A new horror film titled The Bye Bye Man scared up $16 million in box office sales over the past week. The film is based on the chapter “The Bridge to Body Island” in Robert Damon Schneck’s nonfiction book The President’s Vampire (reissued last year as The Bye Bye Man, complete with the obligatory cover teaser “Now a terrifying motion picture!”).
The film’s plot, as provided by the film company: “When three college students move into an old house off campus, they unwittingly unleash a supernatural entity known as The Bye Bye Man, who comes to prey upon them once they discover his name. The friends must try to save each other, all the while keeping The Bye Bye Man’s existence a secret to save others from the same deadly fate.”
Intrigued by the topic, I read the book and interviewed the author. Our conversation covered a wide range of topics, from alien abductees to Charles Fort’s disappointingly lax scholarship (see Schneck’s chapter “The President’s Vampire” for more), but we soon chatted about the monstrous creation he helped usher to the big screen.
That most films claiming to be “based on a true story” are heavily—or perhaps entirely—fictionalized is hardly news to skeptics, and even the average moviegoer likely harbors some doubts. From a folkloric perspective there are many red flags that the story of The Bye Bye Man (as Schneck described it to me and in his book—he didn’t write the screenplay) is fiction.
There are several meta-layers to The Bye Bye Man’s story: It began as a story pieced together by three real people (Eli, John, and Katharine) around 1990 when they experimented with a Ouija board. They came to believe that several spirits were talking to them, and one told the trio a story about something called The Bye Bye Man. The legend, as told by an entity they called The Spirit of the Board, described an albino child in an orphanage in Algiers, Louisiana, in the 1920s. Shunned by others and mentally disturbed, he stabbed a nurse with scissors as a teenager, escaped the home, and began riding the railways on a serial killing spree. He would cut up his victims and use pieces of them to create a companion he named Gloomslinger, which somehow came to life and helped him find victims. At some point The Bye Bye Man became psychic, and was drawn to his next victim when they thought about him or said his name (this theme would appear on the book cover and in the film as the catchphrase “Don’t think it. Don’t say it”).
After the Ouija sessions ended, the three had a handful of strange experiences and dreams they couldn’t explain, but little more came of it for many years as all went on with their lives. One of them, Eli, had a tradition of telling this spooky story on Halloween nights, and it eventually came to the attention of Schneck, who’d authored several books and articles on strange-but-true stories.
To be clear about the provenance: The Bye Bye Man film is adapted from a chapter in a book by Schneck, which is in turn based on a story told to him (as true) by three people who claim they had conversations with a spirit entity through a Ouija board in 1990, who told them the story of an evil spirit named The Bye Bye Man. It’s a legend within a (supposedly true) a story within another story and adapted into another story. And “that story has been the most popular thing I’ve written,” Schneck told me.
I asked him what he thought about the truth behind the story.
“Well, it’s a story,” he told me.
I replied with a chuckle, “I know it’s a story…but do you think it’s a true story?”
He paused and said, “I don’t think it’s very likely, because there’s just no real reason to… There was no reason for thinking that the story, as told, was true.” The primary source, Eli, “is the first to admit that when he tells the story on Halloween, he embellishes it. He tries to make it a better story; he will exaggerate things—he’s a storyteller, and he’s the first to admit it.”
Though over a decade had passed and no records were kept of what was said at the Ouija séances, Schneck interviewed the principals and did his best to see if there was any truth to this bizarre, ghost-dictated tale. He researched two unequivocal parts of the story that seemed to hold out some promise of being verified: whether there had ever had been an orphanage in Algiers, Louisiana, and whether there had been any unsolved murders (whose signature would be missing body parts) that could be attributed to The Bye Bye Man. The answer to both of those questions was no.
Origin of the Bye Bye Man
Schneck writes, “Without an orphanage or evidence of murders, the story appears to be an invention. But who invented it and why?” The answer is that The Bye Bye Man story emerged in the same way all stories do: through individual and collective imagination. Fiction writers draw from a wide variety of sources, including life experiences, memories, stories, movies, impressions, dreams, sounds, and everything else that influences consciousness and makes up a life. While some influences are known and obvious, many are unconscious and remain a mystery even to the writer. It’s not uncommon for an artist, writer, or musician to speak of feeling like a vessel or medium for ideas, of telling a story whose precise inspirations are unknown. It’s not magical or mystical (at least not in the paranormal sense) but instead the essence of human creativity.
Asking where The Bye Bye Man came from is like asking a fiction author where she gets her ideas: Anywhere and everywhere in her life experience—and “in her life experience” is important because people write about what they know, what they’re personally and culturally steeped in. I’m not likely to think, dream, or fantasize about golf, for example, because I know virtually nothing about the sport and have no interest in it. It’s the same reason that a seventeenth-century French peasant would not imagine a story (or write a song) about playing video games: they’re not part of his worldview or experience.
The story of The Bye Bye Man was created by three people, all of whom believe in the power of the Ouija board to convey supernatural information. Here is how Schneck describes two of the three in his book: “Eli and John both enjoy horror as entertainment, but their interest goes beyond movies, novels, and role-playing games. Both are writers, and Eli is especially prolific, producing books, stories, and plays with macabre themes. He has a degree in folklore, is well read on the subject of serial murder, took part in the Goth sub-culture, which is fascinated by death, and spent many years involved in parapsychology…. He has spent long hours in graveyards, haunted houses, and Satanic churches [and] worked with psychics, Wiccans, and sorcerers… John studies philosophy, mysticism, and the works of Joseph Campbell. He has a special interest in…the how and why of what makes things frightening, and a history of paranormal experiences” (p. 152–153). The third in the group, Katharine, is described by Schneck as easily excitable, suggestible, and subject to panic attacks.
One could hardly pick three personalities more suited to creating a fictional, scary, folklore-derived character such as The Bye Bye Man. As several film reviewers have commented, The Bye Bye Man plot seems culled from many elements of other horror films, urban legends, and scary stories—exactly the material these three were familiar with.
For the trio who originally created the character and many audiences, the idea of The Bye Bye Man may seem plausible. Just as many people genuinely believe that hypnosis can help retrieve—rather than create—repressed memories or past lives, many also believe in the ability of Ouija boards to communicate with the dead or occult powers.
The original Bye Bye Man story Eli and others reported is only one of many supposedly dictated by unseen spirits through Oujia boards; perhaps the most famous was through a woman named Pearl Curran, who claimed to be in contact with a dead woman named Patience Worth (the claim was later debunked, though it seems likely that Curran genuinely believed she’d been in contact with the dead). Ouija boards convey unconscious information from their participants in a process known as the ideomotor effect. Of course the participants do not recognize that they are the source of the information instead of some external intelligence—that is precisely why Ouija boards are considered mysterious and occult.
Indeed, Schneck acknowledges that “sitters talked about the messages they were getting, speculated freely, and may have engaged in a ‘process of joint imaginative creation’ that was expressed through the Ouija board” (p. 162). Absent any evidence that the story is true, the simplest explanation is almost certainly the correct one: The three unwittingly made up The Bye Bye Man story, told it to Schneck a decade later as true (to the best of their knowledge, while acknowledging exaggerations and embellishments), and Schneck then wrote a chapter about it (in a book whose subtitle includes “Strange-but-True Stories”) that was later adapted into a film.
To Schneck, whether The Bye Bye Man really existed is less interesting than where the idea came from. “It’s like we’re watching an urban legend being born. That’s why I was expecting it to become like what Slender Man became, because it felt that way…. What I find so fascinating is that this is like getting to the core of where stories come from, it’s like seeing a story being born,” Schneck said. “To watch folklore being made right in front of you is just a fascinating thing.”
It is indeed rare to be able to pinpoint the precise origins of a given piece of folklore or urban legend. It’s only happened a few times in the past few decades: I did it in my investigation into the vampire beast el chupacabra, tracing its origin to a Puerto Rican eyewitness who’d seen a 1995 horror/science-fiction film (see my book Tracking the Chupacabra: The Vampire Beast in Fact, Fiction, and Folklore), and—in a closer parallel with The Bye Bye Man—folklorists know exactly where, why, and how Slender Man was created. For more information on Slender Man’s origins, see the folklore journal Contemporary Legend (Series 3, Volume 5, 2015), published by the International Society for Contemporary Legend Research.
The Bye Bye Man is “based on a true story” insofar as it’s true that the story was made up—not that some malevolent urban legend figure is out there killing people who think about him or say his name. Though the story is, as Schneck admits, almost certainly not true, it remains an interesting case study in psychology and folklore.
Whether Schneck himself believes in the validity of Ouija boards, dreams, or The Bye Bye Man, he is folklore and media savvy enough to see the topic’s potential. “This is not really my story,” Schneck says. “I never claimed that it is. It’s really Eli’s story and he was generous enough to share it. It started with these three people; Eli has always been telling it to his friends, so it’s been told to a few hundred people. I got ahold of it, and a few thousand people then heard about it on the radio and in my book. And now it’s going to be a movie. Millions of people are going to hear about it…. This could literally become a part of our culture.”
Schneck has helped introduce a Slender Man–like entity into popular culture, but whether it will ultimately be incorporated into organic, genuine belief (as Slendy has) or dismissed as a commercialized derivative of a spooky urban legend figure remains to be seen.