Teeny Haunts: Polybius

The myth of the cursed arcade game called Pollybius is legendary, but its history is a convoluted one. As a kid who grew up during the heyday of video arcades, I can attest to their allure. I recalled getting $20 from my mom to amuse myself for the afternoon. I ended up blowing it all on Space Ace. My mother wasn’t too thrilled to see me back at the office a hour later asking for more money.

Tempest was one of my favorites, and a contemporary game to the mythical Polybius machine. I admit, I had never heard of this legend until stumbling upon it at the Encyclopedia of the Impossible (run by the wonderfully creepy Lucia Peters). I do know, that if I had discovered such a machine in my local arcade haunt (Yellow Brick Road), I would have put a quarter on the screen to mark my place in line.

The story for Polubius involved some shadowy government agency setting up video games to experiment with mind-altering techniques on us poor arcade kids. This not too far fetched as the CIA ran a program called MK-Ultra to research mind control and to develop psychic powers. An excellent example of this is the movie Dreamscape with Dennis Quaid, where the government creates dream assassins.

Dreamscape, 1984

Another example is the much underrated The Fury by Brian DePalma involving the power of telekinesis.

The Fury with Amy Irving, 1978

From there, it’s just a hop skip and a jump to Stranger Things and the experimentation on Eleven.

Millie Bobby Brown as Eleven in Stranger Things, 2016

Of course the Polybius experiment never seemed that successful. Players would say they heard a woman crying or see twisted faces in the corner of their vision. Nightmares, blackouts and insomnia also plagued those who dropped a quarter in the slot.

The name Polybius refers to a Greek philosopher (circa 208 BC) known for his affinity with puzzles and cryptography. His name means “many lives” possibly a reference to the three lives you get on a typical arcade game. The company that developed the machine was Sinneslöschen, broken German for “sense-deleting”. After four weeks, the game would vanish, the experiment over.

The legend of the cursed Polybius game really took off in the 2000s with listings on internet chat boards like Reddit. You can read the whole sordid history over at the Encyclopedia of the Impossible. Suffice it to say, there is ample evidence that this legend might have been manufactured after the fact. No testimony from the 1980s has emerged about the mind-altering machine.

However, if Polybius really did twist your thoughts, maybe those who experienced the game are not allowed to remember. Could the arcade unit resurface one day, in a swap meet or antique show? Who knows? But i you discover it, be warned. When you slide that quarter into the slot, it just might be the last thing you remember.

Stay creepy,

Tim Kane

How Facebook Protects Us From the Common Cold

This is how my mind works. I see a bit of science and then my brain starts making connections, not all of them logical, mind you. (I am a writer of fiction). What comes out the other end is a pseudo-rational idea that can create a wonderful seed for a novel, or just a conversation piece.

Jawgrind-Episode-16

The Ceti eel was a burrowing desert animal native to the planet Ceti Alpha V (from the Wrath of Khan Star Trek movie).

I recently watched a TED talk by British science writer Ed Young (you can watch it here). In it, he postulated that parasitic behavior is very common and it causes larger organisms to change their behavior. One example that grabbed my attention was a tapeworm that infects tiny shrimp (commonly called sea monkeys). The parasite changes the pigmentation of the shrimp, coloring them red. It also causes them to group together. All of this makes them easier to eat by a flamingo. It just so happens that the flamingo is the exact place the tapeworm needs to be to reproduce.

The fact that such a small organism like a tapeworm can orchestrate such a devious plan for reproduction is mind boggling. What’s more intriguing is that is happens in mammals too.

Mr. Young mentioned a single cell parasite called Toxo (Toxoplasma gondii) that infects mice and releases dopamine into their brains. Bascially, the parasite rewards the mouse for running toward a cat, rather than away. The cat gets a meal and the Toxo parasite gets a host where it can reproduce.

Mr. Young emphasized that this is a single cell organism. No brain. No long term planning. Yet it can force a mammal to do it’s bidding in much the same way we control our cars or smartphones.

Mr. Young also states that nearly 1 in 3 people have Toxo lurking inside our brains (dormant, mind you, because we’re not a cat). Yet there is speculation (and tiny bits of evidence) that Toxo affects human behavior. People with Toxo score differently on tests. There’s a slightly higher chance of accidents with Toxo infected people. Also there’s a link between schizophrenia and Toxo infestation (a small one, mind you). But that’s enough to get you thinking, isn’t it?

What if there were some sorts of parasites, as yet undetected, that do control our behavior? Think of the common cold. It only thrives because we humans like to socialize in groups. This makes it easier for the cold to propagate. If we lived isolated lives, the cold would hardly be an illness.

Now the cold isn’t a parasite. Yet it makes me wonder if there were biological forces controlling us. If so, social media sites, like Facebook, would be the panacea. They allow us humans to socialize without physical contact. Imagine if the whole world operated this way—with the only socialization through the internet. Besides the frightening and dystopian overtones, it would have the effect of almost eliminating most diseases. Without new hosts to spread to, many would die off.

Yet humans are capable to creating new parasitic threats. Simple advertising is a “crude and blundering” attempt to control our brains (according to Mr. Young). Facebook itself has apps, like Farmville, that take over your brain and not only compel you to play, but to reach out to others and lure them in. How is this different from a parasite?

Superman3_Vera

Vera is pulled into the computer and forcibly transformed into a cyborg (from Superman III)

Again, I’m taking huge leaps of logic. The result isn’t intended to hold up to scientific scrutiny. Rather I want to give you something to think about. Maybe the next time you open up that addicting app, you might think: Am I controlling the app, or is the app controlling me?

Tim Kane