Dolls. Cute, cuddly, childhood companions…but deadly? Horror films have used the anthropomorphic toys in many different ways from chilling china dolls to demonic marionettes! But what makes these supposedly adorable playthings so sinister? What is it about them that makes them so unnerving?
The Innocent ones
The first dolls to look at are the ones with innocent child-like faces that many of us and our parents had as infants. Whether china dolls or baby Tiny Tears, these look disturbing enough with their frozen expressions and empty watching eyes but also their faces attempt to mimic human features with blinking eyelids and dimpled cheeks. In the film ‘Killer Dolls – Barbarella,’ in 60s b-movie fashion, the scantily-clad heroine is attacked by a hoard of tiny dolls with dead holes for eyes and sets of razor sharp teeth – complete with a snapping jaw with each bite!
Unsurprisingly this scene distressed the audience of the time but what made it worse is that the ringleader controllers are weird frenzied children who embody the murderous behaviour of the dolls – the little girls being the real life version of the toys! This in turn explains why this scene is found so freaky…children being murderous and violent is a terrifying and unexplainable notion. ‘Pet Sematary’ definitely shows how much it horrifies us and these type of dolls literally have the faces of babies. Creepy.
This leads us nicely into dolls that go that step further into mimicking human anatomy. In the film ‘The Boy’ a couple hire a nanny to take care of their son…who turns out to be a life-sized porcelain doll. The plot reveals that the parents lost their real son years ago and this doll is supposed to be a “therapeutic” type of replacement. Not only is the concept unsettling, but a series of peculiar incidents lead the nanny to believe the doll is in fact alive!
The more recent film ‘M3GAN’ also looks at the theme of real-life companions where a young girl is given an AI friend in an attempt to help her psychologically cope with the loss of her parents. Of course, the loving life-sized doll doesn’t stay that way and becomes overly protective and possessive of her human leading to violence and murder. This utilises two doubly fearful concepts: the unhealthy and downright freaky attachment to a toy but also how something that is supposed to safeguard you becomes out of control and dangerous.
Safe to say that imitations of human life just really give us the heebie-jeebies.
The Abnormal ones
But what about dolls that don’t look all that real? Ones that are just plain bizarre looking. Why is it that those make the hairs on the back of our necks stand up? Puppets and ventriloquist dolls immediately come to mind. Painted faces and often jerky-moving limbs are nothing like humans…or are they?
A theory by the psychologist Sigmund Freud is that of the Uncanny – how certain experiences we have as adults remind us of earlier stages in our psychological development, an example would be how things we believe in our childhood are still in the backs of our minds and uncertainty can shift what we perceive to be real.
The combination of things that are both uncanny (unfamiliar/uncertain) and canny (familiar/safe) creates a really odd and often frightening experience for us. Is it real? Is it make-believe? Did it move or did it not? Did the doll smash the glass itself or did it fall over?
In the ‘Saw’ franchise, we see the use of a puppet called Billy or sometimes referred to as Jigsaw (the man behind the homicidal torture in the film). Billy is distinctive due to his red eyes, spiral cheek design and his movements around on a red trike! He appears either in person or on a television screen, drilling fear into the trapped victims with his humanistic yet utterly devilish appearance. He literally is the face of the violence and creates a more frightening performance than the real human killer. A human profile is understood by us and no matter how horrible humans can be we can find understanding in the sight of something manlike, but this is wholly unfamiliar and yet it has aspects of something unconsciously familiar – anatomically it resembles a person!
In the series ‘Annabelle’ the doll itself is purely a conduit for evil spirits…bad enough already right? Although, strictly not a puppet, her ventriloquism style countenance and spine-chilling moving eyes rank her a truly harrowing doll that haunts your every step, tapping into that confusion of what is real and what is a childish fantasy. This doll would give any child, and adult for that matter, nightmares for years. It is strange but in other genres such as family films, the idea of toys coming to life is a lovely thought e.g. Winnie the Pooh, Toy Story, but in an adult setting it is just bloody terrifying!
Of course you have a lot of other iconic dolls in horror such as ‘Chucky,’ posing as a child’s doll it is actually the soul of a dead serial killer who transferred himself into a toy who commits brutal murders, yet looks like some knock-off Cabbage Patch Kid mixed with a Babyborn. Surely the unsuspecting victims are given some kind of clue of what’s to come as most of these dolls already look horrible to begin with!
So if you fancy your style being a bit tongue in cheek as well as actually being generally spooky then check out this month’s suggestions I have for you below:
– Rose Jekylle 🌹