The Bye Bye Man, Sinister, and Reflexive Horror

By  · Published on January 19th, 2017

What’s scarier than psychological film theory?

Before the diegetic film even begins, during the production titles, a rickety film projector’s whirring fan and clicking reels fill our ears. When the faded silent home movie brightens the screen with its family hanging via horrific Rube Goldberg machine, we’re made completely aware that we’re watching a movie. Something that couldn’t possibly be real, but because it’s a movie within a movie, it slips through our cognition into our subconscious. We’re used to one layer of self-removal; when two come along, our defenses are bypassed and one is free to wheedle into our paranoid minds. Sinister’s use of horror films within its horror film makes it all the scarier.

Ingmar Bergman’s 1965 Persona opens with glimpses of a small film projector followed by a quick montage of old silent films: a slaughtered lamb, a scorpion, children’s hands, two old corpses, and a child trying to touch an unfocused female face blinking back and forth. The film helped pioneer and solidify the reflexive motif of cinema as mirror, something horror movies – or any movies that want to make us feel uneasy – have heavily embraced. Persona’s identity blurring plot has been co-opted by some films in the spooky genre, but the often uncomfortable idea of watching movies within movies has been a more potent and visible throughline.

D.W. Griffith’s “Esperanto of the eye” allows all culture to observe and embrace the same cinema (albeit with different perspectives), but it also means that this reflexivity is one of the most universal techniques in the horror vocabulary. Even if it’s not immediately grabbing us in the way that the premise of The Bye Bye Man ropes us in (if someone says “The Bye Bye Man” out loud, they’ve signed their own death warrant), horror films have found ways to utilize reflexivity (by way of cinematic mirror theory) in their construction. Mirror theory comes from the psychological idea that babies only begin to exist as individuals – grasp the idea of themselves as individuals – when they begin to mimic others, namely themselves in a mirror. This identity confusion leads to uneasiness and alienation when seeing oneself (or an analogue for oneself) in media.

A character talking around the exact phrase “The Bye Bye Man,” ignorant to its significance – which we see from the film’s librarian (Cleo King) – isn’t in immediate physical on-screen danger. The tension only makes us squirm because we see ourselves in the librarian. No more than an hour before sitting down, we too were blissfully ignorant of this myth and now we hold this knowledge over a librarian that is a personification of all our past selves. Her dangerous approach operates as our hindsight.

Reflexivity can also involve the creation of the art itself. Think of The Shining, in which an author constructs his own psychic demons before embodying them and inflicting them upon poor Scatman Crothers. In non-genre, yet still unsettling, films like Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow-Out or Federico Fellini’s , artists struggle with their art very explicitly while inside of art themselves. Similarly, Ethan Hawke’s character in Sinister is a crime author who’s uncovered a series of murders while trying to replicate his literary success. That a demon comes after him isn’t mere bad luck or a haunting – it’s a full transference of evil through media. Like The Ring and its evil video-within-a-video, Sinister’s artistic reflexivity makes it more horrible.

These characters also face creative crises that revolve around their relationships to their media and how they use this media to interact with, and feel valued by, the world. The thematization of the creative act also inevitably associates it with conflict and peril.

How many movies about happy screenwriters do you know?

The Bye Bye Man may not possess that level of filmmaking or craft, but the same theoretical logic applies. Its medium isn’t video or literature (disregarding one scribbled word and an unpublished new report), but speech, then thought itself. That’s a pretty intense idea.

Theoretically, this crisis means that the whole world, not just a specific medium, is an inescapable horror setting. The protagonists are as trapped as we are, though not by the physical and social paralysis of the dimmed lights, stationary chairs, and packed theater seating, but by the instability of their own minds – neither of us can check with reality. And it continues after we escape the physical restraints of the multiplex. For hours after the film we’ll still hesitate before saying “The Bye Bye Man” out loud.

It’s because we’ve seen ourselves mirrored in this world and the identity confusion has been sewn. It’s the same principle that made it so that if you were a filmmaker (or crime author – or hell, the owner of a nice cardigan for that matter) before seeing Sinister, you may not have been one coming out. In the case of The Bye Bye Man, it uses a more universal bit of reflexivity: the human knack to think of what we least want to think about.

Reflexivity in horror is an adapting, experimental, and largely successful market (look at how the wonderful laptop simulation Unfriended did) which scares us in a way that’s a bit more interesting to think about than your typical ghost story. So even if The Bye Bye Man was awful, its premise should give you hope for the future of horror.

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Jacob Oller writes everywhere (Vanity Fair, The Guardian, Playboy, FSR, Paste, etc.) about everything that matters (film, TV, video games, memes, life).