The horror genre has a lot of tropes and trends. There was a rush of zombie movies in the mid-2000s. Over the last couple of summers, we’ve seen the reappearance of killer shark movies. Found footage-style horror films are still a popular option. And in recent years, we’ve seen the return of a very old and very creepy trope – the haunted doll.
Haunted doll movies immediately pique my interest, just like horror movies about possession, the occult, and ghosts. The best thing about haunted doll movies is that they usually combine the other three into one movie. I grew up playing with dolls, so it’s not that I find them scary. The idea of them gaining sentience is ridiculous, a joke – and yet, somehow still plausible. Rationally, I know a doll isn’t going to wake up one day and kill me, but I still can’t rule out the possibility of bringing home a vintage toy one day and having it haunt my every waking hour for as long as it lives in my space, you know?
It’s both unsettling and still bizarre enough to make me laugh. For one thing, I owned a ton of dolls as a child and none of them ever gave me any weird vibes. When I was in grade school, I used to get a porcelain doll every Christmas as a gift from my family. It seems weird now, but at the time I was enthralled with them. It coincided with my period piece obsession, so the Victorian-era styled dolls with intricate dresses were like expensive Barbies to me. My collection grew swiftly and steadily. I can only imagine what it looked like to my friends, who would come over and see an army of porcelain dolls looking down on them from the top of our television cabinet – watching and waiting.
I was never afraid of my own dolls (they would never kill me, their beloved owner), but other ones always bothered me. You know the type – the scruffy dolls in museums or second-hand stores that stare at you as you walk by, sizing you up to see if they can trap you so that you spend a lifetime ranting about how “it’s the doll, the doll I tell you!” with no one believing you. Imagine my surprise and slight horror when my partner brought home this clown doll to add to the décor. It’s the hair on it that really disturbs me.
My growing trepidation around dolls that weren’t mine was made worse through my imagination and penchant for reading YA horror. It was R.L. Stine’s Night of the Living Dummy, the one about a ventriloquist dummy trying to kill the girl who found him, that really cemented it.
What is it about dolls that make people so afraid and willing to believe they’re cursed by an inanimate object? Fear of dolls is scientifically known as pediophobia. While most people aren’t that afraid of them, the majority of people find dolls or doll-collecting creepy according to this article from the Smithsonian. As per the article, psychologist Frank McAndrew put out a paper in 2013 about creepiness and what people found creepy – collecting dolls was named as one of the “creepiest hobbies”. McAndrew hypothesized that it has to do with dolls looking too human-like for their own good. Our brains are designed to read faces for emotions, intentions, and potential threats. So, looking at a doll that looks like a human but is still not quite right unsettles our “most basic human instincts”.
Maybe it’s all in our heads, but imagine my horror when I realized that there were actual true stories about haunted dolls. Crawl through reddit and you’ll find threads like this one asking people to recount their real life encounters with possessed toys.
Some of the stories are good enough for museums. Child’s Play (1988) and Robert (2015) are based on a real-deal haunted doll that was owned by Robert Eugene Otto, a painter and author from Key West, Florida. According to legends, the Otto’s could hear footsteps and giggling coming from the doll at night. Servants reported hearing Gene talk to himself in two different voices. Toys were found destroyed and Gene would claim that the doll did it. The doll is on display at Fort East Martello Museum in Key West and is rumoured to curse anyone who disrespects it, including not asking its permission before taking its picture.
For the most part, the most popular haunted doll movies tend to be horror-comedies. The idea of a toy coming after you is inherently funny, which is why I think so many evil doll movies are deliberately campy. Child’s Play spawned several sequels, each more ridiculous than the last. Before Chucky, there was the evil doll in Trilogy of Terror (1975) starring Karen Black, where she’s terrorized by a wooden doll containing the spirit of a Zuni warrior. While the nihilistic ending gives the piece a darker tone, the doll itself is a little ridiculous-looking and it’s hard not to be amused by the whole thing, even if it is creepy. There have also been a number of evil doll movies that, while objectively terrible, have a huge cult following – films like the Puppet Master series and Dead Silence (2007).
Television has also used the haunted doll trope a lot. Parodying the episode of The Twilight Zone “Living Doll”, The Simpsons segment about a killer Krusty the Klown doll (“Clown Without Pity”) is one of their best Treehouse of Terror shorts. There was also the episode from the first season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, “The Puppet Show”, that has a ventriloquist dummy possessed by the spirit of a man who’s dead – the twist in this case being that the dummy holds the spirit of a demon hunter who’s actually one of the good guys.
There have been more serious takes on the evil doll trope, but they tend to use the doll as a red herring. Magic (1978) is about a ventriloquist named Corky and his nefarious dummy. It’s more of a psychological horror film, as the doll is just a manifestation of Corky’s id. There’s also the film The Boy (2016) where we’re led to believe that the doll, Brahms, is possessed by a dead boy who shares the same name. In the end, however, it turns out that Brahms is actually alive (and filled with murderous rage) and the doll was only a placeholder for the deranged killer.
But there are still a lot of classic scary haunted dolls in film. The possessed clown doll from Poltergeist (1982) is one that still inspires nightmares. Chucky may be the most popular evil doll, but with The Conjuring universe’s ever-expanding grip on horror, I think Annabelle is giving him a run for his money. Despite being a side plot, the doll was so popular in The Conjuring (2013) that she got her own origin movie in 2014 and a prequel sequel, Annabelle: Creation (2017). The third movie is scheduled for July 2019. Now we’re getting into franchising territory.
For a small horror trope, there are a lot of evil doll franchises. There’s the aforementioned Puppet Master series, which is comprised of 10 movies. Child’s Play has 7 films with the remake of the first film due to be released on June 21, 2019. Robert (2015) is about the same doll that inspired Chucky, however, the filmmakers tried to stay closer to the true story. While Robert the doll is sufficiently scary, the film is not and borders more on the ridiculous. But despite the lack-lustre production, the film has five sequels with each one moving further into camp – in the latest ones, Robert fights Nazis and Stalin’s henchmen.
This isn’t just limited to North America. There’s also an Indonesian series of films about a haunted doll – the third one, Sabrina (2018) is currently on Netflix. In Sabrina, the doll is more silly than scary – at least at first. The film has some really clever jump scares, creepy moments and the exorcisms and possession scenes are wild – more intense than anything I’ve seen in a while.
The thing about fear is that it’s not always led by logic. There’s no real reason for me to be afraid of sharks – but I watched Jaws (1975) when I was really young and now I can’t see a photo of a shark without my stomach dropping and my heart racing. When it comes to dolls though, I feel like we can all understand why people would be nervous around them: their beady little eyes, their human-like form, their tiny hands that don’t have separate fingers. The fact that they’re smaller and quicker than me sets my pulse racing. And with the remake of Child’s Play on the horizon, I’m looking forward to seeing where the evil doll genre will go.