Beginning with a disturbing arcade cabinet from the early 1980s and ending with a Deep Web nightmare from last year, below is a chronological list of haunted video games. Not video games about hauntings, but games that are haunted. If you believe what you read on the Internet (and why wouldn’t you?) these unsettling and sinister games are actually possessed by supernatural forces. These are games with real casualty counts. Games that leave corpses and madness in their wake.
The granddaddy of all haunted video games, the story of Polybius goes something like this: In 1981, a cabinet game called Polybius arrived at a handful of arcades in the suburbs Portland. The only known release from European company Sinneslöschen (something like “sense delete” in German), Polybius was a puzzle game filled with mazes and logic puzzles. It was wildly popular, with gamers lining up to play it and sometimes even fighting over their spots in line.
But many who played the game reported bizarre and troubling symptoms, including nausea, paranoia, amnesia, night terrors, and other psychological damage. At the end of each day, men in black would arrive at the arcades, but not to empty the Polybius machines of quarters. Instead, they’d download the mysterious data the game had collected from its player.
The Polybius machines were removed from arcades in a month or so, and other than a few photos of the cabinet themselves, there is no trace of the game. Skeptics say that the Polybius story is based on an exaggeration and combination of a couple of real things: The fact that video games can cause seizures in epileptics, and the true story of a kid in Portland who played Asteroids for 28 hours straight and developed a stomach ache. Real or fake, the Polybius story spread wide enough to be featured on The Simpsons.
Hall of Tortured Souls
Rumor has it you can open a portal to Hell with the Windows 95 version of Excel… and this one actually works.
If you follow a complicated set of instructions on the ancient spreadsheet program (open a new worksheet. select the 95th row. Tab over to the column B. Go to Help/About. Tap and hold CTRL + alt + shift. Then click the tech support button.), you will be rewarded with a new window called “Hall of Tortured Souls.” It’s a 3D game of sorts, where you can walk through a series of rooms until you reach a small chamber. Type the “magic word” (EXCELKFA) and you will gain entry into the inner chamber, a room decorated with a pixelated photo of a group of people in a pose some have likened to a defiled “Last Supper.”
Some say the secret hallways are part of Antichrist Bill Gates’ plan to steal souls through crappy spreadsheet software. Others say it’s a programmer Easter Egg and the “lost souls” are the poor nerds who programmed Excel 95, who have to hide their names in order to take a little credit for the groundbreaking programming they did. Either way: Bill Gates is the Antichrist.
Back in 1996, strange rumors started circulating after the release of Pokemon Red and Green in Japan. Supposedly, over 200 children between the ages of seven and 12 committed suicide after playing the Gameboy game, with many others reporting migraines and other symptoms. The culprit was Lavender Town.
Once players reached that strange purple level, the high-pitched tones on the game’s soundtrack would cause terrible symptoms and uncontrollable suicidal urges. To make matters more insidious, the frequencies were so high, only children could hear them. The soundtrack was eventually changed to prevent spontaneous ‘tween suicide, but if you’re brave enough, here’s (supposedly) a video of the original level, with murderous music included:
That this suicide outbreak was never reported on in the news, and Nintendo was never held responsible for these deaths, is part of the curse, I guess. Or it could be that this is just an urban legend that stokes fears of the alienating effects of technology on children.
HeroBrine is a legend of Minecraft, a scary virtual folk hero. He looks like a blank-eyed version of Steve, Minecraft’s default character skin, and he supposedly appears as another player when you are in solo mode. Herobrine always stays far enough away that you can never really see him and spends time building seemingly random, vaguely unsettling things like 2×2 tunnels in rocks, small pyramids made of sand in the ocean, and groves of trees with all their leaves cut off.
The Minecrafters who originally spotted the elusive ghost in the machine supposedly found out that Minecraft’s creator, Notch, had a brother named “Herobrine.” They contacted the creator who is said to have informed them that he had a brother by that name, but he is “no longer with us.”
So does the dead brother of Notch haunt the code for Minecraft? Did Notch program his brother into the game as a tribute? Probably neither. Notch says he doesn’t really have a dead brother, and there’s no concrete evidence of any code that could account for Herobrine. But it’s such a creepy, evocative, open-ended story that the Minecraft community has run with it and created thousands of videos, stories, photos, mods and more about Herobrine. Including how to summon him in both Minecraft and real life.
Hidden far inside the already terrible Internet is an even worse Internet: The Deep Web. Home to drug dealers, child-pornographers and hit men for hire, the deep web is untraceable, un-indexed, and home to all kinds of real-life horror. It’s also home to horror game Sad Satan.
YouTube channel Obscure Horror Corner first reported stumbling across a file called “sadsatan.exe” on the Deep Web and downloading it. It turned out to be something very strange: A weird, semi-abstract horror game made up of black and white visuals, obscure ghost children, and a soundtrack of famous serial killers like John Wayne Gacy and Charles Manson.
Occasionally, your walk down digitally decaying hallways is interrupted with unsettling black and white still photos of people like Franz Joseph, famous Nazi and the “9th Prince of Thurn and Taxis” surround by deer antlers, and British pedophile Jimmy Savile posing with Margaret Thatcher, both sporting buttons that promote the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children.
It’s unique and one of a kind, and really walks the line between “real” and “fake” horror. Some versions of the sadsatan are corrupted with child pornography and gore images, and some are said to spread malware that will wipe your computer. In other words, please do not download this program.
Theories of the game’s origin range from it being a sting from police, to being a recruiting tool for cults, to being just some weird game some weirdo made one day. People who post about Sad Satan publicly are said to receive backlash from sinister forces, and the person who originally publicized it is missing in action: YouTube channel Obscure Horror Games regularly uploaded dozens of videos from various obscure Japanese horror games for more than a year before he/she found Sad Satan… but they’ve posted nothing since.
[Editor’s Note: For more background on Sad Satan, be sure to check out this article by Alyse Wax.]