All Aboard the Afterlife Express

One of the more interesting episodes in Final Fantasy VI, and incidentally an appropriate one for this time of year, is the Phantom Train. Sabin and Cyan (and maybe Shadow, if you recruited him and he hasn’t left yet) board the vehicle in the Phantom Forest, and Cyan reports that it takes the dead to “the other side.”

The idea of ghost trains has been around for a while, with Wikipedia mentioning the Silverpilen metro train in in Stockholm and the phantom funeral train that runs from Washington, DC to Springfield, Illinois around the anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s death as noteworthy examples. There was also an encounter with a ghostly subway train in Ghostbusters II. Wikipedia also says that “phantom train” was sometimes used to describe the trains that the Nazis used to take prisoners to concentration camps, which adds an even more disturbing and probably unintentional twist. I wasn’t sure if there were any other examples of trains being used to convey souls to the world of the dead, but the Final Fantasy Wiki refers to a song called “Spanish Train” by Chris de Burgh that might have been the inspiration.

It refers to a train in Spain that stays mainly…um, I mean, that carries the souls of the dead, and to a poker game between God and Satan for their fate. If this is the case, it’s weird that Setzer doesn’t feature in this part of the game. While De Burgh is most famous for the song “The Lady in Red,” he has another one called “Don’t Pay the Ferryman” that might well be about Charon.

And the train is basically an updated version of Charon’s ferry, so there’s that. Anyway, the train is full of generic ghosts, some of whom will attack your party, while others try to sell them items. I’m not sure where ghosts get items to sell, but I suppose that’s not my concern. Others will temporarily join the party. They’re not good fighters, but they do have an ability that can instantly kill an enemy through possession. After doing this, the ghost leaves the party.

We also learn from this part of the game that ghost food is nourishing to living beings.

And it’s where the party first encounters the mysterious thief Siegfried, or possibly an impostor claiming to be him. The conductor is called “impresario” for some reason; it’s been speculated that this was a translation error since the conductor of the opera later in the game is known as an impresario. In that case, however, the term is appropriate. I thought at first they might be the same character, but apparently not. When Sabin and company make their way to the engine, they find out that it’s sentient and have to fight it. One interesting aspect to this fight that I’m sure amused everyone when they first tried it is that Sabin’s Suplex move, where he picks up and body slams an enemy, totally works on the locomotive.

Finally, the train drops your party back off at the terminal, but takes the people of Doma, including Cyan’s wife and son, on to the afterlife.

Picture by Isangsimaron Batis
I find a train being used for this purpose to fit the game’s general atmosphere of fantasy combined with Victorian-era technology. A steam train is much more modern than the quasi-medieval feel of most sword-and-sorcery settings, but still rather quaint in this day and age. At one point, Cyan mentions that Doma used to have a railroad, but it’s no longer operational.

Picture by Mr. Fipp
The Phantom Train makes an appearance in a few other FF games, but FF6 was the first to use it. In FF8, there’s a Guardian Force called Doomtrain that can inflict both damage and status ailments.

Interestingly, the Japanese name for this being was Glasya-Labolas, after one of the demons in the Lesser Key of Solomon. Dragon Quest IX has the Starflight Express, which doesn’t convey the souls of the dead, but does transport angels to and from the heavenly realms.

I also can’t help but think of Salvador Dali’s painting La Gare de Perpignan, which is based on his conviction that the train station in Perpignan was the center of the universe.

Apparently he experienced an epiphany there, but even without that transportation centers really are nexus points of a sort.

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4 Responses to All Aboard the Afterlife Express

  1. Bryan Babel says:

    There’s a country folk song called “Little Black Train.” In one version the first verse goes:

    There’s a little black train a-comin’
    Comin’ down the track;
    You gotta ride that little black train,
    But it ain’t a gonna bring you back.

    I know the little black train is referenced in at least one or two other songs, and Manly Wade Wellman based one of his “Silver John” fantasy stories on the concept.

    Perhaps a remote connection to the FF series is the phantom train that runs from the Twilight Town station in Kingdom Hearts II, that only Roxas can see, and that later takes Sora to Yen Sid’s tower.

  2. ozaline says:

    In the Dresden Files book “Ghost Story,” the disembodied soul of Harry Dresden is given a good piece of advice… “Don’t get on the southbound train.”

  3. Pingback: How We Lost the Forest | VoVatia

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