Pokemon: The Ghost of Maiden’s Peak Analysis
The Pokemon franchise is known for many things, but darker storytelling is not one of them. Its child friendly brand is reassuring to parents, but can be frustrating for adult fans. This is what makes the more sombre examples in Pokemon’s history so intriguing. For a franchise so focused on providing kid-friendly experiences, it has created a lot of darker moments which have remained with fans ever since. While there are many examples of this in the Pokemon games, the Pokemon anime has fewer, but arguably more traumatic examples. Since it’s Halloween, I thought it would be fun to explore some of these scarier episodes, and analyse what made them not only frightening, but diverge completely from the franchise. The episode we are focusing on today is arguably one of the darkest and most bizarre episodes of Pokemon, and one many older fans will remember fondly.
The Ghost of Maiden’s Peak is the twentieth episode of Pokemon’s first season, and originally aired on the second of August 1998. It’s frightening story mixed with its strange imagery makes it an episode worth exploring, and one the Pokemon franchise may want viewers to forget. It essentially contradicts everything that the franchise has built up until now, both in the rating of its content and the limit it pushes in story-telling. The opening of the episode starts with the equivalent of a Pokemon jump scare. We open to a young woman talking sombrely about a lover, only for her to turn into a ghastly, seemingly mocking the audience with a maniac laugh. What’s interesting about the opening is that, despite being more dark than the average episode, it essentially spoils the mystery the entire episode is based around, but we’ll touch on this later. This may have been to avoid frightening children, or to alert parents immediately that all supernatural elements in this episode are fictitious. And considering the path the episode takes, this precaution may have been a smart decision.
The episode begins with Ash, Brock and Misty resting on a cruise ship, headed for a new area called “Maiden’s Peak”. As they land on the aisle, the gang overhear an announcement about an end of summer festival currently in progress. While Ash and Misty talk about their luck, and in classic Brock fashion, the young bachelor spots a young girl standing at the end of a pier. As his infatuation begins to blossom, a stampede of tourists breaks his view of her, and only Pikachu is able to see her morph into ghastly before fading away. With the young girl now gone, the gang continue towards the town, and into the festivities. Meanwhile, Team Rocket, who were towed to the aisle, complain about their recent bad luck and lack of funds. While planning to search the festival floors for spare change, James has a similar experience to Brock, a young girl appearing in his immediate vision. Despite the excitement of the festival, both Brock and James cannot stop thinking about the girl they had just seen. In both instances, their daydreaming is interrupted by an old lady, who is able to tell they both had interactions with the young girl. She warns them to be cautious, as their experiences may lead to trouble. A classic case of foreshadowing.
Eventually, the gang and Team Rocket find themselves at the unveiling of an ancient painting. To both the men’s surprise, the young lady they had spotted that morning was depicted in the artwork. Entranced, both James and Brock attempt to grab the painting, but are stopped by the village elder. He explains to them that they must be mistaken, as the young girl depicted died two-thousand years ago. The elder recounts the legend of the Maiden: Long ago, she was a member of this village, and perished on the mountainside while waiting for her war-bound lover. Though she waited for so long, he never returned from the great war, and she turned to stone, on a point now known as “Maiden’s peak”. The story leaves a sombre air over the festival. Except for the young men, that is. Now completely infatuated, Brock leads the others to the peak, where “Maiden’s rock” now lies.
In the first half of the episode, we are already given several plot points that are uncommonly creepy for the Pokemon anime. The legend behind this area is unnaturally melancholy, but it begins to border on bizarre when Brock still can’t relinquish his desire for her. We’ll come to know a bit more about these feelings, but swooning over a two-thousand year old statue seems to take his character tropes to the extreme. Another interesting thing that this episode does, and something that is also identifiable in the older Pokemon games, is its inclusion of things that happen in our world. I feel like in its early days, the Pokemon franchise didn’t create consistent law throughout its mediums. There were references to non-Pokemon animals, non-Pokemon locations and non-Pokemon events. In this episode, the inclusion of a “Great war” is very interesting, as once again the series acknowledges a historical event in this world that the viewer is unfamiliar with. Whether it was just an undeveloped plot point or something more purposeful, the idea of war, unless involving Pokemon, is something the series would be more likely to shy away from nowadays. This inconsistency also adds an element of unpredictability. When we watch the anime now, a consistent lore and the world that rests on it mean we know the boundaries of an episode’s story. Particularly in the second half of this episode, these expectations are totally derailed.
Continuing on with the story, when the gang reaches the rock, Brock’s feelings somehow strengthen. To him, her beauty is unparalleled, and he cannot stop staring at her, even in her rock form. Afternoon turns to dusk, and Brock tells the others to go enjoy the festival. Unable to break his gaze, the others agree, on the condition he will return to the lodge before curfew, which he agrees to. As a black cloud drifts past the moon, and the Pokemon centre’s curfew time approaches, Brock has not made it back to their accomodation. Ash attempts to leave the lodge to search for him, but is stopped my Nurse Joy. The episode then cuts to Team Rocket, who are waiting at the nearby shrine in the hopes of stealing the painting they had seen that morning, believing it to be worth a fortune. In contrast to the (natural) darker clouds we saw in the previous scene, a black smog engulfs the moon, accompanied by a large gust of wind. The gust blows the shrine’s doors open, and from it emerges a spirit. Meowth is able to spot the spirit, who resembles the maiden on the rock, but she uses hypnosis to lull him back to slumber. She wakes up James, screaming that she has been waiting so long for him. No one else awakens. Next to the stone, a similar apparition appears in front of Brock, but the scene abruptly ends.
We open to a new day, but both men are nowhere to be seen. While searching for their friends around the shrine, Jesse and Meowth bump into Ash and Misty. Both teams realise they are in similar situations when Jesse begins reciting the Team Rocket theme song, and James, though quietly, joins in. The doors of the shrine blast open, and a dazed James and Brock fall out. When trying to contact them, they’re both unresponsive, and the few utterances they have are about the girl they met the other day. After discovering the men, the old lady reappears, and reveals that their state is due to the ghost of the maiden. She explains that they have been placed under her curse – the spirit of the maiden captures young men in the hopes of finding her lover. When asked how to prevent this possession from happening again, and to lift their curse, the old lady reveals that she sells anti-ghost stickers, which should do the trick. As everyone waits for dusk, they wonder whether these stickers will work.
They quickly realise they don’t, as the maiden’s spirit appears and carries Brock and James out of the shrine. At this stage, James is semi-conscious of his position, whereas Brock is still completely under her spell. It is only when Jesse shoots a bazooka through the maiden where she becomes angered, and responds to this act of defiance with some horrifying imagery. She summons malicious spirits to attack the gang, what look to be headless skeletons. Ash tries to register them on his pokedex, but realises they are not Pokemon. However, when he points it towards the spirit, her identity as a Ghastly is revealed. At this stage it’s interesting to see how in some aspects, Pokemon tries to cover up taboo subjects, but totally ignored others. The use of the bazooka is common in the series as a cartoonish version of a gun. It’s so over exaggerated that it doesn’t hold the same connotations a pistol would in a series. Yet, possession and violent spirits somehow made it through the filter.
Ghastly then reveals he was also the old lady, and had been effectively leading lambs to the slaughter. In what I believe to be the most bizarre scene out of all Pokemon episodes, Ghastly then begins to transform into various things to defeat all the Pokemon thrown at him. He becomes:
- A mousetrap for Pikachu
- A ball of yarn for Meowth
- A mongoose for Ekans
- A gas mask for Koffing
- A flame extinguisher for Charmander
He then transforms into both the evolved forms of Bulbasaur and Squirtle, and then combines them to create Venustoise. In an attempt to defeat Ghastly, Misty brings out a cross, garlic, stake and hammer. While none of these affect Ghastly, he reveals at dawn that he hates sunlight, and as the time approaches, he vows that the old lady will be back at the next festival.
…Wow. So there’s a lot to unpack in this scene. The episode once again brings in elements of genuine horror and inconsistent world building franchise-wise. In the form of the Maiden, Ghastly releases these horrifying skulls, something the gang has no chance of defeating. The characters being subjected to this are as young as ten, an age probably indicative of the demographic, so to have them tormented by these non-Pokemon entities is quite frightening. In regards to the Pokemon itself, Ghastly can talk! This trait is usually reserved for legendary Pokemon or special cases a la Meowth, and so this makes the viewer associate Ghastly with powerful abilities. Further, the things Ghastly turns into are incredibly strange, which once again plays on the horror of unpredictability. He transforms into various real-world items that are associated with real world animals that the Pokemon are based off of. For example, a mousetrap defeats Pikachu the mouse Pokemon, a mongoose defeats Ekans the snake Pokemon, etc. Further, he is somehow able to manifest not only a Venusaur and Blastoise, but then combine them to create a completely new Pokemon. It would be rare to see a legendary Pokemon do so much in one scene, let alone a Ghastly, which is anywhere between level 1 to 25 in the games. It must be acknowledged that this was during the first generation of Pokemon, so there were only 151 to choose from, but still, it seems like a lot of power to give a stage 1 Pokemon.
This disconnects the setting from the games and the anime, as Pokemon are attributed several different properties in-between them. Particularly during this time, it’s interesting to see how ghost type Pokemon were portrayed. Throughout the seasons, they have become more tricksters, creatures that enjoy spooking humans in harmless ways. This downright traumatising experience that Ash and his friends have been put through at maiden’s peak seems a little bit more excessive, though other ghost Pokemon are portrayed doing similar things in this season of Pokemon. What makes it even worse is that the gang can’t even defeat it. The only thing that stops the Pokemon from committing more atrocious acts is the emerging sun. For a TV show that instills in kids that hard-work, passion and friendship are the cornerstones of success, the abrupt departure of Ghastly seems to suggest none of those traits were effective against the Ghost type.
Another interesting point to discuss is the religious iconography Misty uses in an attempt to defeat Ghastly. While the other items can be boiled down to pup-cultural references, potentially a comedic break from such an intense scene, the religious connotations associated with the cross make it an interesting addition to this episode. The power of a cross in a horror context comes from its connection to Christ, which gives it the ability to vanquish demons and other agents of satan. To bring these items into the Pokemon world, and to associate them with a Pokemon seems a bit risky, particularly when the franchise has been consistently accused of condoning satanic rituals throughout the years. Now obviously that is untrue, and these baseless claims should never affect what one wishes to create, but whether a real-world religion should be unconsciously acknowledged in the Pokemon series is debatable.
The ending of this episode is what prompted me to create this piece in the first place. Returning to the festival, the gang see people releasing little boats with lanterns on them into the water. Officer Jenny explains that the candles are used to help light the way for any wandering spirits. Brock, who hasn’t joined the others, has a solitary moment alone, wishing he was with the girl even after the has been lifted. On one of the boats, the Ghastly appears, and begins talking to Maiden’s rock. From within the rock, the actual ghost of the maiden appears, and has a dialogue with the Pokemon. She thanks him for keeping her legend alive, and Ghastly replies that it allows him to make a few bucks anyway, referring to the stickers he sells as the old lady. The Maiden then tells Ghastly she will remain at Maiden’s peak, waiting for the spirit of her lover to return. Ghastly then tells her that, as he is a ghost Pokemon, he can interact with the underworld. He tells her that if he ever sees her lover down there, that he will remind her that his lover is waiting there for him. The episode ends with her thanking Ghastly, and fading back into the crumbling rock on the mountain’s peak.
The ending of this episode also has a lot to discuss in it. While Brock being rejected by girls has become a trope for many episode endings, this one was so sombre. Even after the curse is lifted from him, he still wishes he was with her. Brock’s character is known for making shallow connections with women, usually based off of their looks, and then falling hard for them. When he gets rejected, it’s heartbreaking for him, but by the next episode he’s moved on to someone else. The way in which Brock reacts to this rejection is… much more devastating. It seems as though he’s got an actual connection with this person, which is so strange considering he’s never met her in person, and she’s been dead for two thousand years. The one love story that seems the most comical to the audience also seems to be the one most meaningful.
The actual dialogue between the Maiden and Ghastly is tragic, and give the Pokemon an extra sense of depth. The playful element associated with ghost types is shown in it tricking people into giving him money, but it also characterises Ghastly as a good Pokemon. He’s not just keeping the legend alive as a way to scare those partaking in the festival, it was to help keep the young maiden’s story alive. It gives her hope, and maybe, the spirit of her lover will be able to find his way back to her.
Ghastly also adds an extra element to Ghost-Pokemon through their ability to access the underworld. This concept of the underworld adds another real-life notion to the Pokemon world, something that the series gradually steers away from.
The Ghost of Maiden’s Peak was an excellent episode of the Pokemon anime, and showed viewers how a children’s show can still produce compelling stories. The darker elements in this episode mixed with legends, ghosts, spirits and real life imagery added a layer of unpredictability that made watching this episode so captivating. The boundaries that most of these episodes must succumb to is challenged and then extended, something exploited by future episodes in the earlier seasons. A more flexible Pokemon world led to more references to our world, and with it an added element of realism. It shows that an episode doesn’t necessarily have to have a unique story to captivate viewers, it just needs a unique way of telling it.