Don’t think it, don’t say it, don’t think it, don’t say it… but even though I haven’t even taken down my Christmas tree yet, The Bye Bye Man is already one of this year’s most terrifying cinematic spectacles. There are some horror movies crawling with menacing creatures, some dripping with enough blood to stain the screen red, and some that mess with your head to the point that you start to question the entire philosophical basis of reality, but the grim illusions and unexpected scares in Bye Bye will send shockwaves under your skin long after you run panting from the dark theater.
Suburban towns where there are always manicured lawns and plastic over the furniture often spawn some of the scariest nightmare fodder, which makes the town of The Bye Bye Man a statistic when a single gunshot pierces the lazy end-of-summer calm. It is the shot that will forever shake suburbia with the horrifying secret behind it. The unlikely—think office-preppy and bespectacled—gunman climbs out of his slate-blue ‘70s automobile with a rifle in hand, stalking terrified victims with a crazed desperation while muttering something almost incoherent under his breath, as if having a psychotic episode. A final explosive shot flash-forwards to three students starting their fall semester at Williams Buchanan College. Elliott (Douglas Smith), his girlfriend Sasha (Cressida Bonas), and best friend John (Lucien Laviscount) are only looking for an upgrade from a dorm room when they find an almost unbelievable lease for a house that just screams “haunted.”
You know what they say about things that sparkle with possibilities too good to be true.
The place is an atmospheric spook show. They tiptoe through empty spaces of dust-filled light seeping in from windows and around walls covered with vintage flowers frozen in bloom, cracked tiles and yellowing white paint. Dismantled shelves and broken chandeliers shrouded in dust are scattered in a basement where a single lamp sputters and flashes like fractured sanity. It is only after they sign the lease that miniature doors start opening into an abyss of darkness and mysterious coins keep falling through a night table whose drawer is scrawled with a spiral of words—the same ones that the suicidal gunman kept repeating to himself as he headed for the house across the street. Don’t think, it don’t say it, don’t think it, don’t say it.
Then there is the name that’s been crudely carved into the wood as if by a knife that has just killed. The name that needs only a thought or a whisper to project a phantasmagoria of your most menacing fears in the flesh. The Bye Bye Man.
If you were possessed by The Conjuring and hunted in your nightmares by The Babadook, you will be paranormally drawn to The Bye Bye Man. There is that same insidious quality to it that finds a phantom (and an insanely grotesque one that looks like he could be Voldemort’s Grim Reaper cousin) slowly pervading every facet of the characters’ waking minds. Mirages become real, and reality becomes a lie—and that reverses, again and again, until it goes off into the same death spiral of don’t think it, don’t say it that devours anyone who knows too much.
The plot is like a horror coaster that only crawls along for several seconds before plunging you into the very depths of terror, then endlessly looping and swirling, and corkscrewing until the explosive conclusion that calls back ghosts of The Shining. You will find yourself shuddering at the slam of every door and screaming at every sight of a corpse-pale face and gnarled hand. You will freeze at every unnatural flash of light and banshee screech of a train horn. You will sleep with all the lights on until well past dawn, if you sleep at all.
What makes the spirit summoned by the words “Bye Bye Man” so terrifying is that he is not just an outside spook looking to decapitate as many innocent virgins as he can with a garden scythe. This psychological vampire will mentally dissect you and feed off the fears he brings gasping to the surface. He does more than spark your fears; he is your fears. He is everything that you dread which festers in the back of your mind. He is the car crash and the trainwreck and the bodybag and the visions of everyone you love dripping blood onto the toes of their shoes, because their eyes have been gouged out.
Whatever you see can vanish into smoke, and whatever you then want to convince yourself you’re not seeing can hit you with the impact of a car zooming down a dark highway at 80 miles per hour. Blazing fire can consume a hand that didn’t even brush the fireplace. People can sound perfectly calm on the phone when what you don’t see is that they’re standing beside the lifeless feet of two corpses while clutching a knife slick with fresh blood. Did I mention this movie messes with your head?
Elliott is a character who is at once ignorant and tragic, inevitably so because he remains masked with naiveté until the hour grows too late. The ignorance evolves into denial that roars into a terrifying truth. He longs to be the hero of his childhood, dreams even as he is falling faster and faster into the abyss, struggling against forces too powerful and evil to vanquish with just a sword. Smith captures this essence of the character in his tangled innocence and desire to be the knight in shining armor as the frightful reality slowly seeps into the back corners of his mind.
He says the name to convince Sasha that the Bye Bye Man is a figment of her imagination—even after seeing her book of disturbing sketches that make Mr. Babadook look like a children’s bedtime story. After reading the shocking article about the murder sprees that spread like an infection in the ‘70s, he does not speak the name, but every time he frantically crosses out those typed words on paper, the vision of the grimly smiling ghoul only grows more corporeal. Suddenly, he is flesh and blood.
To say that even I was shaken by the intensity of The Bye Bye Man shouldn’t be brushed off like the growl of the demon’s hound or the clink of his antique gold coins, because I don’t scare easily. I started watching after-hours murder mysteries at the age of seven without a single nightmare. I seek out actual haunted houses. I sat through six straight seasons of American Horror Story with a straight face. If your horror movie to-watch list has been dying a slow and painful death from the lack of films that really rattle your bones, skip the popcorn (so you don’t choke on it in a moment of sheer terror) and dare to submit to The Bye Bye Man. He’s already found you.