The Supernatural Mysteries of the Fallout Universe

Signs of the supernatural can be found throughout Fallout, but where is the line between lore and Easter eggs?

Fallout Supernatural
Photo: Bethesda Game Studios

Fallout is undeniably a post-apocalyptic franchise with a heavy lean towards science fiction. However, the best description for this tough old world is the ‘Weird West:’ a literary goulash of sole survivors, urban legends, horror, science fiction, and the outright supernatural. It’s the latter element that’s most controversial to fans who may prefer the grimdark future trappings of a Brotherhood of Steel working on independently establishing their Warhammer future. Yet, those supernatural qualities are persistent throughout the series in fascinating ways.

The original Interplay Fallout entries kept most of their weirdest oddities non-canonical by making them rare, luck-based encounters. Things like King Arthur by way of Monty Python and a British blue telephone box aren’t actually part of the Fallout world. A crashed alien ship with a blaster and a picture of Elvis was just a cute joke… until Bethesda made the Zetans canon years later. But even in the original Fallout, fans found things that would have puzzled that dedicated debunker James Randi in his heyday. Even modern players can’t escape or entirely explain the outright eldritch.

So join us for a walk on the wild side of Fallout history as we try to find the line between the canonical, the unexplainable, and the downright weird.

Psykers, Viruses, and the Limits of Science

In Fallout lore, “Psykers” is a catchall term for people with strange mental powers. It’s a phenomenon that first appears in the original Fallout game, with a squad of psychic guardians protecting the Master (himself a heavily mutated master of mentalism).

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Most of these powers have a scientific, if loose, origin story attributed to the Forced Evolutionary Virus, and they’re typically looped into common soft sci-fi tropes (like the ones that fuel Stephen King’s Firestarter). But although FEV explains the Master, and may even affect future generations by being present in the environment, the extent and context of psychic phenomena in Fallout pushes the envelope into supernatural territory.

Fallout 4’s Mama Murphy is a good example of how thin that line can be. While her foresight is linked to pharmaceutical abuse in a way that recalls The Parable of The Sower by Octavia Butler, her accuracy defies fictional abuse of science. That’s not the only example of Fallout mysteries only loosely connected to scientific explanations. A shaman in Fallout 2 speaks to you directly through dreams. New Vegas’ young Forecaster has even fewer explanations for his uncanny predictions, while the Super Mutant Nightkin appear to be attuned to something beyond their madness.

And on the grassy fringe lies Fallout 3’s Treeminders. A sect of naturalists tending to the end-stage floral mutations of Harold – a ghoulish mutant who’s been present in Fallout since the beginning – the Treeminders seem to be speed-running their evolution into Tamriel’s Bosmer. While Harold owes his dramatic changes to FEV, that doesn’t explain why he’s causing the wasteland to flourish, or why Bloomseer Poplar is another prophet worth heeding. It’s a bit of pure magic in a brown hellscape, blessed by the soft, druidic spirit of Harold’s copse. 

Chemicals and science can’t explain all of this away, even when it tries. Over in Point Lookout, for instance, a scientifically disembodied brain finds its psychic speech amplified with no logical explanation. But it doesn’t need to. Fallout is a pulp story at heart, and that allows for a wild, weird world full of the inexplicable.

A Ghost Story

Nuclear fire can turn its victims into shadows burned into the world. It’s a horrifying fact, and it also runs parallel to the paranormal belief that some ghosts are tethered to ghastly unlife by past traumas until something breaks them free. It’s an idea the franchise played with in Fallout 2, where The Den, a rowdy town, has a ghost of its own haunting one of the old pre-war homes.

Anna Winslow is talked up by a charlatan you have no reason to trust, and your character’s first reaction to her may be to assume there’s some Scooby-Dooing with a Stealth Boy going on. But retrieving her lost locket sends her to her final rest, and it’s hard to gloss over the fact that you’re gonna have to bury her bony remains to end the quest.

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Winslow’s not alone in finding the end of the world less than peaceful. New Vegas’s entombed dead tend to whisper to the living passing by, and Fallout 4’s Nuka-World DLC, of all places, harkens back to Winslow’s fate with the long-dead murderer, Lucy Grandchester, unable to leave the tourist trap that her family home has become. Inspired by the real-world Winchester House, and a persistent paranormal legend that the house’s labyrinthian strangeness was intended to bedevil its malicious ghost, the Grandchester story is one way Fallout likes to uneasily overlap with our world. 

But ghosts are also relatively safe, aren’t they? They’re echoes of the past that can only offer a good scare. There are far more terrible things in the Fallout universe, eldritch things that can reach out and touch your character… and, like the best of Lovecraft’s legends, they might not be the same afterward.

Hail Ug-Qualtoth!

In the Elder Scrolls games, Tamriel twists up the Lovecraftian trope of “Things One Should Not Know” with Hermaeus Mor: the God of Knowing way too damn much. However, a similar influence lurks within Fallout.

The story of the celestial horror, Ug-Qualtoth, and his dark worshippers begins in the base game of Fallout 3, where explorers may come across the Dunwich Building. Traveling deep into its ruins isn’t just an eerie experience full of jump scares, hallucinations, and journals logged by madmen; it’s the first clue to the existence of a malicious cult that serves in the name of its maddening eternal.

The Point Lookout DLC adds a quest that will take you deeper into the story of the cult, if you dare to explore it. Asked to find Fallout’s version of the Necronomicon, the Krivbeknih, by a man who you’ll quickly discover is one of the last remaining members of the cult, it’s a journey that’ll take you across a particularly odd portion of the already weird island. Then, if you wish to save the world from the resurgence of the cult, you’ll go back to the mainland to torch the book in the heart of the Dunwich building. But that’s not where the secrets of Uq-Qualtoth end. Chronologically, it may not even be where it began.

Fallout 4 cements the Lovecraftian pun behind the Dunwich clan with the Dunwich Borers dig site. Another creepy hellhole to explore, full of ghouls and the journals of blue-collar miners facing their horrifying last days, this location lacks any overt mentions of Ug-Qualtoth. However, discovering the sacrificial knife, Kremvh’s tooth, amidst similar hallucinatory imagery suggests a broader cosmology to the horrors emerging in the wake of nuclear flame. Kremvh’s direct connection to the old cult is unknown, but as Azathoth is to Cthulhu, it’s not difficult to assume their powers intertwine.

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But there’s one more intriguing supernatural link between the old world and the new, and it’s held by one of the most famous cryptids in American history.

The Other Mothman Prophecy

Come to Fallout 76’s post-apocalyptic Appalachia for the community, stay because the Wise Mothman’s followers tell you to.

The Wise Mothman is likely the first cryptid (folklore-type creatures) new players will encounter in Fallout 76 because it’s a common world that occurs in a fairly safe Lighthouse location. This Mothman is a chill dude who leaves behind an experience buff and some big questions when his deadly, red-eyed variant inevitably jumpscares the shit outta you in the middle of the woods.

In nearby Point Pleasant, a Mothman Museum and statue (both based on their real-world versions) are home to hostile Mothman cultists who gladly throw away their lives for Mothman’s light. Digging through the museum (and taking part in the recurring Mothman Equinox server events) will gradually reveal a secret that’s weird even for Fallout: Not only are these Mothmen real, but one of them apparently guided its acolytes to relative safety before the bombs fell.

Unfortunately, in the new wasteland, a religious schism splits the cult into the non-hostile Enlightened (who follow that friendly Wise Mothman) and the fanatics who follow the red-eyed murderbug. Scarier still is the existence of the Lucky Hole Mine, which houses the unearthly Interloper that the Enlightened warned its followers about. According to them, that is where the fanatics lost their way. Deep within this cultist hole are sculptures previous Fallout players will instantly recognize from the Dunwich Borers quarry. Deeper still is a still living, breathing, tentacled… thing. 

Elsewhere, a corpse called The Visitor offers a theory that the atomic ravages of nuclear war tore something apart in Fallout’s reality, allowing terrible things to slip into countless buried places. Still, none of that explains an unsettling, smiling figure that occasionally appears in Appalachia. Based on the Mothman-linked story of Indrid Cold (and known to some Mothman fanatics), what the Smiling Man seeks remains unknown. He’s scarier than the Mysterious Stranger, and just as random.

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When Is the Supernatural Too Much of a Good Thing?

Fallout 76 goes wild with cryptids to an extent no other game has dared (New Vegas leaves the fabled chupacabra as a throwaway remark). Yet, when it comes to Appalachia and its robust crop of urban legends, it all makes sense.

76 plays with the plausibility of such things as toys. Most creatures, like the Snallygaster and the Grafton Monster, are explained away with West-Tek experimentations or post-war mutation. Others have that thin franchise line of being something more, with the wendigo, coincidentally or otherwise, teaching the Gourmand raiders what the Algonquin intended with the legend: greed will destroy you from within, leaving your ruined body as a less-than-human horror.

All through Fallout, plausibile and incomprehensible horror combine in ways subtle and overt. All of those occurrences bring us back to variations of the same question. Do seemingly supernatural things happen solely because of what the bombs let loose, or did something behind a fading veil see an opportunity to bring a variety of spiritual teachings to literal life?

The broader reality of the supernatural in Fallout is a lingering question mark delineated by how little we know of the world before the bombs. Inexplicable things are happening post-war. That’s a fact of life in Fallout. Ghosts, psychic phenomena, and eldritch beasts are very real in the Wastes. Among such things are scientific “fakes: let loose by human folly. It’s a story tactic that’s only possible because of the franchise’s broad setting, where the supernatural can be used to reflect on the failures of the old world.

Much to my dismay, it doesn’t seem likely that Bethesda will ever place an entire horror game in Fallout’s setting. Even the wildest stories (from costumed superheroes to Fallout 4’s whole plot riff on The Thing’s paranoia) typically come back to science fiction. Yet, despite my desires, that may be the right move. It’s a gift to be taken aback while randomly roaming the open world, and expecting the supernatural around every corner can quickly lessen an encounter’s impact. It would also detract from the franchise’s gift of moving between the plausible and the mad to show us, lightly, how to avoid a future like this one.

In Fallout, the paranormal exists alongside ‘50s-style aliens, cultural paranoia, and Black Mirror-level science fiction horrors. It makes for a grander, more interesting world, one where your character can never be completely prepared for what’s next. To delve too deep may turn Fallout into outright camp instead of pulpy goodness

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Yet, the desire to know more about how and why these strange things happen keeps us digging for the next weird secret. That’s part of why the Todd Howard formula still ‘just works’ despite our grumbles. There’s always another weird secret to discover, whenever we need to retreat from our own for a few hours. In an election year, I’d like to personally thank the Wise Mothman for that.