In an era of complicated first-person shooters, detailed world-building, and dueling consoles, one of the internet’s most popular games built a gaming fandom with a simple point-and-click.
First released in 2014, Five Nights at Freddy’s was an indie game initially crowdfunded, then released for players on Steam by developer Scott Hawthorn. While the gameplay was simple — survive five nights in a spooky abandoned pizza parlor while animatronic animals try to kill you — Five Nights at Freddy’s (or FNAF as it is known online) had a fandom larger than most mainstream game franchises by 2015. In addition to sparking immediate sequels, spinoffs, and now a movie (which comes out this weekend), FNAF’s highly dedicated fanbase was so committed to creating content about their favorite game that they didn’t just make people’s careers. They created their own subgenre of music.
Based on popular child-friendly franchises like Chuck E. Cheese, Five Nights at Freddy’s dropped players in the abandoned Freddy Fazbear’s Pizza restaurant as a nightguard, forced to use their flashlight and other objects to defend themselves against animatronics that have come alive at night. If you get caught, you die. When the game was released in 2014, it was played and dissected by popular gaming YouTubers Markiplier and the Game Theorists’ MatPat, which raised its presence online. And with a dedicated fandom came a budding desire to create art — and music — about the game.
Perhaps the most well-known band in the FNAF fandom is the Living Tombstone, an electronic rock band made up of producer Yoav Landau and singer Sam Haft, two fans of the game. Landau, who started the group in the early 2000s, was an active member of the My Little Pony fandom when he first heard about FNAF. After playing the game, he immediately knew he had to make a song about it. Drawing from the game’s aesthetic, Landau created a synth-based ode to the world of FNAF, similar to the exaggerated hyper-pop sound now blasted by left-of-center popstars like 100 gecs and Charli XCX. Three weeks after the game dropped, Landau’s song “Five Nights At Freddy’s” was available online, immediately garnering millions of YouTube views. A subgenre was born, one defined by synthetic sounds laced with both horror and genuine explorations of what man and machine can feel.
In the past 10 years, Landau’s work has been a defining part of the FNAF fandom. While the sound of FNAF songs has evolved through the years, most retain the hyper-pop influences popularized by Landau. He and Haft tell Rolling Stone that making songs about the game has been a way for them to engage and continually contribute to the fandom, even as they’ve gotten older (they’re now in their early thirties) and their tastes have expanded. And Landau adds that the series’ deeper themes of fear and dread can serve as great starting points, both for songs and for bringing in fans.
“It’s not uncommon for horror to have spirits or poltergeists. But because it’s about a place that kids used to go, it’s also about the loss of innocence,” Landau says. “That’s what got people to really gravitate towards it because it’s such visceral imagery to think about.”
“It also happened to come out at a really fortuitous time,” Haft adds. “It was the dawn of creepypasta and a lot of the sort of viral [horror] stories had to do with kids getting kidnapped and a lot of the audience for that was young people and kids. It really hit a note for a lot of people, it kind of electrified their brains a little like ‘Wow, look at this horror that has to do with me and my fears.’”
Another large aspect of the Five Nights at Freddy’s popularity lay in the game’s extended lore online. Fans became obsessed with sharing, debating, and creating new theories about the backstory of these animatronic creatures and their long-dead creator. JT Music, a nerdcore hip-hop group made up of John Gelardi and Christian Ames, tell Rolling Stone that making FNAF songs became just another way fans could recontextualize and reexperience the game and its story from a different perspective.
“When we made our first FNAF song, we tried to make it about the security guard rather than the animatronics side,” Ames says. “For us, part of it was making almost a musical in a sense. The early music of FNAF was trying to portray a diegetic experience of what it is to be in the game.”
“Nerdcore music as a whole, can be seen as a value add to a property that someone’s already super into,” Gelardi explains. “So it just enhances that experience, especially when it’s a finite thing. Five Nights at Freddy’s is a game in one room. So in terms of fan experience, I think that’s why the [music] is so popular. People really clung on to it because it gave them more ways to express and feel.”
The Five Nights at Freddy’s film premiered on Friday, on Paramount and in theaters. And many of the artists who spoke to Rolling Stone say seeing their niche interest grow into a marketable film has them excited for a new wave of interest in the fandom. Charlie Green, who goes by his stage name CG5, made several of the most popular FNAF songs and says that the new movie and continued support make him so grateful that the fandom was such a formative part of his childhood. To celebrate the movie, he’s even releasing a new FNAF-based single called “Ballad of the Walking Machines.”
“I never really expected that I would write about video games. But the FNAF community around the particular songs have always been very loyal,” Green says. “So it’s really nostalgic for a lot of people to be watching this movie. This is something that years ago, people would only dream of becoming a reality, but it’s now happening.”
Even the creators of the film have acknowledged how instrumental FNAF music was in building the fandom out. Throughout the movie’s promotional cycle, all three groups have been involved in fan events and will be releasing new music to accompany the premiere. And as an ode to its roots, The Living Tombstone’s “Five Nights at Freddy’s” will play during the film’s end credits.
“Five Nights at Freddy’s is one of those things that so many people got attached to in their early teens. And I personally feel interests in your early teens never ever really fully go away. They’ll always have a piece of your heart,” Haft says. “This movie creates an entry point that is going to introduce a lot of people who may have been intimidated by the sheer amount of lore that already exists in the games. So I think FNAF is going to be a really enduring franchise.”