On Pimps, Pushers, and Five Nights at Freddy's

He came into the room, head down, hands wringing. "I can't sleep," he mumbled, and when I asked him why, he walked across the hardwood floor, leaned in and whispered "Freddy." Child of the 80s as I am, I considered Freddy Krueger, the razor-fingered haunt of every thirty-something's dreams. He was the villain of Nightmare on Elm Street, the horror franchise that made Wes Craven's career. Appalled, I wonder how my child came to be frightened by this out-dated specter, and I rattled a mixed bag of questions and statements.

"Where did you hear about Freddy? He's not real anyway. Which kid has seen that terrible movie?"

Jude looked at me, brow furrowed. "Movie?" he asked. "They made a movie out of the game?"

Confused, I said, "wait; you aren't talking about Nightmare on Elm Street?"

"What's Nightmare on Elm Street?" he asked, and in an sudden rush of remorse, I lament my interjection of 1980s pop-culture into the conversation. His face soured, cheeks flushed, and tears welled up. "I'm talking about the video game, Five Nights at Freddy's, dad. It's so scary and I can't stop thinking about it. I dream about Freddy every night."

~*~

I'm not one of those issue-of-the-day bloggers, and I don't spend much time exploring or exploiting the ills of pop-culture or the media on these pages. But if only for today, allow me to speak my piece.

The Symptom

Five Nights at Freddy's was the independent video game sensation of late 2014. Rated as 12+ for "Frequent/Intense Cartoon or Fantasy Violence; Frequent/Intense Horror/Fear Themes," Five Nights is a simple horror game. And it's this intensity and simplicity that's led to its virality. In fact, as of the date of this piece, a YouTube search for "Five Nights at Freddy's" results in almost 8 million videos, most of which record the artificial stress gamers endure before cursing and defecating their drawers in fear.

"What's so scary," you ask? Consider the story.

Freddy Fazbear's Pizza was a cool dive, a place where an oversized, robotic bear and his friends served pizza in a family-friendly atmosphere. It was a happening joint until one fateful, murderous day.

As the story unfolds, the gamer learns that a child predator once lured five children into a back room at the Freddy Fazbear's Pizzeria. There, he dismembered the children, and stuffed their constituent parts into the animatronic suits of Freddy and his friends. The killer escaped, and the whereabouts of the children's bodies were not discovered until the patrons of the restaurant noticed blood, mucus, and a foul odor emanating from the suits of the once-happy mascots.

This is where you enter the game. The pizzeria is in the process of shuttering, but in the meantime, you have taken the night watch. And though you're assured there's no need to worry, on your first night, you realize something is amiss. The animals roam the halls of the pizzeria looking for a new victim to rip to shreds and stuff into an empty animatronic suit. If you're not careful, the next victim might just be you.

In full disclosure, I do not own Five Nights, nor have I played it. But after watching numerous videos of the gameplay, I can tell you this--this game is downright freaky.

This fright-fest does not rely on blood spurts or chainsaw mutilation to conjure fear. Instead, it's fear-fuel is found in its dark, yet compelling story, extreme-contrast lighting, and the creepy children's music. The game masterfully creates a world of artificial stress, one that triggers the gamer's survival instincts. And try as you may, it's not easy to make it through your five-night shift as a pizzeria security guard. Invariably, security cameras fail, distractions misdirect you, and when you're least expecting it, glowing eyes enter the room and jump into your screen with high pitched screams.

It seems silly and harmless enough, right? Maybe. But rest assured, the implied violence and horror is enough to send you screaming for your mommy.

The Illness

Now before you jump to too many conclusions, let me be clear--this isn't Really about Five Nights. The game is not the disease, it's not the great social ill. Instead, Five Nights is symptomatic of the greater illness.

My children received their baptism into Freddy's world at school, where their classmates smuggled it in on their iPads and smartphones. Simultaneously scared spitless and addicted, the boys cannot shake free from the game's animatronic grip. And this is the genius of Five Nights--it's captured the adolescent imagination. To borrow a term from Malcolm Gladwell's Tipping Point, the game is "sticky" among the children. Don't believe me? Ask any ten-year old whether he's heard of Freddy, Foxy, or Balloon Boy. I'll send you a ten-spot if he hasn't.

And is this stickiness among the children coincidental? Was this a game created for adults that just happened to slip into the hands of the children? I suspect not. I suspect children were the target market.

And now we get to the heart of the matter.

[tweetherder]We're rearing children in a world of crack-pushers and pimps who line their pockets by selling fear.[/tweetherder] They whet our childrens' appetites with characters that cloy before before they gore. And capitalizing on primal survival instincts, they laugh all the way to the bank.

Line up the dollars.

Count the stacks.

Parlay the earnings into the next Johnny-Scare-Lately addiction.

Create the modern Marlboro Man.

Make fear cool.

Push it; push it; push it.

These pushers and pimps are the child-predators, but the marketplace has deemed their predation socially acceptable. And so, they continue to sell, and sell, and sell, and our children continue to buy fear, all with our consent.

I'm growing weary of the marketplace that targets the children, that aims to sell them nightmares for a buck-ninety-nine. I'm growing weary of a marketplace that commodifies the God-given fight-or-flight instincts of our children. More than anything, I'm growing weary of a world which steals the innocence of my children, which takes the joy of an oversized teddy bear and turns it into a devil of a thing.

Devils are real, see.

Perfect love casts out fear, the good book says, and we're hoping to cast fear from our home. So we'll be vigilant; we'll guard our children's screen-time, and talk to them about the online pushers and pimps of fear, violence, and sex. What's more, if you send your kids to my house, we'll do our best to keep the fear-free. I'd appreciate it if you'd do the same for my kids, and for the the friends of your children. But all the same, wouldn't it be nice if the market could take a break from it's incessant pushing of fear, horror, and violence? Wouldn't it be nice if this kind of pimping wasn't seen as normal, but was received its share of parental punishment? Wouldn't be nice if we saw the light break into the darkness of market?

Wouldn't it be nice.

Wouldn't it?

Maybe I've become that dad. I don't really care. Revolution come.

*****

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