Creepypasta and the search for the ghost in the machine
First person folklore —
Stories of haunted video games have circulated for decades.
Tom Faber, Financial Times
It was the music, they said, that drove the children to madness. The eerie, detuned soundtrack to Pokémon Red’s Lavender Town contained harmful sonic irregularities played at such high frequencies that only the youngest players could hear them. In extreme cases, these could alter brain chemistry and trigger psychosis—after playing the game, hundreds of Japanese children put down their Game Boys, climbed on to the roof, and jumped to their deaths.
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 suicide were ever conclusively linked to the game’s music—the closest case was a 1997 episode of the Pokémon TV show featuring strobing lights that triggered epileptic seizures.
Stories of haunted video games have circulated for decades. They were more believable before the Internet, when you could still come across a game nobody else knew. Back then, game development was the domain of hobbyists and lone programmers who could create curious experiments and distribute them at computer fairs or yard sales. It wasn’t outlandish, either, to suspect games had secrets: even on a program as unassuming as Excel 95 a particular combination of commands opens the “Hall of Tortured Souls,” a lurid, game-like hellscape within the spreadsheet that displays the names and photos of the Microsoft developers.
Since the arrival of the Internet, myths have become easier to debunk. Oral ghost stories began to evolve into “creepypasta”—paranormal tales intended to frighten readers, written in first-person and embellished as they are shared across platforms. The name is a portmanteau of “creepy” and “copypasta,” itself slang for blocks of text that are copied and pasted wholesale between forums. Creepypastas are collaborative acts of storytelling that bubble up unbidden from the Internet’s darkest unconscious.
Much gaming creepypasta revolves around cutesy games for children such as Pokémon and Mario. There is the story of Herobrine, a misty-eyed character who stalks Minecraft, only glimpsed in the distance or through fog. Another concerns a mod for fantasy adventure Morrowind named “Jvk1166z.esp” which causes characters to stare blankly at the sky while a figure with long, spidery limbs haunts the edges of your screen. Neither myth has been substantiated.
Some popular legends concern haunted games that probably never existed. Polybius was supposedly a 1980s arcade game, created as part of a US government experiment, that induced psychoactive reactions in players. More recently, a YouTube video emerged called “Sad Satan” that showed a creepy corridor in a mysterious game apparently downloaded on the dark web. Online commenters eagerly jumped on these, untangling references to serial killers and psy-ops, but both are likely hoaxes dreamt up by horror fans.
The most sophisticated gaming creepypastas reach beyond fiction to become interactive transmedia narratives. The most famous is Ben Drowned, an elaborate story told across 10 years about an evil spirit trapped in a Zelda cartridge. More recently there was Petscop, a YouTube channel sharing videos of a disturbing (and fake) game that contains references to infanticide. Audiences found these compelling because they violated the central principle that allows us to enjoy horror stories: that the game is a safe place and its horrors cannot escape the boundaries of the screen. In these stories, just like the videotape in movie The Ring a generation before, a dominant media form is recast as an unsafe space whose malevolence can spill out, contaminate your hardware, and hurt you.
In order to go viral, such stories must contain a kernel of believability. Gaming creepypastas play with familiar tropes—the gamer driven to find every last secret, the graphical glitch that seems to mean something, the hidden room a developer conceals inside a game. The idea of haunted software is really only one step away from a plausible threat like data breach, identity theft, or a computer virus.
Creepypasta is popular because it reintroduces the thrill of the unknown into a Wikipedia-mediated world. Like all folklore, it creates meaning beyond mere entertainment—through these stories, a generation of gamers is telling us its fears and asking what the digital saturation of its childhood might mean for its adult mind. The gamers are expressing anxieties about technology that advances so quickly it could usher dark, unforeseeable consequences into our lives.
The medium may be new, but the practice is as old as time. Around the digital campfire, the YouTube generation tells ghost stories that swap faeries and banshees for cursed AI and haunted programs—and finds a dark pleasure in trying to pin down the ghost in the machine.
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