Deep Darkness: The Horror of EarthBound
This article was originally presented as a panel entitled “EarthBound is SPOOKY” at Camp Fangamer ’15.
CW: This piece contains content that could be perceived as spoilers for Twin Peaks, the entirety of the Mother series, as well as mention of unsettling content such as death cults, rape, and murder.
Duality is at the essence of all great stories. Comedy and tragedy. Sense and nonsense. Light and a dark. Dreams and nightmares. Smiles and tears.
Though outwardly bright and silly, the Nintendo game series EarthBound, called Mother in Japan, thrives on this duality; contrasting its cheerful exterior with themes of horror and hopelessness. The remarkable degree to which series’ creator Shigesato Itoi and his team pulled this off, not once, but three times, is made manifest in how beloved these games are. Mother plays host to beautiful musings on life and love, but those messages would be meaningless without evil lurking underneath: from the lowliest Stinky Ghost, to the cruelty of mankind.
Itoi’s strength in confronting these grim topics is the realism at play alongside the otherworldly and metaphysical elements of the series. You’re not on a quest just to punch a bad guy; but to save the world. That means confronting the reality that the people you care most about, and even the ones you don’t, are at risk of anguishing, painful fates; some worse than death. What’s more, the villains you fight, even if they’re an embodiment of evil, have the capacity to be pitiable. In the first game in the series, Mother (EarthBound Beginnings), the alien menace is exposed as little more than a angry child. By the second game, Mother 2 (EarthBound) he has become such a loathsome, spiteful thing that his physical form is gone and all that’s left is an infantile construct of psychic hatred. That alien evil nurtures the worst of humanity into a force that transcends time to spread corruption in Mother 3. Even then the villain, though truly horrible, is marked by his own pathetic fallibility.
There’s few stories that are as heavy in any medium, let alone video games. To grasp the true form of the Mother series’ expert use of darkness, we must first examine the science of terror and the myriad shapes it takes within the games.
Table of Contents:
Lynch, Lovecraft, and Edmund Burke
In 1757 Edmund Burke published a treatise on aesthetics called A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful. In short, Burke defined “The Beautiful” as what is well-formed and aesthetically pleasing, whereas “The Sublime” is what has the power to compel and destroy us. This text so clearly defined the aesthetics of terror and awe that it effectively launched Gothic fiction.
Burke tapped into what made ghost stories stirring, and likewise what made the surreal imagery of nightmares utterly terrifying. The primal fear of the unknown, of the dark, of emotional and physical pain – these have been a part of the human experience since the start, but never before had humanity been aware enough to deconstruct it. Whether they themselves read it or not, Burke’s text has informed everything that’s come since: From H.P. Lovecraft, to David Lynch, to Shigesato Itoi.
Mother is itself a combination of the sublime and beautiful – in both humor and emotional balance. It’s the series edge of morbid whimsy that lends itself to comparisons with the work of filmmaker David Lynch. His works such as Blue Velvet, Twin Peaks, and Eraserhead have so influenced culture that his name has become an art world descriptor: “Lynchian”. Author David Foster Wallace concisely boils down the Lynchian vibe: “a particular kind of irony where the very macabre and the very mundane combine in such a way as to reveal the former’s perpetual containment within the latter.”
Lynch’s work speaks to the postmodern essence of the entire Mother series, but all the games, particularly Mother 2/ EarthBound is likewise influenced by classic sci-fi horror, aka “Weird Fiction”. Ghosts and aliens merge cosmic horror with supernatural horror. It’s the realm of H.P. Lovecraft who defines his style of terror as, “a certain atmosphere of breathless and unexplainable dread of outer, unknown forces” or “Lovecraftian” as it was posthumously branded.
All these components tag back to one of Burke’s cornerstones of The Sublime: Obscurity. Burke describes the terror inherent in obscurity as not just as the fear of darkness giving way to ghosts and goblins, or the mysterious worship practices of “heathen” temples, but also “despotic governments” keeping their actions from the public eye. Each of these hallmarks play a key role in the Mother series alongside other terror-invoking tropes.
Giygas and Horror of the Obscure
The villain of Mother‘s first two games is Giygas, an alien whose ultimate goal is to sentence all of reality to the horror of infinite darkness. He’s a character continually ranked in lists of the most terrifying and unnerving game bosses of all time. Having become the “Embodiment of Evil” in Mother 2, his physical body is no more. Instead, he’s a kaleidoscopic nightmare of shifting black, red, and yellow shapes that often emulate CAT scans. He has become the epitome of obscurity; matching the criteria of literary masters.
See if you can feel the essence of Giygas in Milton’s description of Death in Paradise Lost, which Burke cited as an expert use of obscurity to evoke terror:
“The other shape,
If shape it might be called, that shape had none
Distinguishable, in member, joint, or limb;
Or substance might be called that shadow seemed;
For each seemed either; black he stood as night”
In The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath, Lovecraft goes the opposite route; using elaborate details that only serve to make his subject more confounding and unknowable:
“Outside the ordered universe [is] that amorphous blight of nethermost confusion which blasphemes and bubbles at the center of all infinity—the boundless daemon sultan Azathoth, whose name no lips dare speak aloud, and who gnaws hungrily in inconceivable, unlighted chambers beyond time and space amidst the muffled, maddening beating of vile drums and the thin monotonous whine of accursed flutes.”
This evil obscurity is an indescribable essence best left to suggestive poetry or abstract images, but plays aptly in the unsettling sequence at the end of Mother 2. The heroes travel to the Cave of the Past – Beyond Time & Space. It’s a strange, foggy, gray world, devoid of anything familiar or pleasant; inhabited by only nightmarish enemies. The cave itself is a fleshy, intestine-like corridor in which they expect to come fact-to-face with the alien mastermind Giygas, only to discover the truly abstract thing he has become. As his human accomplice Pokey (called Porky in Japan) puts it:
“If you were to ever see Giygas, you’d be so petrified with fear, you’d never be able to run away! …That’s how scary it is!”
Giygas’ real-world origin has become one of the best-known scary stories in video game lore. It goes like this: a young Shigesato Itoi haplessly entered a movie theater playing The Military Policeman and the Dismembered Beauty – a film about a disturbing crime where a woman is killed during sex. Her murderer then chops her body up and dumps her torso in a well.
The film doesn’t show much, but it implies plenty – more than enough for a kid to be gravely disturbed by the experience. In Itoi’s case, he misremembered the nightmarish scene years later and used it as a launching point for creating a pure embodiment of evil.
In a 2003 interview, Itoi said, “coming up with things like Giygas’ lines was so painful that I was in tears… Giygas is something you can’t make sense of, you know? But there’s also a part to him that’s like a living being that deserves love. That part is the breast of Hisako Tsukuba from The Military Policeman and the Dismembered Beauty… There was this sense of terror having atrocity and eroticism side-by-side, and that’s what Giygas’ lines at the end are. During the end, he says, ‘It hurts,’ right? That’s… her breast. It’s like, how do I put it, a ‘living-being’ sensation.”
While the origin of Giygas’ bodiless form in Mother 2 is fascinating and indeed one of the most iconic and terrifying evils in any video game – the character’s debut in the series’ first game was also uniquely terrifying and a stand-out experience in the 1980s console era.
Giygas’ physical form draws on the unearthly representation of alien Greys and distorts it further into a sinister geometry mirrored in his mothership. There’s no climactic boss music, just disturbing sirens like the “accursed flutes” of Lovecraft’s Azathoth. The blog Socks Make People Sexy describes the sound of Giygas’ incomprehensible psychic attack as “a penetrating drone that sometimes carries an arhythmical cadence (as though it were a sort of anti-song).”
You’re the alien’s punching bag, utterly defenseless, until your characters survive long enough to be given the “Sing” option on the battle screen. When the fearsome conqueror was a child he’d been taken care of by humans, and the song you sing to him had been sung by his surrogate mother. It emotionally cripples him. He pleads for you to stop, and only when he at last he surrenders does his horrible noise cease.
Ghost Stories and Monster Movies
Though Mother 2 features chilling notes of alien invasion and the gross-out spooks of the town Threed, Mother/ EarthBound Beginnings is the game most deeply rooted in conventional horror.
The game opens with you battling furniture that’s been animated by poltergeists and afterwards discover much of the nearby town has also experienced ghost assaults. The game doesn’t go into details, but the dead are rising from their graves – not just as restless spirits, but zombies as well. In the associated quest you never vanquish this evil, just survive it, and in the process venture into a crypt to save a young girl.
Later in the game you encounter the town of Spookane (called Halloween in Japan) which is all but deserted. The entire populace has been forced outside town limits by wild animals and creatures. In that same town there’s a haunted house called Rosemary’s Manor, which is filled with ghosts, animated suits of armor, and more zombies. Your objective in venturing into the manor is to hear the haunting song of a piano that plays as if by unseen hands. Though the manor is named after the film Rosemary’s Baby, everything else about it is presumed to be at least in part inspired by the Japanese horror film House, which features inanimate objects possessed by spirits and a ghost-inhabited piano that eats a girl.
Body horror is a genre of horror surrounding the destruction, degeneration, or mutation of the body. If you’ve ever seen the films of David Cronenberg (The Fly) or Clive Barker (Hellraiser), chances are good it featured some body horror. What’s particularly disturbing about body horror is the melting away of the very composition of what makes you human or what you know to be biologically correct. It’s epitomized by body parts being warped or put together in unusual ways… and there’s plenty in the series. The first game features this in the form of enemies like the tentacled Mooks or the insectoid Titanians. But the series’ most unsettling occurrence of body horror is far more subtle than creature features.
Towards the end of Mother 2, your party discovers that only way to confront Giygas is to go back in time and it’s a journey they can’t physically survive. They volunteer to have their spirits removed from their bodies and placed inside robots; trading their flesh for crude, boxy robot forms. There’s no promise that they’ll be able to come back or that the process is reversible. As Itoi put it, “there’s this fear of, ‘There’d be no turning back now…’”
This may have been the spark that created Mother 3. The game’s entire plot hinges on the horror of humankind subverting nature – right down to the logo:
Itoi elaborates in a discussion from 2000: “Mother 3 is written with a combination of trees and metal. It was a concept of combining two things that otherwise had no chance of ever binding together, making some strange object with a really uncomfortable beauty to it.” Throughout the game you witness animals horrifyingly fused to one another and melded with cybernetics. From that same interview Itoi mused, “there’s a recklessness to it, and another way to describe it is the bully Sid from Toy Story who tears his toys apart and puts them together all messed up.”
He went on to say that you were intended to go through the game feeling strange about the chimeras, thinking “This is weird…” then make it to the game’s end and scream upon witnessing the final Frankenstein fusion applied to a subject far more near and dear than random woodland creatures. This last affront to biology is made all the more unsettling as it’s not just a physical corruption, but a mental one.
The Evil That Men Do
Time and time again across the Mother series we see humanity cave to evil influences. Cults and ancient artifacts hold sway over weak hearts. These occult forces were a special focus of Lovecraft’s – especially ancient artifacts related to cosmic horrors.
In The Call of Cthulhu he describes a cult devoted to the octopus-headed monstrosity, “Great Cthulhu”, and a greenish-black stone idol of the evil god “which seemed instinct with a fearsome and unnatural malignancy”. The ancient deity had influenced mankind since its dawn by “moulding their dreams”. It’s hard not to see parallels between this and Mother 2‘s totemic Mani Mani statue which acts as a focal point for spreading Giygas’s influence across the world. It even communicates in “dreams” such as the hallucinatory town Moonside – a nightmare version pf one of the game’s towns. As Geldegarde Monotoli, a victim of Mani Mani says, “The Mani Mani Devil shows people illusions. It then increases the evil in their hearts and brings forth the devil’s power.”
Earlier in the game, the statues inspires the Happy Happyist cult to kidnap a young girl. Until the influence of the statue, the members of the cult and their leader were (relatively) normal people who succumbed to the terrifying throes of groupthink. It’s an aside, but the the Happy Happists’ appearance is an amalgam of the fear-invoking hoods of the Ku Klux Klan and the Japanese apocalypse cult Aum Shinrikyo who kidnapped and murdered people while attempting to build a secret army in Japan during the 80s and 90s.
Mother 3 also features a mind-controlling totem, though this one takes on a less conventionally menacing form: the Happy Box. Out of context the boxes are little more than TV-like devices, but as the game goes on, the Happy Boxes dull the population’s senses and aide in the rural village of Tazmily becoming tainted by encroaching technology. A Mani Mani in every home.
Corruption in the conventional and spiritual sense is a frequent and powerful narrative element of Mother. Itoi once said, after considering David Lynch and Mark Frost’s television series Twin Peaks, “if I had to say what my worst kind of nightmare might be, it would involve my friends and family all being evil.”
In Twin Peaks, “the evil that men do” is at the core of the series. In the show, the beloved Homecoming Queen, Laura Palmer, is murdered. But it’s soon discovered, that Laura isn’t the portrait of perfection she’s been made out to be, and the killer is tied to something beyond human evil: an evil as old as the world itself. The demonic BOB (a face first seen lurking in a mirror) inhabits and manipulates humans to harvest and feed on pain and suffering.
It would be easy to see the series’ primary human antagonist Pokey as an individual whose weakness and fear made him a vessel for something far worse than his mortal malignancy could account for. In a series where even universal cosmic destroyers have weakness, so to do heroes have evil in them. Ness, the hero of Mother 2, has to come to terms with his own darkness. On a journey into his own psyche, he encounters a shadow version of the Mani Mani statue which proclaims: “I am the evil in your heart.”
BOB and the demonic forces in Twin Peaks originate from a place outside of time called The Black Lodge. It’s said that “every spirit must pass through there on the way to perfection. There, you will meet your own shadow self… If you confront the Black Lodge with imperfect courage, it will utterly annihilate your soul.” In The Black Lodge Twin Peaks channels Lovecraft – including a prophecy whereby mortal man might take advantage of these dark powers: “…if harnessed, these spirits in this hidden land of unmuffled screams and broken hearts would offer up a power so vast that its bearer might reorder the Earth itself to his liking.”
This threat of a doppelganger, the annihilation of the soul, and reconfiguring of existence very much echo Mother 3‘s final conflict: a prophecy placing the fate of heaven, hell, and Earth in the hands of humans.
Mother 3 takes place in The Nowhere Islands – an edenic world almost like Twin Peaks‘ White Lodge; the positive counterpoint to The Black Lodge. In his quest for the aforementioned reality reconfiguring power, Pokey/Porky destroys the heavenly islands even without having yet achieved his goal on a universal scale. He is the evil of humankind unchecked and ruled by greed. Of this Itoi says, “I understand where Porky is coming from. Since the dawn of time, man has always painted out heaven and hell. But no one’s ever had any fun drawing heaven. People always have more fun drawing hell.”
The Mad God
Between the series’ two antagonists, Pokey and Giygas, Pokey is likely the scarier of the two. He’s the evil we know. He’s the evil we fear at the heart of every government and megacorporation, and at times in ourselves. But of these two, it’s the striking experience of battling Giygas that’s left the most lasting impression on gamers.
As a swirling mass of madness, Giygas embodies another aspect of Lovecraftian horror: the “idiot god” – a creature whose power is great, who is terrible to behold, but virtually mindless. In his story The Haunter of the Dark, Lovecraft describes “the ancient legends of Ultimate Chaos, at whose center sprawls the blind idiot god Azathoth, Lord of All Things, encircled by his flopping horde of mindless and amorphous dancers, and lulled by the thin monotonous piping of a demonic flute held in nameless paws.”
Porky describes Giygas much the same, “[He] cannot think rationally any more, and he isn’t even aware of what he is doing now. His own mind was destroyed by his incredible power. What an all-mighty idiot!”
The haunting experience of fighting Giygas can’t help but stick with you. As his swirling, horrible face undulates into something like fetal ultrasounds, the creature talks to you with a toddler’s understanding of fear and pain. This is the core of the darkness in Mother – the gray area between evil and absolute justice. You must kill a monstrous baby for the sake of the world; and you’ve got to do it with love.
Outside of playing the games themselves, the best personification of the Mother series’ duality is an adaptation of Mother 2‘s score by Cory Johnson. In his own words, his album EarthBound channels the essence of the game’s “philosophical undertones about the nature of evil, the corruption of power and the loss of innocence.” While aptly exploring the darkness of the series, Johnson also focuses on the warm feelings of the game’s town themes – giving a great sense of what’s at stake against the perils and nightmares of your quest.
The album’s opening two tracks “A Flash of Memory” and “With Envious Eyes” are a brilliant display of how the series meshes disparate aspects – boldly confronting the darkness at the heart of this hopeful series.
Special thanks to David Welch, co-host of the “EarthBound is SPOOKY” panel, the exhaustive research of Tomato via Legends of Localization and EarthBound Central, and the staff and attendees of Camp Fangamer ’15 without whom this article wouldn’t be possible.