Down the Rabbit Hole: Lavender Town Syndrome

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IMPORTANT NOTE: This article makes several references to suicide. If that subject is triggering for you, it might be best to skip this one. And if you struggle with suicidal thoughts or depression, please reach out to the Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK.

When asked about a traumatic memory involving entertainment media from their childhood, Millennials will invariably recount the same events: the death of Artax in The Neverending Story, the ending of The Fox and the Hound, and pretty much every episode of Are You Afraid of the Dark?. Thirty-year old adults can still recall every second of these moments in vivid detail, even when they can’t remember their first-grade teachers’ names. That’s because these things were - for those of us who were fortunate enough not to experience real trauma at a young age - in many ways the day our childhood bubble burst. We learned about the finality of death, and that the world is big, terrifying, and profoundly unfair.

One childhood favorite most people wouldn’t associate with this sort of disillusionment is Pokémon, the global phenomenon those aforementioned Millennials grew up with and still love to this day (just how many adults did you see playing Pokémon Go?). The title of Pokémon probably conjures up mental images of Pikachu’s rosy cheeks or Ash Ketchum’s infectious determination. But it’s also been associated with a much darker legend: Lavender Town Syndrome.

Everyone knows children love ghosts.

Everyone knows children love ghosts.

The story alleges that the original 1996 release of Pokémon Red and Green (Red and Blue in the West) led to the deaths of several hundred children in Japan from suicide or illness. These deaths were linked specifically to the Lavender Town (‘Noble Purple Town’ in the original Japanese) section of the game, whose theme music featured binaural beats and extremely high frequencies that only children, whose hearing is more sensitive than adults, could discern. Upon realizing their horrible mistake, the programmers changed the music to play at a lower frequency for all subsequent releases (including the Western release), and no more children were harmed.

The tale may be brief, but there’s actually a lot to unpack here. First off, there’s absolutely no denying that the dissonant, creeping chiptune of the Lavender Town theme song are unsettling, if not headache-inducing. If any song from a video game were going to cause death, it’s probably this one. It’s also a well-known fact that Pokémon (the anime, not the games) did cause bodily harm to viewers - more than 700, in fact, were stricken with seizures, vomited blood, or reported other serious ailments following a 1997 episode of the show that featured rapidly flashing lights. Also true is the fact that the Lavender Town theme was changed for the Gold/Silver/Crystal re-release of the game.

The veracity of Lavender Town Syndrome, fortunately for those several hundred kids in the story, ends there. There are no records of mass child suicide in Japan from 1996, which would undoubtedly be front-page news. I also find it hard to believe that, if such an event really had occurred, investigators would be able to trace it back to a specific theme song of a specific location in a video game. Japan does tragically have a high rate of suicide and depression among children and teens, but studies show that pressure to perform well at school or falling victim to bullying are almost always the cause (and given that this is a very real problem, I actually find myths like these troubling, as they divert energy away from the true issues, like isolation and lack of solid mental health infrastructure).

So why does the story of Lavender Town Syndrome persist? I think it largely goes back to the game itself. Thinking about it as an adult, the concept of Pokémon is more than a little problematic (forcing creatures to fight until they pass out is pretty cruel), but it’s presented in the most benign, palatable way possible. The Pokémon, invariably cute, cuddly, and eager, are the player’s friends and constant companions. You feed them berries when they’re sick, and watch in wonder and awe when they evolve.

Don’t worry, little buddy. All these pokémon are just sleeping!

Don’t worry, little buddy. All these pokémon are just sleeping!

Which is why the whole concept of Lavender Town is as jarring as its eerie theme song. Lavender Town is the only location in Pokémon Red and Green/Blue that doesn’t have a Gym. Instead, it has the ‘Pokémon Tower,’ home to hundreds upon hundreds of Pokémon graves. Yes, that’s right, kids. Your beloved Pokemon can die. And if that detail somehow escaped a player’s attention, Lavender Town also features a side plot involving Team Rocket killing a mother Marowak protecting its child, Cubone. This Marowak is later encountered and fought as a literal ghost (which is un-catchable, as opposed to other ghost-type Pokemon such as Haunter) inside the graveyard tower.

This is all incredibly dark for a children’s game, and must have frightened young players, or perhaps left them with a lingering sense of dread that their own precious Pokémon might one day faint and never get back up. Combined with the melancholy, strange music, I have no doubt that some children did end up depressed after playing through this location. At the very least, they looked back on Lavender Town with darker-hued sort of nostalgia, which was all the urban legend of Lavender Town Syndrome needed to be believed.