The games we know as Pokemon Red/Blue were first released in Japan as Pokemon Red/Green back in 1996. All versions of the game eventually drive the player to visit “Lavender Town,” a small village that serves as a graveyard for Pokemon and is therefore thick with ghosts and spirits.
Lavender Town is an unsettling place for multiple reasons. For starters, Pokemon are typically cute and fuzzy critters, so we don’t think about their mortality when we’re not forced to (when Pokemon fight, they merely make each other “faint”). Lavender Town is also the home of Pokemon Tower, an eerie structure that’s haunted by the ghost of a Marowak that was killed while it was defending its baby from Team Rocket. Finally, Lavender Town’s theme music is kind of spooky, and it’s around this music that Lavender Town Syndrome is based.
According to the legend, Lavender Town Syndrome (also called The Lavender Town Tone, the Lavender Town Conspiracy, or the Lavender Town Suicides) was born when about 100 Japanese children aged between ten and 15 jumped to their deaths, hanged themselves, or mutilated themselves a couple of days following the release of Pokemon Red/Green. Other children supposedly complained about nausea and severe headaches.
“Officials” eventually discovered that children hurt themselves or felt ill after listening to Lavender Town’s background music. The myth states that the original Lavender Town theme contains a high-pitched tone that compels kids to lose their minds. Since our ability to hear high-pitched tones diminishes as we age, young children are supposed to be especially susceptible to the Lavender Town curse.
Some versions of the myth state that the games’ director, Satoshi Tajiri, explicitly asked for the tone to be put into the Red version of the game to “annoy” children that picked the Red version over Green (the myth also offers up a long explanation for Satoshi’s supposed aversion to the color red thanks to violent encounters with school bullies). Almost every version of the myth accuses Nintendo of covering up the suicides to protect the Pokemon franchise’s innocence and popularity. North America’s Lavender Town theme definitely sounds a bit less “harsh” and shrill than Japan’s, though it’s not at all unusual for game music compositions to change when a game is localized for markets outside of Japan.
Needless to say, Lavender Town Syndrome isn’t real. The original Lavender Town music won’t cause you to go mad, nor will any version of the tune. Most grim tales contain a speck of truth, though, and indeed, even Pokemon has its dark side. In 1997, the anime based on the series made headlines worldwide when flashing images from the episode “Dennō Senshi Porigon” (“Computer Soldier Porygon”) induced seizures in over 600 Japanese children. Though most of the kids were fine, two had to be hospitalized for an extended period of time, and the Pokemon anime was pulled off the air for a few months.
The “Pokemon Shock” provides solid bedrock for the Lavender Town myth. After all, what’s more sinister than instances of a popular TV show or a game broadcasting images or music that are capable of hurting children without even touching them? And given Lavender Town’s unusually creepy atmosphere—the dead Pokemon, the haunted tower, the mother Marrowak that died defending her child, and the music that admittedly does sound like a clock ticking its way down to an inevitable end—the rest of the legend practically writes itself.