Want to see something really scary? Go to Sun Prairie — at least in the movies.
The town northeast of Madison may be better known for being the home of Sal’s Tomato Pies than for being a hotbed of the supernatural and the macabre. But Sun Prairie (and Madison) have a major connection to the new horror film “The Bye Bye Man,” which opened Friday at Marcus Palace in Sun Prairie, Marcus Point and AMC Fitchburg.
The movie is about three college students who accidentally summon a psychic serial killer named The Bye Bye Man who zeroes in on his victims if they start thinking about him. In the film, the three friends attend college in Madison (but at a fictional university, not the UW-Madison) and rent a creepy house in Sun Prairie where much of the terrifying action takes place.
The movie was actually shot in Ohio. The Madison and Sun Prairie settings were taken by screenwriter Jonathan Penner from the original, allegedly true supernatural tale that author Robert Damon Schneck put in his book “The President’s Vampire.”
The book, a collection of creepy-but-supposedly-true tales ranging from killer clowns to suicide clubs, was recently re-released and retitled “The Bye Bye Man” to tie in with the movie. In it, Schneck claimed that the story was told to him by a close friend, and opens the chapter with these words:
“This story is different from all the other stories in this book. First, the source is a close friend. Second, though this might sound dramatic, readers who are genuinely frightened by the paranormal or troubled by obsessive thoughts should consider skipping this chapter.”
Schneck wrote that his friend Eli was in Madison in 1990 to get his graduate degree in cultural anthropology, and was living and working at a group home in Sun Prairie. His girlfriend, Katherine, was also living in Sun Prairie, and at night the two would experiment with a Ouija board with a mutual friend, John.
After contacting a few presences, the story goes, the three friends were told of the legend of the Bye Bye Man. A killer who grew up in a Louisiana orphanage, the Bye Bye Man is a homeless man who rides the rails looking for his next victim, a strange beast called the “Gloomsinger” at his side. As in the film, the Bye Bye Man homes in on people who think about them as if they were “psychic beacons.”
“To know the Bye Bye Man’s name and to think about it, however, is to steal away some important part of him, something that he is compelled to retrieve through murder and mutilation,” Schneck wrote.
The spirits told the three friends that having learned about the Bye Bye Man put them on his murderous radar. “We asked where the Bye Bye Man was now. Chicago, the board said, and coming closer.”
The story details a pair of spooky occurrences that then happened to the friends. John was living in a boarding house in Madison (the book contains a picture of the house overlooking Lake Mendota). In the middle of the night, he heard a knock at the door and Katherine’s voice asking him to come out for breakfast. Fearful, John refused to open the door.
Katherine was not in Madison at the time, but in Wausau, where she had her own brush with the supernatural. While crossing a railroad bridge to Barkers Island (nicknamed “Body Island”), she swears she heard an inhuman whistling.
The story ends there — no murders or appearances by the Bye Bye Man. “Strange things happened, then they stopped happening, and that’s about it.”
Schneck writes in a new afterword in the book that he told the story of the Bye Bye Man on a nationally syndicated radio show. Penner supposedly was listening to the show, and negotiated to buy the rights to make the story into a movie.
Schneck notes wryly that, with the film’s release, a lot of people will be talking and thinking about the Bye Bye Man. “That’s a lot of psychic beacons.”