Night Five: Dissecting the Horror Behind Five Nights at Freddy’s

Five Nights at Freddy’s: A Mastery of Anticipation Horror

The Five Nights at Freddy’s game is a lot of things. It has proved to be surprisingly polarizing among gamers, with some loving it and some absolutely hating it. While I’m not big on speculating about the lore of Five Nights at Freddy’s, as I feel like I don’t fully understand it (having not beaten the games).

I have, however, been thinking a great deal about what goes into making these games so effective at drawing out fear, anxiety, stress, and frustration in gamers. Obviously this isn’t concrete, and it’s well past when it should have been posted…but it’s been a long day.

Moving on!

Five Nights at Freddy’s – Anticipation, Childhood Fears, and ****ing Jumpscares

Five Nights at Freddy’s was, and is, something special. The premise is simple. There aren’t really any bells and whistles. It’s massively successful because of a few simple reasons: it’s a simple game and it preys on how most kids have at one point been scared shitless of those old Chuck E. Cheese robots. But there’s so much more than that.

As many people have pointed out, this game is a reversal of most horror video games. Instead of forcing players to move around in locations where they know that horrible, horrifying things are going to happen, FNAF keeps players still and forces them to survive the night while the horror comes to them. The animatronic designs are simplistic, but the way they move, the subtle moments of distortion where they aren’t quite what they seem…

Good thing I didn't want to sleep ever again.

Good thing I didn’t want to sleep ever again.

It’s horror masterwork, I think. As the difficulty increases, the jumpscares become less of a fright and more of a frustration, but anxiety remains a constant. Nothing exemplifies this better than the moment when you flip a camera up, sure that you’re safe, and you hear breathing and groaning from behind the camera display…because either Chica or Bonnie got into the damn office and you’re officially dead.

Five Nights at Freddy’s 2

Building upon FNAF, Five Nights at Freddy’s 2 adds the Toy animatronics as well as the Marionette and Balloon Boy (that little shit). In addition to preying on childhood fears (and reasonable, if not slightly irrational adult fears) of these mascot-like characters, FNAF 2 feels like a commentary on a number of other fears. Fear of change, shown in the transition from the original animatronics to the Toy ones. Fear of aging poorly and fear of being abandoned (the original animatronics). Same deal with anxiety turning to frustration, but that’s sort of a common thread. The Marionette could be seen as representative of how people often bury some fears, but if they’re forgotten for too long those fears tend to reemerge.

Five Nights at Freddy’s 3

Fear of the unknown meets fear of an actual murderer who is now haunting a creepy, mangled animatronic (Hey there, Spring Bonnie. You sure didn’t age well with that corpse stuffed inside of you.). The past coming back to haunt you. I’ve been writing this too long and I basically just want to get to why I think 4 is such an amazing example of horror.

Five Nights at Freddy’s 4

I love this game so much because it’s from a child’s perspective. The Nightmare animatronics make so much more sense, what with the multiple rows of pointed teeth, the claws, and so on, when it’s understood that the protagonist is a child. A young imagination, a healthy capacity for thinking of what creepy monsters might be lurking around at night, a fear of the dark, and so on, all lend to this. Nightmare Foxy’s in-closet resting form being a stuffed animal adds to this. As a child, the moment it’s time to go to bed and the lights are off is the moment the world suddenly becomes a good deal more frightening. Most people, at some point, have a fear of the dark (or, one might argue, a fear of what the dark conceals). The way the Nightmare animatronics drift around at the back of the hall when they aren’t right at the door feels like a child whose eyes are playing tricks on them. Their teeth, claws, and overall mangled and horrifying appearances can be chalked up to the way a child’s imagination takes something they’re afraid of and morphs that thing/those things into something so much worse. This may not necessarily line up with the plot, but to make a child main character in the same game as these animatronics makes sense for the reasons I gave. I can say there were times I could have sworn, for instance, the tree branches outside of my window looked like grasping claws in the darkness of late night without a nightlight.

These games may not be the ultimate display of horror genre potential, but I think Scott did a great job creating something that can get cheap scares at the surface level while still delivering something that feels far more substantial.

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