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The Origin of Five Nights at Freddy’s: How an Indie Video Game Became a Blockbuster Horror Movie
Before he became a menacing movie star, Freddy Fazbear cut his teeth on terrified gamers.
Creator Scott Cawthon probably never imagined that his little indie horror game about a robo-bear and his murderous gang of fluffy automatons would ever inspire a Halloween-season feature film. But nearly a decade on from the original release of Five Nights at Freddy’s –– Cawthon’s small-but-scary 2014 video game that launched an entire media franchise –– stars like The Hunger Games’ Josh Hutcherson and Scream alum Matthew Lillard are about to bring his twisted slasher dreams to big-screen life.
The Five Nights gaming universe is a cartoonishly deadly place, centered around a derelict kids’ pizza parlor whose abandoned animatronics take on a bloodthirsty life of their own after dark. Getting to see the franchise cross over to live action isn’t just a treat for Cawthon (who co-wrote the film’s screenplay and shares a producing role with Jason Blum) — it’s a treat for actual filmmakers who value a killer idea when they see it… filmmakers like Five Nights at Freddy’s director Emma Tammi.
Why Five Nights at Freddy's evil animatronics are a director’s ‘dream come true'
“Obviously, [I’m] really invested in the characters, and they’re the people who bring us through the worlds, so they’re of the upmost importance. But in terms of the tone of the world — the creepiness, the fun, the nostalgia that it triggered for me from my own childhood — and the opportunity to get to build these amazing animatronic puppets and work with Jim Henson’s company, was just, like, a dream come true.”
Fright flick fans everywhere are about to discover what it is about Five Nights at Freddy’s that’s beguiled horror specialists like Tammi (who directed the well-received 2018 supernatural horror western The Wind). But before the late shift begins and the evil overstuffed animals come out to play, we’ve really gotta ask: How did FNaF (the fan shorthand for the franchise) actually go all the way from an indie gaming upstart to a full-scale popcorn movie spectacle in the first place?
Gamers (and the internet) made Five Nights at Freddy’s famous
It began with the original Five Nights at Freddy’s, a game Cawthon made as a total change of pace from Chipper & Sons Lumber Co., his previous kid-friendly indie title. Stung by criticism that his animal characters drew players into an uncanny valley of unintentional creepiness, Cawthon decided to roll with that idea rather than let it defeat him.
“People said that the main character looked like a scary animatronic animal,” Cawthon told Indie Game Magazine back in 2020. “I was heartbroken and was ready to give up on game-making. Then one night something just snapped in me, and I thought to myself — I bet I can make something a lot scarier than that.”
So, in summer of 2014, the world got its first look at what cute, cuddly animals could look like after being transformed by Cawthon’s subversive brand of horror-gaming madness. FNaF achieved almost instant internet fame, thanks to an enormously viral series of playthrough videos from popular gaming YouTuber Markiplier — and within a mere matter of weeks, Cawthon already had announced plans for a sequel.
Freddy Fazbear goes viral
In the prolific hands of a solo game creator, small-scale indie sequels like Five Nights at Freddy’s 2 don’t require years of development time like their big AAA studio cousins. By the time the second game arrived only three months after the first, Freddy Fazbear and his evil-eyed accomplices had become viral internet-takeover sensations.
Markiplier dealt out early coverage of the first FNaF game, and it helped create the online phenomenon in the first place (seriously, his original “Let’s Play"-style YouTube clip of Five Nights at Freddy’s now sits at nearly 114 million views.) But the bandwagon had only just started rolling: By October of 2014 — less than a month before the second game’s arrival — fellow YouTuber MatPat of Game Theory fame began bringing even more fans into Cawthon’s demented murder-verse, collecting millions of views with his own tongue-in-cheek Five Nights takes.
Two more gaming sequels dropped throughout 2015, along with even more online buzz (and a widening audience for the games themselves on mobile smart phone platforms). By the end of that year, it was clear that the fan demand was there for toys, plushies, keychains, and pretty much anything else that might qualify as crave-able FNaF merchandise, leading to the franchise’s explosion into the collectible world of Funko POPs, clothing, stickers, and (of course!) the not-so-cuddliest cutesy stuffed animals this side of a leftover pizza slice.
Fans spent years clamoring for a Five Nights at Freddy’s movie
With all the key ingredients in place for a burgeoning horror franchise (and maybe a greasy cheese pizza pie), the natural next step in fans’ quest for more Five Nights content was to bring Cawthon’s games over to the big screen. Plans for a feature film were revealed as early as 2015 — a time when much of the in-game story lore that’s since fleshed out the franchise hadn’t even had a chance to be created yet.
Cawthon eventually switched studios in 2017, citing behind-the-scenes holdups and discontentment with early script treatments as reasons for allying with Blumhouse, Blum’s horror-specializing production outfit that remains with the project today. There were still delays to overcome, including a switch in directors (Home Alone and Harry Potter movie helmer Chris Columbus originally had been attached), and even a complete, ground-up development of a new script by Cawthon himself.
All the while, new video game installments in the Five Nights at Freddy’s storyline were heaping fresh and ever-deepening fright lore on top of the series’ original killer premise. In hindsight, it's probably for the best that it's taken almost 10 years for the franchise to finally achieve live-action film status, because it’s afforded more time for the far-reaching plot itself to mature… and for even more fans to discover what Freddy Fazbear is really up to.
No more waiting: Five Nights at Freddy’s is finally here!
For creators and fans alike, it’s been a long, scary crawl through creepy dark spaces to arrive at the film’s fateful premiere date — a date that’s sure to endure in the ever-expanding universe of Five Nights at Freddy’s mythology. But there’s a light at the end of the corridor at last!
Just in time to haunt your nightmares for Halloween, Five Nights at Freddy’s is set to debut in theaters and on Peacock with a simultaneous release on Friday, October 27. Tammi says she’s proud that the movie draws on two awesome creative pedigrees — the Jim Henson Creature Shop and the imaginative world of the Five Nights games themselves — to give animatronic scares a whole new terrifying dimension.
“…[J]ust walking into their space [at the Creature Shop] is just cinematic history in and of itself — and puppets!” Tammi explains to NBC Insider. “So we were so honored to be part of the canon of work that they had made. But they were equally so excited to be part of the FNaF-verse, so there was this real marriage of mutual admiration and excitement. They did the most incredible job bringing these amazingly horrific and beautiful creatures to life.”
*Grace Jidoun contributed additional reporting for this article.*