Five Nights at Freddy’s, Endoskeletons, and Scaring You With Your Own Childhood
It isn’t all jumpscares and face-cams.
I was very young when my father first introduced me to videogames. Around three years old, I think. I can remember his ‘office,’ a little room that was technically joined to our living room, gated off by a child-proof gate he’d installed. He’d decided one day that he was going to teach me how to use his Amiga 500 — as best as a three year old child could, anyway. It was a decision that has impacted on the rest of my life, and to this very day I credit him with my love of video games and my ability to quickly adapt to new technology and ‘feel’ my way through new operating systems and programs.
I can remember sitting on a computer chair he’d set up next to his own. This was to be ‘my’ chair for when we used the computer together. In reality I’m pretty sure it was just a chair from the kitchen table that he’d put a Disney cushion on, but it was still special to me. He concentrated on getting me used to the mouse at first, loading up a children’s game that he’d installed for me. It was a very simple, educational game about some teddy bears. I very vaguely remember it, but two of the mini-games involving helping a teddy bear paint a farm and helping another teddy bear get to his jar of honey stick out to me. I spent years searching for any information about this game, but it was only recently and with the help of my very switched-on Twitter followers that I finally tracked it down. The game was called Fun School 3 — For Under 5s, and it holds an incredible amount of sentimental value to me.
Regardless, though, I have a very vivid memory of that teddy bear, the little brown sprite wearing a white singlet emblazoned with a simple ‘T’. A few years ago I saw an image on the internet, some fan art about a new game everyone was playing. A brown teddy bear in a top hat that reminded me of my own childhood. I decided to look the game up.
That game was Five Nights at Freddy’s.
The moment I Googled the game it was apparent that it wasn’t anything like the game I’d been reminded of, but it was an interesting concept. Something fresh, something different. A video game operated entirely from security cameras, with no way to defend yourself from the jump scares other than to conserve your office’s power and try to not have a panic attack.
As I read more into it, though, the scariest aspect of the game started to dawn on me. The ‘monsters’ chasing you in this game weren’t just some weird, demonic, ghostly ‘other,’ like zombies or something. They were animatronics. Not specifically robots designed to kill, not glitching artificial intelligence or rebelling domestic cyborgs. No. Animatronics, designed to entertain at a children’s restaurant. My stomach lurched. I’d just discovered one of my worst nightmares.
As time went on and my motor skills improved, I graduated from Fun School to other games. Dad introduced the joystick and I learned to play Galaga. I’m told I was pretty good at it for a four year old and that if I wasn’t playing it myself, I could spend hours watching my Dad play it. Eventually he taught me how to use the basics of the keyboard and I was introduced to Jill of the Jungle. I was not as good at guiding Jill through the perilous jungle as I was at commanding my spaceship in Galaga, but I would persist because I was excited to play as a girl.
Then game the Super Nintendo Entertainment System. We didn’t have a SNES at home, but my cousins did, and I fell for it hard. I would sit for hours playing the Super Mario Collection, insisting on playing as Peach even though my cousins would continually tell me that Toad was easier to play. I didn’t care. The music was amazing, the colors were vivid, everything I needed to control the game was on the controller in my hands and I didn’t have to get my Dad to come into the room and run a game file for me. My obsession with my cousin’s SNES eventually lead my parents to buy a Sega Megadrive for Christmas, but not before the Terminator Incident.
I often tell my friends the story of what I refer to as the Terminator Incident because it’s the story behind my almost paralyzing fear of Terminator endoskeletons. Some of my friends have panic attacks when they come across images of spiders or snakes or blood. I have panic attacks when I see a picture of so much of half the endoskeleton protruding from underneath Arnold Schwarzenegger’s face. When we were teenagers my friends and I would play laser-tag at a venue that decided to add an endoskeleton replica to their collection of pop culture memorabilia. Every time we went there the fuckers had moved the thing to display it in a different area of the attached arcade. I don’t go there anymore.
Just before my parents bought me the Sega Megadrive we visited my cousins and as per usual, I made my way to the room with the SNES in it. My cousin told me that he’d gotten a new game and asked if I wanted to play it. Of course I did! I was, like my cousin, a Cool Kid Who Could Definitely Play More Than Mario Just Like Other Big Kids ™. It was the Terminator 2 Arcade Game, and he sat down with me and guided me through the process of shooting the Exoskeletons as they walked past my field of vision in the distance, their animation clunky and disjointed enough to make me uneasy. They walked like something human, but they were… off. If you missed one, it would re-appear closer to you shortly. I didn’t realise that if you missed them a second time, they would re-appear again. I just thought that meant you lost points.
I can remember the moment I realised I was wrong. One of the endoskeleton heads suddenly popped up from below, it’s face filling my entire field of vision, it’s mouth opening and letting out a robotic screech at me. I screamed, threw the controller out of my hands and started to cry, my little heart racing, my arms covering my face. At this stage of my life I’d been lucky enough to avoid fear for the most part, and the idea that video games could frighten me had never crossed my young mind. It was a strange terror. It was a new terror, one that had sparked itself within me so suddenly that it managed to leave a mark of discomfort that I’ve carried with me my entire life, no matter how many people have ridiculed me about it or tried to convince me that watching Terminator might ‘cure’ me.
When I first set my eyes on the stuttering imagery of an animatronic endoskeleton beneath the fuzzy exterior of Five Nights at Freddy’s title character, I felt the same, very familiar wave of terror bubbling up in my gut. But there was something else to it, something that didn’t just make it scary, but made it feel almost unsanitary to see, like it was part of an inappropriate joke that shouldn’t be made, or like it was a private diary I shouldn’t be looking at. I closed the game and decided to take a breather. I’d made it as far as the main menu.
Five Nights at Freddy’s as a series has been outrageously popular, especially for an indie title. It’s popularity is rooted in the popularity of ‘scare-cam’ videos on Youtube, popular members of the Let’s Play community recording their reactions to the game. There’s something oddly intimate about watching a human being’s face as they experience the game. It starts often with a casual air of dismissal, sometimes a joking confusion about the game’s controls — although some go into the game already nervous as they know what to expect. Once the first of the animatronics move, however, the tone often changes, an anxiety slowly beginning to wash over them and thicken like a fog as more things move and the player realises how limited their ability to defend themselves actually is. They can’t move from the room, and at the most they can lock a door at either side of the room, a move which is limited in itself because of a finite power supply. At times it can feel like you’re powerless, watching as they come for you, helpless.
Each round, or ‘night’ ends in one of two ways: either there’s a relief when they survive (which one could argue is the only way the game rewards you) or a jumpscare, a crescendo of loud noises as the animatronic that’s caught you leaps towards you, mouth open, barely visible as your screen flickers. This is what is often considered the payoff of the scare-cam video, the reaction of the player, seeing your favorite Youtuber scream and flail. The jump scare is a boon for Youtubers, but it’s criticised by many as an easy, lazy way to scare your player. It’s ‘cheap,’ and for many it’s a reflection of the Five Nights at Freddy’s series. Cheap jump scares, cheap game. To many, a jump scare isn’t real horror, and therefore, Five Nights at Freddy’s isn’t ‘real’ horror in the same way other games such as Fatal Frame or Silent Hill are.
And yet, Five Nights at Freddy’s could re-release the first and second games with every jump scare removed and I would still be terrified.
Horror isn’t black and white as that. It seems to be often forgotten that horror is subjective. It’s a craft that can reach into the subconscious of it’s audience, presenting imagery that scares them because they didn’t even expect to be frightened by something. It can invoke fear of the unknown, it can terrify through empathy. It can throw a crate of spiders onto a set and say ‘fuck it’ and still work depending on who is in the audience. I was far more terrified by Arachnophobia than I was by The Conjuring, because I just happen to be afraid of spiders and not very bothered by ghosts. I’m not going to try and pass myself off as someone who doesn’t fall under the spell of the game, sinking into the anticipation of the inevitable jumpscare that awaits me should I fail, but there’s something more to Five Nights at Freddy’s for me. Something that lingers. Something that haunts me.
It’s no secret that a lot of people are uncomfortable with animatronics. I was lucky enough to grow up in a country without Chuck E Cheese, a place which I am sure would have only heightened my fear of animatronics given the sheer amount of people I’ve met who the restaurant chain has instilled the same fear in. The fear of animatronics has a great deal to do with the ‘uncanny valley,’ the name given to imagery which is almost life-like and realistic, but just ‘off’ enough to cause unease. The fear of cheap animatronics isn’t one I share alone.
There’s also something to be said about the second game’s ‘death mini-games,’ which the player is made to play every time they die. These games are presented in the style of Atari games, but again, they’re ‘off.’ They seem corrupted, the colors wrong, the sprites seemingly corrupted, the sound drained and lifeless. The instructions are vague, haunting. “SAVE THEM” one game orders. “Give Gifts” another instructs, before swapping to “Give Life” after a few rounds. A corrupted voice garbles letters in place of music, slowly spelling out phrases such as “HELP THEM” with a tone reminiscent of a toy on the last of it’s battery life. In one game you control the sprite of a little bear. A bear that reminds me of the same video game from my childhood. That game ends with a purple man who misshapen to the point of being grotesque chasing you. He is too fast, he breaks the rules of the game to catch you. You can’t outrun him. The entire game crashes to your desktop and you are left to wonder if it’s really possessed or not.
There’s a special place in horror for tales that play with and corrupt our happy childhood memories. The ‘creepy pasta’ horror tales that the internet is so fond of thrives on the concept of ‘missing’ episodes of our beloved children’s shows. The popular ‘Squidward’s Suicide’ plays on the hyper-realism of Spongebob Squarepants, and the classic ‘SuicideMouse.AVI’ feeds on the familiarity of Micky Mouse as a children’s icon whilst also drawing from the secrecy of the Disney’s inner-circles. ‘Dead Bart’, also known as ‘Bart is Dead’ isn’t as creepy on it’s own as story, but the accompanying video made of edits to clips from The Simpsons is downright unsettling as it re-shapes the familiar into the unknown. Perhaps this is where Five Nights at Freddy’s really thrives. Even if you don’t have direct childhood experience with themed pizza places or animatronics, you probably have a strong childhood recollection or memory to do with human-sized mascots, or stuffed animals, or children’s Atari games. These are things that our brains usually associate with childhood, often with that sense of innocence and happiness that followed these experiences. These are things manipulated by Five Nights at Freddy’s.
I’ve spent much of this Halloween exploring Five Nights at Freddy’s as a series. It’s evolved so much since it’s initial viral explosion into popular culture that I wonder if we began to roll our eyes and dismiss it as ‘cheap jump scares’ a little early. The backstory has blossomed from fan speculation into an official canon, one that is haunting no matter how you choose to consume it (the series now has an official novel titled ‘Silver Eyes.’) It’s as creative and interesting as any other currently popular horror video game’s story, and definitely stands above some of the notable horror flicks that have hit cinema since the game’s release. Given that the series has a film set to hit cinemas on the horizon, it’s quite promising how much the series has gotten right in such a short time — although it does remain to be seen what path the film will take, should it be an origins story, adaptation of the book, or a new frontier into the ‘scaring people with animatronic chickens’ genre. Whatever the case, the series has more than proven it’s capable of frightening us with our own childhood memories, which bodes well should script writers decide to steer away from jump scares.
If you’re looking for a really good scare — and I don’t mean a jump scare, I mean a long, haunting, sleep with the lights on kind of scare — revisit Five Nights at Freddy’s. Hell, you don’t even have to play it. The Game Theorists have made more than enough videos that can guide you through the evolution of speculation about the game whilst simultaneously scaring the ever loving shit out of you. So prolific are their efforts that my brother has jokingly referred to the Five Nights at Freddy’s game series as ‘The Markiplier and Game Theorists Paycheck Cash Grab Spook Hour.’
Or just, you know, look at housing prices in Melbourne. That’s also pretty scary.