So, this may come as a bit of a shock to the Americans in the audience, but Halloween is not really a big deal in New Zealand, and certainly not for young adults; it’s normally just primary school children who get in on it. We also don’t really do jack’o’lanterns, maybe because the whole principle of a jack’o’lantern is based on the fact that pumpkins are in season in autumn and for us October is in spring (then again, we use all the traditional winter imagery for our summer Christmases, so meh). We actually don’t normally use the right sort of pumpkins anyway – ours have thin, grey skin – so, in my formative experiences, the orange ones that you use to make jack’o’lanterns are, like, the cartoon version of what a pumpkin looks like. Of course, now that I actually live in America I just have to deal with it, along with everything else about this silly backwards little country, but it’s okay because seeing great big stacks of these bright orange things piled up all over supermarkets in October is absolutely hilarious to me and none of my friends here understand why.
Yes, this is NECESSARY BACKGROUND to understanding Pumpkaboo and Gourgeist.
Even to me, the cultural link between pumpkins and ghosts or spirits, via Halloween and the jack’o’lantern, is obvious enough. Halloween is basically the Christian holy day All Hallows’ Eve – the last night on earth for the souls of all the people who died during the previous year, who might seize this last chance to cause havoc in the mortal world. Traditionally, All Hallows’ Eve is a time to pray for these wandering souls, and to be especially wary of supernatural disturbances. Like a lot of Christian festivals, elements of the tradition are also built on older pagan festivals at the same time of the year – in particular, the Gaelic harvest festival Samhain (which is not pronounced “Samhain,” because it is Gaelic), another time when spirits and fey supposedly had greater freedom to act in this world. Exactly where jack’o’lanterns come from, whether they have anything to do with Samhain, and how they became part of the Christian tradition is not entirely clear because there are so many different explanations floating around. The term “jack’o’lantern” was once another name for the will-o’-the-wisp, the mysterious floating lights seen by travellers in swampy areas and given a wide variety of mythological interpretations all around the world. They’re commonly thought to be ghosts or spirits, and are often credited with leading travellers astray; probably the most likely scientific explanation for the phenomenon is the spontaneous combustion (or possibly phosphorescence) of gasses given off by decaying organic matter. Hard to say how this eventually translated into the hollowed pumpkins you see at Halloween, though they’re probably something to do with warding off those marauding spirits – or else with leading the way for souls leaving the world on All Hallows’ Eve. The Halloween jack’o’lantern has its own neat little origin story as well, which describes a character called ‘Stingy Jack.’ In life, Jack was a drunken blacksmith whose debauched lifestyle attracted the attention of the Devil himself, who came to claim Jack’s soul. Jack was able to trick the Devil somehow (accounts vary, some kind of bet may have been involved), using a crucifix to trap him, and made a deal to release him in exchange for being spared condemnation to Hell. Unfortunately, Jack’s plethora of sins ensured that he would never be allowed into Heaven either, and so his spirit was doomed to wander the mortal world for eternity, warmed only by a piece of the fires of Hell thrown at him by the Devil, which he keeps in a hollowed out turnip or pumpkin to make sure it doesn’t go out.
So how does all that relate to Pumpkaboo and Gourgeist? Well, surprisingly closely, as it happens. Much like Stingy Jack, Pumpkaboo is said to be a lost soul unable to leave the mortal world – and, although she can’t find her own way, she can lead other spirits to where they belong, like the prayers of worshippers on All Hallows’ Eve and some interpretations of the jack’o’lantern. Their restless wandering on dark nights also recalls the belief that Halloween marks a time of unusual supernatural activity – and, of course, the related modern activity of trick-or-treating. Pumpkaboo has little vampire fangs and a sort of mantle that you could liken to either bat wings or a dark cloak, maybe alluding again to the concept of dressing up as something menacing (common enough in the animal kingdom, after a fashion). Gourgeist mixes it up with the full carved jack’o’lantern face on her belly and… “hairlike arms” that sprout from her head? I’m… not totally sure I get that one; maybe they’re supposed to look like flickering flames or something? Apparently, though, Gourgeist wraps up her prey in these arms and “sings joyfully” as it suffers, presumably from some sort of life-draining attack like Pain Split, or just from the general ethereal chill of her spectral touch. Either way… bit of a sadist, I guess. Her song, we also know, curses anyone who hears it, so being sung a creepily happy song by the Gourgeist who’s sapping your life away is probably not going to make you feel any better (odd that she can’t learn Sing or Perish Song; those seem like they should have been no-brainers). I’m not sure where the singing comes from, although Gourgeist’s French name, Banshitrouye, contains a reference to the banshee, the wailing death spirit of Irish folklore, so maybe she’s one of the influences in there (would also go some way towards explaining the long hair). The final thing that deserves mentioning here is that Pumpkaboo and Gourgeist have a weird little gimmick. Like real pumpkins, they come in many different sizes (this isn’t immediately obvious in the game, although the largest ones do have a much deeper cry)… and, again like real pumpkins, the biggest ones are huge. Has anyone ever looked at the actual size measurements given for these things? The small, average and large sizes for Gourgeist range from 9.5 to 14 kilograms – and then there’s the super size Gourgeist, who is more than twice as heavy at 39 kilograms and is almost as tall as I am (like most Pokémon, she’s ludicrously light for her size, but in Gourgeist’s case that might actually make sense since her body is probably hollow). That’s a hell of a jack’o’lantern! Suddenly I’m not sure I feel safe wandering around Kalos’ route 16 at night…
As long as we’re talking about sizes, I may as well take the opportunity to make a graceful transition into how Gourgeist works mechanically, because her size does impact that: smaller Gourgeist are much faster, but larger ones are tougher and stronger. A super-sized Gourgeist has pretty solid-looking stats for a physical tank, while a small-sized one seems more support-oriented, with her reasonably good speed and passable defences; you can also pick one of the two intermediate sizes if you feel like striking a balance between those extremes. Gourgeist unfortunately lacks the more powerful Grass-type physical moves like Wood Hammer and Power Whip, meaning that Seed Bomb is the way to go; she also doesn’t have a wide selection of coverage moves (…Rock Slide. She has Rock Slide), and there are no strong Ghost-type physical attacks, so in general it’s just very difficult for her to leverage her decent-to-good attack stat. Because her special attack is rubbish and she doesn’t get Shadow Claw, her choices for Ghost attacks are Shadow Sneak and Phantom Force. Even super-Gourgeist doesn’t have the power to do a lot of damage with Shadow Sneak, particularly as you’re likely to be investing the most effort in her defences, although I suppose the priority is nice on such a slow Pokémon. Phantom Force, as I mentioned last time with Trevenant, is really not a good move to be stuck with, but as we’ve already established, Gourgeist really has to scrape the barrel for physical attacks. Besides, thanks to Ghost’s excellent neutral coverage, it’s arguably not as bad as being stuck with, say, Fly or… *shudder* Skull Bash, and you can use it to stall for time with Leech Seed and Will’o’Wisp. I mean… you could also do that with Protect and not be locked into your next move… but whatevs. Those moves – Leech Seed and Will’o’Wisp – are staples for pretty much any size of Gourgeist, in lieu of more concrete offensive options… which brings us to the rather unfortunate point that most of what Gourgeist can do is very similar to what Trevenant can do – good physical defences, Leech Seed and Will’o’Wisp are some of her main selling points, and her abilities aren’t as useful for that role as Trevenant’s, who can get more efficient healing than what Leech Seed and Pain Split can provide (although Gourgeist is admittedly much tougher, physically). Insomnia for sleep immunity: woo. Frisk to snoop on enemies’ item choices: useful information, but not a huge help to Gourgeist herself. Pickup to recycle items used by other Pokémon: kinda useful in doubles with appropriate planning but otherwise just silly. So, what does Gourgeist have that Trevenant doesn’t?
Light Screen for covering her weaker special defence is worth note, particularly in combination with the protection from physical attacks offered by Will’o’Wisp and her naturally tough body. Trick is normally a dangerous choice for tankish or support-oriented Pokémon because Tricking yourself into bagging a Choice item will do you more harm than good and it’s more difficult for you to carry items that will screw up your opponent in the first place – however, I mention it anyway because Gourgeist’s best ability is probably Frisk and knowing in advance what your target’s item is makes Trick a bit more interesting, if nothing else. Explosion kinda stopped being worth it when Black and White cut its damage in half, but it’s there, and the idea of blowing yourself up and taking the enemy with you does have a certain je ne sais quoi. Because Gourgeist is a jack’o’lantern, she has access to a small number of Fire attacks; unfortunately, most of them are special ones, but Flame Charge might be worth consideration on one of the larger, more powerful sizes to compensate for her poor speed, if you’re going to defy all logic and try to build some kind of godawful physical sweeper Gourgeist for some reason. Small Gourgeist is one of the faster Pokémon in the game with the ability to use Destiny Bond, a move which really only makes sense on a fast Pokémon – she’s no Mega Gengar, that’s for sure, but I guess Gourgeist might catch an enemy off guard with a bit of luck. Finally, there’s her fun little signature move, Trick or Treat, which makes more sense than Trevenant’s Forest’s Curse because the type it adds to the target (Ghost) is one that Gourgeist can deal super-effective damage to (though not, it must be said, very well), but is probably still more useful for helping a doubles partner score an unexpected knockout than for anything Gourgeist herself can do with it. Trick or Treat also does bizarre and painful things to physical tanks who like to use Curse, since Curse is just a radically different move when used by a Ghost Pokémon. This is much too specific an application to be useful. However, it is hilarious.
Maybe judging them in comparison to Phantump and Trevenant is uncharitable to Pumpkaboo and Gourgeist – they can’t help but seem like very light, silly designs alongside them, and despite Gourgeist actually having superior stats to Trevenant she has surprisingly little else to recommend her, with their shared Ghost/Grass type combination making the comparison all too obvious (if she had been set up as a special attacker, I think it might have worked much better… ah, well, c’est la vie). The designs are pretty fun though, I guess, and Gourgeist’s creepy songs and grasping hands are disturbing in a very different way to the more obvious bowel-evacuating terror that is Trevenant. I don’t know if I think they’re bad, they’re just… very obviously not as good as the other ones – an unfortunate position for a Pokémon to be in.