Tuesday, April 11, 2017
The Films of 2017: The Bye-Bye Man
[Beware of Spoilers!]
Last Tuesday on the blog, I reviewed Arrival (2016) and wrote at length about The Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis. In particular, I described how, according to that theory, language determines culture.
Today I’ll review a new horror movie called The Bye-Bye Man (2017), and to my surprise it also concerns communication topics (my field of study), at least obliquely. In particular, this horror film gazes at the way that language creates anxiety, or terror.
The concept here isn’t Sapir-Whorf so much as Ironic Process Theory. Some also call this hypothesis the “White Bear Theory” (after Fyodor Dostoevsky’s 1863 quote about a polar bear), but the idea is that the more one attempts to block or repress a specific thought, the more likely that thought is to manifest itself.
This effect is amplified if the percipient is feeling depressed, or anxious. The ideas informing Ironic Process Theory have been studied since the late 1980’s, first under Dr. Daniel Wegner (1948-2013).
The Bye-Bye Man -- a rubber reality horror movie that attempts to create a new boogeyman in the mold of older, 1980's ones, like Freddy -- is about a horrific reaper-like figure who appears whenever his name is spoken aloud (language is anxiety-provoker!) Or when one’s thoughts wander to him.
The first line of defense to those who encounter The Bye-Bye Man is a refusal to speak his name aloud, or even think about his name.
“Don’t say it! Don’t think it!” Those words are the film’s mantra.
But, of course -- given my description of Ironic Process Theory above -- the more one tries to suppress thoughts about the Boogeyman, the more those thoughts take control, having the opposite effect. They become louder, more prominent.
I must admit, this is a unique and bloody-good idea for a new rubber reality monster, part-way between Freddy and Candyman, one might conclude. Frequently in the film, language acts as a contagion, or vector for infection. Once the name of the Bye-Bye Man is spoken, the epidemic spreads. And since we live in the age of Social Media, in which our words and thoughts are carried to all corners of the globe, the movie possesses a high degree of relevance.
The Bye-Bye Man manages to be scary quite often too, although some scenes feel a little off-the-shelf, and let down the intriguing premise.
For instance, the film includes yet another séance, which -- in the era of Insidious, Ouija, Annabelle and so forth -- feels like a played-out scenario.
Also, the commercial concerns of establishing a new Boogeyman for fan consumption seem more overt, at times, in The Bye-Bye Man than the movie’s genuinely intriguing study of character, language and anxiety.
“If you remove all references to one thing in the past, you erase that past.”
A college student, Elliot (Douglas Smith) rents an old, dilapidated house with his girlfriend, Sasha (Cressida Bonas) and his best friend, John (Lucien Laviscount). Elliot’s parents died in an accident, and he is looked after by his brother, Virgil (Michael Trucco) and his family.
Soon after renting the house, Elliot sees weird writing in a night-stand drawer. It reads, over and over, “Don’t Say it! Don’t Think it!” Scrawled into the wood, however is the name not to say: The Bye-Bye Man.
Soon, Elliot’s thoughts turn dark and disturbing, and his friends, including a psychic girl, Kim (Jenna Kannel), come under attack from a malevolent, reaper-like being, and his monstrous hound.
Hoping to stop The Bye-Bye Man, Elliot conducts some research, and finds that the first mention of that name "Bye-Bye Man" goes back to a massacre in Madison, Wisconsin, in the year 1969. A local journalist, Larry Redmon (Leigh Whannel) investigated the massacre, and then became violent himself, going on a killing spree of his own.
Elliot realizes that the journalist was attempting to stamp out any mention or thought of The Bye-Bye Man, so that no further people could be terrorized by the dark, spectral force.
Elliot attempts to fight the Bye-Bye Man, but at home, the reaper is already impacting Sasha and John in horrific ways.
“Fortune is like a coin toss thrown by the hand of God.”
I don’t believe it is any coincidence that the “infection” of the Bye-Bye Man begins, in this tale, with a journalist.
Language can create anxiety. Language can create terror. In this case, Larry Redmon, a journalist, stands to repeat and transmit the very words that create those things. He stops himself, but the under-the-surface message seems to be a perfect warning for the Fake News Age of 2017. Be careful what you print. The words you write, the arguments you make, even the stories you air, carry repercussions throughout the culture. Those behind the ridiculous Pizza-Gate conspiracy of some months back have learned this lesson, I hope. Some would argue that their words incited violence.
For many sufferers, anxiety begins not internally, but with some story someone read, or something seen on the news. Think of all those reports about liberals who have been unable to get a good night sleep since the 2016 Presidential Election, for example. In this instance, it’s not just the fact of the election that's so disturbing, it’s the reporting about it that generates unease, as well as symptoms such as insomnia, or anxiety.
Going back further, to the 1990's, I remember that I had to permanently swear off prime time news "magazine" programs like Dateline because every week they sought to scare viewers about something new.
Raves. Ecstasy. Planet smashing Asteroids. Ross Perot.
In the case of The Bye-Bye Man’s protagonist, Elliot, he seems quite prone to the Ironic Process Theory.
He is vulnerable to it because he boasts trauma in his past (the death of his parents.) He also learns that he is a burden to his brother.
Worst of all, Elliot secretly fears that his girlfriend, Sasha, is sexually attracted to his best friend, John.
When Elliot begins to get caught in his rut of negative thoughts (courtesy of the Reaper), his fears seem to become real.
One night, he thinks he hears Sasha professing her love for John, in their bed. After a visit to a library, he believes he sees Sasha getting into John's car. And near the end of the film, Elliot experiences a delusion in which he finds John and Sasha at home, engaging in sexual intercourse.
In this case, Elliot's fears about his own sexual inadequacy (and Sasha’s fidelity, perhaps), become worse and worse. He might want to not think about it. He may not want to admit it (don't say it!), but the more he tries to avoid the thought, the bigger the problem represented by the thought, becomes.
I wish the movie possessed the courage to deal with Elliot’s anxieties and insecurities a little more head-on, but as a would-be mainstream horror film, it feels compelled, instead, to thrive in the arena of jump scares, seances, and victim-pool deaths.
Still, some of the scares here really work effectively. There’s a scene in the middle of the movie, for example, that finds Elliot in a library alone. He sees, across a long-shot view, the Bye-Bye Man sitting at a distant table; the furthest table in the room.
Elliot looks away.
When he looks back, the Bye-Bye Man is one table closer.
He looks away again, and yet every time he looks back, the Bye-Bye Man is nearer, and therefore looms larger in the frame.
As you may have guessed, this moment is absolutely a visual metaphor for Ironic Process Theory. Elliot detects something, tries to put it out of his mind, and yet it only gets bigger, nearer, in his vision or thoughts. The scene perfectly symbolizes the theory, and explains well, therefore, how it works.
The film is based on a story -- “The Bridge of Body Island” -- by Robert Damon Schneck. It has been described as true, allegedly referring to an incident in Sun Prairie, in 1990, involving a group of researchers, a Ouija Board and an African-American albino from Louisiana.
Of course, long-time horror fans know that such claims of “true story” are generally bunk, used as promotional stunts to sell tickets. The part of this story that’s true, I would argue, involves human nature, and the White Bear Theory notion: the idea that language (and thoughts) can spur anxiety, and then can’t be put easily to bed, at least until the sufferer tries to “change emotional frequencies.”
So in this case, I would credit The Bye-Bye Man with a good concept, and some effective use of imagery, but not-always great execution. The movie’s hell-hound is created with bad CGI, which takes away its effectiveness as a monster. And the movie finds ways to waste its supporting cast, which includes Carrie-Ann Moss, and Faye Dunaway.
Finally, some images are left unexplained. Often in the film, we see a train, for instance, and a track littered with detritus. The “real-life” Bye-Bye Man’s body was apparently hidden on a train, but that fact is not included in the cut of the film I watched.
I think the train, unexplained or not, works satisfactory, because sometimes anxiety or anxious thoughts do feel like a barreling train on approach. It gets closer, and louder, and closer-and-louder, until it is impossible to ignore.
I can’t imagine that The Bye-Bye Man will ever carry the genre impact of a Freddy or a Candyman, but the 2017 film nonetheless reprsents an intriguing attempt to create a new rubber reality villain; one who can -- if his name is spoken -- spur anxiety, madness and death.
As with many 2010-2020 horror franchises, the second film in the series, if there is one, may be the one that determines the longevity and popularity of this character.
A sequel? Now I’ve done it.
Don’t say it. Don’t think it.