THIS YEAR IN FEAR: 1997, when people were afraid of Pokémon


There are plenty of reasons to be fearful of  Pokémon: It’s the second largest video game franchise in history. The product line generates over a billion dollars in revenue annually, probably half of that from my son’s third grade class alone. The name means “pocket monster.” (Scary!)

But none of that is why people were petrified of Pokémon in 1997. In December of that year, an episode aired in Japan called “Electric Soldier Porygon,” in which bright red and blue lights strobed across the screen (a technique called, adorably, paka-paka). Within an hour, according to the book Outbreak! The Encyclopedia of Extraordinary Social Behavior, 618 Japanese children went to hospitals complaining of dizziness, nausea, blurred vision, seizures, and more. That wasn’t the end of it: Over the next few days, newspapers reported that as many as 12,000 kids were taken ill after watching the show.

In the weeks that followed, scientists deduced the kids were suffering from Unknown-2mass hysteria, now case of widespread photosensitive epilepsy. But no matter: According to the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, TV Tokyo yanked the show, and only put it back on once they’d prefaced it with trigger warnings that the episodes could cause epileptic seizures. Even the nation’s prime minister weighed in, chiding the creators of the show for using animation techniques that had previously appeared in other shows). American parents were told that such an outbreak was unlikely to happen here because we “don’t air the graphic Japanese cartoons known as ‘anime.'”

What stopped the Pokemon panic ultimately? More Pokemon. Japanese kids missed the show so much when it was off the air that once it finally returned, they rewarded it with sky-high ratings.