It was the music, they said, that drove the children crazy. The eerie, cut-off soundtrack to Pokémon RedLavender Town contained harmful sonic irregularities played at such high frequencies that only the youngest players could hear them. In extreme cases, these can change brain chemistry and trigger psychosis ̵
None of this is true, of course. Lavender Town Syndrome is just a legend, a ghost story for the gaming generation. No cases of child murder were ever finally linked to the game’s music – the closest case was an episode from the 1997 Pokémon TV show with strobe lights that triggered epileptic seizures.
Stories of haunted video games have been circulating for decades. They were more credible before the Internet, when you could still come across a game no one else knew. Back then, game development was the domain of hobbyists and lonely programmers who could create curious experiments and distribute them at trade fairs or in sales in the garden. It was also not outlandish to suspect that games had secrets: even on a program as modest as Excel 95, a certain combination of commands opens “Hall of Tortured Souls”, a lurid, game-like hell in the spreadsheet that shows names and pictures of Microsoft developers.
Since the advent of the internet, myths have become easier to dispel. Oral ghost stories began to develop into “creepypasta” – paranormal stories meant to scare readers, written in the first person and adorned when shared across platforms. The name is a portmanteau of “scary” and “copypasta”, in itself slang for text blocks that are copied and pasted between the forums. Creepypastas is a collaborative storytelling that bubbles up uninvited from the internet’s darkest unconscious.
A lot of game creepypasta is about cute games for kids like Pokémon and Mario. It’s the story of Herobrine, a foggy character who stalks Minecraft, only glimpsed in the distance or through fog. Another is a mod for fantasy adventure Morrowind called “Jvk1166z.esp” which causes characters to stare blankly at the sky while a figure with long, spider-like limbs haunts the edges of the screen. None of the myths are substantiated.
Some popular legends relate to haunted games that probably never existed. Polybius was supposedly an arcade game from the 1980s, created as part of a US government experiment, which induced psychoactive reactions in the players. More recently, a YouTube video called “Sad Satan” appeared which showed a scary corridor in a mysterious game that was apparently downloaded on the dark web. Online commentators eagerly jumped on these, detached references to serial killers and psy-ops, but both are probably hoaxes dreamed of by horror fans.
The most sophisticated game crab pastes reach beyond fiction to become interactive stories. The most famous is Ben drowned, an elaborate story told over 10 years about an evil spirit trapped in one Zelda cartridge. More recently, it was Petscop, a YouTube channel that shared videos of a disturbing (and fake) game containing references to child murder. The audience found these convincing because they violated the central principle that allows us to enjoy horror stories: that the game is a safe place and its horrors can not escape the boundaries of the screen. In these stories, just like the videotape in the movie The ring a generation before, a dominant form of media is being reworked as an insecure place whose malice can spill out, contaminate your hardware and harm you.
To go viral, such stories must have a core of credibility. Play creepypastas player with famous tropics – the player driven to find all the latest secrets, the graphical error that seems to matter, the hidden space a developer hides inside a game. The idea of haunted software is really just one step away from a probable threat such as data breach, identity theft or a computer virus.
Creepypasta is popular because it reintroduces the suspense of the unknown into a Wikipedia-mediated world. Like all folklore, it creates meaning beyond just entertainment – through these stories, a generation of players tell us the fear and ask what the digital saturation of childhood can mean for the adult mind. Players express concern about technology that is moving so fast that it can bring dark, unpredictable consequences into our lives.
The medium may be new, but the exercise is as old as time. Around the digital fire, the YouTube generation tells ghost stories that replace the faeries and banshees of cursed AI and haunted programs – and finds a dark joy in trying to fix the ghost in the machine.
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