I reimagined the Five Nights at Freddy’s (FNaF) franchise as a Muppets movie — skipping dinner to do so — and half of my friends are worried about me. Starving and spiraling after staring at Microsoft (MS) Paint for hours, all I had to show for my effort was a madman’s monstrous PNG. How did I get here?
It started as a typo and evolved into a tirade. On a Monday night in January meant for productivity, I sent a nonsensical series of images to one of my closest friends from high school. It was a series of parodying representations of Freddy Fazbear, the mascot of the Chuck E. Cheese-esque horror series, and he responded with a Spoonerism. “Fozzy fredbear,” the message said, and I felt a chill run down my spine. I pulled up Google Images, not for the last time that night, and grabbed an image of Fozzie Bear from The Muppets for my reply.
“FOZZY,” I announce. “fnaf muppets remake where fnaf is freddy,” I continue, not realizing my typo before I received his reply, which had a mistake of its own: “what if fnaf was freddt” (sic). “hold on,” I shoot back while pulling up MS Paint, “i need to set this up.” The crucial part of that message was “need.” Looking back, that chill was something I’d felt countless times over, some cold hand of Creation that would grip my psyche and not let go until I’d brought it into reality. Every creation I’ve ever conceived came from this same feeling.
That night I began cobbling together my connections board. The Living Tombstone blared in the background as I pulled up game models and character collages — cropping and cutting and pasting as needed, casting the beloved Muppets as the characters of children, animatronics and serial killers. When the work was finally done, it needed to be shared — distributed among some of my friends who I knew would appreciate the magnitude of what I’d made.
That’s not exactly how the night went, as much like the horror franchise I had created a fan retelling of, there’s quite a bit more beneath the surface. The Five Nights at Freddy’s series is infamous for a host of reasons: its noisy jump scares, its quietly horrifying premise and its deeply convoluted backstory, among others. This article is not meant to inform you about that backstory either, but the bare minimum of context might be needed. You could learn as I did, watching Markiplier play through the games and Game Theory’s MatPat theorize about them, but a saner option would be to find a summary. I was never actually able to play the games, as I was too broke to buy them in middle school, then too anxious in high school. However, there’s a certain entertainment factor to watching these content creators’ descents into insanity as the games and their lore twist themselves further and further.
The franchise is split into its original series and its succeeding storyline (and eventually an actual movie adaptation by Blumhouse?). The original series — containing “Five Nights at Freddy’s” one through five — was developed primarily by the creator Scott Cawthon, while the sequel series was developed by Cawthon and Steel Wool Studios. The original games follow the story of a pizzeria entertainment franchise being haunted by both its murderous possessed animatronics and the dark history of child serial killings that took place there. While being enraptured by such a dark premise might make my therapist worry, my real obsession is with how the story is uncovered. Certain details of the stories have taken years to discover: the timeline of the franchise’s events, the true identities of certain character sprites, the in-universe mechanics of how spirit possession and advanced technology can even function, even the relationships between the characters and their names. The instruments to uncover these mysteries are even more inane: from counting the toes of in-game models, to deciphering literal novels based on the game’s universe and even cryptography being used to decode a children’s activity book. The work done to traverse the game and its mysteries is done by its fervent fanbase.
That’s perhaps the most fascinating thing about this series: the fans. FNaF by itself is largely just a point-and-click horror series with some creepy Easter eggs, but its fanbase has transformed it into something so much more. The franchise’s purposeful vagueness and obfuscation create a work that is endlessly interpretable, and the fans eat it up. The sheer mass of fan content that spirals from this series borders on Lovecraftian — my friend even wondered if Cawthon sometimes feels like Steve Buscemi’s God in “Spy Kids 2.” The fan creations are endless: fanfiction, fanart, fan-films, fan music and of course — reflecting the original medium — fangames. A titular example of these fanworks is The Joy of Creation series, which tells the story of Cawthon himself besieged by his fictional monsters tearing their way into reality to wreak havoc on their creator and his family. Even though this fan-created series features horrors inflicted on himself and his loved ones, it amazingly has Cawthon’s full approval and funding under the Fazbear FanVerse project — an initiative to foster Five Nights at Freddy’s symbiotic relationship with the internet culture that launched it into the stratosphere, and to keep it soaring.
The title “The Joy of Creation” is especially touching to me. While in the game’s context it takes on a darker meaning, both the fans that made the games and the man they were inspired by truly know this joy. Cawthon himself felt it. FNaF was his last attempt at game development, after his failed attempts at making Christian games reflecting his faith. The last game he made before FNaF was “Chipper & Sons Lumber Co.,” a game heavily criticized for its creepy-looking character models. Negative reviews said that the main characters looked like monstrous “animatronics”, giving Cawthon the motivation for an entirely new brand of game — even if they haunted his nightmares. He then watched what was supposed to be his swan song to game development explode online, even if he never conceptualized the entire story from the beginning. We can see this across multiple contradictions in the series: Genders of vital characters change on a whim, story threads built up over multiple games are tangled rather than tied up and “dream theory” interpretations are seemingly confirmed and then retconned.
Trying to make a clear explanation from all the series’ information feels like you might slip and cut yourself on Occam’s razor. Let’s return to characters then — the ones that are so readily reimagined in my Muppet remake. Like the series’ plot, character motivations and connections are given so sparingly that it forces the fanbase to fill in the gaps. However, as the series progressed, names, roles and relationships were established, recontextualizing much of the franchise’s story and enhancing it. The intentional vagueness was stripped away, and fans could feel the full weight of the characters’ intentions. The most touching parts of the story are the friendships created during its calamities and how they can continue throughout dire circumstances. On the flip side, the most intense parts of the story are the protagonist and antagonist’s respective obsessions with ending and continuing the torture. The shadows of recontextualization fall back onto the past, darkening everything from simple details to innocuous anecdotes — like what really happened with the monster I made.
The minutes I spent in my desk chair waiting for feedback from the friends to whom I had sent my Muppets reimagining seemed to stretch into eternity as I glanced at the clock. Nearly two and a half hours had passed since I first sat down at my computer to make my masterpiece. My plan was to get ahead on homework, cook myself something nice for dinner and have leftovers for lunch tomorrow. It was too late in the night for that now; I had disobeyed my strict schedule for eating, something that helps keep my autoimmune disorder in check. I had screwed myself over by giving in to this chill of mine, this possession to create. Why was I so fixated on bringing this project to completion? I felt like Frankenstein — the scientist, not the monster. Why did I give in to my urge to play God and bring this monster to life?
This is not the first fixation I’ve submitted to, nor will it be the last. I’m still learning precisely how my brain operates in these circumstances; sometimes it hijacks itself and takes me along whatever new obsession arises, like when I became obsessed with video games in elementary school, fell deep into game fandoms in middle school and became obsessed with reading and writing about them in high school.
Normally, I’d say these were just the rabbit holes I fell into. Neurologically, my therapist would identify it as ADHD and/or bipolar mood disorder. All of my diagnoses have been of imprecise natures — doctors telling me I might be suffering from ulcerative or lymphocytic colitis or major depressive disorder — but they still help me understand the effects my poorly-designed body has on itself. Funnily enough, like the FNaF animatronics, it makes the experience of being a soul trapped in a faulty machine a bit relatable.
I ache from this hole I’ve created in myself, the one that’s always there after I make something, anything. This idea took root inside my mind and began clawing its way to the surface. Ripping through the gray matter in which it was born, it begs for physical form as it pounds against the plates of my skull. It grows more and more impatient for release until it finally breaks through, letting the shards fall back into my head as it emerges. I feel the soul of Lovecraft recoil at how unrecognizable my monster has become. Bloodied and battered and covered in the slush of what it took from my brain, its claws dig into my face as it leaps out into the world. It leaves me hiding in my chair, living in fear like Steve Buscemi’s God, afraid of what I’ve created. At least Frankenstein used others’ body parts. I make monsters from myself; I am a monster.
Then my phone lights up: It’s my friends. Their reviews are in. My old high school friend’s message comes first. “GO EAT DINNER,” he starts, following up with the message, “This is legendary.” Another friend reacts by screen-recording the video I sent them, responding with “I’m absolutely blown away and eat dinner.” Their responses snap me out of self-pitying reverie. I hadn’t drunk or eaten in the past couple of hours, so of course I was aching. I wolfed down all the lighter fruits and snacks I had stocked for times when my schedule got the best of me and let the water sweep my sadness away. Feeling immediately refreshed, I close MS Paint and wrap up the bare minimum homework I need to finish tonight. I am empowered with the knowledge that even if my friends unknowingly send me into a fixated frenzy, they’ll lend me a helping hand out of the rabbit hole. Whether it’s the friend I’ve known since middle school that I want to maintain a close relationship with, or the new one in college I want to be closer to, that knowledge holds true.
Later, I annotate the image to help it make more sense and send it away to a control group that knows nothing about the franchise — my best friends — for more peer review. They respond in blunter ways. A sole response from one is just “wtf saart.” “This looks like a cry for help,” another responds. I shoot back, “ur concern for my well-being is very touching and also very funny.” “it’s funny,” she replies, “but concerning.”
Playing God is typically frowned upon. But maybe, just maybe, the act of creation is a way to be closer with the whole of Creation itself. Whether one believes they’re made in God’s image or inhabit a part of gods themselves, to be human is to create, to reclaim a bit of control over your world. So where does that leave us? Well, Blumhouse finally greenlit the FNaF movie … and take a little guess who’s charged with creating the animatronics? Jim Henson’s Creature Shop — y’know, the creator of the Muppets? I guess I played a bit of a prophet too.
God complex jokes aside, as I wrap up this story of my creation, I pull up the image that inspired it to begin with — my lovely monster of a PNG. Lovecraft feared what was ultimately unknowable, but I find discovery to be more enticing than knowledge. I can be a better Creator than Steve Buscemi’s; I don’t fear what I’ve made. Unlike Frankenstein, I love my Monster. They come from me, so how could I not? Terrifying, unknowable monsters are made everyday: a manic Muppets recasting, the stories of souls trapped in animatronics, those stories twisting and turning their lore and their interpreters, fandoms so freakishly extensive it must scare the creator behind it all and even this comically long and complex article that was supposed to be the first I ever published. How do we face them? Well, I choose to let the warm glow of my monitor wash over me and bask in the joy of my creation.
Daily Arts Writer Saarthak Johri can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.