“Essay Ten: Zombies and Ghosts – On EarthBound, the Circus and the Cemetery”

Serialized specially for The Well-Red Mage, based on the podcast by Wesley Schantz



bookwarm “The following is a contributor post by the Bookwarm Mage.”

To start off, some tremendous comments from Alexander Schmid following up on the previous week’s conversation:


When Steph talks about how she would put down Animal Crossing for a time and forgot her short-term goals: to what extent do you think that’s how life works? When you stop working towards your bigger goals by means of your short-term goals, you sort of forget where it is you are in life. You become disoriented. And so one of the reasons to, say, stay in school, or to keep working through difficulties in a marriage or even a workout session, is precisely that the alternative is not that your life gets easier, but that you become disoriented and no longer know where it is you are and why it is that you exist.


Steph mentions how she likes to go through the games but she doesn’t like to have to keep track of the story, and I wondered if you thought that this could be a temperamental difference. A conscientious person, as defined by the big five factor analysis, they like to work but they don’t necessarily care about what the overarching story is. Whereas somebody more in the creativity domain or characterized by openness to experience might really have an itch they can’t scratch if they don’t understand the reason for each specific thing they’re doing.


As a young person I recall preferring to play rather than to think about games, as well. Jean Piaget suggests the better you get a game from the bottom up, the better at games you become; the more you develop from the bottom up, the more you are capable of playing games in different domains with different sort of tasks requiring different skills. You’re capable of seeing a certain structure to games. Whatever the game, you’re able to play it well, and whatever the dominance hierarchy happens to be, you’re able to climb it. I wonder if the difference is that as one’s understanding of games changes over time, one less and less wants or needs to play the game; rather the highest joy one gets is from either teaching the game, coaching the game, or coming up with new strategies that might be applied effectively to the game. So that the greater game is thinking about the game itself.


I take the Schrodinger’s cat metaphor to mean that when you look at the box, you don’t know whether he’s alive or dead, and so both potential futures can exist. Both presents can exist and they depend for their existence upon your future action, as well as your present awareness of the choice. Which strikes me as what potential is. If you have to choose between two things to do, you don’t know which one you’re going to do at first. You don’t truly know until you do one instead of the other, though potentially that decision is made before the action by conscious choice. It strikes me that, as applied to life, you have to convert your potential into actuality and thought. You have fewer choices then, but you’re more real.


What you like about playing these games is to go into the shoes of the everyday life of other individuals nested within communities. Because of the game, you often are confronted with problems and conflicts, and that’s precisely why you need to control your avatar. So what it is that we want to do most as humans is to be working on problems and conflicts, those around us or our own, and that’s sort of what the purpose of a video game is: to teach us that life is as good and fun as it can be when you are working on your own problems.


As to your questions, which I thought were brilliant, about why you share video games and books–and I guess you could even add TV shows, sports and hobbies–it seems that you want to create a shared reality with a person by means of shared good things. You want to share the finest things with the people around you so that they become the finest people they can possibly be, and so they reflect and measure you in that way. So it makes sense that you would always want those around you to be edified by the same tools which you had. Ideally if they developed this, it would have been necessary to do the same for you. Which it sounds like you two are doing, which is a very beautiful thing to witness.


Thanks again for all of those comments. To the one about how conscientiousness and creativity connect, Stephanie wanted to add that she normally does need to know what all the parts of the problem are and why everything fits together the way it does for her to approach something that has more long-term importance, but that she really likes that in games she feels she has the freedom to go ahead and be distracted by lots of other things going on, and that the the long-term goal will still be there. Then she can come back to it without too much consequence. As far as character traits, playing in other people’s shoes also lets you temporarily let go of some of the things that you normally in real life are, your personality, and see the world in a different way.

One more belated acknowledgment: I want to thank my parents for listening, too. My dad’s always sending me articles that I’ll find interesting, as we’re trying to come to grips with what’s behind the news of the day, and my mom always reads the books I never tire of getting her for all her birthdays and holidays, and talking to me about them. I owe them a lot.

“Zombies and ghosts are on the loose here. Welcome to Threed.”

The name in English sounds like a pun on 3-D; the original spelling, Threek, connotes the thrill of fear you feel on exploring EarthBound’s third town. In some ways it is reminiscent of the very opening of the game, when you explored the hilltop in the middle of the night, but the darkness here somehow takes on a more sinister aspect. Perhaps the difference is due to the ominous music, conjuring up every ghost story and Halloween shudder that ever seemed to presage something really supernatural lurking in the dark beyond the campfire or the streetlights’ glow. What you cannot see, but feel, with a chill, can see and get you. Or perhaps it’s the fearsome foes infesting most of the town–trick-or-treat kids with pumpkins for heads, eerie marionettes, and dumpster goblins. Somewhat surprisingly, there are no actual zombies to be seen, except at the very edge of town, for all the rumors swirling around and the fear that leads people to lock their doors and not open when you knock. That pervasive fear compresses the town around its center, where of all things a circus tent is being commandeered as the headquarters of the survivors’ resistance.

You’ll even hear rumors of someone called Master Belch who seems to be behind the terror, the darkness hanging over the town, and leading the monsters roaming under its shade. Which always confused me as a kid. Wait, I thought, the being behind all this is known as Giygas, the universal cosmic destroyer; that doesn’t sound anything like Master Belch. But in the same way that the cultists of Happy Happyism mistook Carpainter for a prophet, even kidnapping Paula on his orders, herself clearly good, so the denizens of Threed seem to suffer from a myopia about the identity of the evil assailing them, mistaking its proximal agent, this Belch, for its ultimate source, Giygas, and cowering against one local danger when the true story is so much bigger that the only effective response is wisdom, friendship, and courage.

Ness and Paula might well be justified in feeling optimistic. They’ve ridden the bus with the band and outrun the ghosts in the tunnel, they’ve overcome cultists and cave baddies, and somehow the dark corners of Threed hold less fear when you don’t confront them quite alone. If worst comes to worst and one of our heroes falls in battle, their friendly ghost follows the other and still keeps them company, and all it takes is a trip to the hospital and a doctor’s fee to revive them, re-coating the spirit with flesh and blood. It’s worth visiting the hospital, anyhow, for the Insignificant Item which can be found in a drawer in one of the wards. Using the Insignificant Item (the game says) gives you a sensation which cannot be understood by someone who does not use something insignificant. Not only does it mock the item-finding mentality fed by so many similar games–think of Chrono Trigger with its little blue shinies indicating where items may be picked up–but that claim about the Insignificant Item could well be turned against the game itself. In a nutshell, it’s what I’ve been investigating with respect to the reverse: using something significant, ie. the game, gives you a feeling which you sense must be possible to share even with others who have not experienced that something. My claim is that significance is not incommunicable, ultimately–and its communication may also inspire us to seek out such experiences, even if they are different ones. And so much the better! Of course as it turns out, even this solipsistic Insignificant Item left in the hospital ward drawer during the zombie pandemic does belong to someone in another town, who will reward you for returning it to them. So perhaps any supposedly insignificant item still has value after all.

Talking with the back-alley arms dealer, you may get the hint that another friend will soon be joining your party, since there ought to be someone who will be able to use the gun-type weapons he has for sale, which neither Ness nor Paula can equip. Like Chekhov’s dictum about the rifle or pistol hanging on the wall for playwrights, video game designers and players know instinctively the principle of narrative economy that declares it’s better not to include a gun, figurative or literal as the case may be, unless it’s going to go off. As for who this this new character is and how he’s introduced, we’ll let that be a story for next week.

The only other new element about this third town, besides the dark and the monsters and the circus tent in the midst and wagons in the field and the arms dealer, is, of course, the cemetery. Fitting in with the scary-story ambiance and helping explain where all the zombies could have come from, the large cemetery takes up about the northern third of Threed’s area. Its gravestones and paths and stern fences form a kind of maze, densely packed with enemies, so many that the game is even likely to lag at times rendering their movement. One grave site in particular is off by itself in the middle of the two halves of the graveyard separated by the long lane leading to it. This is another instance of the ways EarthBound plays with players’ expectations, for instead of this solitary stone concealing the secret passageway you might be looking for, it serves only as the picturesque backdrop for yet another scrapbook photo. Fuzzy Pickles!

The Zelda games, for example, would use such set-ups for you to uncover items of greater or lesser importance. Or you might think of myths and stories of heroes acquiring powerful weapons from the barrows of dead kin or forgotten warriors. Consider the hobbits captured by the Barrow Wight after they leave the house of Tom Bombadil, or how Gollum is said to have wandered to the Misty Mountains because of his love of digging into deep places where he had no business prying. Or you might think of Ocarina of Time with its Sun Song and Shadow Temple, and the path to the Hookshot, besides its Re-Deads sitting creepily around the town square in the future, so that practically the first thing you experience as Adult Link is their horrid embrace, or at least the threat of it. But in EarthBound something else awaits under the graveyard, in the future…

A book we’ll look at soon, you might or might not know it, that helped me get through these scary parts of stories and games as a kid is The Very Scary Almanac, by Eric Elfman. Much later, I read in Rousseau, in his strange and stirring tract Emile, which eschews books through most of the education of his imaginary pupil, how he suggests a few less bookish ways of training for fear:


The discovery of the cause of the ill indicates the remedy. In everything habit kills imagination. Only new objects awaken it. In those one sees every day, it is no longer imagination which acts, but memory; and that is the reason for the axiom ab assuetis non fit passio [passion is not caused by habitual things], for only by the fire of the imagination are the passions kindled. Do not, then, reason with him whom you want to cure of his loathing of the dark. Take him out in it often, and rest assured that all the arguments of philosophy are not equal in value to this practice. Tilers on roofs do not get dizzy, and one never sees a man who is accustomed to being in the dark afraid of it.


This is, therefore, an additional advantage of our night games. But for these games to succeed, I cannot recommend enough that there be gaiety in them. Nothing is so sad as darkness. Do not go and close your child up in a dungeon. Let him be laughing as he enters the dark; let laughter overtake him again before he leaves it. While he is still there, let the idea of the entertainments he is leaving and those he is going to find again forbid him fantastic imaginings which could come there to seek him out. (p 135 in Allan Bloom’s translation)


Image result for rousseau emile

To that point about imagination and habit, which Rousseau makes with respect to overcoming fear, then again, turning it around, it is just as important to see the way in which EarthBound takes that which has become habitual and re-infuses it with imaginative meaning. I want to cite, as a contemporary example, Sufjan Stevens’ music about places, which invests them with a kind of mythic significance. One song on his Illinois album is particularly apposite here: “They Are Night Zombies!! They Are Neighbors!! They Have Come Back from the Dead!! Ahhhh!” —




We are awakened with the axe

Night of the living dead at last

They have begun to shake the dirt

Wiping their shoulders from the earth

I know, I know the nations past

I know, I know they rust at last

They tremble with the nervous thought

Of having been, at last, forgot



Making that connection between the everyday and the mythic, between pop-culture zombies and the bodily resurrection, forms a counterpart to how in the haunting opening song on the album, “Concerning the UFO sighting near Highland, Illinois,” Sufjan takes the rare opportunity to use the word revenant and to speak (sing) of the mystery of Incarnation. There is such a thing as wonder even in in the most habitual objects, people, places, and like EarthBound, or Zombies Ate my Neighbors, Sufjan’s songs here and his other albums attest to that. (Though maybe I’m biased: after all, he talks about Montaigne in one of his live-set monologues, so that is endearing…)

Finally, after passing through the bigger cemetery half, you do encounter a pair of zombie guards, but they neither fight you nor will they let you pass. One stares into your soul, their text reads, the other looks you over. And that’s it. With that ambiguous anticlimax, you’re stuck. You can’t leave Threed, and you’ve explored every part of it.

Before disclosing the solution to this riddle in the dark, let’s pause a moment to gather together what this unfortunate place seems to be telling us. First, and most overt, there’s the juxtaposition of the cemetery and the circus. Both account for large swathes of the town, and both are occupied by someone who shouldn’t be there. The monsters in the one you can defeat all you want, and there will always appear more, but the aimless leaders in the other you can neither help nor persuade. In place of an entertaining show, death-defying acrobatics or clown-car antics, this sorry bunch huddles and bemoans their fate, incapable of coming up with any remedy. The parallel to the circus of real-life politicians here is bitter satire.

As for the cemetery, the need for that is plain; the flip-side of the circus of politics, death and dying is what we like best not to think about or speak about. It exists here without any organizing framework: none of the graves have names you can read or flowers placed around them; the story of that one stone off by itself is a mystery; all there is to be read upon the fence which keeps the dead and the undead from encroaching any farther is that familiar sign DON’T ENTER, which by now we know is an open invitation.

The healer at the hospital can perform an exorcism for you, but there is no church in EarthBound, no religion–which in its root meaning, re-ligio, signifies linking back, being bound to some tradition. You fight puppets around town–that is plain enough to interpret–and you fight ghosts in the cemetery, restless, intangible and lacking individuality, yet able to harm and to spook and even to possess you in a frightening manner. The no good flies and garbage-can-animating foes seem like distorted versions of Buzz Buzz and the magic butterflies and the wholesome trash of your hometown, which held hamburgers instead of aggressive corruption. Who you gonna call? 

And what of the zombies themselves? Not the other British band, maker of lovely songs like “Rose for Emily,” popularized by the recent podcast S-Town–I mean the ones who stand in your way so impassively. In place of the gift of more life, they embody a return from death as living death, enslaved to some witch-doctor or other, hordes of mindless ravenous walking dead making in their own image. The popularity of the zombie genre is surely one of the most striking in the modern litany of markers of cultural degeneration. And yet all hope’s not lost, as the self-satire of it is alive and well: the satire of politics, as well as, say, Shaun of the Dead’s opening sequence and whole concept, up until the lovely twist at the end, with a video game nod, or the satire in EarthBound here: the one zombie, he stares into your soul–the other, he looks you over.




In passing we must mention the successor to the Fresh Breeze Movement, the Parents Opposing Obsession Plan: check that acronym out. And in opposition to their opposition, a couple of bulletin boards in town have been scrawled with graffiti from the game developers, one celebrating their studio, HAL Labs, with its view of Mt Fuji, another bearing the cryptic yet self-explanatory motto …just play it.

This is one of those parts of the game you cannot return to, which only lends itself to exploring and belaboring the meanings of so much. You just play it. Like the opening night, Threed before the light returns cannot be returned to without starting a whole new game file. As far as how to escape from our cultural predicaments du jour, perhaps that’s a good hint.

Another billboard gives the hint about what to do next: If you’re tired, you should head west to Threed Sunset Hotel. And if you do, you’ll run across what looks like the character sprite who calls himself a con man in one of the other houses, watching around the corner of the building. A strange woman stands in front of the hotel. And if you follow her inside, you’ll hear the music that normally plays there strangely distorted. And if you follow through the empty rooms, you find that one of the rooms is not empty at all, and that she is not there alone. So much for my attempt at a little suspense.

Not to make this too melodramatic, but I’ll leave you with one last cultural touchstone to consider, resonating with this part of the game: the film Donnie Darko:


We’ll go on to Winters next week.


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Categories: Opinion

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2 replies »

  1. As I mentioned in my email, several subjects here really resonated with me. I’m again impressed at how fitly EarthBound subverts classic RPG expectations. I never pieced together the placement of the solitary gravestone with getting the player to the Fuzzle Pickles photograph!

    Regarding the idea of there being no church in Threed, that was one observation that I did have when I first played EarthBound way back when. I suppose I was used to the churches in one of my go-to RPGs, Breath of Fire II, and suspected they Would be everywhere in games. Certainly, I wished there had been some kind of bastion for the citizens of Threed to fortify their minds with traditions and metaphysical considerations, to help them make more sense of their situation rather than be as lost as they are in a house dedicated to entertainment (social commentary?). On the other hand, it is interesting to see a supernatural horror event removed from religious over- or undertones, as typically religion pops up in horror with the presence of some really awful superstitious people (I’m thinking of The Mist right now).

    The center of your essay was for me the claim is that significance is not incommunicable. I took it thusly: I’ve been trying to popularize the idea that likes and dislikes, and good and bad, or even best and worst, aren’t so black and white in gaming. I’ve met more than a few good people who have completely aligned those concepts, so that the games they like are good and in fact the best in their chosen context, and on the reverse, every game they dislike is the worst. But can one dislike good games or like bad ones? It seems to me that’s perfectly reasonable.

    Significance is communicable and that means to me that a game I vehemently disliked can still be an achievement, indeed a masterpiece in gaming, and I’m thinking specifically of The Last of Us for myself. I don’t know that that’s exactly where your claim was headed, but maybe it’s along a similar thread?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hey, thanks again for reading and for your thoughtful comments!

      The gravestones in Zelda always hide powerful treasures; in EarthBound, they’re red herrings, fuzzy pickles-triggers, and basement prisons. Either way, I think these games have subtly influenced the way I look at graveyards.

      My understanding, from what others have reported (particularly Tomato, aka Clyde Mandelin), is that at some point Nintendo decided that American audiences wouldn’t respond well to overtly religious iconography being portrayed in their video games. In practice, this means the classic alignment of church-good/holy against undead-evil/unholy does not operate in EarthBound. The solution to the zombie infestation proves to be something quite different: infiltrating the base behind the waterfall, mopping up stinky little piles and their boss, Master Belch. It certainly looks like entertainment is unmoored from religion. But I’m sure you’ll also recall the way the cult of Happy-happyists resembled a church, and how one of Paula’s commands (essential before the end of the game) is to Pray, so maybe it’s also the case that organized/overt religion is being uncoupled from the good/holy. At least, EarthBound gently questions that traditional coupling.

      And I agree that significance should similarly be in theory distinguishable from quality or taste. Anyone should be able to acknowledge, say, the importance of religions in human society, whether they believe in one or not, or whether they see religion as on balance positive or negative. Or as we say, some things are ‘boring [ie, as far as entertainment goes, bad] but important.’ I’m not familiar with The Mist or The Last of Us, unfortunately. Games I find morally reprehensible and frankly boring, like Drug Wars on the old TI calculators or GTA in its various iterations across platforms, I can still see are significant: the former for personal reasons, because my friends liked them and learned to program by messing with them; the latter for their influence on developing open worlds and branching narratives, and for their role in the public discourse about immorality in video games.

      I hope that makes sense! Thanks again!

      Liked by 1 person

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