It was difficult to grow up in the 1990s without falling victim to the Pokémon craze. Between the anime, video games, and trading cards, Pokemon had us by our hearts and our poor parents by their wallets. While Pokémon is still going strong today, there was something so special about the first generation of games. Released for the Nintendo Game Boy in Japan in 1996 and North America in 1998, Pokémon Red and Blue (Green in Japan) were released during that blissful time before the internet was engrained into our everyday lives. It was a time before Twitch, before YouTube walkthroughs, and before reaction videos, which meant you were always going into a new video game, for the most part, completely blind. For Pokémon, we were sold the idea of a game full of exploration, friendship, and completing a collection of pocket monsters. The music was cheerful, the Pokémon cute, and the story entertaining.
All this changed the second the player stepped into Lavender Town. Nintendo took the opportunity to inform their generally young player-base that their beloved Pokémon do, in fact, die. Wandering around Lavender Town, the player also learns that instead of a gym (which is found in the other towns in the game to battle Pokemon and earn badges) there is a giant, seven story tall Pokémon mausoleum where trainers go to inter and mourn their dead Pokémon. Up until this point Pokémon just ‘fainted’, it wasn’t clear that they ever actually died. I guess we all had to learn about the death of a beloved pet eventually.
Accompanying this sudden and depressing study of loss and grief is what has come to be known as the Lavender Town Tune. The normally bubbly, charming music of the Pokemon games vanishes and is suddenly replaced with this:
If you played these games as a kid, you likely have this sinister, gloomy song permanently engrained in your brain. It’s unsettling, it’s slightly off tune, it reeks of death and sorrow, but it’s just music… right? If someone was to tell you there was something more to the tune that haunted your childhood nightmares, you’d obviously laugh it off. The Lavender Town Tune is creepy, but it isn’t trying to kill anyone.
Lavender Town Syndrome
Naturally, this shared millennial experience formed an excellent basis for an online urban legend. In 2010 a creepypasta emerged claiming a large number of children in Japan (versions of the story say anywhere from 200 to 3400) committed suicide in February 1996 following the release of the first Pokémon games. The alleged suicides were carried out by children between the ages of 7-12 shortly after they had reached Lavender Town. Upon hearing the creepy Lavender Town Tune, this specific age group unknowingly detected an extremely high frequency that caused them to go insane and kill themselves. When the games were released in North America and Europe, the music frequencies in Lavender Town had been altered to stop the same loss of young life throughout the rest of the world.
The second part of the creepypasta claims that an unknown individual used a spectrogram to visually analyse the original Japanese Lavender Town Tune. The spectrogram ‘revealed’ the image of a ghost followed by six Unown (a Pokémon representing each letter of the Latin alphabet as well as ? and !) spelling the phrase “GET OUT“.
Mysteriously, Unown didn’t yet exist in the Pokémon universe and wouldn’t be introduced until Pokémon Gold and Silver were released in Japan near the end of 1999, nearly three years later. So what were they doing hidden inside the Lavender Town Tune?
It’s a spooky story, but it’s also completely made up.
There is no evidence of mass child suicides in Japan around this time. And running the Lavender Town Tune through a spectrogram doesn’t actually reveal ghostly images. As powerful as Nintendo is as a company, it’s incredibly unlikely that something like this could be covered up. But like most good urban legends, Lavender Town Syndrome is based in some truth.
Dennō Senshi Porygon
While the Pokémon games didn’t cause children to commit suicide, the Pokémon television show did cause direct harm to some Japanese children around the same time as the fictional suicides. On a Tuesday night on 16 December 1997, Pokémon episode number 38 titled Dennō Senshi Porygon (or, Electric Soldier Porygon) aired in Japan for the first and only time. It was reported that after the episode aired to 4.6 million Japanese households over 700 viewers, mainly children, were hospitalised for “convulsions, vomiting, irritated eyes and other symptoms” that occured at the 20-minute mark of the episode. Japan’s Home Affairs Ministry reported that on Wednesday 17 December 1997 two hundred viewers were still in hospital for epilepsy-type symptoms.
Unlike Lavender Town Syndrome, the above incident actually occurred. However, there wasn’t anything supernatural about it. Episode 38 featured a short but clearly impactful scene of quickly flickering strobe lights that went above and beyond the normal flashing found in Japanese cartoons. The scene in question can be viewed below (at your discretion):
While we often see warnings for strobe lights and flashing images today, Dennō Senshi Porygon did not attach any sort of warning at the start of the episode to caution those with photosensitive epilepsy. This meant vulnerable viewers went into the episode completely caught of guard. According to a study of the hospitalisations published in Neurol J Southeast Asia in 1999:
There was a flicker series ranging from 0.5-4 seconds with alternating red/white-blue light and red/blue light creating mostly a 12 Hz display. The resultant flickering over a large portion of the television screen caused great discomfort despite the brief duration. There was in particular a critical scene where red and blue frames alternated at 12 Hz lasting for four seconds where most seizures occured.Takahashi, Takeo ND DMS. “Pokemon seizures.” In Neurol J Southeast Asia, 1999; 4: 3.
A second wave of hospitalisations occured when news segments made the interesting decision of broadcasting the scene in question all over again. At this point, the animators had been questioned by police, an emergency meeting was held by the Health and Welfare ministry, and Pokemon was pulled from the air while a bunch of people behind the scenes at both TV Tokyo and the government tried to figure out what the hell actually happened. The show was put on a hiatus and didn’t return back to Japanese television until April 1998. Episode 38 was subsequently banned and poor Porygon, the Pokemon featured in Dennō Senshi Porygon, hasn’t been in an episode of the television show since.
Since the incident above formed a real example of Pokémon ‘harming’ children, it makes a creepypasta like Lavender Town Syndrome all the more plausible. Stumbling upon Lavender Town Syndrome while knowing the history of Episode 38 might make someone question if children actually did kill themselves because of weird sound frequencies. Thankfully this never happened, however people have died pretty horrible deaths playing Pokémon Go, so Pokémon’s real-world body count isn’t anywhere near zero.
Sources and Additional Reading
AV Club – Pokemon shock: How a single episode almost derailed a franchise (2017)
Bulbapedia – EP038
CNN – Cartoon-based illness mystifies Japan (1997)
Comicbook – Pokemon Anime Finally Revisits Porygon After Controversial Ban (2019)
Committee for Skeptical Inquiry – The Pokémon Panic of 1997 (2001)
Kotaku – Pokémon’s Creepy Lavender Town Myth, Explained (2021)
Pokepasta – Lavender Town Syndrome
Wikipedia – Lavender Town / Dennō Senshi Porygon / Spectrogram / Creepypasta