Ghosts in the Playstation: The Unsettling Sounds of “Fearful Harmony” and “Personified Fear”
In the age of rapidly emerging technology, there have been a ton of strange noises and jingles signifying machine startup, shut down, and errors. These strange fragments of noise tend to cause irrational fear in people. For me, it is the Windows 95 startup noise (some of Brian Eno’s best work.) For others it might be old Mac crash noises.
These sounds exist in gaming as well. The original Xbox had faint mechanical sounds hidden in the console dashboard, sounding almost alien — turns out some of the sounds were conversations from Apollo missions. There’s the PS2’s Red Screen of Death, which would appear if you inserted a disc the PS2 couldn’t read. The BIOS of the console already had ambient atmospheric music and noise, but the dreaded red screen had a very negative atmosphere, driven home by the red clouds, descending music and distant wave noises. Sega CD games had an audio track embedded into it that would play if the user inserted the disk into a CD player. It consists of a stern sounding woman with an urgent warning and dissonant distorted guitar chords echoing in the background. Definitely not a very nice warning.
But the main focus of this will be on the original Playstation. The Playstation (also known as the PS1 or PSX) was released in North America just a month after I was born. One of the first PS1 games handed down to me was Silent Hill, when I was just seven years old. I played it with my sister and her then-boyfriend, though I also played it alone. I ended up throwing the game out a year later because I thought it was possessed. I still can’t play the original Silent Hill without getting a stress-induced stomach ache.
Because of my first main experience of PS1 games being a terrifying one, the PS1 startup noise became associated with the fear of what I was about to experience. It starts off fine, a bass synth tone and some twinkling notes on a white background with an orangey yellow logo. But the second half would send me shivering. An ominous tone rips as the Playstation logo appears in a black void. Some more twinkling and ascending slightly distorted bell tones. It is only about 8 seconds long, but my god, would it freak me out. Even when I was playing relatively tame games like Spyro or Superstar Dance Club (an old favorite of mine), I dreaded the startup.
The PS1 startup noise is generally regarded as “nice and relaxing” to “pretty creepy”. But people exploiting corruptions and glitches in the console’s BIOS lead to the discovery of two glitchy jingles, lovingly named “Fearful Harmony” and “Personified Fear.” At the time of writing this article, it is unclear when exactly these glitches were found and who named them. The two oldest instances I have found are two videos from 2010, about seven years ago, both by Youtube user aocodes. Presently, there’s a good amount of videos showcasing both glitches, on emulators and on physical PS1 consoles.
The results tend to be the same in every video, at least the audio is the same, as the visuals either disappear on a gray screen or freak out into multicolored patterns. There is excitement when people recreate these glitches, and they often share how they did it or share files for people to open up and emulate for themselves.
Personified Fear is the less popular of the two glitched jingles, mainly because it is so short (just a couple seconds) and the glitched/altered audio is much more subtle. It occurs when a dirty or damaged disk is put into the system. This leads to an altered version of the second half of the PS1 startup noise, when the screen turns black and the Playstation logo appears.
The synthesized whooshing noise is longer and a bit louder, with some noticeable distortion. It is also more reverberated, with the sound lingering a bit longer than usual. The bells that follow seem to play the same ascending tune, just a couple notes higher than the usual jingle. As mentioned earlier, it is very subtle but definitely a bit spooky if not expected. It is joined by a completely blank screen, sometimes black, sometimes gray. Because of this strange and unexpected noise paired with the darkness, people expect something to jump out and scare them. Luckily, it’s just a glitch and the console becomes softlocked.
Because of the subtle nature of Personified Fear, it is less jarring and more ominous. Because of the very slight change, it give the impression of something being slightly off, but you don’t know what.
Fearful Harmony generally starts normal enough, as the initial orange diamond shows up with no issues and the normal jingle playing. The second half of the startup is when you notice something is not right. The audio is unaffected, but the black screen is marred with visual glitches. Sometimes the text becomes distorted and discolored, or colorful shapes appear on screen.
Anyone playing on a machine doing this would probably just restart the console or turn it off. But Fearful Harmony appears only to those who wait patiently. After about 20 to 50 seconds, the harmony starts to play. It begins as a repeating sample of bells, playing various notes. Very quickly, a pitched up version of the sample plays over the original. This repeats six times, each sample getting higher and quicker, creating a sense of urgency. It ends with three final notes, reverberating through the void.
It is apparent why this audio glitch is the more popular one; it is longer, much more melodic and creates a fearful atmosphere, as the name suggests. It is also paired with more obvious visual glitches as well, really driving home the feeling that something is not right. Fearful Harmony is also harder to access. The process involves modifying the PS1 to force the console to boot up CDs that are not PS1 games, forcing a boot up that is never supposed to happen. The result is haunting and strange, noises made only slightly resembling the usual startup noises, noises not supposed to be heard.
Why do people seek out these things that scare us? Why do these sounds scare us at all?
These audio glitches stem from something that sounds familiar to many people. Of course, there is also the factor of nostalgia, as so many people played PS1 games as a child (like myself.) The mixture of the familiar and nostalgic sets the stage for the glitches, the errors telling us that something is wrong. And as a kid, the world can be huge and weird, frightening and out of your control. These startup noises were always scary in a way that can’t be explained, but watching something that’s scary in a familiar way transform before your eyes brings up a new fear. It is like watching a childhood memory melt and bend in ways you never thought it could.
But beyond being scared, these glitches also bring up fascination. To discover these strange hidden noises is like summoning lost voices in the machine. They are new and odd, coming from a machine that as a child, you had less agency of. But now people are installing modification chips into the hardware, swapping out discs or lines of code, and even downloading emulators of the console BIOS just to bend and manipulate the startup of the familiar console. These errors that we dreaded facing, now we are in control of them and we can make them occur at will. It’s always exciting to find secrets hiding in something you already love.