Stretching the definition of “true” even by Hollywood standards.
As with any horror movie purporting to be “based on a true story,” The Bye Bye Man takes a lot of liberties with its source material. But the funny thing is, the “true story” of the Bye Bye Man is already so unbelievable and unlikely to hold much truth anyway that it didn’t need to be changed to still be both interesting and scary.
The Bye Bye Man is adapted from a story originally titled “The Bridge to Body Island,” which was published in Robert Damon Schneck’s 2005 anthology of weird historical accounts, “The President’s Vampire: Strange-but-True Tales of the United States of America.” Both book and story have been retitled to tie-in with the new movie, but the content is still the same (with an update), and it’s crazy but not ridiculous.
Here are the key points and details of the Bye Bye Man story, as written in the book and told by Schneck on radio shows:
- The Bye Bye Man is a blind albino hobo from Louisiana who grew up in an orphanage in the early 1900s. He tried to escape many times, finally getting away by stabbing one of the caretakers with scissors, nearly to death. After that, he rode the rails across America, murdering people wherever he roamed, his weapon possibly being those same scissors.
- The Bye Bye Man’s traveling companion is a creature, some might call it a pet, made of sewn-together eyeballs and tongues, all of them cut from his victims and initially carried around in his “Sack of Gore.” The sidekick, named Gloomsinger, is brought to life by some sort of dark magic, maybe voodoo.
- If someone thinks about the Bye Bye Man, a psychic beacon reaches him, and that someone becomes a target – the closest thing to a logical motive being because they were gossiping about him. The Bye Bye Man then sets out towards the person via train, the beacon allowing him to telepathically hone in on their whereabouts as long as the thoughts continue. If the person stops thinking about him, the signal is broken.
- Once the Bye Bye Man is close enough to his new victim, he sends out Gloomsinger to help locate the person. When found, the little guy gives a loud, shrill whistle to draw in his master. And then killing commences and new eyeballs and tongue go into the sack.
- In the specific story, three friends in Wisconsin came into contact with the Bye Bye Man via Ouija board, because apparently you can communicate with living entity consciousnesses that way, with “the Spirit of the Board” as a go-between. After learning his story, including the part where they’d just become his latest targets, the trio stopped their Ouija “experiments.”
- Later that year, one of the friends, who’d been having terrible nightmares and panic attacks inspired by the Bye Bye Man seances, was walking along a railroad bridge to Wasau, Wisconsin’s “Body Island” (really Barker Stewart Island)— nicknamed such because bodies of drowned lumberjacks would wash up there. And she heard a shrill whistle that kept getting louder and louder that surely belonged to the Gloomsinger. She bolted as fast as she could away from the spot.
- About the same time, another of the friends, who’d also been having similar nightmares and attacks, awoke to a knocking at his door, within the boarding house he lived in. It was then accompanied by the voice of the other friend inviting him out for breakfast, and he could see someone’s feet on the other side of the door. But he realized it was actually the middle of the night and ignored whomever it really was, presumably the Bye Bye Man, until they went away.
- Eli, the one member of the three not to have an encounter later, held onto the ouija board they’d used during the experiments and keeps it locked away in a cabin along with these other supernatural objects: a bar of soap from a haunted sink, a book of black magic, and a cursed, poisonous monkey spear acquired from a local anthropologist.
- Schneck believes that he avoids the Bye Bye Man himself by always thinking of him only as “BBM” and only ever saying the full name out loud on the radio. And in those times, by making thousands of people simultaneously think of him, it lowers his chances of being the next target. He thinks the movie will now have millions thinking about the Bye Bye Man, making it even more difficult for him to be pinpointed.
- Schneck also thinks the Bye Bye Man story, as communicated through the Ouija board, could have just been used as a gateway for evil spirits to make the friends’ vulnerable enough to get in and possess them.
Of course, Schneck also thinks all of it could have been made up, not intentionally but through the subconscious suggestion built up through the experiments conducted by those friends. Schneck is the sort of writer who likes to get to the bottom of the mysterious stories he presents and not so much debunk them as explain them through scientific, psychological, and folkloric expertise.
He admits that “The Bridge to Body Island,” aka “The Bye Bye Man,” is a curious diversion for him in that it’s not based on any record of history or legend. He first heard about it from a friend, one of the supposed three friends, during a Devil’s Night party. It was based on an actual experience, and Schneck has corroborated the tale with the other two, whom to this day want nothing more to do with it – they signed releases for the movie, but that’s as much as they’d comply.
What’s especially fascinating about the story, and Schneck also acknowledges this, is how many layers of narration there are. He wrote and tells the story that he heard from a friend, who heard the story via the Ouija “Spirit of the Board,” which was relaying the story via the Bye Bye Man. And after publication, others have shared the story and it’s become a minor urban legend (comparable to or mistaken for the Slenderman for many), and now there’s the Hollywood take.
So, what’s definitely true about this “true story” is that some college kids got freaked out while playing around with a Ouija board, which is pretty common. And one of those kids was already prone to having panic attacks before the experiences, and two of them had already believed they’d had paranormal experiences before, one with a ghost in a mirror, the other with a ghostly phone call. They also were into folk tales.
The whole story – particularly with the specifics of the Bye Bye Man – in the book is so much better than the movie version, with a richer consideration of this tale and others like it. But is the adaptation scarier by cinematic design? Well, the text isn’t that frightening, but I first heard the story spoken by Schneck on the podcast Mysterious Matters, and I did get spooked.
You can listen to that episode below, and read more about the Bye Bye Man in the original story, available in the book now titled “The Bye Bye Man: And Other Strange-but-True Tales.”