The Polybius Conspiracy investigates an urban legend, and creates one.

This Podcast About an Arcade Urban Legend Is Twisty Fun. It’s Also Fake.

This Podcast About an Arcade Urban Legend Is Twisty Fun. It’s Also Fake.

Brow Beat
Slate's Culture Blog
Nov. 10 2017 2:07 PM

The Polybius Conspiracy’s Story of an Arcade Urban Legend Is Twisty Fun. It’s Also Fake.

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Ecstatic truth, or outright deception?

Radiotopia

In October of 1981, a boy named Bobby Feldstein disappeared from his home in the suburbs of Portland, Oregon. As he would tell it later, earlier in the day, he’d been playing a mysterious video game at Coin Kingdom, a dodgy arcade in the city, and as he got deeper into the game, things started to go wrong in his head, consciousness dissolving into percussive static. The feeling lingered and grew as he made his way home—an unavoidable sense that something was off. That’s when they came for him. A group of mysterious figures approached the house. They entered. He tried to scream, but he was paralyzed. Not long after, he blacked out.

When Bobby awoke, he was somewhere deep underground, still unable to move, though his restraints were now physical. A badly mangled boy approached him, freeing him from his bonds. Together, the pair fled through tunnels, and Bobby says he was sure they were being followed. By the time they emerged from the tunnels, the boy had vanished, and Bobby found himself deep in a forest, 60-some miles from Portland. He eventually made his way home and explained what had happened, but no one believed him. Decades later, he leads walking tours of Portland, desperately trying to convince others that something real and horrible happened to him, something that started in the Coin Kingdom arcade.

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Bobby’s story sits at the heart of The Polybius Conspiracy, a compulsively listenable serialized podcast by Jon Frechette and Todd Luoto that premiered in October from Radiotopia’s Showcase. As the series proceeds, the producers try to evaluate his claims, struggling to determine whether there’s any truth to his horrifying narrative. But, as they suggest, they started by investigating another tale: This story, as we hear it, holds that in the early 1980s, mysterious video game cabinets cropped up in Portland’s arcades, cabinets intermittently serviced by mysterious men in black. These were the Polybius machines, and something in them wormed its way into players’ heads, destroying their memories and haunting their nights.

As urban legends go, it’s a good one, but like most urban legends, it dramatically bends the truth. In The Polybius Conspiracy’s first episode, Frechette and Luoto bring on video game historian and Portland native Catherine Despira, who wrote a lengthy article debunking the myth. As Despira’s research suggests, Polybius’ origins probably combine at least two threads: First, there were stories circulating at the time about players having medical crises after diving into certain video games—most notably a title called Tempest. Second, federal investigators really were investigating the arcades of the day, which may explain those reports of men in black.

But if the Polybius myth is just that, what are we to make of Bobby’s story? Listening to him talk, you get the sense that he really believes what he’s saying, whether or not it’s true. His tone—the nasal buzz of the archnerd—spikes whenever someone questions his claims. Sometimes, he rages at Frechette and Luoto, seemingly convinced that they’re trying to undermine his mission. And though they do question him, more evidence keeps accumulating: Someone who might know the boy who saved Bobby appears. A journalist shows up with a mysterious tape. And in the most recent episode, we start to hear evidence that Bobby himself is concealing secrets of his own. Frechette and Luoto make no secret of their doubts, but their very uncertainty pulls them along.

What Frechette and Luoto aren’t telling you, at least not in any of the six episodes that have aired so far, is that Bobby himself isn’t real. There’s no evidence online that Bobby exists, despite the references that at least one character makes to his digital presence. A journalist who shows up in the third episode supposedly worked for the Tualatin Tribune, a newspaper that never existed. And no one at the contemporary Portland arcade Ground Kontrol remembers the Tempest tournament where Bobby supposedly had a breakdown not long ago.

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The evidence is clear enough, and when I wrote to Julie Shapiro, the show’s executive producer, she unambiguously confirmed my suspicions. The Polybius Conspiracy, she told me, “is a hybrid of fact and fiction. The producers investigated the [Polybius] legend (exhaustively) and interviewed real people, but have also woven in a fictional narrative thread, throughout.” You wouldn’t know that, though, if you looked at the way Radiotopia—which also releases well-liked nonfiction podcasts such as 99% Invisible and Criminal—has framed the show. The company isn’t exactly lying: There’s no explicit indication that it’s all factual, but neither do they suggest you’ll be listening to a work of fiction.

Much of the coverage of The Polybius Conspiracy seems to have accepted that it’s basically telling a true story—or at least an honest one. Nicholas Quah’s Vulture review of the series describes it as “a seven-part audio documentary.” Uproxx concludes that Bobby’s story shows us how “personal trauma can become entwined with a story spawned by the darkest implications of a sweeping cultural phenomenon.” Portland Monthly is similarly credulous about Bobby’s existence, manner-of-factly writing, “Feldstein gives for-profit Polybius walking tours around Portland that attempt to authenticate his experience by returning to the former basement of Coin Kingdom.” A few have expressed doubt—one blogger compared it to The Blair Witch Project, for example—but the overwhelming response has been one of cautious acceptance.

It’s easy enough to understand why listeners fell for the hoax. Above all else, the show sounds like the kind of podcast journalism we’ve grown familiar with. More indirectly, some of the fault may also lie with the form of factual programs such as Serial and S-Town, which keep us listening by accumulating new questions every time they solve an old one. There’s nothing wrong with that discursive mode, of course: Good journalism is nothing if not a willingness to keep piling on the questions. Trouble ensues, however, when we begin to fetishize uncertainty itself, swept up by the pleasure of persistent ignorance.

Frechette and Luoto go further, effectively inoculating it against the pretense of artificiality by selectively challenging the truth of certain details. They never insist that we should believe Bobby, only that we should consider his claims. This comes out especially in the ways that they probe elements of his tale, as when they bring a local expert on to challenge his proposal that he may have been abducted through a network of “Shanghai tunnels” beneath Portland. The existence of those tunnels, the expert explains, is itself an urban legend, meaning Bobby must be wrong, whether or not he’s intentionally deceiving the radio crew. In the process, Frechette and Luoto imply that they’re committed to the truth, no matter what their quest for it reveals.

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Where The Polybius Conspiracy itself is concerned, though, no one outside the production seems to have directly asked the most important question. As Shapiro claimed on the phone, neither she nor the show’s producers set out to permanently deceive listeners. “We said from the start that if we’re asked directly we’re not going to lie,” she told me. But why wouldn’t they admit what they were doing from the start? Shapiro says she worried it would “cheapen” the overall effect.

Over email, Luoto went farther, claiming that he and Frechette had been inspired by “Werner Herzog’s docu approach to an ecstatic truth.” The pair originally attempted to make a filmed documentary that, Luoto told me, would have been “an effort to tell a quality story about a killer video game,” suggesting they intended to confine themselves to the facts. Describing The Polybius Conspiracy as a “digital campfire,” he suggested that the series itself is a meditation on the way that fables spread and grow. “Pretty much every urban myth is a hybrid of fact and fiction,” he wrote. “It’s what makes them so engaging and eternal for so many people. A kernel of truth that has likely been fueled by real facts, exaggeration, false memories, misinformation, and a little bit of fun.”

Be that as it may, it’s not clear, at least not yet, what The Polybius Conspiracy wants to say about urban legends. Quah opens his review of the series with a meditation on the “I Want to Believe” poster that hung on Fox Mulder’s office wall in The X-Files. Taking a similar line, one might suggest that this podcast is commenting on our desire for fiction, our longing for a more mysterious world. It sets out, you might argue, to show us that even when we know a story is false, we’re still sometimes willing to believe it anyway.

Except it doesn’t, not quite. Ours is an unstable moment, one marked, as Umberto Eco has put it, by radical “subjectivism” that “has threatened the foundations of modernity … producing a situation with no points of reference, where everything dissolves into a sort of liquidity.” Bobby may be fictional, but he’s still an avatar of sorts for this hypersubjective mode, a mode that, if we follow Eco’s claims, undermines our shared reality.

Far from challenging this dilemma, The Polybius Conspiracy arguably encourages us to embrace it. As Eco writes, hoaxes “promise a knowledge that others don’t have.” They work because they amplify our isolation, increasing our collective fragmentation in an already fragmentary era. Whatever The Polybius Conspiracy’s pleasures, then, it’s hard to escape the feeling that the only real conspiracy here is the one against the audience.