The Bye Bye Man is not real. Well, probably not. Unless … maybe?
Like many urban legends, the titular character of the new horror movie opening this weekend is based on some shreds of circumstantial evidence, a lot of "I once had this friend" level of oral storytelling and familiar iconography.
An albino hobo originally hailing from the Algiers neighborhood of New Orleans in the 1920s, the Bye Bye Man is said to have evolved into a supernatural entity with a grudge after being orphaned and treated like an outsider. Wearing a pea-coat and wide-brimmed hat atop his long hair, he also sports painted sunglasses and has a tattoo on his wrist.
Although blind, he is accompanied by Gloomsinger, an animated patchwork mush of eyeballs and tongues from the Bye Bye Man's victims (extra parts for Gloomsinger are kept in the man's seaman's bag called the Sack of Gore, which he carries everywhere).
If you even think of the Bye Bye Man, he will travel long distances along the railroad for you. He will set Gloomsinger out to locate you and they will communicate via a secret whistle, attracting the Bye Bye Man ever closer until you become his next victim – and your tongue and eyes are sewn onto his hunting dog-esque pet.
Even though the Bye Bye Man was supposedly born nearly a century ago, the story itself comes from folklorist and strange history expert Robert Damon Schneck. Schneck recounted the tale, which was told to him by a friend who believed he was haunted by the creature (after conjuring Bye Bye via spirit communication with a Ouija board, natch), in his 2005 book The President’s Vampire. Since then, the story gained popularity and has been retold amongst paranormal and urban legend circles, in web forums and on late-night radio shows like Coast to Coast AM.
More than Eric Knudsen's admittedly creepy Slender Man – pre-dated by the Bye Bye Man by four years -- this relatively recent creation has a passing air of believability and folkloric precedent (though Slendy is most certainly a part of folklore in his own right). While the new movie takes him in a different direction than his origins, let's look at why Bye Bye might stick around as a memorable part of American folklore.
To begin with, sufferers of the congenital disorder albinism have historically faced prejudices and been ostracized. The lack of pigment in the skin, hair and eyes not only makes an individual more susceptible to vision problems, severe sunburn and skin cancer, but the condition makes a person, well, stand out. And as we know, people who 'look different' are not often treated well in society. (Even in the 21st Century, in some parts of Africa, witch doctors use albino body parts in potions, which has led to a rise in murders of those with albinism.)
Now imagine if a sufferer happened to be a black man in the South in the predominantly African American community of Algiers in 1920s America. He would certainly have been mistreated, even within the black community. Making Bye Bye Man an albinism sufferer reinforces stereotypes, and is clearly exploitative, but creates an effective shorthand for an 'outsider.'
Beyond albinism, Bye Bye's appearance is striking and iconic. The dark coat, hat and sunglasses evoke funereal attire. It conjures images of the Grim Reaper, so-called 'shadow men,' or men-in-black (or, if you prefer, the Silence from Doctor Who, Slender Man, or The Gentlemen from Buffy the Vampire Slayer). His look is memorable because we can immediately associate it with a classically threatening presence.
Algiers itself makes for the perfect birthplace for a legend. After all, the Crescent City of New Orleans is the cradle of the misunderstood belief system known as Louisiana Voodoo (treated as exotic and threatening in the movies). It is the home to the Lalaurie Mansion, perhaps the most popular "haunted house" in America (a bastardized story of which, along with that of Voodoo priestess Marie Laveau, appeared in American Horror Story: Coven).
The city is likewise no stranger to macabre tales, weird crimes and real-life monsters such as the supposed jazz-loving serial killer The Axeman of New Orleans and Madame Lalaurie, who tortured her slaves. Even the story of the Sultan Massacre House, which is probably entirely fictionalized, adds to the bizarre reputation of the city. It's definitely a good hometown for a violent legend to take root.
A killer on the move
Railroads are inexorably woven into the growth and prosperity of America. Dating back to the 1820s, they connected a young nation, and the placement of rails and stations had the power to build or destroy communities. Before we were a nation of drivers (encountering hitchhiking ghosts), we were a nation riding the rails. And the Bye Bye Man is supposedly no different.
After an early violent outburst -- or so said the spirit of the Ouija board that allegedly communicated with author Schneck's friend – the young Bye Bye took to the rails where he hopped freights as a hobo and began his killing spree.
This is noteworthy because the concept of serial killers operating on the rails or highways is not a particularly novel idea, which gives the Bye Bye Man story additional resonance (like, for instance, a young couple 'parking' at Lover's Lane before encountering Hook Man). There is a sense of unease we innately understand about driving down a road alone late at night, or when considering the strange characters who might travel from town to town.
The Mad Butcher of Kingsbury Run who would decapitate and dismember victims on the rails of Ohio in the 1930s; the violent hobo gang The Freight Train Riders of America; The Boxcar Killer Robert Joseph Silveria; the disturbing Highway of Tears serial killer hunting ground in Canada over the decades; and the murders committed by Aileen Wuornos along Florida roads in 1989-90 ... this is a continent on the move, and some of our killers move as well.
Interestingly enough, the Bye Bye Man supposedly was born at the end of the Golden Age of railroads, around 1920.
What’s in a (legend's) name?
Hook Man, Bunny Man, Lizard Man, Goat Man, Slender Man, even Cropsey. Many classic Bogeymen of our folklore and legends come to us with designations that a child might come up with. They are uncomplicated and almost innocent-sounding. Even our trinity of movie slashers – Michael Myers, Freddy Krueger and Jason Voorhees – have names that would be pedestrian if not for the power with which we've imbued them.
In this way, Bye Bye Man fits right in.
It is a name simple to remember, and yet creep-inducing with that simplicity. What is also interesting is that knowing his name, and simply thinking it, serves as an invitation or summoning. Like Bloody Mary, or even Candyman in film, there exist theories within the paranormal and religious demonology studies, as it were, that states if one says a demon's name out loud, it will open a person to attacks from the entity (such as how chatting up "Captain Howdy" got Regan all Pazuzu'd in The Exorcist).
"True Names" are powerful things within legends. Incidentally, in folk stories or fairy tales, knowing the name of a being can grant the wielder power over it (see: Nix in Scandinavian stories; Rumpelstiltskin; Mr. Mxyzptlk's name pronounced backwards; and Catholic exorcism rites).
Coincidentally, these tales and beliefs may provide a clue as to Bye Bye Man's vulnerability within folklore. When summoned by a victim who thinks of him, he arrives to collect what? Eyes and tongues. Although Schneck's story says he is sewing these parts onto the abomination that is Gloomsinger for some unholy upkeep, perhaps he is also safeguarding against anyone gaining power over him by knowing his name.
In the Bye Bye Man chapter of Schneck's book -- which relies heavily on a first-person account by a friend, and is lacking much factual support – the author spins an interesting yarn that begins with the most famous objects to be found in urban legends and modern American folklore: the Ouija board.
The parlor game/spirit communication device is ground zero for slumber party stories, with a 126-year history that is fascinating, sometimes weird and occasionally very dark. And as I mentioned above, it was also what kicked off all the trouble in 1973's The Exorcist (and has inflicted the most damage to the game's rep in modern times).
While not asserting Schneck's witness fabricated the story he and his friends connected to the Bye Bye Man with an old Ouija, one couldn't find a much better device than that, considering the instantaneous reactions the board elicits from most. Not every legend involves the supernatural, but it doesn't hurt. The mystery that comes bundled with spirits, demons, ancient beings – or pet monsters made of tongues and eyeballs -- is unnerving to anyone who wishes to live in a world that is recognizable and defined. A good supernatural narrative speaks to our lizard brain and makes us question our safe existence atop the food chain as predators, not prey.
Moreover, the Bye Bye Man's evolution from a human (afflicted with a condition, then becoming increasingly violent and eventually transforming into an undying psychic predator) into 'something else' gets under our skin because no one truly knows what lurks behind the surface of your neighbor, pizza delivery guy or grocery clerk. Even within movies, Freddy and Jason originated as mortals before becoming supernatural forces. And how do we know that whatever changed the likes of them won't happen to any one of the random characters we encounter each day?
To be clear, I cannot speak to the veracity of the account Schneck reports. He is a solid researcher of weird stories in history, but this is something different. But while the tale of the Bye Bye Man is difficult to accept as legitimate, it is certainly compelling.
The bones of the Bye Bye Man story ring true enough. Due to bizarre factual anecdotes, and being connected to existing folklore, it has the makings of a nightmare that will be shared, and expand, over time.