Pokemon: Lavender Town Syndrome

The Pokemon franchise began as a series of Role-Playing-Games (RPGs) for the Gameboy, and has since expanded into a trading card game, a television show and even a few films based on the show. For kids who grew up in the 90’s and the early 2000’s, it was impossible to avoid the media frenzy surrounding Pokemon. But like most cultural phenomenon, there were a few stranger aspects of Pokemon, and one in particular was not very well-known at the time but has since gained popularity over the Internet. It is the so-called Lavender Town Syndrome.

The original Japanese cartridges for Pokemon Red & Green
The original Japanese cartridges for Pokemon Red & Green

Lavender Town Syndrome, or LTS, is a reported condition that occurred to kids who were playing the original Pokemon games Pokemon Red & Green (which would later be re-released in the U.S. as Pokemon Red and Pokemon Blue). Most Pokemon games follow an open-world format in which players are able to traverse a region and can progress through the game by entering a town and defeating a gym leader in order to earn badges. One town is called Lavender Town, and is itself somewhat unusual. For example, Lavender Town is one of the only towns that does not have a gym. What the town does have is a Pokemon graveyard tower called Pokemon Tower. This is somewhat strange, as the main point of the Pokemon games is for Pokemon to battle each other, although not to the death. When a Pokemon is defeated, it gets knocked out or falls asleep. Now it can be assumed Pokemon will eventually get old and die like other animals, but it’s still odd that there is an entire cemetery devoted to Pokemon in a kids game.

There is also a girl that can be encountered in Lavender Town who asks the player “Do you believe in ghosts?” If the player responds no, the girl tells you “Hahaha, I guess not. That white hand on your shoulder, it’s not real.” Aside from this very strange interaction, there is also an enemy that can be encountered in the Pokemon Tower called “Ghost.” When the player first encounters Ghost, it seems that it isn’t a Ghost-type Pokemon or anything (there are similar Pokemon named Gastly and Haunter), but an actual ghost. Eventually it is revealed to be a dead Marowak, an evolved version of Cubone.

White Hand PictureAll of this is strange to be sure, but none of it actually had any effect other than creeping out players. However, the actual cause of LTS is much more obscure. In the Pokemon Red & Green version that was distributed in Japan, it was the theme song for Lavender Town that had some very strange effects on young children playing the game. Throughout the Pokemon games, each town has its own theme song to help differentiate them. Lavender Town’s theme song (which can be listened to here) was reportedly causing children to have anxiety, headaches and similar illnesses from listening to it through headphones. But how can a song have such effects on children? The reason is because the song, which itself is somewhat unpleasant to listen to and has a very droning sound, utilizes binaural beats.

Binaural beats were first discovered by the German scientist Heinrich Wilhelm Dove in 1839, and are when two sound effects are played in each ear at slightly different frequencies. This can have multiple effects on the brain, and have since been used for everything from inducing a meditative state to recreating the use of drugs such as LSD. As to why binaural beats were included in Lavender Town’s theme song, nobody knows. The song is already creepy enough, so perhaps the binaural beats were intended to further the feelings of anxiety on a subconscious level, although the makers of the game were unaware of the effects they would have on young children at the time. Once it was found what effects the song was having on children, Pokemon Red & Green recalled the games and removed the binaural beats (which is why this effect did not occur in Pokemon Red or Pokemon Blue in the U.S.).

An artist's impression of White Hand
An artist’s impression of White Hand

Since the story of LTS began to spread across the Internet, people have used it to create “creepypastas” or horror stories on the Internet which has led to many of the facts being disputed or outright fabricated. For example, many claim that LTS resulted in hundreds of Japanese children committing suicide, although no deaths were ever reported being caused by LTS and there’s no reason to believe binaural beats have to capability to do so.

Others state that the girl’s quote about a white hand on the player’s shoulder was actually a reference to a mysterious Pokemon called “White Hand.” This White Hand was a creature that resembled a decomposing hand, which the player could capture and use to fight other Pokemon. However, other Pokemon were too scared to fight White Hand, and rather than incapacitating them, White Hand outright killed them. Then there is a popular creepypasta that stated there is another strange Pokemon in the Pokemon Tower called “Buried Alive,” which resembles a corpse crawling out of the ground. This creature was reportedly a boss that the player would battle, who was almost impossible to defeat. When the player eventually lost the battle, the creature would respond by saying “Finally, fresh meat!” before dragging the player underground. “White Hand” and “Buried Alive” are just scary stories however, and were likely created due to the popularity of LTS.

Porygon, the digital Pokemon
Porygon, the digital Pokemon

Although the effects of LTS have been wildly exaggerated, there have been instances in the past of Pokemon having strange effects on children. For example, the most famous one is an episode of Pokemon that featured a completely digital Pokemon called “Porygon.” While Porygon itself wasn’t the main issue, there was a scene during the episode in which Pikachu’s Thunderbolt attack causes an explosion featuring bright red and blue lights which flashes for a full six seconds. These flashes occurred at ratios from 10 Hz to 30 Hz (meaning cycles per second), and utilized two anime techniques called “flash” (creating a strong light beam) and “paka-paka” (flashing different-colored lights). It was found that over 685 children who watched the episode experienced nausea, headaches, dizziness, and blurred vision, although most of them recovered on the ambulance rides to local hospitals. Since its initial broadcast, the episode was pulled from rotation and has not been aired outside of Japan, although it can be viewed at many places on the Internet.

As to whether or not Lavender Town Syndrome is true, the answer would likely be yes. However, the real issue is how people have since taken the story of LTS and added so many elements to it, such as “White Hand” and “Buried Alive.” Some individuals have even made modifications to the game to make such stories appear more genuine, but regardless LTS has become very popular on the Internet due to a combination of early video games and a harmless children’s series like Pokemon.


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