Five Nights at Freddy’s. What started as a point-and-click horror adventure within the bloodstained quarters of a pizza parlor turned into a hit that expanded into all sorts of merch and a whole game series. I doubt Scott Cawthon ever anticipated his choppily animated game about haunted animatronics roaming a Chuck E. Cheese knockoff would ever grow into what it did.
Why is it still a thing?
Well, it is fairly new. Launched on August 8, 2014, Five Nights at Freddy’s has had three and a half years to enjoy taking the Internet by storm. Cawthon certainly kept up, releasing four sequels and a handful of side-games with expedience upon his sudden fame. These games were not simply continuations; they quietly contain clues that piece together the lore surrounding Freddy Fazbear’s pizzeria.
I’ll focus on what the first game tells us. Newspaper clippings and posters flit in its shadows, awaiting keen eyes to piece together the truth about Freddy Fazbear’s Pizzeria. We get a pretty sound story: One day a group of children went missing from Freddy Fazbear’s Pizzeria. Not long after, adults began to be put off by the bodily aromas coming from the animatronic animals that trademarked the restaurant. The animals, as was reported, smelled like blood and mucus. The animatronics were also known to act erratically towards the series of appointed guards who sat in a narrow booth serving as the security office. It was routine for the Fazbear staff to let the animatronics run at night—it stretched out the nuts and bolts in the bulky machines, allowing their metallic joints to continue running smooth. To the guards, however, the animatronics moved with purpose. One can be certain they’re trying to get inside the office to grab the worker on duty. Why? It’s not confirmed. What’s certain is that they want to put you inside a Freddy Fazbear suit of your very own. Yum, yum, crunch, shriek—that’s the sound of the gears inside grinding you up as the metal exoskeleton becomes your casket. No, thank you!
It seems pretty clear, then. The animatronics are possessed by the children who went missing that one sad day. Having more lore doled out at each game is one hook keeping FNAF’s legacy strong. What can be known is not the only appeal. Cawthon’s series also retains popularity through its occasional lingering mystery. For example, who was responsible for the Bite of ’87, Foxy or Mangle? What’s inside that box in the end of FNAF 4? The overhanging unknowns are good enough to keep fans seated for the next show. Their loyalty, of course, is somewhat masochistic, as staying for another concert from Freddy’s band leads to extra opportunity for Freddy and friends to get you inside that suit. Lights, security camera, life-preserving action!
But who really wants to take action against these lovable animatronics? (As this article is about the popularity of Freddy’s, the previous sentence may be viewed as subjective.) Freddy’s four robots and their counterparts being trapped with you inside their little pizzeria is fascinating because it reflects the disorientation between what something was meant to be as opposed to what it really is.
Freddy and his friends Bonnie, Chica, and Foxy are symbols of happiness for the children who visit the pizzeria. Steadfast, they are almost hero-worshipped by the tykes who get to spend entire hours inside a place that has it all. Pizza, parties, games, and the cherry on top is Freddy’s indomitable band. It’s a dream—if you’re a kid. Children may enjoy Freddy, but adults see the clunky creepiness of the animatronics’ bodies in motion, hear the whining whirs and clicks of the machinery inside making them move. They peer into the robotic eyes that stare right through them, jutting into the occasional unnatural façade of life as their eyelids shutter in and out of view. Maybe they even smell something wafting from the animatronics’ jaws, something sickly and dreadful that clings to their skin like hot breath. Are happy memories in everybody’s favorite pizzeria worth it? Maybe you’ll take your cousin to Build-a-Bear next year instead.
Freddy’s animatronics are an example of something sinister arising from colorful creations that were made to be happy and innocent. This exceptionally popular horror archetype makes for a lot of interpretations! Freddy’s gang offers a plethora of ideas to contribute to the fandom. Your work can make the characters truly sinister and calculating. Or you can make them misunderstood; it is possible after all that the animatronics don’t know their actions will hurt you. In another story, they could consciously work towards a positive goal. As seen in FNAF 2, the animatronics used to have built-in criminal databases to detect and detain dangerous individuals on the premises. Maybe they’re secret heroes protecting kids from all the Purple Guys in town. Occasionally, they may need protecting themselves. A twist in the fandom finds the animatronics checking the security cameras for a threat that’s coming after them. This can make for a lot of amusing fanworks.
Then there’s work that focuses on the animatronics’ dynamics with each other, including your own OCs. There’s always new robots to befriend—er, fear?—in each game. Why not introduce another brand-new animatronic to the cast? Or if you’d rather stay on the side of flesh and blood, branch out to the human characters. Phone Guy, Purple Guy, the atoning Michael Afton, and the grieving parents of the missing children expand the possibilities of where Fazbear’s legacy will go.
Provided you live to tell the tale, that is. Each installment of Five Nights at Freddy’s traps you inside a small room through the night. Armed with nothing but your reflexes and a source of light, it’s up to you to keep Freddy’s band away long enough to hear the morning bells ring…OR ELSE. What a way to heighten players’ interest! Freddy’s wouldn’t be the same if you could get your hands on a nice big baseball bat after the first round. Blocking your foes through reflex is a much more demanding way to play a game than in the traditional manner where you take them down yourself. Make the setting a normally happy, safe place like a kid’s restaurant (or your bedroom) and there stretches more disorientation to make the game scarier. There’s the hitch. When it all boils down to it, we like Freddy’s because it’s scary.
The many aspects tying together to create such a creepy place canonizes Five Nights at Freddy’s into a very popular kind of horror story that’s seen permanence on the Internet. It’s the tale of a once-wonderful place, full of imagination and joy on the outside but hiding a murky depth underneath. As humans, we love this stuff. We love dimensionality in things that are supposed to be one way or another. We can’t get enough of scary, dark, insidious realities—so long as we’re safe in the harmless spheres of fiction. Often these tales are told to us around a campfire, or we read or watch it ourselves. In FNAF, we get to play it. We get to experience the terrors of a childhood gone wrong with the safety of our characters literally in our hands. That is what ultimately keeps players in the game.
So, are there any other aspects of FNAF that made it so popular? Do you disagree with anything on the list? Leave a comment below to add to the list. Then shake a leg and continue watching out for those animatronics. Hey, what’s the risk in shaking your leg? They usually go for the face!