I don't remember how I came across the clip. Maybe someone sent it to me. Maybe I had opened it earlier in the day, while looking for something else. It was just... there, in the middle of a sea of other browser tabs. "GHOST CAUGHT IN GTA," the title promised. Of course I watched it.
I was expecting a load of bullshit. But what I saw, I couldn't actually explain.
The clip was captured during a game of GTA Online on the Xbox One by player Owl Milk. In it, you see a person inside a mine shaft wearing night vision goggles. They nervously look up and down, as if something is following them, or is waiting inside:
Ominous music plays, which makes the clip seem like a horror movie. You can even hear the player's heartbeat somehow. The person walks to the end of the mine shaft, takes out a molotov, and throws it. The molotov makes contact with someone, sets them on fire — but you can't see any of the features on this thing. It just looks like a giant mass of fire, a flaming specter:
The man on fire runs toward the player, who then frantically zooms into their scope — presumably to try to shoot the "ghost."
But by the time the player stops freaking out, the fire ghost is gone. The clip ends. You can watch it here in its entirety, if you'd like:
The entire thing seems like something out of those found footage-style horror films, the kind that look like amateur camerawork for effect. After watching it for the first time, I thought to myself that there must be a rational explanation. There are no ghosts in GTA, aside from the easter eggs put there intentionally by Rockstar . So, what was I looking at here?
Googling the video, I found that while it wasn't particularly widespread, a few YouTubers had reuploaded it to their channels. Viewers debated whether or not the video was a hoax. Some opined that it looked fake, but was still creepy. Others still posited that it must have been the result of cheating.
On Reddit, people went back and forth on the particulars of what might flag the video as staged or not:
I was fascinated by all the minutia I found, the evidence put forth — even though yes, some of these hypotheses are off-base (you can, for example, edit video on the Xbox One). It didn't matter. I was already hooked, in the same way that shlock like the old Ghost Adventures TV show could entrance me. Few people watch shows like that thinking they're real (or so I hope) — many of the things shown on Ghost Adventures were ridiculous. And yet! When the characters did things like replay audio or video that OBVIOUSLY had [insert otherworldly force here], I would rewatch the segments over and over, in the hopes of soaking in what they were telling me. "There is obviously no ghost," I'd think. "But then, what is their [insert device here] recording, exactly?"
The realness of what I was watching didn't really matter. The mystery just needed to be creepy enough. It just needed to have enough facts to get me playing along, interested. Those buildings, their histories steeped in murder and the occult, became playgrounds of faith.
[The ridiculous hilarity of Ghost Adventures, which is also fond of night vision]
The difference between Ghost Adventures and GTA mysteries? I can actually start up a game of GTA and explore for myself. And so last night at midnight I found myself with a friend on a special GTA Online server he'd set up that only had molotovs in it. Our mission was to find out whether or not what Redditor DRUMMIINATOR said was true: could you run while on fire?
I went in thinking that, of course, something like that was possible. Why wouldn't it be? And yet, despite that certainty, I got suckered into trying it out anyway. Why not? It might be fun. It gave me an excuse to do something silly with a friend. I could pretend I was one of those GTA Mythbusters or something:
This was the result:
Thanks for tagging along on this silly quest, Zach.
We found that you could in fact run while on fire — just like we were expecting. Smaller things still nagged at me, though. It didn't seem like real players could be on fire for as long as the ghost appeared to be. Hell, aside from the shape, the fire figure didn't really seem human at all — there were no specific features that detailed a face, or clothes, or accessories. Maybe the human-shaped thing in the video wasn't a human at all. More likely, though: I was overthinking it. Regardless, being able to run while covered in flames didn't disprove or prove the existence of any GTA ghosts, did it? And yet there we were, testing this small detail out for like 30 minutes. The original video got me good.
It seems reasonable to assume the "ghost" in the initial clip is not a normal player. The going theory is that the player wearing the night vision goggles likely staged the entire thing with a buddy. GTA cheaters have found a ways to make themselves invisible, to be undetectable by radar. Maybe the "ghost" is actually a different player who was waiting at the end of the mine shaft. I can't prove that's what is happening — I can't even contact Owl Milk, the original uploader of the ghost clip. But that's the most rational explanation of the first clip. Even that theory has holes in it, though. Cheating is allegedly more rampant in last-gen consoles, not on current-gen. Is it really that likely this person is a cheater on the Xbox One?
Truthfully, it doesn't really matter. If the ghost is real — if there's some unexplained phenomena that a player happened to catch on camera — then holy shit. A ghost in the machine! If it's fake, then the fact that someone went through the trouble of putting this all together to try to trick other players is still pretty cool.
This is how GTA myths get started. Like the best unsolved mysteries, they tap into the latent human desire for a world outside of our understanding, despite all evidence to the contrary. The shooting, the cars, the houses, the jobs — none of those built-in GTA features really interest me. But when it comes to this stuff, man, do I want to believe.