Phantom Train and Doomtrain: Spooky Trains on Separate Tracks.
There are two minor recurring ghost train characters in the Final Fantasy franchise: Phantom Train (first appearing in Final Fantasy VI), and Doomtrain (first appearing in Final Fantasy VIII). The two trains may share the same general concept of eerie, supernatural sentience, and the Doomtrain may have been inspired partly by its predecessor, but they remain separate in that they do not share the same designs, and play very different roles. Phantom Train is usually a boss, whereas Doomtrain is a summon.
(Final Fantasy’s two haunted trains: Phantom Train, left, and Doomtrain, right.)
The Phantom Train: The Charon Carriage.
In the world of FFVI the Phantom Train serves as a transport vessel for departed souls. Leaving from the predictably named Phantom Forest, the train carries the dead to the afterlife, stopping at various platforms to enable the recently deceased to board. The carriages are mostly idealised, posh, first-class carriages in the style of a lavish train from the 19th and early-mid 20th Century. In the mythology (or the in-game reality) of FFVI, this train service acts as a steampunk psychopomp (soul escort) along the lines of mythological soul guides such as Hermes, Charon, Anubis, and, sometimes, Odin.
Instead of Charon ferrying the dead across the river Styx, we have for the industrial and steampunk themed world of FFVI the very appropriate use of a haunted, sentient train to fill the same role.
(Charon the ferryman depicted on an ancient white-ground lekythos or funeral vessel, attributed to the Sabouroff painter, c. 440 BC, now held in Altes Museum in Berlin).
The Phantom Train is not simply mythology in the FFVI world, but it is grounded in reality and plays a direct role in the plot. The player’s party (Sabin, Cyan, and Shadow) encounter and board the train before realising that it is the Phantom Train. The train starts moving and they are trapped on a train they find to be full of ghosts. Some ghosts are malicious and attack the party, others are friendly and sell items, or even join the party. One rather sweet and humorous scene sees a ghost waiter serve Sabin dinner, while Cyan is distrustful of how safe food served by a ghost could be.
(Artwork of the ghosts by Yoshitaka Amano).
The Phantom Train has had cameo appearances in more recent FF titles, and has been retroactively inserted into remastered versions of older titles. It appears as a boss in the Dawn of Souls and 20th Anniversary remakes of FFI and the FFIV sequel FFIV: The After Years. Other games mention this train, in FFXIV Y’shtola sneaks into the Imperial Stronghold on a train named for the Phantom Train, and in Final Fantasy Tactics a description of the Phantom Train can be unlocked (alongside other memorable FF locations). The interior of the Phantom Train even makes its way into Dissidia 012 Duodecim as an arena.
Doomtrain: Train to Transylvania!
In FFVIII, a rather different (but similar) sentient train is an optional summon (or Guardian Force / GF). When summoned, Doomtrain’s signature attack ‘Runaway Train’ inflicts poison elemental damage, and can also inflict other status ailments on the enemy such as Sleep, Silence, Slow, Beserk, Confuse, Doom, and Petrification. As an undead locomotive, this attack is very appropriate, sharing comparable effects with other undead summons and monsters such as Hades (FFVII).
In appearance it is very different to FFVI’s Phantom Train. Following flame-lit tracks, Doomtrain (with a skull-face on the front of the engine, bones and ribcages making up the body and carriages of the train, and bits of flesh mixed together with iron and steam) has an appropriately nightmarish visage, resembling a hellish evil twin of Thomas the Tank Engine. The headlight is reminiscent of mining helmets, so by association emphasising suggestions of tunneling out of an underground chasm (or Hell itself).
Doomtrain is the (very catchy) English form of the haunted train GF, but not the original or ‘true’ name universally. The English character limit in FFVIII did not allow for alternative names (the name Death Express is attached to the character in a debug menu). The demonic attributes of the character are even more apparent in the Japanese form of his name, where he is referred to as Gurasha Raborasu (transliterated Japanese for Glasya-Labolas).
In demonology Glasya-Labolas is considered to be a President or Earl of Hell, commanding 36 legions of spirits (see, among others, Johann Weyer’s 1583 Pseudomonarchia Daemonum, and The Lesser Key of Solomon, an anonymous work attributed to King Solomon from the mid-17th Century). This demonic creature is usually described and depicted as a winged dog, and his metamorphosis into a train for the FFVIII universe is rather unusual.
(A drawing by Louis Le Breton of Glasya-Labolas, also known as Caacrinolaas,
from the 1863 edition of the Dictionnaire Infernal by Jacques Collin de Plancy.)
Doomtrain is not the Final Fantasy universe’s first or last incarnation of the demon known as Glasya-Labolas. Instead, enemies and bosses also go by this name, and typically fall under the ‘giant’ category of monsters. First appearing in FFIII, Glasya-Labolas has made appearances as a gigantean humanoid in FFII (retroactively, in remakes), FFVI and FFXIV since. These appearances also ignore the winged dog-griffin aspects of the character from archaic grimoires, but they do look like regular demonic beings.
(Some incarnations of Glasya-Labolas: On the left, from FFVI; on the right, from FFXIV).
The mentioning of Solomon is important here in the context of the seal of Solomon in medieval Jewish tradition, but there was also a transference into Islam as well as into modern occultism (where, as one can expect, the concept has been heavily embellished). The seal, usually shaped as a pentagram or hexagram, was in the form of a ring worn by King Solomon the Wise and provided him the power to trap and command demons. In some versions of the accounts the ring had the name of God written on it and was given to King Solomon directly from Heaven, thus enforcing its importance and power.
All change! All change: Departing in a new direction.
So why did Squaresoft depart from the already established man-monster appearance of Glasya-Labolas and opt for a freaky train in FFVIII? Trains play important roles in the Final Fantasy game universes where the inhabitants of the planet have the technological sophistication to allow for their construction. Our first glimpse of Cloud in FFVII is him leaping off a train on his mission to destroy a Mako Reactor, and FFXIII takes inspiration from this for its own opening scene. In FFVIII trains are both practical (an option for travel on the world map), and relevant to the plot (a SeeD mission, and various character-building conversations, happen on trains). FFVIII’s particular interest in trains might well make the appearance of a Doomtrain summon all the more appropriate within that particular universe.
Glasya-Labolas’ attributes and powers in demonology are over such things as manslaughter, love, invisibility, and the knowledge of all things past and future. ‘Doom’ can fit neatly into the latter aspect of our demon’s associations, but this is not the only possible connection. The Glasya-Labolas dog-demon also knows all sciences. Railroads and locomotive engines are amongst the most celebrated products of science from the 19th Century. We could possibly imagine the FFVIII universe counterpart of Glasya-Labolas as a demon of science, and its representation as a train carries this attribute with ease.
Enlightened Engines: Sentient trains in popular culture.
Evil or malicious sentient trains are also seen in characters such as Stephen King’s Blaine the Mono (an insane and suicidal sentient monorail) in the Dark Tower series.
(Illustration of Blaine the Mono by Andrew Ferez)
Public Houses and Public Transport: Ghost train stories.
Beliefs in ghostly transport vehicles are very old, with stories of haunted horse and carriages and ships predating those of ghost trains. The idea of a ghost train has particularly captured popular imagination perhaps because of the fact that Victorian steampunk aesthetics tend to go hand in hand with mortality and death obsessions, although sightings have extended to modern models of trains too. The thought of a track-bound vehicle, moving at high speeds and unable to swerve to avoid human obstructions, reinforces the terror of imagining a ghost train being encountered on a bridge or in a tunnel, or some other narrow space; an inescapable doom is envisioned.
This was the sort of terror which Charles Dickens tapped into when he wrote his short ghost story The Signalman (1866).
There are myriads of local ghost stories regarding trains circulating in different areas, by now mostly second hand stories told in pubs and cited in books without credit and heavily embellished, but based on reported sightings. ‘Real’ ghost train reports often share very similar descriptions: lights moving on tracks, loud noises, and a gush of wind. Most reports after some time are shown to have natural or human explanations, or are the result of unusual (but explainable) phenomena.
A reported ghost train on the Talyllyn railway may be explained as a prankster joyriding a trolley on the tracks at night. In a famous case, reported ghost lights at St. Louis (Saskatchewan, Canada), which were taken to be either a headless signalman looking for his head, or a ghost train, have perhaps been shown by students to be the result of the diffraction of distant lights, and they successfully replicated the phenomenon in 2001-2002.
Rarely do stories include witnessing the vivid image of a train itself, but there are exceptions. Kyle of Lochalsh in the Scottish Highlands possesses circulating reports of a demonic black train which spits out flames at night.
There is even a story of a phantom train following the route that the grand funeral train of Abraham Lincoln took from Washington D.C. to Springfield. This is perhaps part of a much wider trend of reporting ghosts of Abe Lincoln (in context, perhaps because his historical value as a president has few rivals, and because he was assassinated and can be imagined as having scores to settle).
(A photograph of Abraham Lincoln's funeral train.)
Both Final Fantasy ghost train characters are combining two popular uses of trains in popular culture and folklore: the idea of train sentience, and the idea of a destroyed train returning as a ghost.
Phantom train is an interesting interpretation of the mythological persona of the psychopomp (soul escorter), carrying the dead and being undead itself. Doomtrain is a creative reinterpretation of a demon already established in the FF universe, summoned into the earthly dimension of FFVIII though the dispensing of collected items, and controlled and commanded by the ring of Solomon.
Both concepts work in providing memorable and creepy scenes and visuals, and despite their limited use they deserve their places in Final Fantasy history.
What are your thoughts on Phantom Train and Doomtrain? Do you know of any local ghost train stories? Anything else to add?
For other current articles in the FFFMM series see:
Issue 1: The Carbuncle
Issue 2: Ultros
Issue 3: Alexander
Issue 4: Wedge and Biggs
Issue 5: Red XIII
Issue 6: Shiva
A special thanks goes to Six for providing the header graphic.