You’ve Met a Bad End: How BEN Drowned’s Return Has Rekindled Horror

Urban legends and horror tales have existed for centuries, and it’s no surprise that, in an increasingly digital age, many contemporary ones are about video games. Terrifying rumors about video games have spread far and wide across the internet, like the famous Lavender Town Syndrome, which details how the Lavender Town theme music in the original Pokemon games drove children to suicide. Almost all of these spooky urban legends are told in first person, as though the events within really happened to their fictional narrators, and most are short enough to read in under half an hour. Many of them, like Lavender Town Syndrome, are also known as “creepypasta”, so called for their tendency to be copy and pasted around the internet.

One of the most famous stories in this genre is BEN Drowned. Also known as “Haunted Majora’s Mask Cartridge”, the creepypasta by creator Alex Hall was originally posted on 4chan’s paranormal board /x/ in 2010. It began with a 4chan user named Jadusable telling his audience about a strange copy of The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask for the Nintendo 64 that he had picked up at a yard sale. Through Jadusable’s posts, it came to light that the cartridge appeared to be otherwise corrupted or haunted by a malevolent entity named BEN. Jadusable would return to 4chan to update them on his investigation into the game every so often, with most if not all of his posts including links to YouTube videos of his Majora’s Mask save file acting in strange and concerning ways.

A Major's Mask Meu screen. It reads "Please select a file: slot 1 your turn slot 2 Ben"

Eventually, Jadusable went missing-presumed-dead, and BEN was implied to have escaped from the game. What had started as a creepypasta now became an alternate reality game (ARG), a puzzle-solving, reader participation driven story in which players interacted with new characters on custom websites, forums, YouTube, and over email in order to influence the narrative. This particular story arc was about the Moon Children, a cult-like religion named after the Moon Children from Majora’s Mask. The Moon Children had been hinted to be important in some of Jadusable’s original videos, and it was discovered that their namesake cult had a hand in the death of the original Ben, a child who had owned the Majora’s Mask cartridge that was sold to Jadusable years later. Despite having no gameplay footage, the Moon Children arc made heavy use of two mechanics from the Zelda games: the players could upload videos of Link playing songs on his ocarina to influence the plot, and the events of the story eventually began to loop back in on themselves, mirroring the three-day time loop present in Majora’s Mask. This arc ended inconclusively, with several character deaths and/or disappearances, and Alex Hall breaking character in 2011 and 2012 to place the project on hiatus.

Most people (including me) assumed this was the end of BEN Drowned. The entire community was shocked to see it make a return in March 2020, with hours of new ARG content being released in the seven months between then and now. Despite the eight year hiatus, BEN Drowned’s highly interactive plot is still being watched, solved, and theorized about by thousands of fans, and Alex Hall is (as of this writing) making nearly $2,000 a month on the BEN Drowned Patreon page. So what makes BEN Drowned so compelling, even though it started as just another video game horror story a la Lavender Town Syndrome? Why are people so much more invested in a story that started on 4chan, in a relatively standard creepypasta about a haunted copy of Majora’s Mask?

As a horror writer, and as someone who’s followed BEN Drowned closely since it began, I have one overarching theory on what makes it such an effective horror story: the use of Majora’s Mask as a platform for its narrative. In her Fanbyte article revisiting BEN Drowned in 2020, Kara Dennison calls the Majora’s Mask footage on the Jadusable YouTube channel “nightmare territory”, noting that the in-game events depicted are even scarier because “it wouldn’t take a huge leap of logic to imagine [them] happening” in a real Majora’s Mask save file. I tend to agree — I think Majora’s Mask already leans so far into horror compared to the other Zelda games that it is the perfect medium to use as the groundwork for a new horror story. I never experienced the game when I was young enough to be truly scared of it, but there are a lot of elements of it that are clearly designed to unsettle: the sneering moon, Link’s screams whenever he puts on a mask, the blank-faced Elegy of Emptiness statue. Rather than adding jarring horror elements like photorealistic gore or jumpscares that clash with the game, Alex Hall manages to re-inject that sense of childhood terror into Majora’s Mask, even for people who know it inside and out.

A screenshot from the BEN.wmv video where the Happy Mask Salesman's head follows the player controlled Link wherever he moves.

All of the Majora’s Mask videos on the Jadusable channel are made by Alex Hall in an emulated version of Majora’s Mask, giving him the ability to tweak and change things in the game to fit the narrative he’s building. In the original videos posted to /x/ in 2010, these changes are immensely unsettling. The Elegy of Emptiness features prominently in the early Jadusable videos as an avatar of BEN, following Jadusable around as a silent antagonist and a sign that he should not be digging any deeper into the game. All of Jadusable’s attempts to play Majora’s Mask properly are spurned. Music plays backwards, dialogue boxes pop up at random, and Jadusable is forced into encounters where NPCs can glitch the game and kill him. Link’s body often remains on screen just slightly too long after being killed, and every death is met with the Game Over screen in which the Happy Mask Salesman laughs and asks “You’ve met with a terrible fate, haven’t you?”

Perhaps most jarringly is what happens when Jadusable finally attempts to play the Song of Healing, a musical motif he has heard a warped version of elsewhere in the game. In Majora’s Mask proper, the Song of Healing is a famous piece of music for Link’s ocarina that soothes tormented NPCs and allows their spirits to rest. Naturally, one might assume it would have a positive influence on a possessed save file — which is, of course, where BEN Drowned is determined to prove you wrong. Upon playing the song, not only does the game scream at Jadusable, but Link bursts into flame and slowly dies, effectively delivering the message that this game is not a safe place. Plenty of people have the irrational fear that their digital media is not going to act as expected — that an actor might turn and start talking directly to you, or a podcast might suddenly start screaming, or the game you’re playing might generate a monster to kill you in a place that should be safe. BEN Drowned not only exploits that fear, it makes a three-course meal out of it.

A screenshot from the BEN.wmv video where Link has burst into flame in front of the Happy Mask Salesman after playing the Song of Healing

The current arc of BEN Drowned is no different. Through the Jadusable YouTube channel, the players have been introduced to a faceless protagonist named Sarah, who is trapped in a hotel room and can be guided around through Patreon polls that influence her actions. When Sarah was introduced, the Majora’s Mask cartridge of the original creepypasta (or a copy of it) appeared in her room as well, and players voted for Sarah to begin her own save file. The game that Sarah begins to play is soon revealed to be fundamentally broken in a way far beyond how players of the original BEN Drowned would expect it to be.

One of the first things revealed during Sarah’s playthrough is that the cartridge she has is now home to the Moon Children cult from the original ARG, who have “ascended” into the game and now inhabit NPCs in its virtual environment. The game is also presided over by a malevolent entity called The Father, who warps the game past its breaking point to try and block Sarah from making progress. This version of Majora’s Mask still spits in the face of people who think they’re familiar with what horrors the game might reveal, but it also builds upon the structure of the original BEN Drowned to provide bigger and more intricate scares. Instead of Jadusable’s insta-kill NPC encounters, the game throws real boss fights in Sarah’s way, many of them harder than she is equipped to handle. NPCs who were previously assumed to be important to the game, such as the Happy Mask Salesman, turn up floating face-down in water, dead. Disembodied footsteps follow Sarah around the map, implied to be the long-dead Jadusable stalking her. All of these scares have a very deliberate intentionality to them that provide obstacles to Sarah’s progress, rather than the occasionally random-seeming glitches of the original Jadusable videos.

Screenshot from the Moon Children.wmv where Link is facing the Town Square on the first day of the Loop again but his time all the NPCs are zombie ReDead

I haven’t logged many hours in Zelda games overall, but one thing I know for sure about them is how many people I’ve heard express fear and unease towards the ReDead, a species of undead monsters Link often fights. The ReDead in Majora’s Mask are only found in one area of the map, an area referenced only once in the very early installments of BEN Drowned, and framed as somewhere to steer clear of. This foreknowledge of the game and subtle setup provide the groundwork for what is, to me, one of the most effective scares in Sarah’s playthrough of the haunted cartridge. In The Moon Children.wmv, Sarah is forced to reload the game after a crash and return to South Clock Town, an area of the map that has so far served as a sort of “home base” for her investigation. Clock Town is familiar to the viewer by now, as are the friendly NPCs roaming about. But this time, when the game loads, every single NPC is replaced with a shambling ReDead. Not only is it jarring, but it re-establishes exactly how quickly the architecture of the game can become hostile to Sarah, and reinforces the surreal horror of the haunted cartridge.

A similarly effective scare is in The Predecessor.wmv, in which some of the hostile Moon Children trap Sarah within a never-ending underwater boss battle, breaking the game by taking away the materials she would need to win. There’s a sort of creeping dread that comes with watching Sarah try the same actions over and over again, knowing as an observer that it’s utterly futile. The concept of a boss battle that never ends, especially underwater, is easily a nightmare that many people (including me) might have about a game they’ve been playing too often. It doesn’t make you scream the way a jumpscare might — instead it delivers a pervasive sense of wrongness that sticks in your mind long after you’ve finished watching, leaving you wondering if there’s any hope for Sarah to escape at all.

BEN Drowned’s finale is scheduled to premiere this Halloween, and I’m excited not only to see how Alex Hall chooses to wrap up the story, but how he uses Majora’s Mask as the medium to deliver a spooky and satisfying conclusion. There’s something special about an ARG that exists not only in dialogue with its players, but with the content of a completely separate game that comes with its own preconceptions and nostalgia. In a digital age that can often feel inundated with memes and creepypasta about haunted video games, BEN Drowned has risen to the top and become something truly unique.

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