The Spooky Oceanic Myth That Inspired Man of Medan

A good horror story needs to be frightening. As horror legend John Carpenter once noted: “There’s a very specific secret — it should be scary.” That sounds obvious, but whatever form a terrifying tale comes in — campfire stories, movies, books, TV shows, or video games — it needs to make its audience afraid. Some of the best horror stories are those that can’t be explained too, which only adds to the fear elicited from those who obsess over them.

Supermassive Games’ Man of Medan leans heavily into the unfathomable. The first entry in the studio’s Dark Pictures Anthology, Man of Medan, might appear to be an entirely unique tale. While that’s true on the surface — Man of Medan’s cast and plot are original after all — the game’s development was influenced by one unexplained myth in particular, that of the Ourang Medan.

“One of the things we do, when we’re working on the very early stages of a game, is we look for stuff that’s out and about in the real world,” Supermassive creative director Tom Heaton explained. “It can be legends, like the Ourang Medan, or folklore. It’s good if it’s something not too well-known and what it does is it gives us a base to riff off and get ideas from.”

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The Ourang Medan

What sets the tale of the Ourang Medan apart from other nautical myths is its relative closeness to the present day. Taking place in June 1947, the Ourang Medan is as much of a mystery 72 years on as it was back then. No conclusion has been drawn about the events that took place, and its name has passed into legend in the decades since.

What happened to the Ourang Medan that makes it such a fascinating story? According to Dutch and British reports published in February and October 1948 respectively, a distress signal was intercepted by a number of vessels in the Straits of Malacca. The Morse code message was said to have been broadcast from the Ourang Medan, a Dutch freighter ship somewhere off the coast of Indonesia.

After deciphering the S.O.S call, crews on nearby ships were taken aback by the chilling nature of its content. The message read: “We float. All officers, including the Captain, dead in the chatroom and on the bridge. Possibly whole crew dead… I die.” With the help of Dutch and British listening posts stationed around Sumatra and Malaysia, the Silver Star — the closest ship to the Ourang Medan’s position — raced to its location. Finding the freighter 50 miles off course, the Silver Star’s crew boarded it to find any survivors. What greeted them was as confusing as it was shocking.

All 22 crew members had died, and their expressions hinted that something had gone terribly wrong. Each crew member was wide-eyed in horror, faces contorted at some unseen terror, and their arms raised as if they were fighting off an invisible foe. The crew’s dog perished too, and was found snarling at something or someone on the deck. What baffled the rescue party was that the ship wasn’t damaged and there were no obvious signs of what killed the crew. Their bodies were decaying faster than normal though, and rescue party members felt a sinister chill around the ship despite the onboard temperature registering at over 100°F.

The Silver Star’s captain decided to tow the Ourang Medan to the nearest port so that an investigation could be conducted. After tethering the ships together, however, smoke suddenly billowed out from one the Ourang Medan’s cargo holds. Fearing for their lives, the Silver Star crew cut the lines to the ailing freighter. An explosion tore through the Ourang Medan’s hull moments later, and the Silver Star crew watched as it sank beneath the waves.

Fact or Fiction?

Like any ghost ship tale, skeptics have tried to debunk the Ourang Medan myth. One theory, put forward by marine historian Roy Bainton, suggests that smuggled chemical substances used during World War II are what killed the crew.

According to Bainton, a 32-page booklet written by German naval historian Otto Mielke titled Death Ship in the South Sea mentions that the Ourang Medan was transporting potassium cyanide and nitroglycerine. Both substances were believed to be have been leftover from World War II, and were being moved illegally out of Japan. Bainton theorized that, if the potassium cyanide had released the highly toxic hydrogen cyanide gas, the crew would have suffocated within minutes. As for the explosion, nitroglycerine’s unstable nature makes it dangerous to transport. Any sudden jolt, such as one ship towing another, could have set off a chain reaction below deck, cause a fire, and the explosion. 

Other sources claim that there’s something more paranormal or otherworldly behind the Ourang Medan’s circumstances. Astronomer and author Morris K. Jessup, as sourced by The Philadelphia Experiment A-Z website, wrote in his 1955 book “The Case of the UFO” that the crew might have been attacked by extraterrestrials or paranormal forces. Jessup, along with Fate Magazine writers Frank Edwards and Robert V. Hulse, claimed that the unexplained nature of the crew’s deaths and how they were found are valid reasons to suspect supernatural forces.

A Supermassive Mystery

For Supermassive, the Ourang Medan’s unexplainable nature proved to be the perfect inspiration to draw from. Without no definitive answer to its whereabouts or the tragic onboard events, the team was able to build an original scary story without needing to stick rigidly to circumstantial evidence.

“The myth of the Ourang Medan is cool because it’s a complete mystery,” Heaton said. “No one’s got a solution to what happened, and nobody knows if there’s any basis in fact at all. There is quite interesting documentary evidence around it but there’s very little in the way of fact. So it’s a compelling mystery and, hopefully, that makes for a compelling narrative. It allows us to invent the story — it gives us a lot of freedom with that — and allows us to play with ideas, so that’s a great start. The other thing is that we were looking for the idea of a ghost ship, and that idea of being trapped in the middle of nowhere. A lot of horror is about isolation and, usually, you can’t run away from the situation you’re in. This scenario gives us that.”

The Ourang Medan, which literally translates to “Man from Medan”, wasn’t only used as the game’s chief inspiration. Like Until Dawn, exploration is encouraged in Man of Medan. Players can pick up items and examine them and, while Heaton didn’t want to spoil anything, he hinted that players might learn more about the mythological ship if they looked around.

“It is worth it, in all of our games, for players to take the time to look for little details,” Heaton teased. “And there are lots of things that you can interact with, pick up and examine and read. It’s always worth players doing that, and they will find interesting information and links back to the myth, yes.”

The Ourang Medan’s influence on Supermassive’s newest game is evident, and they won’t be the last studio to be inspired by eerie, unexplainable tales. In creating original stories centered around myths and legends, Supermassive and other developers can make them mainstream and entice us to explore them in more detail. If the rest of the Dark Pictures Anthology follows a similar pattern, there will be more spooky stories like the Ourang Medan for us to discover and become engrossed in soon.