to work with due to his character being killed off too soon to really get to know him.

As a whole, I personally find Ki Hyuk to be a very unnerving and creepy individual. This is mainly due to the fact that Ki Hyuk appears gentle, well-mannered and soft-spoken when he interacts with people. However, despite this, there exists an underlying unease and menace that is communicated through his strange behaviour. He smiles quite often but it is always soulless and empty. This polarity results in a suffocating, eerie atmosphere whenever he is on-screen. He carries himself with a menacing charm because although he appears normal and presents himself as so, there is something so wrong about him, and instinctively we know he is dangerous.

Looking back on Ki Hyuk’s few scenes at the beginning of the drama, one of the most striking and obvious things I noticed about his character was that he enjoys establishing himself above others and exerting influence over them. He is often shown taking advantage of his effect on those around him, utilising their unease and fear of him to get them to listen to him. I suspect that Ki Hyuk may have a serious superiority complex or the notion of scaring people and reducing them to nervous obedience is cathartic to him.

This is very obvious through the way he interacts with other characters, as he demeans those he views as lesser than himself (for example, spitting on Jong Woo) and delights in pressuring, scaring or commanding others; consistently asserting his dominance and physical strength over them as it affirms he is more powerful. I am unsure whether Ki Hyuk always felt this way or if it was something he developed after he entered Eden Goshiwon. It’s possible that when Ki Hyuk was invited into the group and given special treatment by Moon Jo, as opposed to becoming another one of their victims, he felt validated and important and it continued to pile up from there.

A notable scene that encapsulates this aspect of his character completely is in episode two, when he reprimands one of the Kiwi twins for leaving one of their victims unattended. Ki Hyuk simply sits in silence and stares the twin down, almost expectantly, which prompts the twin to start hitting and punishing himself for his transgression. Ki Hyuk shows no sign of stopping the twin until they are interrupted, not even when the man has poured a pot of boiling ramen on himself. This leads me to assume Ki Hyuk never had any intention of stopping the twin’s string of self-harm because he was enjoying it. This small scene displays the influence and power he has over the other residents alongside his cruelty. I found this scene especially chilling because it highlights just how fearful some of the residents are of him and his complete lack of humanity.

Another scene I think is worth a mention appears in episode one, where the laughing twin meets him outside the goshiwon. Up until this point, the twin has been shown to be loud, brazen and unhinged, but once he comes face-to-face with Ki Hyuk, his manner immediately becomes meeker and on-edge. It’s a small but powerful detail that clearly states that in the goshiwon hierarchy, Ki Hyuk is on par with Moon Jo.
I think one of the reasons Ki Hyuk has such an impact on the other residents is because he emulates Moon Jo’s brutality and character; however, he is more impulsive. He is less restrained by rules than Moon Jo, who lives with a rather strict code. Additionally, despite integrating into the group’s activities seamlessly, he is still an outsider. He didn’t grow up with them and I assume he has only been part of their group for a few months, considering they move around often to avoid being discovered. They have less of a personal bond with Ki Hyuk and therefore, don’t know him as well or trust him as much as the other long-term residents.

It’s implied that he was at a rough place in his life when he moved to the goshiwon, losing his entire family and being betrayed by a close friend, so I’m sure he was very spiteful at the time and withheld a lot of repressed anger. Being taken under Moon Jo’s wing and given an outlet to express those negative feelings through violence without consequence must have felt very liberating. This would explain his sadistic streak, which is painfully obvious from early on. The only time we ever see him smile joyfully is when he’s engaged in violence or the thought of it. Undeniably, the man delights in the process and it thrills him to the core. May it have been bludgeoning the gangster in the back of the head, strangling the detective, or fantasising about killing Jong Woo, Ki Hyuk wore an elated grin. Much like the other residents, he genuinely enjoys what they do.

I also suspect that violence is another means through which he affirms his superiority, which gives some context to his love for it. Killing is 100 % a power trip for him. Overall, Ki Hyuk is a very creepy individual with little restraint, a grandiose sense of self-worth, and a knack for all things violent. Definitely NOT someone I’d want to meet in a dark alley… or just about anywhere, really.

Why is he so interesting?

Here’s the real question I challenged myself to answer by writing this article. Niream, why do you find such a minor character with barely any screen time so interesting? What makes him so special?

After mulling it over, I’ve discovered that there are many reasons why I am so drawn to Ki Hyuk and why he’s so memorable to me. I’ll go more in-depth later, but in summary: he plays a crucial narrative role in foreshadowing Jong Woo’s character arc, he is central to Moon Jo’s initial impression and screen presence, he presents an interesting case of mirroring, and he is representative of the innate evil in human nature and supports the theory/psychology referenced throughout the drama. And to top it all off, he achieves all of this without being bland, maintaining a sheen of ominous intrigue and inviting viewers’ attention.

Essentially, Ki Hyuk is very cool and is one of the most effective supporting characters relative to his screen time I’ve had the pleasure of witnessing. Now, let’s start ranting about him because boy, do I have a lot I want to say.

Crucial Narrative Role

It’s quite surprising that such a minor character plays such a large role in establishing atmosphere and expectations, supporting other characters’ screen presence, foreshadowing the central narrative arc, establishing risk and consequence, and supporting the drama’s central themes. I’m honestly very impressed with what the writers managed to do with his character in such a short amount of time without sacrificing the quality of his presentation and making him feel well-lived in and intriguing. He’s a perfectly crafted narrative tool in disguise, and it’s quite sad that his impact on Strangers From Hell is so overlooked.

Foreshadowing

The first thing I’m going to talk about is foreshadowing. I’ve briefly touched on the fact that Ki Hyuk is essentially Jong Woo 1.0. He was an outsider that moved to the residence and under Moon Jo’s guidance was groomed into a killer. It is possible that he was originally going to fulfill the role Jong Woo does as Moon Jo’s successor/legacy. However, there also exists the possibility that Ki Hyuk was a trial run, a faulty canvas that Moon Jo always knew was going to fail and was simply being used fill time before a more suitable model appeared (in this case, Jong Woo), which adds a rather bitter and pitiful note to his demise. 
Ki Hyuk’s role as one of Moon Jo’s projects is confirmed in varied flashback scenes and through the other residents asking Moon Jo if Jong Woo is room 302’s (Ki Hyuk’s) replacement.

Despite ultimately being deemed a failure, Ki Hyuk was a success to a degree, joining their small homicidal club and indulging in the power rush killing gave him with surprising ease. However, it was his inability to follow the rules, exert caution, his impulsivity and abandonment of his individuality (which I will touch on later) that led to his downfall. It’s clear that rather than doing what he wanted and freely expressing himself as Moon Jo intended, Ki Hyuk allowed his violent desires to control him, and instead of murder becoming an enriched part of his life, it completely took over. To Moon Jo murder is an artful process, while to Ki Hyuk it was something to satisfy his fragile ego.

Ki Hyuk’s character mirrors Jong Woo’s own, and the similarity in their situations presents viewers with an idea of what Jong Woo could possibly become by the series’ finale. Jong Woo’s spiral to insanity and manic violence is foreshadowed by Ki Hyuk’s own violent lifestyle. This adds a chilling layer of inevitability to Jong Woo’s character arc, as we watch him become more and more similar to the people around him.

Additionally, the ease with which Moon Jo disposes of Ki Hyuk once he’s deemed a failure establishes the risks and consequences of Jong Woo’s precarious situation. While Moon Jo does protect Jong Woo from the other residents, there exists no sense of safety or certainty, because the possibility of being discarded like Ki Hyuk if Moon Jo feels Jong Woo is no longer a suitable project is very real.

Impact on Moon Jo

The next thing I want to talk about is Ki Hyuk’s impact on Moon Jo’s character presence and initial impression. Moon Jo’s character is one of the drama’s stronger points and he’s definitely interesting enough to carry himself through the drama without much help. However, I feel that most people don’t realise just how much of a boost Ki Hyuk gave Moon Jo in regards to generating initial intrigue towards his character and kickstarting his sinister presence.

Without a doubt, Moon Jo’s character reveal at the end of episode two would not have been as shocking, impactful or as memorable without Ki Hyuk. I think it is worthy to note that it is this scene that sparked Moon Jo’s image as the ominous and charismatic killer we know him as, and the magnitude of that image relied solely on Ki Hyuk’s character build up. Yes, without him Moon Jo still would have been revealed as a killer (albeit in a different way) but he would have been significantly less threatening, simply because there would exist no measure to compare him to and audience expectations would not have been so harshly subverted, resulting in a less striking reveal.

Throughout the first two episodes, Ki Hyuk is presented and built up in a way that mirrors how narratives often frame their villains, or at least, how they outline threatening and important figures. It’s undeniable that his domineering presence as the main antagonist in the original webtoon was carried over into the screenplay. There are many scenes that focus on him and the stilted way he’s framed in many shots is very telling of his more mysterious and ominous nature as a character.

In all of Ki Hyuk’s first scenes, shots focus on his back or linger on the strange bag he always carries around. We as an audience are not shown his face, leaving him in obscurity, and instead the focus is placed on how other characters interact with him or how he is constantly lurking around. This is effective in building up suspense and tension around his character. At this point, he’s the only character the drama has suspended the reveal of, thus generating intrigue and placing importance on his character. We as an audience wonder who he is and why his reveal is being suspended. We naturally anticipate finding out more about him.
When you layer this suspension with the creepy way he’s presented (lurking around, watching people, often alone and in the dark) alongside how other characters react to him (intimidated and subservient), your imagination is running on overdrive. Almost everything about Ki Hyuk’s build up is admonitory. It clearly tells us: this individual is dangerous. It’s hard not to be lured in and thoroughly creeped out. His character is seamlessly built up in just two episodes, and I’m sure I’m not the only one that was certain he’d play a crucial role in the story and was eager to see more of him. And it’s precisely because of this that Moon Jo’s reveal was so striking.

In the scene that bridges the end of episode two and the beginning of episode three, wherein Moon Jo ruthlessly kills Ki Hyuk, all the feelings the audience had built up towards Ki Hyuk and his perceived role as a formidable villain are redirected onto Moon Jo and amplified. Witnessing a domineering, threatening and vicious character like Ki Hyuk get taken out so easily by what we’d assumed to be a normal dentist hits incredibly hard. Ki Hyuk’s presence, all the intrigue and tension, and his established role as the antagonist, is immediately adopted by his killer.

No build up was necessary for Moon Jo’s character. All he needed was Ki Hyuk to do all the work, and with a simple misdirect he is established as the true power in the environment. This is an amazing narrative strategy because every nuance and detail that built up Ki Hyuk’s image isn’t carried over to Moon Jo, only his presence and the unnerving effect on the viewer is. Thus, we have a character we know nothing about and have barely seen on screen carry themselves with an overpowering magnetism. We are intrigued, we want to know more about him, and he’s barely done anything to warrant the attention.

Putting it simply, Ki Hyuk walked so Moon Jo could run. That’s right, Ki Hyuk paved the way.

I personally think this is one of Ki Hyuk’s more important roles because its climax acts as a pivotal hook, intended to grip viewers and keep them around for the rest of the drama. I know for a fact it worked because I’ve seen many discussions wherein viewers were sceptical about continuing the drama early on but this scene between Ki Hyuk and Moon Jo encouraged them to keep watching.

An Intriguing Case Of Mirroring

Ki Hyuk’s narrative role aside, mirroring is one of the main details that led him to stand out to me. As you watch the drama, something that becomes painfully obvious long after Ki Hyuk’s death was that he was imitating Moon Jo; mirroring his style, speech, actions, and lifestyle. He even strives to have the same impact on people as Moon Jo does, which can be seen in how he’s established himself in the goshiwon hierarchy.

Let’s quickly list some similarities I noticed:

  • Ki Hyuk maintains a similar appearance to Moon Jo. They have very similar hairstyles, specifically longer hair with parted overhanging bangs. Both wear rather modest fashion consisting of long-sleeves and pants, usually a darker or mute shade. We know Moon Jo prefers this type of clothing to cover his many scars. Ki Hyuk doesn’t have a specific reason and will wear it no matter how hot the weather is.
  • Like most disturbed characters, Ki Hyuk frequently flashes a trademark creepy smile. Moon Jo and Ki Hyuk specifically have a serene chilling smile that distinguishes them from the more manic smiles of the other residents. I’ll acknowledge that the creepy smile is a trait common amongst their character types, but I’m adding it solely because Ki Hyuk and Moon Jo’s smiles have similar vibes; the intention and impression is the same. To add to this, one of the first things Jong Woo comments about Ki Hyuk’s character is that he has an unnerving smile and he smiles often, which parallels to when he meets Moon Jo for the first time and the first thing he notices is Moon Jo’s smile, posing the question: “why do you keep smiling?”
  • He hovers and stalks people in a similar manner to Moon Jo. They share the habit of appearing and disappearing spontaneously.
  • He’s seen loafing around at the same places Moon Jo enjoys spending his time at. Specifically, the bottom of the staircase outside the goshiwon.
  • He mimics Moon Jo’s slower and more blunt manner of speaking, while simultaneously ignoring personal boundaries and formalities.

  • Both outwardly present a similar ‘mask’: well-mannered, calm, and friendly.
  • Like previously stated, he attempts to garner the same reverence and fear from his peers as Moon Jo (and does so successfully) and aims to be at a similar level to Moon Jo in their group’s small pecking order.

  • Ki Hyuk is often seen enforcing order in the goshiwon; breaking up fights, handling disputes, encouraging others to follow the rules, and acting as a calm second party that never precipitates conflict. This is similar to what Moon Jo does at times, essentially controlling the other residents.

The drama itself acknowledges Ki Hyuk’s strange fixation with imitating Moon Jo and even dedicates parallel scenes to draw attention to it. For instance, in episode two, Jong Woo encounters Ki Hyuk at the bottom of the stairway outside of the goshiwon while he’s on his way to work. Ki Hyuk is decked out in an all black long-sleeved shirt and pants ensemble despite the summer weather, and Jong Woo asks if he’s hot. Jump forward to episode seven and the same scenario occurs, only this time Jong Woo meets Moon Jo at the stairway (in a similar outfit) and it’s the new resident, Seok Yun, that asks him if he’s hot. This was a very obvious parallel that made me realise that Ki Hyuk wasn’t only emulating Moon Jo’s style but his entire being.

Episode 2

Episode 7

I personally believe that Ki Hyuk idolised Moon Jo. He took Ki Hyuk away from the mundane normality of life, transformed him into a new person, gave him power and made him feel important. Ki Hyuk felt validated, and most importantly, accepted by Moon Jo. It’s not a stretch to say that Ki Hyuk deeply respects Moon Jo, the extent of his admiration bordering on obsessive worship, because Moon Jo took him in when he was at his lowest, and he is also the individual with the most influence and strength amongst the residents. Moon Jo became Ki Hyuk’s ideal; a figure to strive for, as he symbolises all the things Ki Hyuk wants in life, and under his guidance he was able to achieve a more liberated, empowered, and thrilling lifestyle. He doesn’t just want to be like Moon Jo, he wants to be him.

I suspect that Ki Hyuk abandoning his own individuality is another crucial reason why Moon Jo deemed him a failure. Moon Jo doesn’t want to create a carbon copy of himself. He prides his work on its individuality and distinct nuances. He aims to break down and recreate people in their own image, so that they retain their essence but are liberated under his standards. That wasn’t Ki Hyuk, as he was too vulnerable and desperate when Moon Jo first picked him up. It’s quite sad, honestly. This man possessed so little self-worth and was so hurt, that when given the chance to change he tried to become someone else entirely, and that insecurity and desperation is what got him killed.

Rest in peace, Ki Hyuk, you will forever be remembered (well, at least by me. Most of the fandom has forgotten about you).

Before I move on, there is one more thing I’d like to explore in this section because it ties in with Ki Hyuk’s habit of imitating Moon Jo. I noticed that the drama likes to interchange between Ki Hyuk and Moon Jo, often visually and audibly, practically blurring their characters together at times. There are scenes, usually in Jong Woo’s dreams or hallucinations, where Ki Hyuk’s character will morph into Moon Jo or vice versa. Additionally, in early episodes, the drama liked to frame the two without showing their face, so viewers were never sure if we’d just seen Ki Hyuk or Moon Jo on-screen until much later. Even now, we don’t know who was stalking Jong Woo around the residence at the beginning of his stay because of how abstract the drama is in its presentation. 

(And don’t even get me started on how the person bludgeoning Jong Woo in the first few minutes of episode one was obviously Ki Hyuk’s silhouette even though he’s absent from the finale. Messing with your mind is Strangers From Hell’s number one priority.)

Every person watching SFH be like…

Throughout the first two episodes, clashing audio and visuals are used to deceive the viewer and relate Moon Jo and Ki Hyuk. For instance, Jong Woo is sleeping in his room and we later learn that Moon Jo is watching him through a small hole in the wall. A voice stating, “Honey, wake up” can be heard and it rouses Jong Woo from his slumber. However, the voice used wasn’t Moon Jo’s but Ki Hyuk’s despite viewers later confirming that Moon Jo must have said it. There are a few other similar scenes and situations that present fragmented aspects of both characters and mash them together to build a disorienting and muddled picture of the true antagonist’s identity.

Moon Jo’s eye

Ki Hyuk’s voice

I absolutely love these details and direction decisions. They add so much to the atmosphere and they display character relations and dynamics so well. The drama also uses similar techniques at the finale to overlap Moon Jo and Jong Woo, which I find quite interesting. A notable scene being the iconic final frame of the drama where Jong Woo and Moon Jo’s faces morph into one another. Everything comes full circle. The failed and successful work both underwent extreme changes due to Moon Jo’s influence, to the point it became difficult to differentiate them from Moon Jo. And it’s all shown in a similar manner through technical cues. Gosh, I love it.


Not The Big Bad Afterall… Or Is He?

I previously mentioned that Ki Hyuk’s character build up reflected that of a ‘big bad’, he was implied to be the main antagonist we had to look out for, but it ended up being a giant misdirect. Moon Jo casually pulls up, riding on Ki Hyuk’s hard work, and claims the spotlight, while Ki Hyuk is discarded entirely. This leads the audience to forget Ki Hyuk in his insignificance, now certain he’s nothing to be worried about and busy fixating their attention on the newcomer. However, I’d argue that Ki Hyuk was the big bad. Just not the one we initially thought him to be.

I say this because ultimately, despite only imitating Moon Jo, the true evil within our story, Ki Hyuk represents both Jong Woo and Moon Jo at their worst and, therefore, is a culmination of all their bad traits. He possesses Moon Jo’s sadistic bloodlust but without the rules, restraint, and with extra impulsivity. He also reflects Jong Woo’s final form, the insanity and violence driven by self-satisfaction and repressed emotion. While Ki Hyuk may not be the main antagonist, he encompasses the worst traits of both Moon Jo and Jong Woo and he thrives in an environment that supports and nurtures those characteristics.

Additionally, Ki Hyuk’s character adds further layers to the psychology imposed by Jong Woo’s character arc. Are humans innately evil or are they products of their environment? Unlike Jong Woo’s character, whose insanity and gradual change is provided with context, we are presented with Ki Hyuk after he’s changed. We are given no insight into his personal life before the goshiwon, and as a result we struggle to make solid judgements on what spectrum he falls under.

While Ki Hyuk was a failure in Moon Jo’s eyes, he ultimately was a success in regards to becoming a killer. He adopts the homicidal pass-time with unnerving vigour and enjoys every second of it. That may or may not be because, like all humans according to the Xunzi’s theory, his nature is innately evil and he was given the chance to embrace it, or if he was simply a product of his environment. No matter the answer, he’s an extra building block that supports the drama’s contention and themes, and it’s undeniable that his character as a whole represents humanity at its lowest.


Conclusion

With that, we’ve reached the end of this appreciation article. For those that couldn’t tell, I’m a massive simp for Ki Hyuk’s character despite the fact that I hate him as a person. He’s just too well written and utilised and I can’t help but put respect on his name. The concept of his character, a bootleg Moon Jo and the first version of crazy Jong Woo, is so interesting and I mourn his short screen time every day because I can’t learn more about him.

If anyone actually read through this colossal mess, what are your thoughts on his character? Did he make as big an impression on you as he did on me? I’d love to know because I’m truly starved of Ki Hyuk-themed discussions. Thank you for reading my first article and happy drama watching!


Acknowledgement and credits:

A big thank you to the editors that helped work on this article, your efforts are appreciated. I do not own any of the images used in this article; all credit goes to their respective owners.


Edited by: devitto (1st editor)

strangers from hell
yoo ki-hyuk
lee hyun-wook

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