How has Five Nights at Freddy’s ($2.99), a series about animatronics and a bad pizza place that brings to mind many awful Chuck E. Cheese nights, exploded into a cultural phenomenon that has become the 8th most watched series on youtube ever? This is not a game that can be ignored by anyone anymore as its Let’s Plays (or Let’s Scream) have many million viewers each, and almost every kid I know wants to be one of the animatronics for Halloween. It got me wondering whether FNAF‘s success is part of a larger cultural shift happening at the moment, or whether this is a one-off thing.
And then it jumped out at me (pun intended); the game pretty much imitates the “found footage" horror movies, those movies based on the conceit that you are watching a “discovered" film. This horror subgenre has been ruling the movie theaters ever since the original Paranormal Activity (PA) came out (The Blair Witch Project came out way before PA did, but it didn’t set off a torrent of similar movies like PA did). When you compare the PA series and FNAF series, you can’t miss the resemblance: Night Vision cameras? Check. Weird supernatural events? Check. Minimum ability to actually interact with forces way beyond your control? Check. Eventual and unavoidable Jump Scares? A thousand checks. I’m not implying Scott Cawthon copied PA; I’m simply saying that they are both products of a shift in horror tastes from slasher and psychological horror to more visceral, jump scare based horror whose plot is merely a vehicle meant to achieve a maximum number of scares.
So, as you’ll see from these five reaction videos (one for each night you have to spent hiding from those creepy animatronics), people love to be helplessly waiting for a jump scare to knock them off their chairs or bring them close to tears. Welcome to the age of Five Nights at Freddy’s, where people scream their lungs out and then always return for more.