None of the next five paragraphs is true.
In the spring of 1996, more than 200 Japanese children between the ages of seven and 12 were driven to suicide by a distressing, high-pitched tone hidden in the hit Game Boy game Pokémon Red and Green. Many others suffered serious migraine headaches or nosebleeds, or turned violent when their parents tried to take the game away. Some cried until they started vomiting. The lucky ones turned it off before it was too late.
The affected children were all found to have stopped playing the game after reaching Lavender Town, the spooky area that's home to the Pokémon Tower—a seven-story graveyard for dead pokémon. Most of them had been wearing headphones or earphones while playing.
Their suicides, headaches and erratic behavior were later determined to have been caused by the unsettling background music in Lavender Town, which, aside from containing a high tone undetectable to adult ears, was also an early experiment in binaural beats (a phenomenon created by playing a distinct tone from each of two audio channels, said to affect human behavior by syncing with listeners' brainwaves).
Game Freak successfully covered up the children's deaths and illness with some help from Kyoto prefecture's favorable corporate disclosure laws and, some reports say, from the Japanese government itself. All unsold first editions of the game were quietly recalled, and the Lavender Town music was replaced with a new version without the tone that had driven the children mad.
This would all still be a secret today if a Game Freak employee hadn't leaked the company's chilling report on what's now called Lavender Town Syndrome, including these disturbing excerpts from a list of names and symptoms of the child victims:
京极 勝女; April 12 1996 (11). Obstructive sleep apnea, severe migraines, otorrhagia, tinnitus.
千葉 広幸: May 23 1996 (12). General irritability, insomnia, addiction to videogame, nosebleeds. Developed into violent streaks against others and eventually himself. [自殺]
桃井 久江: April 27 1996 (11). Cluster headaches, irritability. Eventually took mixed painkillers. [自殺]
吉長 為真: March 4 1996 (7). Migraines, sluggish and slow behaviour, unresponsiveness. Developed into deafness, and went missing. Body discovered beside road April 20 1996. [死出]
The Lavender Town Child-Suicide Conspiracy
The Lavender Town Suicide story—which, to be clear again, is totally invented—apparently started in early 2010s as a creepypasta—an online ghost story—written by an anonymous user of the messageboard 99chan. In a post from 2011, someone takes credit for expanding the original tale "to make it seem more legit."
The convincing details he added include the alleged case studies of dead and damaged children and the line about Kyoto corporate disclosure laws, as well as some made-up names of Game Freak employees and a quote from an alleged "interview" with one of the game's developers about changing the creepy original music.
Later versions of the theory include even more elaborate proof. If you run the original background music through a spectrograph app, which generates a visual map of the frequencies in a piece of audio, you'll allegedly get something like this:
Holy shit, that looks like the in-game sprite for Lavender Town's ghost, hidden within the song itself! The problem—well, one problem—is that no one seems to agree on exactly what the ghost image looks like.
There are many different versions, some with the message "leave now" spelled out by a pokémon called Unown, which wasn't released in Japan until 1999. Unown famously spelled out written messages in the third Pokémon movie, released in 2001.
Game Freak could have created Unown prior to 1996 and hidden its image in the original game's code, but there's a much more likely explanation: Photoshop.
But how to explain various YouTube videos that clearly show the ghost appearing in a spectrogram in real time? You can't Photoshop that, right?
There are a couple of things to note here.
First, most of these videos analyze a file called "lavender.wav," and WAV audio output isn't a feature of the original Game Boy. Unless you're listening to it on the original system (or emulating its software), there's a good chance the music has been messed with in some way.
But you can't embed an image in a track without including the corresponding frequencies for the spectrograph to pick up. For a detailed picture like the Lavender Town Ghost, pokémon spelling "leave now," or the Aphex Face, that's mostly going to sound like static and screeching.
In every Lavender Town truther spectrograph video, you'll notice the appearance of the ghost and the Unowns coincides with some abrasive noises that aren't part of the original music from the game. If it doesn't, you're probably looking at a neat trick of video editing.
Some of these custom "lavender.wav" files may have been created by the video uploaders themselves, but the more popular ones seem to have spread on message boards to help fuel the conspiracy.
Now, combine all this "evidence" with the fact that children really can perceive tones too high for adult hearing and that binaural beats have been hyped up as a way to "get high" without taking drugs, and you've got enough to make people—especially impressionable kids and teens—believe the rumors are true.
Some conspiracy theorists take it very seriously indeed:
My theory is that two things set the legend of the Lavender Town Suicides apart from other creepypasta and helped it evolve into a full-blown, long-running internet conspiracy theory.
One: The music is truly creepy.
Take a listen, even without headphones, and you'll probably want to turn it off shortly:
I'm not saying it's capable of creating suicidal ideation in a listener, but I wouldn't blame anyone for feeling a vague sense of dread after leaving it on a loop. Even some sites debunking the suicide theory are convinced the original soundtrack gave children severe migraine headaches (even though there's no evidence of that) just because it's something that feels true when you listen to the music.
Based on its technical specs, it seems like a Game Boy could produce binaural beats, but the listener would have to be using headphones to hear stereo sound—the circa-1996 hardware only had one speaker. However, whether binaural beats have any effect at all on a listener is still far from settled.
I also couldn't find anything to back up the much more plausible-sounding theory that the music was "changed for worldwide release due to high-pitched noises that strained the speakers and can induce adverse effects when undeveloped ears are exposed to them."
And two: Some people will believe damn near anything they hear about the mysterious Far East, especially when they've been primed by a previous, true story about Pokémon doing harm to kids.
In the infamous " Pokémon Shock" of late 1997, an episode of the Pokémon cartoon showed a alternating red-blue flash at a frequency that induced epileptic seizures in hundreds of viewers. The show went on hiatus for months, and the offending scene wasn't aired in the U.S.
And if one piece of Pokémon media was dangerous in Japan and had to be changed for international audiences, why not another?
As Patricia Hernandez pointed out in an excellent Kotaku piece on the Lavender Town myth, "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."
In trying to track down any sort of Japanese origin for the urban legend, I certainly found this to be true. Most of the Japanese-language pages sites Lavender Town Syndrome take a bemused tone toward it, treating it as a ludicrous mystery "from abroad."
Probably because it's not true. It's a great ghost story, though.
This is Illuminati Month on Black Bag, in which Gawker locks itself in the woodshed and breaks out the red yarn to explore its favorite conspiracy theories.