The lingering appeal of Pokémon’s greatest ghost story

The myth goes that when the first Pokémon games came out in Japan back in 1996, over 100 children who played it committed suicide. Others suffered nosebleeds or brutal headaches, or became irrationally angry when their parents asked them to take a break. Eventually, a commonality between the incidents was established—players started feeling the effects when they reached Lavender Town, home of the Pokémon graveyard, and the one dark segment in an otherwise light-hearted game.

Furthermore, most of those affected had been wearing headphones instead of relying on the Game Boy’s tiny little speaker.

It was eventually determined that Lavender Town’s music was to blame. Something about its high pitch binaural beats messed with the brains of children in a way adults were immune to. Nintendo released an updated, less prone-to-inducing-insanity version of the game and, with help from the Japanese government, covered up the entire ugly incident. We wouldn’t be speaking about it today if a single distraught employee hadn’t leaked Nintendo’s report on what they dubbed Lavender Town Syndrome, complete with a chilling line by line recap of the names, ages, and varied symptoms of its many victims.

The fact that Pokémon is celebrating its 20th anniversary instead of languishing in obscurity after being banished for the horrors it unleashed on the world should be enough to make it obvious that Lavender Town Syndrome is fake. But it’s a compelling lie, and it’s one of many alluring urban legends surrounding popular videogames. Everyone loves a good ghost story, and the Internet lets people share and build on them with ease.

The story of Lavender Town Syndrome was uploaded anonymously to Pastebin in 2010. From there it slowly spread to gaming forums and large general interest sites like 4chan, usually being rewritten somewhat along the way. Sometimes the music’s effects are an accident, sometimes they’re part of an experiment, and sometimes there are additional elements only included in the very first version of the gamea special boss fight against an undead trainer who was buried alive and who will drag you into the ground with him if you lose, being one of them. Interest in the story peaked in the summer of 2012, but it’s still searched and shared routinely today.

Everyone loves a good ghost story, and the Internet lets people share and build on them with ease

To give you a sense of the story’s popularity, searching “Lavender Town Syndrome” on YouTube produces dozens of videos ranging in views from 50,000 to over 3.3 million. There are dramatic readings of various editions of the text, debunkings and analyses of the myth, remixes of the song to make it even more unnerving… pretty much any topic you can imagine has been covered. A Google image search produces tons of fan art, some of it legitimately unnerving.

In the case of what makes Lavender Town Syndrome so compelling, part of the appeal comes from corrupting such an innocent symbol of childhood. If you grew up playing Pokémon Blue and Red, you remember that they were light-hearted right up until the point that  Lavender Town introduced mourning trainers who told you that Pokémon could die. It’s not that much of a stretch to imagine that dark moment being twisted into even more unsettling tales.

It’s certainly not a stretch to imagine that Pokémon could hurt kids. Even putting aside the usual fears of games making kids violent or turning them into addicts, there is the very real incident of the Pokémon cartoon, which gave a number of Japanese kids seizures. And anyone who played a Pokémon game inevitably fell for a schoolyard rumor about it, whether it was being able to find Mew hidden behind a trick, or increasing your odds of a capture by jamming away at a certain button. Lavender Town Syndrome easily slipped in among a bevy of Pokémon myths that had been circulated for years. Except now, instead of just re-telling the story to your friends on the playground, you could immediately put your own twist on it and spread it far and wide. One anonymous stranger even made a fake spectrograph that allegedly shows a ghost Pokémon hiding in the Lavender Town audio file, a pretty ingenious way to contribute to a rapidly growing myth.

It’s that combination of interaction, corruption, and believability that you see in the best videogame ghost stories. Take Jvk1166z.esp, an infamous haunted Morrowind (2002) mod. Supposedly, it kills off hordes of NPCs outright, then has the survivors speak in portentous omens about “watching the sky.” Your health is constantly drained, there’s a creepy dungeon that’s impossible to finish, and it continues to get weirder the longer you play.

Interaction, corruption, and believability are what you see in the best videogame ghost stories

Jvk1166z.esp gained an unexpected level of pseudo-reality when some Reddit users gathered to turn it into a real mod—work that continues to this day, years after the story first surfaced. Meanwhile, those who fall for the story have been known to download a supposed copy of the mod that actually just infects their computer with malware. It’s tempting to dismiss those unfortunate people as gullible, but it’s really not hard to believe that an especially terrifying Morrowind mod is floating around the darkest corners of the Internet. After all, there are hundreds of real Morrowind mods—it almost seems statistically plausible that at least one of them happens to be unusually creepy.

Ben Drowned is another classic. While it lacks believability—even the most naïve person isn’t going to buy that a bizarre Majora’s Mask (2000) cart acquired from a cackling old man at a flea market turned out to be haunted by the restless spirit of its deceased former owner—it’s a legitimately compelling read that’s far more unsettling than a simple summary can convey. The story of the Majora’s Mask that players know and love slowly unravels into madness, being accompanied by modified video footage that features the player being stalked by a disturbing statue, creepy noises and glitches, and weird dialogue that grows increasingly ominous.

Again, it’s easy to see the appeal. For a certain generation, Majora’s Mask was a childhood staple, and it’s perhaps the darkest installment in a universally beloved series. The Ben Drowned myth resonated to the point where there’s now oodles of fan art and even a sprawling alternate reality game that adds new layers to it. It’s now a myth that’s grown more complicated than the actual story of Majora’s Mask. While Ben Drowned was written in 2010, internet searches for it peaked in 2014, and it’s still looked up routinely today.

ben drowned

The reason for this is due to it breathing life into an old game. Majora’s Mask is almost 16-years-old, an age when even hardcore fans who have spent countless loving hours memorizing every facet can find it feeling stale. An elaborate ghost story makes it fresh again. Suddenly there’s a whole new way of looking at the game that didn’t exist when they played it for the first (or fifth) time. The same applies to Pokémon Blue and Red, a while anyone who grew up playing these games have spent decades knowing all 151 Pokémon, they never knew that one town was trying to kill them (so goes the myth). Suddenly the whimsical childhood classic is a horror story, and a game where they thought they knew every secret is now full of fresh ones. These stories give classic games a new appeal at a time when they’d otherwise be ignored in favor of new releases.  

Videogame ghost stories are a phenomenon that goes beyond bored adults making the games of their childhood retroactively spooky. There’s a whole subgenre of Minecraft (2011) stories, and that’s a game that every 12-year-old is seemingly required to play by childhood law these days. The most famous is the tale of Herobrine, a ghostly character that supposedly pops up now and then to screw with players in weird and unsettling ways. We’re told that Herobrine was secretly included as a tribute to the creator’s dead brother, and while everyone knows it’s a lie, that hasn’t stopped Minecraft fans from endlessly analyzing and building on it to the point where the game itself has started dropping Herobrine references in its patch notes. Search for Herobrine on YouTube and the first page of results has 16 videos with over a million views, including one 15-minute exploration of a Herobrine mod with a staggering 27 million views. It seems the rule is: if an urban legend is compelling to enough people, go ahead and pull it into reality.

They go beyond making the games of bored adults’ childhood retroactively spooky

Videogames have always been a natural medium for exaggerated storytelling—not just the actual plots, but the stories we tell our friends about making a difficult choice or the unusual method used to defeat a tough boss. Horror, too, lends itself naturally to tall tales—even the most squeamish and easily spooked can find themselves engaged by a campfire story. Good horror taps into a very primal fear of ours, of the dangerous and unknown. And it’s this that these urban legends surrounding videogames manage to achieve. Schoolyard rumours about unlocking Sonic in Super Smash Bros. Melee (2001) or discovering a Tomb Raider nude code can now be debunked with a quick Google search, but you can never truly debunk one of these horror stories. There’s a part of your brain that lets a fear linger, no matter how outlandish it soundsa defense mechanism we’ve held onto since roaming the wilds. The fact that most of the original creators of the ghost stories tend to be anonymous only adds to the allure. They’re not just a chilling story someone wrote—they become a mysterious part of the Internet’s collective consciousness.

Games like Pokémon and Minecraft, being such large cultural touchstones, offer a huge built-in audience to aspiring horror writers. And that audience, instead of passively listening to the story and then passing it on to a few friends, can immediately share their additions, theories, fan art, or mods with hundreds of thousands of people. They’re modern-day campfire stories, and while the genre is still in its infancy it only shows signs of growing in popularitythe fervent fandom surrounding the Five Nights at Freddy’s series is testament to that. Maybe decades from now it’ll be the norm to gather a bunch of young’uns to tell them how, back in your day, virtual reality games didn’t exist so ghosts had to haunt physical game cartridges instead.