By Lois Kennedy
For the most part, movies based on true stories are violently twisted out of proportion for entertainment or storytelling purposes. The Bye Bye Man is no exception.
In the movie, three Wisconsin college students named Elliot, Sasha, and John move into a house that used to belong to a reporter. Said reporter discovered the story of The Bye Bye Man, a supernatural being that comes a-callin’ (and a-killin’) when someone thinks or says his name. He has a hound-like creature that eats his victims, and he’s associated with trains and the sound of coins. Most people try to deal with accidentally summoning him by slaughtering everyone who has thus far spoken or thought of him.
Obviously, the real life Bye Bye Man story is a bit more mundane. If everyone really had to practice the credo “Don’t say it don’t think it” we’d have some kind of movie-related epidemic going on with the guy up to his ears in victims who are talking and thinking about him. The movie was based on a segment in the book ‘The Bye Bye Man and Other Strange-but-True Tales’ by Robert Damon Schneck. The story was related to him by a good friend; Schneck transcribed the tale for his book, and it goes like this:
In 1990 Wisconsin (Sun Prairie, not Madison as in the movie) Eli and his girlfriend Katherine lived in the basement of a group home where Eli was a counselor. Their friend John lived nearby. After being given a Ouija board, Katherine and John made contact with 8 different entities who claimed to be not spirits but “some kinds of archetypes or free-ranging consciousnesses.” They were kindly and enjoyed dispensing “New Age-type wisdom and philosophy.” The three performed experiments to test the phenomena, including Katherine and John wearing blindfolds, and the messages kept coming.
After a while, Eli and John got bored and longed to experience something that could better be tested and empirically recorded. The voice of the board warned that other entities could be dangerous, but the men were not to be dissuaded. Katherine was reluctant but gave in. They managed to find out that one such entity was called The Bye Bye Man; the trio’s disembodied pals claimed the Man was a living being but supremely evil.
The three were able to piece together the Man’s origins as an albino child in a 1920s orphanage who was so embittered by his treatment and condition that he attacked and critically wounded a nurse with a pair of scissors. He then took to riding the rails and killing on the way. His albinism began to compromise his eyesight, so he fashioned a creature named Gloomsinger from his victims. “Gloomsinger was made from tongues and eyes and endowed with some kind of life. It acted like a hunting dog, sighting the next victim and letting out a whistle only the Bye-Bye Man could hear, which brought him to the scene.” He eventually became possessed of powers that let him know when people were talking or thinking of him, and began tracking them down to add to Gloomsinger.
After receiving this information, the friends thought to ask where this charming fellow was currently. “Chicago, the board said, and coming closer.” Katherine became very upset, while Eli was “not happy because I didn’t think we’d gotten anything worth checking, and preliminary searches produced nothing. John, meanwhile, thought the whole thing had been very interesting.” (Even the most hardened horror movie skeptic would have crossed over to the side of the believers by now.) Due to John’s work schedule, the spirit communications tapered off, but unbeknownst to the other, both John and Katherine began waking up each night at 3 A.M. feeling scared for no reason they could perceive.
While on a visit to Barker Stewart Island, also known as “Body Island” (the origin of the nickname is up for debate, but they all involve dead bodies) with John, Katherine had a panic attack after hearing a mysterious whistle on the train tracks that John couldn’t hear.
After arriving home, they found an answering machine message from a scared John, who thought he heard Katherine’s voice trying to coerce him out of his room. He didn’t answer it, but he “still wonders what would’ve happened if he had opened that door.”
The end. As Schneck puts it, “Like most experiences of this kind, it does not have a satisfying resolution. Strange things happened, then they stopped happening, and that’s about it.”
Schneck is unable to verify most of the events of the narrative. Eli retold the story multiple times over the 13 years before Schneck heard it, and Eli admits to changing bits of the story for effect. Meanwhile, John could not be reached for comment, and Katherine refuses to speak about any of it. Schneck looked for records of an albino orphan in the 1920s and was unable to come up with anything, nor did he find any documentation of murders similar to what is attributed to The Bye Bye Man.
One is left to speculate on what really did happen. Is it an elaborate lie by Eli? Did Katherine and John create something with their subconscious? Did an evil spirit really come after them? We’ll probably never know. At least now we know what the hell is up with the recurring train imagery and that bloody hound in the movie.
Schneck, Robert Damon. The Bye Bye Man And Other Strange-but-True Tales.