(Written as of 2014)
Shortly after the release of Luigi’s Mansion 2, Shigeru Miyamoto said:
“I am a fan of “Ghostbusters.” That wasn’t the inspiration for the original “Luigi’s Mansion.” In fact, when we were developing the original “Luigi’s Mansion,” we were taking care as a team, even though that wasn’t our original inspiration, to make sure that people didn’t just assume that was what we were trying to do.”
While it is very easy to make the assumption that Ghostbusters was a major influence in the development, people will be able to see that wasn’t the case after they’ve played through the game. Scares and thrills were influenced by a wide variety of different things. The first thing to look to notice is the box art.
The box art for Luigi’s Mansion features Luigi’s cowardly screaming with several of the game’s many types of ghosts behind him with the mansion in the background. At first glance, people would think it’s pretty tame, and it is; but it’s the idea behind its conception that’s the most frightening thing. In particular, those who have knowledge of expressionist art will realize that Luigi’s pose bears a striking resemblance to the pose struck by the man in the portrait The Scream by Edward Munch, painted in 1893. One of the many ideas behind Munch’s original portrait was to portray the various array of emotions associated with screaming, such as pain, agony, fear, despair, etc.
The thought that Luigi has all these different emotions running through him on the box art of the game is particularly disturbing. Not only that but the box art also hazily matches details of a poem that Munch wrote, which rendered his memories of how he was inspired to paint The Scream. In the poem, he recalls that the sun had set and that the fjord had turned a blue-black color. In the box art, the sun has long set, and whilst there are no blue-black fjords, the colors in the background are a blend of black and blue. The poem then ends with the line “I sensed an infinite scream passing through nature”. There’s also naturally present in the background of the box art represented through dying trees, matching the poem’s descriptions even further. When these ideas become apparent, to think that Luigi’s screams are passing through nature on a sunset night amidst murky black-blue scenery, things seem evermore scarier.
The theme of death also plays a subtly prominent role throughout the course of the game. Even from the beginning cutscene, Luigi is surrounded by death. Whilst first making his way to the mansion, he notices that the trees in the surrounding forests have long since died and continue to wither. A pair of crows also appear in the cutscene shortly before Luigi enters the mansion; crows being a prominent symbol of both death and ill omen. There are several gravestones in the front and back gardens of the mansion, and of course, there’s when the player enters the mansion itself. The place is rife with ghosts, who are spectral re-animations of dead people. Looking at the game from these perspectives certainly makes cheap jump scares seem like small novelties in comparison.
The feel of the mansion before Luigi has dealt with all the ghosts is also very scary. Lighting plays a very important role in the atmosphere, as Luigi only has his flashlight to rely on to light his way and help him to catch ghosts before they’re all taken care of and the lights come back on in each room. But as with most successful horror films and literature, the biggest scare derives from the game’s build-up of tension and suspense. This element is especially apparent when Luigi goes to open a locked door. A small scene is added involving a camera close-up on the lock as Luigi turns the key with his hand trembling as he turns the doorknob to open it. It very effectively perpetuates the mystery as to what may be in the next room. There could be anything, and the developers wanted players to be scared by what may be lying in wait for them. Also, when Luigi walks around, not only does he still have that frozen look of fear on his face for the most part, but also water vapor can be seen emanating from his mouth as he breathes, which is a sure sign that the place is very cold. And the concept of the place being cold also refers back to the theme of death in another subtle way.
Another source of scares in this game is in some of the back-stories and ideas behind the more powerful ghosts in the game; the portrait ghosts. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the west wing of the first floor of the mansion, where a family of ghosts still reside. At first glance, they seem particularly innocent, but a closer examination reveals otherwise.
The family consists of the mother Lydia, the father Neville, two brothers Henry and Orville, and an infant son Chauncey. In the afterlife, Neville spends his time reading books in the study, Lydia constantly fixes her hair in the bedroom, Henry and Orville like to play Hide and Seek and Chauncey is an immature child prone to throwing tantrums. It all starts when the player encounters Neville. At first, he just seems like a normal person reading a book, but an examination of the books in the study tells a much different story. They are a set of baby diaries, which reveal a potentially harrowing scenario.
There are two books entitled Neville’s Big Baby Care Diary and Lydia’s Childcare Diary. Lydia’s Childcare Diary reads:
“The twins are very shy for ghosts their age… they’ve even gone and hidden the key to their room far away in the mansion. How very trying… They got mad at me the other day for twirling their little toy helicopter mobile… Ghost children today! Who knows what they’re thinking?”
The fact that there seems to be so much anger and resentment on the twin’s part towards their mother is pretty unnerving. But there seems to be a fault on each side, as Lydia had been tormenting them by messing with their helicopter toy, and the fact that she doesn’t know what they may be thinking would also suggest irresponsibility on the mothers part, as any mother needs to understand how their children behave in order to best manage them. The fact that the twins also hid the key to their room, and that they like to play Hide and Seek would also perpetuate the telltale possibility of domestic abuse. Why would the twins want to hide from their mother, and distance themselves away from her, after all? And how would they have grown to be so good at it? With practice, most likely; but the story continues in Neville’s Big Baby Care Diary, which reads:
“My third son is still a baby. Oddly enough, he seems to scare people in ways the other two never did… The twins, now… They’re afraid of fire, water, cold, and wind! Why they shake with fright when beset by the elements! Sometimes, I think they’re more childlike than the baby!”
Even the first entry in the diary makes for some very traumatic reading, as the twins are spoken about in the past tense, which would possibly suggest at that point, they had died, and Chauncey was still alive. It all begs the question of how they may have died. There also seems to be favoritism towards Chauncey on Neville’s part over Henry and Orville, as he seems to be talking about Chauncey being scarier than the twins like it’s a good thing. And he talks about Henry and Orville being afraid of the elements like it’s a bad thing. Also, how would Neville have known these weaknesses about the twins? There’s the possibility that he may have subjected them to these elements to test them. So he may also be tormenting them in the afterlife, as they both could’ve been tortured in their previous lives. A lot of these ideas of mine are only in theory, but regardless, they are still very much open to interpretation, which again, is astonishing given that this game is deemed appropriate for anyone to play.
Then, when Luigi confronts Chauncey, he comments on how Luigi gives him an “owie”, how he only wanted to play with Luigi, and how he hates grown-ups after Luigi is forced to hit him with a ball, which in itself, is pretty distressing. Chauncey’s words would most definitely suggest Chauncey being subject to domestic abuse from his parents. Why would he specifically hate grown-ups, after all? Neville, Lydia, or both must have done something wrong by him, which only confirms that this is certainly not one big happy family, which is what it looks like at first glance.
But aside from all this; the expressionist box art, the outstanding theme of death throughout, and the idea of past events involving possible domestic violence, there is another major source of chills in this game. One instance that has become infamous among the industry and that spawned one of the biggest urban legends in video game history.
In the fourth segment of the game upon the defeat of the third boss, Luigi must travel back to open the door to the last floor of the mansion. Before he can put the key in the door, however, a bolt of lightning strikes the house, and all the lights go out, not only increasing the amount of ghosts but also making the tension rise to a crescendo. On the top floor of the mansion, the player will find the infamous telephone room. Inside, there are three telephones, which can be picked up and the player can engage in conversation with a few characters. There’s nothing scary about the dialogue; in fact, the conversation with the toad on the other line is pretty innocent. The main source of horror becomes apparent when lightning strikes outside.
When thunder flashes, a shadow can be seen in the background, which resembles Luigi, but the horrifying thing is that the shadow looks lifeless, the hands seem still, and it seems to hover a few feet off the ground. Many gamers have speculated that this shadow depicts Luigi’s suicide, as he indeed seems to be hanging from a noose. Hackers have delved into the game’s ROM, and since found that this is merely a glitch, but the thing is the rest of the game is particularly well polished, with hardly any other glitches insight. Although this may have been easy for developers to miss, it seems a little bit strange that something like this would be left out, as they clearly tested the game and tested it again so as to polish it as best as they can. What makes this the creepiest element in the game by far is that no one associated with Nintendo has come out and confirmed that this was an accident or whether it was left in the game on purpose. It has been a topic of massive debate for over ten years and continues to haunt gamers to this day.