You might not think a story about a bunch of terrifying animatronic pizza joint robots who routinely kill children would make for a hot-ticket movie, but Five Nights at Freddy’s is finally getting a hotly anticipated theatrical release on October 27.
The movie, a product of Universal and Blumhouse, seems to be a faithful, fanservice-heavy adaptation of the hit video game franchise, which became an immediate hit when it was released in 2014. Over time, its popularity grew, a relatively rare indie game penetrating mainstream culture. The game is known for its abundance of classic nostalgic horror elements: scary empty buildings with a maze of corridors, creepy children’s toys that seem fun during the daytime but turn malevolent at night, and jump scares — lots and lots of jump scares. The titular Freddy is a giant animatronic teddy bear that wants, along with all of his fun animal friends, to murder you, and he could be waiting around any corner.
If all that sounds like a fairly straightforward pastiche of classic horror movies, you’re not wrong. That’s also why it’s surprising that it took this long to adapt Five Nights at Freddy’s for cinema — it already has all of the components of a horror movie built into its setting and structure.
Yet Freddy’s (colloquially styled FNAF, pronounced “finaff”) is more than just a fun horror game. The franchise had a huge impact on gaming fandom and YouTube culture, and epitomized the now-ubiquitous popularity of games that keep their audiences guessing, not just about what’s going to happen, but about what it all means. The game’s ability to worldbuild while taking you through a standard horror scenario only grew over the years, through a staggering eight main games including one in virtual reality, five spinoff games, dozens of books and graphic novels, and now the movie.
All of this means that now, nearly 10 years out from FNAF’s debut, its so-called “lore” is incredibly deep. The story about a bunch of giant scary robot animals is also, according to many of its fans, a giant, bottomless, murderous puzzle box.
Let’s go exploring!
FNAF is about a scary pizzeria stuffed with animatronic animals that are trying to kill you
This entire saga is the brainchild of Scott Cawthon, a veteran Christian game developer who said in a 2014 interview that he got the idea for FNAF after one of his previous games garnered negative reviews: “[P]eople said the main character looked like a scary animatronic.” At some point, much like the villain of FNAF, Cawthon “snapped” and decided to show the world just how scary he could be. The fascinating element of this backstory, however, is that in the interview where he reveals his Christian faith, he talks of speaking to and being guided by God to direct his life, much as fans of his games are guided by the signs and clues he includes in the design to interpret the story they’re in. (Cawthorn received significant backlash in 2021 after fans discovered he had donated to several conservative causes including political campaigns for Donald Trump and former Congress member Tulsi Gabbard, as well as anti-abortion groups. After the controversy, he announced his retirement from game development.)
According to a tongue-in-cheek Reddit post from Cawthorn, the film won’t delve too heavily into the fan-constructed universe that spun out over all of the games; instead, it will draw on what he dubbed “the Mike script,” which, judging from his description and from the trailers, seems to be a loose but faithful adaptation of the first game. “The Mike script” is so named because of its central character, Mike Schmidt, played by Josh Hutcherson in the movie. The basic conceit of FNAF — survive five nights with murderous animatronic dolls in this creepy building as they steadily level up their murderous methods — should translate well to the big screen, especially since the film seems to level up the stakes in at least one big way: by giving Mike a daughter, Abby (a variant on a game character introduced later in the series), and bringing her into the nightmarish funhouse.
In the game, you play as Mike Schmidt, a lowly new night guard tasked with caretaking the beloved Freddy Fazbear’s Pizza in your town. Everyone loves Freddy’s, with its fun giant robotic dolls and arcade-style galleria. At night, however, the animals begin what the game describes as “free-roaming”— meaning they can move freely throughout the building. The problem arises from the way the animals view humans in their orbit during this free-roaming period: as animatronic robots who’ve lost their suits. If they see a human, your handler informs you at the beginning of the game, they’ll try to stuff the human inside one of the animatronic robot suits. This is apparently not optimal for survival.
The titular five nights refers to the time you have to spend in the building after everyone else has gone home. If you can last the whole week without getting found and murdered by the robots, you win the game.
Surviving is easier said than done. The main animatronic crew of FNAF consists of an aggressive purple rabbit named Bonnie, a giant yellow chicken named Chica, a broken-down robot pirate fox named Foxy who wears an eyepatch and a hook for a hand and has his own devoted subfandom, and Freddy, a slow-moving but ominous brown teddy bear. Together, they roam the halls of the pizzeria, and if they find you, they’ll kill you.
Okay, but you’re a security guard, surely you can just stay in the guard room with all the doors locked, right? Not so fast. The guard room uses power to monitor the locations of the animals, light the hallways, and keep the security doors locked. As the night progresses, you use more power. If you run out of power, you can no longer keep the doors locked — and Freddy will surely find you. What’s more, as each night passes, your role gets more and more dangerous. The fifth and final night finds you facing unimaginable horrors in classic scary movie fashion.
When you explore the building using the hidden cameras, you begin to gather clues about the characters that deepen your understanding of what’s happening at Freddy’s and why the animals are after you. You eventually discover what seems to be a whole deranged backstory as the games introduce you to dozens and dozens of new vicious animatronic dolls, all with murder in mind. You also learn details that help constitute a rich meta-narrative about the game. This exploration, combined with the ideas the fandom has brought to the table, make FNAF a famously interactive experience, even though — and perhaps even because — the first game was just a single player in a room by themselves.
FNAF helped unlock multiple core elements of internet culture and gaming fandom
The thing that made FNAF stand out from a crowded field of horror games when it launched was its minimalism. Its stripped-down nature and the spare but immersive effect of being in a dark building at night effectively allowed it to recreate the mounting dread and anticipation of a horror movie and keep that suspense going for the entire game — or at least as long as it took for you to die. And if you think watching jump scares in a movie can be scary, try experiencing them alone in your room with headphones, in the dark, when you are the character being acted upon.
This immersive experience is directly linked to FNAF’s role in YouTuber culture. When the game launched, the platform was just beginning to embrace Let’s Play videos, a format in which gamers share their screens and comment on the game as they play it, so that audiences can follow along and enjoy their reactions. This format has since become ubiquitous on Twitch and across YouTube, but at the time, it was still taking off. FNAF reaction videos took Let’s Plays to a whole new level of visibility. Multiple YouTubers like PewDiePie and Markiplier, who would soon become household names in the gaming world for their Let’s Play vlogs, got their first boosts of popularity directly because of their Freddy’s reaction videos, which went massively viral, reaching millions of casual gamers and horror fans who otherwise probably wouldn’t be tuning into YouTube for this kind of content. Markiplier’s first video declaring FNAF “the scariest game in years” has over 100 million views. The main appeal of these videos came from watching the players experience the game for the first time and react wildly to each jump scare.
The jump scares may have been the gateway, but if the game were just a walk through a scary building, there’d be little value in replaying it, and little reason to obsess over it the way its fans do. Enter the cryptographic narrative. As academics Ana Paklons and An-Sofie Tratsaert wrote in their 2021 case study of the game, a cryptographic narrative is akin to a detective novel, one that “allows the player to become the detective.” A game full of secrets and hidden clues creates “a puzzle-like relation [between] the text and the reader.” In FNAF, “the player does not need the story to enjoy playing the game; its main function is to create a sense of immersion.”
The kernels of information fans decipher as they play FNAF significantly deepen their understanding of the universe and what’s happening in it. You can enjoy the game as a straightforward frightfest where things are trying to kill you. However, if you want to understand the why of it all, the games are strewn with nonlinear clues that help you piece together a whole picture of the FNAF storyline — or at least the storyline as people presume it to be, since the game itself is a closed box that provides plenty of questions but very few actual answers.
Fans are also guided by other fans. Matthew Patrick, creator of the YouTube channel The Game Theorists, began posting analysis videos of FNAF in 2014 and quickly became a major clearinghouse for FNAF fan theories — the ultimate decoder and keeper of the lore, if you will. His FNAF playlist alone has over 60 videos with nearly 800 million views. In his most popular FNAF video, which serves as an introduction to the first game and several of the many mysteries it serves up, Patrick describes the game as “a delightfully incomplete and mysterious story with just enough threads to keep you guessing.”
What you might not realize if you don’t do much gaming is that, these days, this metatextual style of game design is now everywhere — from other popular survival games like Hello Neighbor to intricate RPGs like Disco Elysium. In such games, the element of competition and winning is no longer the primary objective for many players; rather, settling into the universe, exploring the game world and secrets hidden throughout the games, and immersing yourself in the mystery are as important as the narrative goals that are set for you. This shift carries over to fans, too: As with many other parts of fandom, gamers are no longer content with playing games. Now they have to solve them, or at least have fun trying — which means fan theories and community problem-solving and sleuthing have become major parts of the gamer experience.
That all comes full circle now that the FNAF film is upon us: Fans have already spun elaborate theories about the film’s additions to or deviations from the lore, its new mysteries, and its structure, just based on the trailers they’ve seen and gossip they’ve heard. The film’s director, Emma Tammi, has discussed the importance of accurately representing the lore as well as balancing it with new elements. Plus, she’s hinted she’d be down to direct the rumored film trilogy that might result if this film is a success, which could mean even more rabbit holes for fans to fall into.
What does all this mean for the movie? It might just mean that FNAF fans will find themselves with a whole new set of mysteries on their hands. In any event, if you leave the cinema more mystified than when you came in, you’ll know you’re probably on to something.