Dying To Play: The Berzerk Curse -Fact or Fiction?

dying to play iconWhen it comes to urban legends foreshadowing is everything.

To those who know the background of the Berzerk Death urban legend, it’s deeply curious that a certain coincidence happened to be overlooked by the majority of journalists writing on the subject over the decades. One wonders how something so eerily profound could have ever been missed.

smileyIn Calumet City, Illinois, if you drive north from I-94 near Hwy 83 and Pulaski Rd, you will see two smiley face water towers rise in the distance. Dubbed Mr. and Mrs. Smiley Face in 1973, the two well-known landmarks bear a striking resemblance to the arch nemesis, Evil Otto, from the Stern Electronics arcade game, Berzerk (1980), the arcade game whose gameplay has long been rumored to yield deadly consequences.

From any direction the smiling happy-face towers can be seen rising against the sky, to some a cheerful welcome yet to others –mostly arcade historians– they are an intimidating, if not ominously creepy sight. How did no one ever catch that before?

The game Berzerk, as the urban legend attests, can kill you, just like its partner in crime who was born in the same year, Polybius.

For as legend has it, in 1982, a young man walked into Friar Tuck’s Game Room, in Calumet City, IL., put a quarter in a Berzerk machine, had the game of his life…and then dropped dead.

Evil Otto, as the legend goes, possessed the supernatural ability to influence life threatening physiological conditions and cause instant death to any player (intruder) who failed to heed its alert. Okay…I’ll buy it for a moment. But the legend is far from complete and even farther from being accurate. There’s more. So much more.  I believe this is the first time The Berzerk Death Legend has ever been written in its entirety before.

In fact, I know it is.

Peter Bukowski

On Saturday, April 3, 1982, 18-year old Peter Bukowski, (often reported incorrectly as ‘Burkowski”) of South Holland, Illinois, woke to a severely cold morning blanketed in a thick layer of snow. The iron grey sky churned with a weather system that prompted forecasters to issue a public announcement warning of an imminent blizzard.

The winter of 1981 had been a hard year for Illinois residents who had battled eleven “lake effect” blizzards since January. Peter Bukowski, a seemingly healthy, young man and no doubt one who had interests in common with others his age, must have felt a bit bored by the seemingly endless sieges of winter. Like all teens at the height of the video craze, video games were definitely something that was on his mind continuously as much as girls.

bukowski houseI envision him, standing at the window of his bedroom that last morning of his life, looking out, his young face lit by the bluish cast of dim daylight on snow. I wonder if he had any idea in his mind that something was amiss inside him?  I wonder if he sensed today could be different than any other day he had lived on earth. Did he feel tired upon waking, sick or have chest pain? Apparently not, for he hung around his room playing video games that morning, entertained a girl at her home later on in the day, then went to the arcade with a friend after first going home for a warmer jacket.

According to census records, the Bukowski home was located on Price Avenue, in a tree-lined respectable neighborhood of single level homes, a mere two miles from Friar Tuck’s Game Room, once located at 674 River Oaks Drive, Calumet City, IL. Judging by events recorded by witnesses, this places him arriving at the arcade roughly around 8:00 p.m. From what reports remain, it appears he walked first to his girlfriend’s house, then back home, then to another friend’s house, then to the arcade, an estimated total distance of 4 miles. Trudging through snow often makes the journey far more strenuous, with many heart attacks reported annually from the act of merely shoveling snow. But Bukowski was young, strong and not a middle-aged man with a history of angina.

Legend has long supported the belief that Bukowski was obese when, in fact, he was 5’10” and as the coroner observed, weighed 172 pounds with no prior medical conditions. Bukowski, at 18, looked physically sound.

tom blankleyBerzerk had been on his mind from the moment he first saw the game. As Tom Blankley, community leader and former owner of Friar Tuck’s Game Room remembers, “Bukowski was on that game every chance he could get. Sometimes with a friend. But a lot of the time alone. He loved it. He was a real nice kid. Quiet and kind of shy. No Problems.”

For anyone who remembers the old Friar Tuck Game Room, it was a place of memorable good times. Themed like a medieval inn, with wrought iron lamps hanging from the ceiling and candle-light bulbs, stained glass windows and huge wooden doors as an entrance, it appeared as if Robin Hood and his Merry Men might be found enjoying a game of Joust inside. It was not, as some have reported over the years one of “those arcades”, where bad kids assembled smoking dope and causing trouble. It operated as a family style gaming parlor, offering complimentary coffee and donuts to parents accompanying children as well as fund raised many great community causes. It was not the kind of place one would expect a teenage boy to die. It was too clean. Too innocent. Too family oriented.

What happened on that snowy Saturday night, in 1982, is sketchy at best, contaminated by decades of added hearsay, newspaper reporting errors and convenient rewriting of “facts” that gave rise to an urban legend that persists to this day. But some clear facts do remain.

Prior to Bukowski arriving at Friar Tuck’s Game Room, he had complained to his friend, Burton “Ben” Everett, that he was feeling short of breath and thirsty. Stopping at a convenience store, Bukowski purchased a soda, drank it down quickly and the two continued on to the arcade.

Upon arriving at the arcade it became obvious to others in attendance that Bukowski was not well. Everett alleges Bukowski was laboring for breath but wanted to stay and play Berzerk anyway. Thinking he was just too hot from their long walk in the cold and snow, Bukowski removed his coat and began to play Berzerk. In less than 15-20 minutes he had played two games, both high scores, and put his initials in twice. On the last game, though, after putting in his initials, he stepped away from the game, took a few steps and collapsed. An arcade attendant rushed to his side and, noticing Bukowski was unresponsive, began CPR while an ambulance was called.

Bukowski was rushed to an Indiana hospital where he was pronounced dead on arrival.

“It was so awful. Just such a tragedy,” Blankely, remembers. “My staff did what they could until the ambulance arrived. The attendant never left him and never stopped trying to revive him. But, for some reason, he couldn’t be brought back. That’s something I have never forgotten.”

evil_otto_by_exto-d5j4m9oRumors spread immediately of Bukowski’s sudden death by Berzerk, making its way to schools and various arcades, prompting some operators, according to Blankely, to pull the game from the floor. Meanwhile, Bukowski’s family ordered an autopsy and what the coroner found was more surprising than what anyone could have ever expected. Unbeknownst to Bukowski’s parents, their son’s heart was riddled with scar tissue from an undiagnosed congenital condition.

Pediatric Cardiomyopathy (PC) has long been attributed to sudden heart failure in children and teens if left undiagnosed. Often having no symptoms, the child will often enter their teen years until a physically demanding exercise, like football or basketball, triggers a cardiac incident, often resulting in sudden death. Historically thousands of children have dropped on basketball courts and football fields across the world, momentarily baffling those around them as to what happened. There are several types of PC, and each form affects the heart muscle in different ways. But the rarest form is Arrhythmogenic Right Ventricular Cardiomyopathy (ARVC). As misfortune would have it, this is what Peter Bukowski had.

ARVC is caused by the death of healthy heart muscle and its replacement with scar tissue and fat. This results in a disorganized structure of heart muscle tissues causing abnormal electrical activities (arrhythmia) and problems with the heart’s contraction. Basically, Peter Bukowski’s heart was a ticking time bomb, and his physical exertion from walking miles in the snow, coupled with the caffeine in the soda he drank and his excitement at playing Berzerk, had been too much for his already damaged heart. In fact, the autopsy indicated he had had a mild heart attack three weeks before he died. It’s a good guess to surmise that today’s reports in the urban legend claiming Bukowski was obese came from the fact it was reported in autopsy reports that his heart was encased in a layer of fat -which it was. But this was not from being overweight but a result of ARVC.

Bukowski did not die from Berzerk. The game did not kill him. Evil Otto has no malevolent powers outside of his 8-bit bad-assedness. Bukowski just had the misfortune of having a bad heart.

But legends ache to be born, writhe beneath the surface of wonder and bloom in the minds of creative storytellers, like little rogue children clambering for the freedom of the streets. Such is the legend of Berzerk’s alleged hand in the death of Jeff Dailey, the game’s second victim, a ridiculous rumor that needs to be settled once and for all.

Jeff Dailey

“Let him who hath understanding recognize the number of The Beast, for it is a human number: The number is six-hundred and sixty-six…” -Rev. 13:18

evil_otto_by_maestromorteJeff Dailey and the rumor of his “666 death” after playing Berzerk rose six months later (gotta love it) as a copycat story of The Bukowski Incident, after Video Game Magazine made mention of the death of Bukowski after playing Berzerk.

Post publication, the new legend was repeated in a small independent gaming magazine, called Video Ace, which released two issues in 1981 before going defunct. According to this publication 19-year old, Jeffrey Dailey, of Virginia, prior to Bukowski’s death, had suffered a massive heart attack on January 12, 1981, after playing Berzerk “for hours” and died at the scene. His ending score was allegedly 16,660, mysteriously containing the “number of the beast 666”, the biblical sign of The Devil.

But what is problematic, if not thoroughly cancels out any previous reports as evidence, is Jeffrey Dailey, aged 19, interned at Holly Lawn Cemetery in Suffolk City, VA, didn’t die playing Berzerk in January of 1981. He died in a car crash on May, 29, 1981 and had been nowhere near an arcade or a Berzerk machine.

Also, his score of 16,660 is not considered even by 80s standards to be that impressive of a score, let alone one that would take hours to accumulate. A good player can rack 16K up in under 20 minutes, 25 at the longest. Whoever wrote the initial story on Jeff Dailey was clearly not familiar with the game, Berzerk.

“There is no way possible to play hours on a game of Berzerk on one quarter and only get 16K,” observes Berzerk champion, Grant Theinemann. “If Evil Otto wasn’t a part of the game, I would then agree.”

In the 80s video craze era, people –and especially Hollywood– were eager to entertain the idea that video games had ethereal, supernatural powers, or were at least compelled to perpetuate those fallacies for profit. Technology was evolving at such an accelerated rate that with its propulsion came a certain level of public paranoia concerning if whether the future may see an Orwellian rise of machines take over mankind. You see this paranoid mindset over and over again in creative themes from The 80s, in movies and stories, like the short from Nightmares (1983), The Bishop of Battle or the movie, The Last Starfighter , where the protagonist finds himself chosen as a savior by an alien race from another world because he can beat a certain video game. In The Bishop of Battle, the protagonist finds himself being controlled by the game he seeks to beat. Tron exemplifies this paranoid concept completely as well, where the player becomes part of a game in a world where a program rules them all.

The urban legend of Polybius grew from such paranoid, if creative, ideologies as well.

Video game technologies, and just plain video games in The 80s, were something most members of the average public did not understand, with even more confusion surrounding how they affected people long term, especially children. No one knew just how video games, if ever, affected us. And to be frank, there simply was no way of even telling. 30 years later we’re still trying to figure that one out.

However, there is something to the Berzerk Legends. Something I found by complete accident. Perhaps not a supernatural manifestation, like a skull-faced ghost demon in the night, but there is some curious fog on the road of its history. For no other game in the history of the arcade catalog has as many myths surrounding it with actual facts as Berzerk does…including Polybius. And even more curious is that one of the most unknown events never written about is actually true.

Edward Clark Jr

6vzu“He said he was going to kill him. That he was as good as dead.”
-Trial Witness, Illinois 1990

Out of all the Berzerk Legends there is one of which few know anything about. Until now it has never been written about and only discussed in private conversations. The reason being is the memory of it is too painful for those who were there. Another reason is, the witnesses save two have been lost for over 30 years after the crash turned arcades into veritable ghost towns and people went their separate ways.

The other reason is, true tragic tales are often fogged in by an intentional act of mercy.

On an unusually warm Monday night, on March, 20, 1988, Edward Clark Jr., 17, of Lansing, IL, found himself at Friar Tuck’s Game Room, in Calumet City, the very same arcade that Bukowski had died at in 1982. Prior to arriving he had been hanging out for a while at the River Oaks Mall, across from Friar Tuck’s Game Room. The young man was no stranger to mischief having been already in trouble half a dozen times by the time he was 15. Nothing serious other than he had a problem with authority and an attitude to match. Having been selected to enlist in the Army Reserve’s Green Beret just days prior his mother was confident her son was moving in the right direction with his life.

Upon entering the arcade with his friends, Clark headed first for the Battlezone, had a few games, and then stepped to the Berzerk machine, the same one Bukowski had played. Seeing the game had a couple quarters up on the glass but no one around, Clark took a quarter, put it in the game and began to play. Someone immediately stepped from around a row of games, claiming ownership of the quarter (which was a lie) and wanting his money back. His name was Pedro Roberts and he was not someone you wanted to mess with for any reason, at any time.

At 16, Roberts was already showing distressing signs of a young man heading for early incarceration. He was street smart, tough and emotionally void of empathy when angered or engaged in conflict. Clark refused to give him his quarter back or get off the game. Some threats were thrown around, with Roberts demanding that Clark get off “or else”. Clark ignored him and kept playing the game. Robert’s then began a fight with one of Clark’s friends, pushing him in the chest. Some witnesses reported he pulled a knife and threatened Clarke and his friends with it, however court records claim the report of a knife inside the arcade was ruled out due to inconclusive evidence on grounds of hearsay.

“I’m not sure what happened between them prior, if there had been some bad blood for a while or what,” Tom Blankely, former owner of Friar Tuck’s recalls. “I remember someone saying Clark had stolen Roberts’ girl friend or something. I don’t know if that’s true. But whatever it was it got out of hand pretty quickly, and they beat each other up pretty good before we (the arcade security) kicked them all out.”

According to fragmented and conflicting incident reports, including testimony both from Blankely and a reported eye witness, the two young men got into an argument, then a fist fight over who had the right to play the game, Berzerk, or maybe just a swearing match. No one knows for sure. Court records report that Clarke stepped in to defend his friend being beat by Roberts. An arcade attendant on hand separated the two, and fearing it would escalate further if he kicked them both out at the same time, kept Clark inside as he sent Roberts off into the night. The attendant waited 10 minutes before he allowed Clark to leave, telling him to walk the opposite way. Edward Clark foolishly did not heed the attendant’s advice.

clark murderAccording to Blankely, Clark walked with his friends in the same direction where Roberts and his friends had gone and, hiding in an alleyway, Robert’s jumped out, ran across a small parking lot and attacked Clark, stabbing him with a knife in his chest. Not thinking he was seriously injured, Clark refused to allow his friends to drive him to a hospital until, moments later and near collapse, he was bundled into the back of a friend’s car and driven at high speed to an area hospital where he was pronounced dead shortly after from a stab wound in the heart. One witness claims he died in the backseat of the car.

clark location berzerkPedro Roberts was tried and convicted in May of 1990 after spending two years in jail pending trial. He was sentenced to prison for 11 years for the murder of Edward Clark Jr yet since his stabbing of Clark was ruled “self-defense” by the court (after Roberts made a plea deal) he was eligible for parole after serving only three years in prison.

Curiously enough, and more akin to the Polybius urban legend, Pedro Roberts served his sentence at Marion Prison in Southern Illinois, the prison that implemented a behavioral modification program entitled, Control and Rehabilitation Effort (CARE) beginning in 1968. Marion Prison pioneered lock-down techniques and sensory deprivation for the proliferation of mind-control experiments using young prisoners as guinea pigs.

Whether Roberts was subjected to these experiments is unknown. Given his young age upon incarceration it’s surely probable.

Berzerkers

THBKRHGN9E1975“The berserkers know this much, at least, of life. That it must be destroyed…”

-Fred Saberhagen, Introduction to “Pressure” in The Book of Saberhagen, 1976

When Allen McNeil designed the game Berzerk in 1980, he claims he got the idea after having a dream in which he fought robots against a stark and colorless landscape. Reminiscent of the robot doomsday weapons in Fred Saberhagan’s 1967 science fiction series, Berzerkers, the game mimics the robot’s attempt to annihilate all living beings after taking control of its programmers. So it’s rather interesting to discover that without players having the knowledge found in a  series of books, the game still managed to convey the very same thematic imagery to the public and turn it into legend; that the machine, or game, had the power to manipulate events outside its circuitry.

Even today, with the barrage of school and public shootings, video games have been blamed for their supposed manipulative effects, suspected of inciting violence, sexual debauchery and anti-social behaviors of every sort, just like nickelodeons, Swing music, television and rock and roll allegedly did  before them. The paranoia of the video age of The 80s is alive and well in the 21st century as humans are still scrambling to make sense of what all this technology means to us, and more importantly, how it may affect us. Honestly, we may never know.

As human beings we search for the magical, the flamboyantly mythological and the seemingly malevolent as a way of coping with natural occurrences, negative and positive, that happen in our lives. It’s in our nature to seek blame for the dark and often cold, shadowy sides of our humanity, and pass it on so we don’t have to take the blame. We are flawed, amazingly flawed and so much so that we often can’t see our own or even the ones in others.

However the reality of it is this:
Video games are just video games.
They can’t make us do anything we aren’t already predisposed to.
We possess the controls that inhibit or exhibit our own actions.
We are the Berzerkers…We are The Machines.

Cat DeSpira

(Originally published in Retrocade Magazine 2012)

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