The Monsters We Crave: Pokémon and Monster Theory

By eriXtone. Art by Bummer.
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Imagination is a sign of our humanity, whether it is expressed apocalyptically, erotically, or through multitudinous species of Pokémon (Kelts 134).

In the monster-filled world of Pokémon, there was an absence. Players considered the characters childish and sought to live out a more sinister fantasy. The game's designers paid attention to these cues and introduced the Dark / Ghost-type hybrid in the game's third generation, thus fulfilling many players' desires. There was now a Pokémon with no weaknesses that allowed players to take part in a more aggressive, domination-based experience. The subsequent introduction of an additional Dark / Ghost-type Pokémon in the fourth generation fully filled this void as the game had a Pokémon described as 'evil' for the first time. Even in a fantasy world the new characters defied what was possible. Cohen's Monster Theses suggest that individuals would crave these new Pokémon as cultures crave and create monsters. The designers of the Pokémon universe delivered in kind.

The Pokémon game series has developed through the introduction of new Pokémon and new settings. Tsunekaz Ishihara, the president of Pokémon Co., said, "The basic concept of the Pokémon games has remained unchanged since the first release in 1996. But we have always strived to add new characters and upgrade games so that Pokémon fans will never feel they are approaching an end" (Kelts 17). Since the primary purpose of Pokémon in-game is to enrich the gameplay experience, new Pokémon are introduced to fill any perceived void. The game has expanded with the introduction of new lands and Pokémon. Through his journey, the player must repeatedly battle against a designated rival, wild Pokémon, and an evil group of Trainers. The player is set against insurmountable odds, such as the capture or discovery of extinct, legendary, or mythical Pokémon—but through perseverance, positivity, and hard work, players eventually beat the Pokémon League Champion. The game contains features that resonate with hero-quest stories on a basic level. The acceptability of the illogical and the ambiguous, the hero's sense of duty above all else, the concepts of the child as hero and of unending quest, and the undependability of a happy ending are all represented in Pokémon folklore (Kelts 91). There are 650 different Pokémon in total, while only two have been introduced that inherently lack weaknesses.* The game's newest generation is soon to be released in Japan, and still there are no additional Dark / Ghost-type Pokémon.

The Introduction of Evil

The introduction of Dark / Ghost-type Pokémon filled a void in the Pokémon universe. Tsunekaz Ishihara, the president of Pokémon Co., stated, "Market research conducted in the U.S. prior to the release of Pokémon games found that the characters were too childish to catch the fancy of Americans" (Kelts 91). In other words, the potential audience for the games had needs and desires that were not being met. It could be assumed that the makers of the game thought it wise to introduce a character that was the opposite of their childish image. Instead of allowing players to play subsequent generations of the games as the evil human characters, players were given the opportunity to use evil Pokémon. The third generation of the games introduced this sinister character, the first Pokémon to lack a weaknesses.

Pokémon #302 is called Sableye. Described in the anime as "The Darkness Pokémon" (in the episode Ready, Willing, and Sableye), Sableye is a human-like character that hides in the darkness of caves. Its diet of gems has transformed its eyes into gemstones (Neves et al., 164). The fact that the character is human-like and lives in caves reminds the player of the unknown and the inherent fear associated. Called to mind are instances of cynocephali and werewolves in medieval writings that were feared and persecuted because of their differences from the community (Pliny the Elder).

Sableye acts out the role of the trickster, even earning such an ability in later iterations of the game. Introduced to the Pokémon community in an episode of the anime titled Ready, Willing, and Sableye, we see the character finding delight in the fear of others. The episode finds the antagonists discovering a Sableye in a cave while searching for jewels. Upon seeing him they shout, "Ghost! It's a ghost!" As Sableye laughs at their horror they go on to state, "Here we are thinking we see a ghost, and Sableye thinks it's funny!" Sableye finds joy in causing and witnessing the fear and anxieties of others. This concept, summed up by the word schadenfreude borrowed from German, indicates that the makers of Pokémon created Sableye for the purpose of having a sinister character. Sableye eats gemstones, craving that which humans crave, but for very different reasons. This similarity to humans is quite close, and draws to mind the idea that Sableye lies at the gate of difference, creating a dangerous pollution of classification that blurs the lines of cosmic and social structure (Douglas 113).

As the first Dark / Ghost-type Pokémon, Sableye filled the void created by an enormous amount of characters that market research indicated were too childish for American audiences (Kelts 93). Sableye, however, was not a very strong Pokémon. There was devilish mythology surrounding the character, some classic ties to monster theory in the instances of schadenfreude and category crisis, but in actual gameplay there were elements lacking. Despite Sableye's similarities to cynocephali and werewolves, players needed a character that did not just represent domination, aggression, and schadenfreude—they needed a character that would allow them to dominate.

Spiritomb was the four hundred and forty-second Pokémon introduced. The game describes this amorphous being as a Pokémon that was formed by 108 spirits, bound to a fissure in a rock as punishment for misdeeds 500 years ago (Neves et al., 237). Spiritomb is essentially a collection of evil spirits that behaves aggressively, causing senseless mayhem while attacking innocent villagers out of malicious desire. Although it is attached to a specific rock, it can travel throughout the land. Much like a poltergeist, Spiritomb haunts the living while tied to a specific place, committing mischievous acts (Burr 55–77). Sableye and Spiritomb share the Dark / Ghost typing, but Spiritomb is more practical for gameplay, more sinister, and embodies the ideas of 'monster' more fully. For the first time in its history, a Pokémon is described as evil. No other Pokémon in the game is described in such a way with any sense of permanence.

Like Sableye, the mythology of Spiritomb was introduced to audiences through an episode of the anime. In The Keystone Pops!, a fun-loving Pokémon breaks open a tomb while playing. Suddenly the sky darkens, the main character feels a chill, and ominous music begins to play, reminiscent of classic Hollywood monster films like Frankenstein or Dracula. There is thunder as lightning strikes the ground. The characters state, "There's something weird about this!" as Spiritomb emerges from the tomb with a voice akin to Bela Lugosi's Dracula. The characters are confused and frightened as they had never seen a Pokémon like this. The show states, "Spiritomb – The Forbidden Pokémon. As punishment for misdeeds 500 years ago, it was imprisoned in the fissure of an odd keystone." The Spiritomb immediately attacks the characters before flying off to attack local villages. The townspeople say, "The evil Spiritomb has been reborn!" An elderly village woman tells the main characters of a hero arriving to defeat Spiritomb 500 years earlier after it ravaged local villages. The hero battled the Spiritomb in an effort to seal it away as a 'wicked Pokémon' so villagers could live 'happily ever after.' She says, "Spiritomb is one mean and nasty Pokémon," and when asked of Spiritomb's motivation for behaving in such a way, she says that no one knows what lies in the "demonic depths of Spiritomb's thoughts." Only when an opposing Pokémon assumes extraordinary powers in the company of a mythical hero can the Spiritomb be defeated. In defeat, the Spiritomb is locked away in the tomb from which it initially sprang.

Cohen and Pokémon

With these introductions, players were given the opportunity to play the games as inherently evil, aggressive, and dominating characters. Against the Pokémon, trainers could not use so-called super effective attacks, such as when Water attacks are used on a Fire-type or Ice attacks are used on a Grass-type. The aggression and domination that could be carried out as a result filled a void with players as they could enter a battle and not have to worry that the opposing trainer would be presenting a Pokémon that possessed attacks capable of causing substantial damage. This took the guesswork out of battling, and left the player with a singular conclusion. If a Dark / Ghost-type is strong enough, it can defeat any other Pokémon. There was an elimination of strategy as brute force was now an option. Like the monster, the Pokémon Trainers need not use intelligence; merely instinct, desire, and aggression to reach their ends—victory in battle.**

The elimination of this gameplay void served to fill a monster void. Until the introduction of Sableye and Spiritomb, there were Pokémon that looked evil, but none that were described as or behaved as such. The 'mean' Pokémon, prior to the introduction of the Dark / Ghost-type, looked mean but did not behave this way. There were Pokémon that would occasionally misbehave, but none personified schadenfreude. Spiritomb and Sableye each embody Cohen's monster theses so fully that it can only be concluded that their purpose in the game was to appeal to player's fears, take advantage of the human desire for monsters, and allow for a domination-based gameplay experience.

Cohen states that the monster's body is a cultural body. He says that the monster is born only at a metaphoric crossroads of a certain cultural moment—of a time, a feeling, or a place (Cohen 4). This is precisely the idea behind Spiritomb, who is only born from a stone under very specific circumstances and at a specific place to behave as a monster. In Pokémon Diamond, he cannot be caught until the player has spoken to thirty-two people underground, a place where there are very few people. The player must partake in a journey to attract the attention of this evil Pokémon, and only then can the player be given the opportunity to battle the Spiritomb. Should the player survive, he is given the opportunity to catch the Pokémon for his own use. The monster's body incorporates fear, desire, anxiety, and fantasy, giving it life and an uncanny independence (Ibid). This is true of Spiritomb and Sableye. Sableye lives in caves, feasts on gemstones, frightens all comers for its own delight, and resides at its base among the most powerful Pokémon in the game.** He is the embodiment of Cohen's first thesis.

Cohen says the monster always escapes (Ibid). Spiritomb is never eliminated, merely locked away into a rock that is destined to be broken, releasing the evil Pokémon back into the world. Sableye is also never eliminated, but tolerated. This Pokémon appears with regularity as the player explores caves. When defeated, another Sableye will eventually appear. Spiritomb is of particular interest here, as such an evil and nasty creature that exists as a singularity would likely be eliminated under normal circumstances, but that would defeat the purpose of Spiritomb. Had the makers wished to add a level of fear to the game, they could have had the player battle this Pokémon only. Upon its defeat it would disappear, leaving the player to carry on with the quest for good and all that is right. Instead, Spiritomb becomes a playable character, allowing the user to subject others to the fear of facing a foe that lacks weaknesses. There is no escape. Pokémon allows the player to act as a hero charged with the task of traveling throughout the world collecting Pokémon for a research project run by a well-known scientist. Over the course of this collection, the player is to train Pokémon in order to become the best Trainer in all the land culminating in an epic battle with the "Elite Four" and the "Pokémon Champion"—the strongest Trainers in the world. Even if the player avoids the habitat of Spiritomb, the final human opponent in the fifth generation of the game possesses a Spiritomb as her lead Pokémon. The monster and the hero are destined to meet, and this fate can never be avoided.

Monsters are disturbing hybrids whose externally incoherent bodies resist attempts to include them in any systematic structuralism (Ibid 6). Sableye is human-like, yet feasts on gemstones. Spiritomb was once human but is now amorphous, consisting of one hundred and eight evil human spirits. The category crisis that is created by infusing evil Pokémon with human spirits, forms, and habits serves to strengthen the player's understanding of these Dark / Ghost-type Pokémon as sinister or evil. Spiritomb has a human-like face, but its form is that of a swirling mass of human souls, almost like one-hundred and eight ghosts within a ghost. This is precisely the idea behind purgatory, as the souls within Spiritomb are not alive as they once were, though certainly not dead. Instead, they are eternally punished for their misdeeds (Hanna). The human qualities of Spiritomb have long since disappeared and given way to aggressive, demonic thoughts and actions.

Monsters are created through a process of fragmentation and recombination in which elements are extracted "from various forms," including marginalized social groups, and then assembled as the monster (Cohen 11). Spiritomb is the criminal, the personification of mischief and evil deeds, an escaped mass of spirits in purgatory temporarily avoiding their fate of eternal damnation. Sableye is the recluse, residing alone in a distant place far from 'civilized' contact, like the monsters of Beowulf. Some Pokémon are clearly fish, deer, bears, mice, bugs, or lizards, while Spiritomb and Sableye represent aspects of human culture that most view as negative, combined into a slightly human form for the purpose of domination-based gameplay. The game takes moderately human qualities and applies them to the most devastatingly powerful creatures to create an experience wholly unlike that of Pokémon games past. With these characters, there was an introduction of evil, aggression, and domination.

The monster is transgressive, a lawbreaker and so the monster and all that it embodies must be exiled or destroyed. The repressed, however, always seem to return. In as much, the monster polices the borders of the possibl (Ibid 12, 16). Sableye and Spiritomb are the only Pokémon that lack a weaknesses and are both exiled from the Pokémon population because they are not quite like the rest of the creatures in the universe. They are inherently less weak and possess unique traits that make their role in the game singular. In raising and battling these characters, players are given the opportunity to dominate other creatures and Trainers. Those that wish to participate in an aggressive experience are now able to do so using two Pokémon that before the third generation of the Pokémon video game would have been totally impossible.

The monster attracts. The same creatures who terrify and interdict can evoke potent escapist fantasies; the linking of monstrosity with the forbidden makes the monster all the more appealing as a temporary egress from constraint (Ibid 16, 17). In this lies the motivation for introducing Dark / Ghost-types into the Pokémon universe. The president of Pokémon Co. stated that American audiences thought that Pokémon were too childish in their initial foray into the market (Kelts 17). In response, Pokémon were introduced that allowed the player to escape the childish world of Pokémon into an aggressive, domination-based fantasy. Joy is found in the forbidden, peace is found in escape. Players sought this experience; they longed to battle the childish with the demonic where the childish Pokémon have no chance of survival. Some players long for domination, others for aggression. There was a market for this gameplay experience and the creators reacted accordingly.

Monsters ask us to reevaluate our cultural assumptions about race, gender, sexuality, our perception of difference, and our tolerance towards its expression (Cohen 20). In a similar way, Dark / Ghost-type Pokémon have asked the player and gaming community to reevaluate their perceptions of the Pokémon universe. This is not a world comprised solely of childish creatures, there is evil residing in the caves and in the acts of humans. This evil, the potential for domination and aggression, is present in the real world and should thus be present in the world of Pokémon. Gamers were forced to recognize this in the development of gameplay. It was no longer safe to assume all was unconditionally well; players needed to reevaluate what they thought of the game, its creators, characters, and the role they sought to play. Would the gamer succumb to the allure of the domination-based, aggressive gameplay experience?


The Dark / Ghost-type Pokémon was introduced in the third generation of the game, quite possibly the first completely developed after Pokémon's introduction to American audiences. The first games had a multitude of childish creatures that players could raise and battle and was geared towards Japanese culture where tiny is cute, bright is adorable, and cuddly is ideal. U.S. market research showed that this was not the case in American culture, and the makers of the game made adjustments as needed. These adjustments were minor in most respects, but major in the introduction of a Pokémon that lacked weaknesses and embodied monster fantasy. Audiences were yearning for the opportunity to play through the world of Pokémon with aggressive characters who had the potential for domination. Players needed actual monsters in this world of childish creatures. Cohen's monster thesis offer sufficient evidence to prove the purpose of Sableye and Spiritomb. The monsters were created to satisfy the needs of audiences to play out their biggest fears in a safe place—the world of Pokémon.

* It should be noted that some Pokémon lack weaknesses due to their typing combined with their ability—Eelektross, for example—and while this lack of weaknesses could be considered inherent, it is outside the realm of this research because this ability is secondary to the Pokémon 's true nature. It is akin to a person born with brown hair. Surely it is part of that person, but does not truly affect the individual as say, an inability to catch a disease would. This point could be debated at length, and I welcome all comments, but it is perhaps most important to realize that this research was done before Black and White were released. Therefore, at the end of the day, Eelektross was omitted because it didn't exist. Could it be incorporated? It is likely.

** While it is the author's contention that this was truly the goal of Game Freak in the creation of the characters, in practical terms this is clearly not the case, as the competitive community has shown.


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