The ghost in the Pokémon machine

In 1996, the Pokémon franchise hit the scene in Japan with its first two games for the Nintendo GameBoy: Pokémon Red and Pokémon Green. They were released at the same time using the same game engine, but with different monsters and plot; the idea was that players of the different games could trade monsters with one another, and it was necessary to trade with someone in order to collect all 150 Pokémon. (Mew, a 151st Pokémon, existed in this tier of games but was only given out as prizes for Nintendo Power competitions and other such promotions, or could be unlocked using a Gameshark or through a glitch near Lavender Town — coincidental to today’s video game urban legend.)

Lavender Town in these games was a sort of “graveyard” town, where Pokémon are put to rest in a Tower and hauntings by restless spirits of Pokémon are apparently relatively common; and it’s central to the myth that hundreds of Japanese children committed suicide in a spike in 1996, when the games were released, but only once they got to Lavender Town in their games. The myth has come to be known as “Lavender Town Syndrome”.

The origin of this story is most likely 4Chan’s /x/ (“Paranormal”) board, according to KnowYourMeme, though the earliest instance of the story was posted to Pastebin in rather poorly written prose.

The original form suggested that there was a secret inserted into 107 copies of the cartridge during the first few minutes of play. Supposedly, you’d encounter a secret message from ghosts if you entered the grassy areas before getting your first Pokémon, after which the kids playing the game would have some sort of psychotic break, and the game would move their save file to Lavender Town — the graveyard town — with a very low play time and only the starting Pokémon in their inventory. The story included an investigation of the programmers by detectives who eventually committed suicide themselves; the narrative includes elements impossible to have been known by the person telling the story (including such things as knowing that someone was “smiling generously” when the narrative was supposedly reconstructed from a tape recording).

The story itself continues to evolve as people add to the mythos, and the most widely known version of the story is that malicious programmers inserted mind-control signals into the game’s musical score intentionally, such that once children got to Lavender Town, the music in the area — very high-pitched and slightly discordant — resulted in these kids getting extreme headaches, self-mutilating or committing suicide. When the game was localized to North America, the music had been changed to eliminate this effect.

Another new element that was inserted to the myth was a supposed waveform analysis of the music, seen in this Youtube video:

As you may be able to tell from the thumbnail image, the waveform included some ghost figures derived from the ghosts in Pokémon Tower. This was a rather obvious fan-made addition that does not exist in the original waveform, which was actually “chiptune“, generated by a sound chip rather than digital. The screech that happens when the ghost image appears is likely because the actual generated waveform itself was edited to include that ghost image, rather than it existing in the original game. A different version of this waveform alteration included Unowns, Pokémon from a much later game in the series whose bodies look like letters, spelling the words “LEAVE NOW”.

Another element added later to the story was that there was a “white hand” creature, which looked like a decomposing skeleton hand, all based on a throwaway line from a specific non-player character joking that there was a white hand on the player’s shoulder. This “white hand” creature supposedly acted as an actual combatant, whereas throughout the game people and creatures generally appeared to challenge your team of monsters with their own. In addition, the animations for the ghosts that appeared in the tower supposedly could drive you mad if you saw them in their entirety, but many frames were missing from them on being decompiled. And there was supposedly a boss coded in the game for the tower stage, which involved a human corpse that had been buried alive and had no actual script for what might happen if you won against him, and a series of creepy alterations to the normal game-over screen if you lose; the implication being, you couldn’t win. KnowYourMeme describes these three additions to the myth as involving “whitehand.gif”, “haunting.swf”, and “staticmesh.wav”, filetypes known to Windows users but which likely have little meaning within the scope of Gameboy programming. It’s doubtful any of these elements added to the story have any kernel of truth to them.

However, there may be an element of truth in the music being altered because of the high-pitched noises in the music causing headaches. Pokémon does have its history of legendary disturbing happenstances, and needing to alter the source material in response to complaints, including ostensibly inadvertently causing seizures in children with flashing-light motifs in their original cartoon series, so at least that part is plausible. Though, the supposed incidence of seizures is itself potentially specious, so it’s just as possible that this was a response to complaints that didn’t stem from actual physiological effects happening, so much as people complaining about the sound. As for a noteworthy spike in suicide rates in 1996 in Japan, there was no real appreciable increase in that year over others generally; Japan is historically culturally tolerant of suicide, though recently they’ve started an effort to curb suicide by 20% by 2017. It’s possible children committed suicide more in that year than others, but there’s certainly no actual scholarship or news articles suggesting this was the case, and certainly nothing pointing the finger directly at the GameBoy games.

This story has all the makings of a Bloody Mary or Candyman type myth — an innocuous thing you could do to summon a ghost of some sort, followed by dire consequences for doing it. What’s REALLY scary is how many young, credulous children might come across this stuff on the internet and really think their games are haunted; though, this is obviously the intent. The entire concept of “creepypasta”, or copy-and-pasteable creep-out “campfire” stories, is an effort to corrupt something as innocent as Pokémon the way ghost stories might have been told around the fire — you know, that innocent game about searching for and trapping animals and forcing them to fight with one another for your pleasure.

The ghost in the Pokémon machine

20 thoughts on “The ghost in the Pokémon machine

  1. 4

    Oh, incidentally, since I’m primarily talking about the Japanese version, I should point out that when it was re-localized outside Japan, it was released as Red / Blue, not Red / Green… though I should also point out that Blue existed in Japan in the same tier, which really means if I want to clarify anything like this, I should build a diagram of some sort.

  2. 5

    I would just like to gloat that, using that glitch, I did indeed get Mew. And then lorded Mew over my friends for a few months… and I haven’t played Pokeman since, because I lost interest… I may have to pick it up, again…

    This sounds fascinating, though, and I almost want to get one of the old gameboys just so I can get and play one of those original cartridges… just to see what happens…

  3. 6

    It almost sounds like the plot of The Ring .
    Also you totally should do Herobrine. I can’t convince my kids that he doesn’t exist…

  4. 7

    I’m fairly certain that none of the Pokemon creepypasta is intentionally aimed at kids at all. The communities it originated in do not allow children, are generally hostile to those perceived to be underage, and are simply not comprised of the kind of people who take children into consideration at all. It, like most similar creepypasta, is largely a semi-ironic exercise in nostalgia. If anyone is taking it seriously, that is not the authors’ intent.

  5. 8

    Shplane: the same argument could be said about Bronies invading an MLP convention… and yet, cross-bleed happens. Kids use Google and find the stories. I’d like my blog to be a hit for “Lavender Town Syndrome” for exactly that reason.

  6. 9

    should point out that when it was re-localized outside Japan, it was released as Red / Blue, not Red / Green

    Well, they wouldn’t want to confuse viewers of some CBC shows, now would they?

    …OK, now my brain, rather against my will, is constructing some sort of mashup.

  7. 13

    Huh; never being into Pokémon, I hadn’t heard about this. The main story is a rather popular plot. If the origin of the urban legend is in 2010, then Serial Experiments Lain (1998) (which is great – go watch it if this stuff is interesting to you) predates it by over a decade and has a very similar story line: kids playing a popular video game are driven to apparent suicide, but continue to exist in the game world. .hack//Sign (2002) (and the wider .hack universe) has some similar elements, though the meatspace people are rendered comatose (instead of killing themselves) while they continue to be conscious in the game world; it’s likely a popular concept related to various long-standing cultural anxieties that the non-commonplace existence of virtual worlds makes more acute (fears of new media exerting mind control go back as far as there was a concept of the mind as something that could be controlled).

    This is an awesome series of posts, existing at the nexus of two areas (video games and cultural/discursive studies) that interest me greatly.

  8. 14

    Poor Wandering One @ 10:

    In Possum Lodge, duct tape chooses you!

    (Talk about a horrible mashup: Yakov Smirnoff and Steve Smith? The horror!)

  9. 16

    What’s REALLY scary is how many young, credulous children might come across this stuff on the internet and really think their games are haunted; though, this is obviously the intent.

    You are not saying “Intent is irrelevant to harm” here, you’re saying “These people maliciously and intentionally constructed these stories to harm children.”

    Whether children find these stories and are harmed by them (I find both propositions doubtful, honestly, but whatever), this statement is false and inflammatory.

    It’s also important to remember that the Bronies you mentioned are invading a currently-existing fanbase, and actually injecting themselves into areas mostly designated for children and being creepy assholes around those children (Assuming, of course, that Bronies do this to MLP conventions, and that MLP conventions are a thing: I don’t know or care to know enough about the franchise or its fanbase to comment). These stories are not being injected into spaces specifically marked out for children, do not involve games that the average child is even likely to know about (Red and Blue are not the currently extant and relevant Pokemon games, and are honestly mostly only played by adults for nostalgia purposes at this point), and do not involve adults being creepy and inappropriate around children directly, as bronies would likely be want to do. It involves stories on the internet, told in specific areas and contexts that children are not likely to be involved in, in spaces that adults have created for themselves to engage in those kinds of stories.

    Do you claim that pornography was designed to harm children because some children might find it? Sometimes adults draw pokemon characters having sex. Would you claim that the intent to make children think that Misty likes anal?

    If a child stumbles across any of these things, it is both incidental and the result of either that child specifically looking for more mature content (Which no adult is really in control of), or rare accidental circumstances (Which are, by definition, not something people are in control of). Unless some asshole is posting links to the creepypasta wiki on the Pokemon forums and saying “HEY KIDS, THIS IS TRUE”, then no one intends for children to be involved, and it is absurd and disingenuous to claim that they do.

  10. 17

    You’re also being extremely uncharitable to the intelligence of children. If they’re old enough to be looking for creepy stories on the internet, they’ve probably got it figured out that they’re not really true, especially when they’re absurd nonsense about Pokemon.

  11. 19

    Shplane: no, the intent I’m referring to is that memes spread. One doesn’t write a thing and publish it to the internet in hopes that it disappears — one hopes to either have people use the right search words in a search engine and have people stumble across their ideas, or one hopes to write these ideas on the internet as a record for posterity. The intent here is that people writing these creepypastas is that someone who knows something about the game will find them and become open to the possibility of ghosts haunting their games. You don’t have to read intent of malice into what I wrote; that’s unnecessary and uncharitable.

    What’s more, I stated my intent to put my post about Lavender Town into search engines, since Lavender Town is in many iterations of Pokemon, up to Generation 4. I didn’t go to Pokemon forums and link the post there, but I certainly want kids to see it, and said so. And what did you do? You came here and posted about how by my logic, Misty likes anal. Can you see why that might get under my skin right now?

  12. 20

    Creepypasta seems like a natural outgrowth of the urban legends that surrounded video games when I was a kid, during the early days of widespread Internet. Mostly those were about secret combos or codes; the most memorable of them was the existence of “Nudalities” or “Sexualities” in various Mortal Kombat games, where characters could trade the excessively gory finishers for excessively sexualized ones. They didn’t exist, but it didn’t stop lunchroom rumors or message board posts from spreading.

    It’s only a short leap from that kind of legendary hidden content to the ghost stories we see in creepypasta.

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