Pokémon may be famously cheery, but the series has its share of dark, spooky myths. The most famous of those have got to be the ones about Lavender Town.
Perhaps you’ve heard this internet tale already. I first heard the story years ago, and every so often I’ll see it pop up again on the internet. The curious thing is, people like to circulate the story of Lavender Town despite knowing full well that it’s false. Being that it’s almost Halloween, I thought now would be a good time to dissect why the legend of Lavender Town never fully dies.
[This post originally ran on 10/28/2014. It’s back in time for the spooky Holidays!]
For starters, the story. While the details usually vary in the telling, the important part of the story is this: following the release of Pokémon Red and Green, there were a number of reported child suicides in Japan. The thing responsible for the suicides varies somewhat depending on the story, but the one I’ve heard the most has to do with a location called Lavender Town, one of the few towns in Pokémon Red & Green without a Pokémon gym. Or more specifically, the story refers to a song that plays whenever the player visits Lavender Town. This one:
Before we get any further, I absolutely insist that you listen to the song while reading this piece. You know, for ambiance.
In some versions of the tale it is said the programmers for Pokémon Red and Green created the song with code that would later drive children to kill themselves; the song contained harmful frequencies of some sort.
You can read a version of the creepypasta here, if you’d like. Note that this version of the story doesn’t focus entirely around the Lavender Town theme, but it does mention it. Most versions, in my experience, either mention the theme’s potential effects, or revolve around the idea that it harmed children.
When I initially heard the story, it wasn’t a video or a Pastebin. Rather, it was a webpage that played the Lavender Town theme while I read the story—and at a critical moment, the music changed into something horrible, freaking me the fuck out. At the time, I couldn’t explain what had happened. It wasn’t a jump scare or anything like that. Instead, the tone changed to something that genuinely made me feel dread. It probably sounds like I’m trying to pull your leg, but I don’t think it was something supernatural. I’m certain that it was a clever use of binaural beats, those special tones that allegedly influence brainwaves. People use these sounds as ‘digital drugs’ of sorts, since they can have all sorts of effects on people. Whoever made the Lavender Town webpage must have stuck an eerie binaural beat in there which was set to go off when I got to a certain point in the story. To this day, that remains the best creepypasta I’ve ever read. I wish I still had the link.
The whole thing wouldn’t have worked without the Lavender Town song priming me beforehand. Which brings us to the first reason why the Lavender Town story is so effective: the song that the story revolves around is genuinely creepy. It’s the sort of thing I don’t really want to listen to in a dark room for an extended period of time.
Given its efficacy, it’s a wonder that the town and its theme song made it into the game at all. Consider Lavender Town’s purpose: it’s where Pokémon go to be buried. Imagine, if you will, a child playing Pokémon Red or Blue for the first time. They’re told the game is about friendship, about bonds, about exploring, about catching them all. They play through the game, and they have fun, even though sometimes they probably have some of their Pokémon faint. But setbacks like those are never a big deal, considering they can simply heal their Pokémon back to life at any Pokémon center. It’s all good! …and then they get to Lavender Town, where they learn that no, Pokémon can actually die. Even now, as an adult, I’m somewhat shocked by the idea, even though I know full well that ghost-type Pokémon have to come from somewhere.
Lavender Town’s in-game story doesn’t make it any less creepy. The plot involves a restless Pokémon spirit that angrily haunts a tower. That same tower is full of trainers mourning their dead Pokémon, all of which the player speaks to while climbing the tower. As you explore the tower, you come across a number of ghost Pokémon too—which you can only see by using a special item—as well as some possessed, crazed trainers. All of this to say: Lavender Town is weird and kinda dark. It’s no mystery that Lavender Town went on to become a source of fascination among players. I can’t think of a single thing in Pokémon more unsettling than Lavender Town. Of course legends about Lavender Town have lingered.
The idea that Pokémon media could somehow harm children is not completely outlandish.
Lavender Town is spooky and memorable on its own, but there’s something weirdly seductive about the myth, too. The idea that there are frightening things in the world that only children can see or experience is a well-known horror trope. It plays into the belief that children are so innocent and so sensitive, they are likely more susceptible to things of a demonic nature—like a horrible tone that tells them to commit suicide. It’s also worth noting that the trope isolates the vulnerable children from the adults, since the adults can’t see what is plaguing the children. And when adults are supposed to be the ones protecting children, the idea becomes rather sinister, doesn’t it? A kid in this case would have to fend for themselves—especially when you consider that the Lavender Town story posits that any adults looking into the mystery end up dead. Yikes.
When something gets as massive as Pokémon, it’s always accompanied with allegations that, despite its wholesome nature, there’s a hidden message that will somehow corrupt our kids. I distinctly remember all the commotion around Pokémon’s troubling values, especially when it came to collecting all the Pokémon themselves (devil creatures!!), or the idea that the Pokémon can evolve (which goes against creationist ideas). While a creepypasta involving Lavender Town is meant to be in good fun, it still preys on our latent fear that popular piece of media isn’t all that it seems.
The fact that the suicides are said to have happened in Japan is also important: it means that for most of the rest of the world, fact-checking becomes way harder. Looking into the story might require command of Japanese in order to read through interviews, or it might require relying on translations of discussions that were supposedly held over a decade ago. As Rich McCormick argues over at Polygon, the language barrier when it comes to the Lavender Town myth “lends the rumor a powerful mystique.”
Finally, the idea that Pokémon media could somehow physically harm children is not completely outlandish. In fact, such a thing did happen—but it wasn’t a nefarious, devilish plot, as is the case in the creepypasta. Rather, back in 1997, a certain episode of the Pokémon anime had a scene that reportedly triggered seizures on hundreds of children, causing some of them to vomit blood or lose consciousness. The New York Times explains what happened as follows:
The scene apparently combined almost simultaneously two techniques that are frequently used in cartoons. The first, called ‘’paka-paka’’ in Japanese, uses different-colored lights flashing alternatively to cause a sense of tension. The second, called ‘’flash,’’ emits a strong beam of light.
It was this climactic scene that apparently set off the convulsions and vomiting. Dr. Yamauchi said light emitted at frequencies between 10 hertz and 30 hertz, a unit of frequency meaning cycles per second, can induce seizures and that the color red is also stimulative.
Considering that something like that actually happened in real life, it’s not a surprise that tall tales of Pokémon physically harming children have spread far and wide. The urban legends are riffing off real life; they’re almost ripped from the headlines. If anyone looks the Lavender Town story up, they miiiight come across reports like the one referenced above and think, hey, maybe this isn’t as outrageous as it sounds.
All that is why, sixteen years after the release of Red and Blue, that creepy town from Pokémon still haunts us, and why it doesn’t matter at all whether or not the Lavender Town story is true. I mean, listen to this: