At its most basic level, the appeal of Scott Cawthon’s Five Nights At Freddy’s horror game franchise—set to release its first feature film adaptation from Blumhouse in theaters this week—isn’t hard to grasp: What if a bunch of Chuck E. Cheese robots started acting on the murderous impulses we’ve always assumed were lurking in their black, clockwork hearts? (In fact, it’s a premise so obvious that the Five Nights movie itself got scooped by an obvious imitator two years ago, in the form of the 2021 low-budget Nic Cage flick Willy’s Wonderland.)
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Part of the appeal of the Freddy’s games, though, is that they aren’t just “animatronic bear jumps out and murders you.” (Although that is a pretty healthy portion of what’s going on here.) Writing in a cryptic, haphazard style, Cawthon eventually constructed a needlessly elaborate—but also kind of fascinating—tumor of lore for what was, for many years, a one-man gaming franchise, much of which has clearly made its way into director Emma Tammi’s new movie. (The bit about “ghost children possessing giant robots” from the film’s trailer is pretty much verbatim, for instance.) Given the surprising complexity of some of this stuff—don’t even get us started on “the bite of ’87”—we thought it might be nice to put together a little primer on the series, answering seven basic questions so you can fully appreciate Five Nights At Freddy’s, the film.
Cheap, for one thing. That’s not a dig, either: Cawthon—who serves as both a producer and writer on the film and who, we should probably note here, has been dinged online for funneling quite a bit of his Freddy’s money into right-wing, anti-abortion political causes—found a formula that let him make horror games extremely cheaply, in the tradition of great B-movie cinema. Although they vary from game to game, most of the eight primary Freddy’s titles work the nifty, cost-cutting trick of keeping the player completely stationary, seated at a desk in the security office of an abandoned pizzeria as a minor “murder robot” infestation comes to them. No need to design environments that work as physical spaces, or mess with any irritating physics systems: Mock up a few security camera screens, render a few little “peek-a-boo” animations as the robots show themselves, and you’ve got pretty much all you need.
In fact, players won’t see much animation from the first few Freddy’s games at all, until they screw up, because one of Freddy’s other big innovations was its embrace of the jump scare-as-death. Allow one of the animatronics into the office with you—by failing to keep them out through the selective closing of doors on a strict timer or managing their other simple behavioral rules—and a sudden animation of the creature in question will leap for your face, followed by a game over screen. The whole thing was obvious, and early streamer bait, and one of the ways the Freddy’s games were pioneers was in being more fun to watch someone else play than necessarily experience yourself.
We’re generalizing wildly here: Cawthon, for all his faults and the rapid pace at which he released these games (the first five titles came out in the span of just 2 years), was careful to tweak and change the core gameplay with every title. (Five Night’s At Freddy’s 3, for instance, ditches all but one of the animatronics, trading the plate-spinning of the earlier versions for a game of cat and busted-metal-rabbit with a far more determined and deliberate single opponent.) But that’s the basic idea: Watch the cameras; use your resources sparingly; try to survive the night.
As the only human character (in the trailers, anyway) with a direct analog to the games, Josh Hutcherson has a lot riding on his shoulders. “Mike Schmidt,” the protagonist of the first game, is basically implied to be the player itself, picking up extra pizza money by watching over an abandoned restaurant. (At least, until later games retconned an implication that he was actually the son of a serial killer tracking down the spirit of his murderous dad through low-budget security guard work, but, uh, we’ll get to all that higher level stuff in a minute.) The big change in the movie—besides casting eminently charming Future Man star Hutcherson in the part—is the addition of his little sister, Abby, played by Piper Rubio. In the games, you only ever need to worry about keeping yourself alive, but the Blumhouse version of the franchise has clearly decided to up those stakes considerably.
From the trailers, at least, Tammi’s movie appears to be pulling strictly from the original game, which had only four robots to worry about: The titular Freddy Fazbear, a dancing bear with nice taste in hats; Bonnie and Chica, a rabbit and bird, respectively, who are most active in the game’s first few stages; and Foxy, a one-eyed fox who uses a different mechanic, wherein the player has to occasionally check in on them with the security cameras, or they’ll come racing down the hallways to murder them. Although the bots have no perceptible personalities in the original game, later titles got around to somewhat subtly revealing that all four of them are possessed by the spirits of kids who were murdered at the pizzeria (by a guy in a security guard’s uniform, which is why they’re gunning for you, the player). The film seems to be playing those elements up, implying a kinship between the robots and Abby, but that doesn’t mean things are going to be anything but deadly hazards for Mike as he tries to rescue her.
That’s Springtrap, the antagonist of Five Nights At Freddy’s 3, and he’s the overriding villain of this entire thing, the serial killer we keep alluding to in the above entries, the one who’s the cause of all this mess in the first place. Springtrap is where he ended up, somewhat literally, after trying to escape the authorities by jumping inside one of the suits. (One of the franchise’s spin-off books contains a pretty gruesome description of what happened in the aftermath, as the suit’s titular “springtraps” closed on him with lethal force, cutting his body to ribbons; couldn’t have happened to a nicer guy.) The upshot of that little whoopsie is that the ghost of William Afton, pizzeria co-creator and part-time murderer, is now running around in the Springtrap suit in the same way his victims are now possessing the other bots; whereas the other animatronics are mostly portrayed in a sympathetic (if still totally lethal) light, Springtrap is just a monster. We’re expecting him to be a major part of the movie’s endgame, if not outright setting up the inevitable sequel.
Gun to our head? Probably one featuring “Golden Freddie,” a weird, ghostly version of the series’ main mascot who usually only appears in glitches and is basically a one-bear Easter egg.
These characters have been in the internet’s sweaty hands for nearly a decade at this point. By no means should you do this.
Well, if you want to go in-depth with the series, you can check out the piece we published on its fifth anniversary, back in 2019, doing a deep dive into both its storytelling and its gameplay. Beyond that, you really just need to know that these games trade on some pretty basic primal fears: darkness, isolation, the sudden appearance of robotic bears with giant teeth. But also, because of how and when they got popular, it’s worth remembering that the Freddy’s games are deeply embedded in the psyches of a whole bunch of kids who are now of prime movie-going age; if you’re outside that basic demographic, Tammi’s movie is going to have a much harder hill to climb. It might be best, then, to adapt a trick from Five Nights At Freddy’s 4, and take on the perspective of a much younger person, tapping into that sensation of first keying into the horrors of the uncanny valley, and realizing that there’s something not quite right about how these creatures move, look, smile, and more. That’s the core of what made these games take off in the first place—along with a very liberal dose of jump scares, of course.