Gastly! I can’t quite get a handle on this thing’s look – the oversized eyes and toothy grin give it the expression of a child that’s playing at being spooky, but the creases around its eyes give it an old, “baba yaga” feel. The fact that he’s hard to place kind of works in its favor as a decidedly paranormal Pokémon, though. The series could’ve gone with something closer to a bedsheet-ghost in the first batch, but a face peering out of a living fog instead is much more unique and eerier, if a bit of a tenuous reason to make the only ghosts in the game at the time also Poison-type. Good start for the Ghost-type.
Haunter is probably my personal favorite in this line. That fog has manifested a decapitated, phantasmal head now, maintaining a sheen but looking like something that would fly at you and chomp your head off with his creepy, jack-o-lantern gob. Plus, the disembodied hands are a fantastic horror element that makes perfect sense to incorporate into a ghost with a semi-arbitrary shape. Pulling it all together, I love that the Gameboy (Color) games’ sprite art predominantly used black to portray him rather than purple, making him look like the outline of a creature that was literally emerging from the shadows to attack you, especially when he used Night Shade to turn the screen behind him a matching black. Top specter, this chap.
Gengar was the evolved Ghost-type Pokémon for the series’ first five-ish years, and he naturally fell into a lot of people’s favorites list for that reason. There’s a lot to like here, too, especially that nasty Chechire-cat grin. He always felt like an odd choice to me personally, though – the stubby limbs and round body make him look like something of a Looney Tune to me, whereas Haunter felt like he was building up so something sharper and more aggressive, though I’ll grant that the line slowly manifesting from gas into a solid creature is a great progression between the three. There’s nothing inherently wrong with Gengar’s design, and I like it in a vacuum, it just feels weird to me when sleek middle-stage Pokémon evolve into balloons, even ones as delightfully simple and appealing as this gremlin.
That said, Gengar is nothing short of fantastic. It can’t be effected by Fighting moves or the common Normal type, and with the right passive ability it’s immune to its natural Ground weakness – plus it has same-type super-effective moves against two of its remaining three weaknesses. That’s before getting to its crazy-good attack and speed stats, crazy-wide pool of attack and status-afflicting options… Gengar is just flat-out strong and versatile, two very coveted traits on both competitive and casual teams.
It’s also super-visible in the advertising, possibly because it’s simultaneously menacing and a much simpler design than intimidating monsters like Charizard, in addition to being the only Ghost-type for a while. Gengar seems right up there with Meowth, Psyduck, and Poliwhirl in the core rotation of designs that were used heavily to promote the series early on, and he’s kind of stuck around as one of its more popular faces, even being playable in the Tekken-like spinoff.
Rather than continuing with one specific basis all the way though, Game Freak chose to go with a different folklore ghost from a different country for each species in this line – Ghastly being a decapitated, flaming monk’s head form Japan, Haunter being supposedly based on a Filipino spirit who walks through walls and licks her victims (though I can’t find a source on that), and Gengar being loosely based on the paranormal interpretation of a doppelgänger.
Most of the series’ ghosts aren’t properly ghosts at all, though – they seem to just be inexplicable and get their behavior characterized as creepy because of it, which neatly makes them fit the idea of ghosts without throwing too much of a wrench into the worldbuilding.
To wit, Gastly and Haunter are notably both billed as being about 100g – a little under half the weight of an apple – which combined with them being four and five feet high suggests that the two are properly made out of some sort of sentient, lightweight gas. That’s a pretty clear stake in the ground that we can stop having to apply any sort of logic to their biology and that these creatures can be as fantastical as they want. But hey – so long as the Pokédex entries keep making hyberbolic claims about these things, so will I, since that’s the closest thing we have to canon text on how these things exist in the world.
The living-gas angle (backed up by the games’ claim that Gastly is 95% gas, and 5% the souls of its victims according to the superstitious) has a ton of delightful implications, first and foremost being that its favorite mode of attack is to simply envelop its prey’s body with its own and suffocate them until they pass out. It’s pretty macabre, especially considering that Ghastly also enjoys putting its foes to sleep (implying that it would gladly to this to you in the middle of the night), which is probably the species is never portrayed as doing so on-screen.
Being purely gaseous also means that it’s formless (its earliest in-game art didn’t even have the orb-head) and will dissipate in so much as a stiff breeze. This gives it a sleek in-universe reason for inhabiting (“haunting”) abandoned houses: it has to, for its own protection. It doesn’t make biological sense, but rather gives an ecological reason for them follow stereotypical ghost behavior, which is much more interesting and one of those things that makes the Pokémon world feel like a proper setting.
Coming off of that, Haunter is just as unsettling, being able to induce paralysis and sap your very life force out by licking you, which is just a silly enough image that it’s become the creature’s main, gross shtick. It’s also presumably what is meant by a ghost’s curse in this context – it’s not a spiritual affliction, but rather some horrible, slow poison applied by the creature’s tongue.
Gengar is the weirdest of the bunch to try and nail down. He has a physical form, and so can now go out and about stalking other people and Pokémon, hiding in their shadows and ambushing them in the dead of night, giving a physical form to that “you’re being watched” feeling. All three of these critters are characterized between “mischievous” and “predatory” depending on the writer; Gengar is just the one one who has an ability to act on it.
Speaking of, aside from its penchant to pretend to be the literal shadow of its prey as a fun/not-so-fun prank, Gengar’s name being a corruption of “doppelganger” has always felt to a large chunk of the fanbase like a relic. The running theory seems to be that Gengar was originally conceived as a dark, corrupted mirror of Clefairy back when it was originally positioned as the series’ mascot character. Going by the designs of the two, the theory definitely holds water:
…but it’s one of those things that we just don’t have official word on. Still, it makes for a fantastic little urban legend, which coincidentally is a meta-narrative that fits in quite well with ghost themes.
I’ll be honest, Gengar is the main reason I started looking at other languages’ names for the Pokémon, purely because his French name is Ectoplasma and that’s the single raddest name I’ve ever heard for a ghost-creature.
Gastly, Haunter, and Gengar have been the ghost-type Pokémon for ages, and they hold up great. They’re cool and creative and iconic, and it’d be foolish not to keep them on the roster. A Must-Have.
Any and all appreciation for Gastly, Haunter, and Gengar is welcome in the comments!