Creepy Dolls in Pop Culture

Just yesterday, Chrissy Teigen posted a photo of herself on Instagram of herself in a doll shop.

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While I don't have exact metrics, I feel like at least 80% of us seeing this photo felt she was in imminent danger. In fact, the two comments shown make reference to this severe threat. So how did a children's toy become a source of such dread for so many of us? Since June brings with it both an Annabelle sequel and a Child’s Play reboot, this seems as good a time as any to visit this issue. Here are six pop culture entries (three TV episodes, two movies, and a book) that got Brian, Megan, and I to a place where a fear of seemingly harmless inanimate objects meant for joy actually makes complete sense.  

Megan Spell
“Night of the Living Dummy”
While there are many Goosebumps scares that kept me awake at night, I can think of nothing quite so viscerally frightening as Slappy the Dummy. Ventriloquist dummies are the definitive creepy doll; they are never anything but terrifying. I still see the cover of that book in my nightmares.

Slappy is actually one of two ventriloquist dolls in the book that the two main characters fight over, repeatedly, because for some wholly incomprehensible reason, whoever has a dummy in this town is considered cool. Once “Mr. Wood” comes into the picture, mysterious accidents begin to occur, and with time, both dolls are speaking, acting out, and controlling children like slaves. Chill!

Annabelle
A horror writer’s greatest trick is getting the audience, grown adults, afraid of small porcelain kid’s toys. Even more, the writers of The Conjuring franchise have managed to squeeze out three variations of the Annabelle “origin” story.

 The Annabelle doll has gone through various hauntings (possessed by a dead child, cult leaders, etc.) and of course, is nearly indestructible despite being made of china. Obviously the supernatural/murder-y elements are what makes Annabelle the creepiest, but there is just something so unsettling about the idea of throwing something down a well and it just…shows back up unexpectedly. It’s truly mindboggling that anyone would own antique dolls in the year 2019.

Amy Carter
Rod Serling has a lot to do with fear of dolls. When a picture like the one of Chrissy Teigen above pops up, I immediately think of two episodes of the OG Twilight Zone, both of which I spent much of middle school wishing I could unwatch.

“The Dummy”
I like how Serling can pack more commentary and earned suspense into 24 minutes than most horror/thriller writers can do in a two-hour feature. “The Dummy” is about a ventriloquist, Jerry, who is convinced his dummy, Willie, is alive and messing with him. We quickly learn Jerry has a drinking problem and a history of (at least) mental health evaluation and, according to his boss, a schizophrenia diagnosis. And what's scarier than a doll coming to life and attacking you? A doll coming to life, attacking you, and no one else believing it's happening. 

The audience is let in on the fact that Willie really is alive very early in the show. His head is in a slightly different position every time Jerry looks at him in a mirror, he winks, and even bites Jerry, leaving a mark. But we're not sure what he's capable of. When Jerry decides to be rid of Willie once and for all, locks him in a trunk, and then sees him in a chair in the alley way outside, the camera tilts about 30 degrees to the left - is Jerry crazy? Are we crazy? We can't find our footing. It's not until the very end that we can be sure of the villain's intention. Willie reveals that he is a monster, created by Jerry, and now he wants the limelight. For the final act of the episode, we see Willie's face on the human and Jerry's on the dummy. Willie's rise to control is complete. Horrifying. 

“Living Doll”
A theme common to both episodes is that the dolls have a lone target, thusly isolating their victims and causing all others to assume they've lost their minds. The difference with “Living Doll” is another character gets let in on the secret by the end of the episode. It's about a little girl, Christy, and her mother, Annabelle (!!), who bring home an expensive talking doll, much to the Step Dad's chagrin because, "she has too many dolls already." He's a jerk, verbally abusive to Christy, and as soon as Talky Tina gets a minute alone with him, she tells him she isn't going to like him. 

 Trying to keep his mental footing, he dismisses it as a trick being played by his wife, but Tina's persistence in expressing her hatred for him causes him to see Tina as a real threat. He tries to squash her head in a vice, ignite her, and decapitate her with a circular saw - all for naught. What's scarier than a doll coming to life, attacking you, and no one else believing you that it's happening? All that, plus the doll being indestructible. Tina gets the last laugh and positions herself on the stairs in a way that causes him to trip and fall to his death. Annabelle finds him and her at the bottom of the stairs and she says, "I'm Talky Tina, and you better be nice to me." Horrifying. 

Both of these episodes, along with 4 full seasons of The Twilight Zone, are streaming on Netflix. 

Brian Gill
“Dolls are creepy.” That’s my full thesis on this matter because I feel it requires no presentation of evidence, it’s just inherent fact that most (sane) people know in their hearts.

The OG Child’s Play
This movie came out when I was five so I’m not completely sure when or how I became aware of its existence; I just remember that it was a thing I knew about and was terrified of. “Great. Now I can’t even trust my toys anymore.” was my thought process. I would guess I was somewhere around ten when I was finally peer pressured into watching the movie while spending the night at a friend’s house then spent the rest of the night pretending I wasn’t TOTALLY FREAKED OUT by that stupid doll. In the years since, I know I’ve seen this original film at least once more (because I had literally no memory of the plot, only “killer psycho doll”) and parts of the sequels and while realistically I see now how cheesy Chucky really is, in my heart I am still very, very freaked out by the whole Child’s Play ordeal.

X-Files Season 5 Episode 10, “Chinga”
I watched very little of The X-Files during its original run. However, for a long stretch during the early-to-mid-2000’s, the show played in syndication 400 times a day on TNT. This was as close as we came to binge watching a show in a pre-Netflix world and I ate it up, absorbing every episode I could get my eyes on. I distinctly remember this episode, about a demon-possessed doll that gave its owner visions of horrific deaths that then became reality, though I only just discovered it was written by Stephen King. Makes sense. My first viewing came at that hour of the night where you probably should go to bed but you say, “Eh, just one more episode” and then I had to watch about fourteen hours of Friends in order to purge my brain of the horror “Chinga” had inflicted upon me. Even now, when I get on an X-Files kick and binge my way through a season or two, if this episode pops up on my screen, I immediately skip it and thus retain my ability to sleep.

X-Men Films Ranked

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I wasn’t big into superheroes growing up. I knew the standards (Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman, etc.) and had some toys but, as far as pop culture stuff goes, I was far more interested in Star Wars and then Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. That changed significantly when I was nine with the introduction of ­X-Men: The Animated Series into the FOX Saturday morning cartoon lineup. I was immediately hooked on the series, on the universe, and on the characters. I cared about the X-Men and the situations they found themselves in thrilled me. It was the first show I remember that took its young audience seriously and treated us like the semi-responsible teenagers we would soon become. As a result, I read some of the X-Men comics, fell even more in love with the world, and later, I followed the production of the first movie with an intensity only rivaled by my anticipation for Phantom Menace (*sad Price is Right horn*). This is my favorite superhero movie franchise and no matter how good or bad the Marvel and DC movies are, I’m always more excited about a good X-Men movie and more disappointed by a bad X-Men movie than anything coming from the other franchises. With Dark Phoenix opening to miserable reviews this weekend and the Disney merger now a done deal, this chapter of the X-Men is closing and thus, I felt it time to look back on the franchise and rank the movies that make up this universe. 

NOTE: I went back and forth on whether the Deadpool movies and the various Wolverine movies should be included in this discussion. Ultimately, I think they belong though there’s a case to be made that these movies are X-Men-adjacent not X-Men-proper.

11. Last Stand (2005)
There are some good elements in Last Stand but the vast majority of them come down to the success of the previous films in the trilogy. “Do you like X-Men movies? Well this sure is an X-Men movie!” seems to be the tagline. Losing Bryan Singer’s direction (he left to make Superman Returns) is one thing; replacing him with Brett Ratner’s big bag of nothing was quite another. Ratner took the helm of a franchise on the brink of superhero domination and rammed it into the ground on takeoff. Lazy writing, an absurdly overstuffed story, and a fundamental misunderstanding of what makes the X-Men great are just a few highlights of the mess that is Last Stand.

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10. Apocalypse (2016)
Apocalypse is probably better than at least the next film on this list but it’s also far more disappointing. Coming off of First Class and Days of Future Past, it seemed like the X-Men series had finally found its groove. With Singer in the director’s chair (making this the first X-Men movie since X2 that was directed by the same director of the previous film) and a cast that included some rising young stars and Oscar Isaac, Apocalypse felt like a sure thing…until it very much was not a sure thing. The story is muddled, the acting is, frankly, quite bad, and the promise of the cast is squandered. As a huge X-Men fan, this is probably one of the five or ten most disappointing movies of my life.

9. Origins: Wolverine (2009)
I
t is impossible to defend Origins as an actual good movie. It is very much not a good movie. Moreover, it failed the relaunch the X-Men brand post-Last Stand and even led to the scrapping of a series of planned Origins spin-offs. I acknowledge all of this while also acknowledging that, even still, it’s a very watchable movie for me. Maybe it’s a guilty pleasure, maybe it just scratched the X-Men itch and brought to life one of the more interesting storylines from the comics/animated series, or maybe it’s because Gambit appears in the form of my beloved Taylor Kitsch/Tim Riggins. Whatever the case may be, each time I watch Origins (and I have watched it far more times than I’d care to admit), I think, “Gosh that was bad but yeah, I’m definitely going to watch it again sometime.”

8. The Wolverine (2013)
This second attempt at a Wolverine spinoff is, for me, the exact opposite of Origins: It’s a competent, well-made film that I never even think about watching. I was underwhelmed in my first viewing and I’ve never gotten past that feeling in either of my subsequent viewings. Honestly, I sometimes forget it exists, especially in a post-Logan world. When I do remember it exists, I’m hard-pressed to remember much about it, good or bad, other than perhaps the action sequence on the train. Wolverine is FINE but it doesn’t have Tim Riggins so how fine is it really?

7. X-Men (2000)
The OG doesn’t get nearly enough credit for laying the groundwork for the myriad superhero movies that have come since 2000. I was supremely pumped for this movie when it came out and it never occurred to me then that it could possibly be anything less than a smash hit but in retrospect, this was a very risky endeavor. There are definitely some bumps within X-Men that likely would’ve been ironed out if it weren’t essentially the first movie of its kind and much of the plot is fairly nonsensical on close inspection. But the fact that it still holds up as a quality superhero flick is a testament to the entire production and it started the franchise out on a very high note.

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6. First Class (2011)
Big props are owed to Matthew Vaughn for reinvigorating a franchise that had lost almost all of its cultural relevance in the years since X2. There are gripes to be had with First Class (Montage! Montage! Montage!) but the new cast is superb across the board and Vaughn clearly understood the tone and depth of this universe. It’s a fun movie but it still has teeth and it handles its material with an appropriate level of seriousness. Of the new cast and their character interpretations, Michael Fassbender is particularly brilliant.

5. Deadpool (2016)
Deadpool had been rumored and taken through various production periods so often that by the time it finally debuted, anyone who had followed the project couldn’t help but feel nervous. A friend of mine, a long-time comic reader, literally whispered, “Please be good, please be good” as the lights in our theater dimmed and our screening began. It’s almost as if fans of these comics and this character willed it into a quality movie. It doesn’t hurt that Ryan Reynolds made the PERFECT Wade Wilson and the PERFECT Deadpool, but Tim Miller and FOX deserve a ton of credit for understanding their character and allowing him to be his dirty and unsanitary yet charismatic and charming self on screen.

4. Deadpool 2 (2018)
I know lots of people who found Deadpool 2 to be disappointing compared to the first one. For me, however, I thought it was a great story for highlighting the best elements of the character, the X-Force sequence was magnificent (although hilariously short lived), and as I’ve always said, there is no movie franchise that is not made better by the addition of Josh Brolin. This movie also removed any fear I had about its predecessor being a one-off, lightning in a bottle situation. Now my only question is how effectively the Merc with the Mouth can be incorporated into the X-Men Universe-proper.

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3. Days of Future Past (2014)
DoFP isn’t *quite* to the level of, “I think this movie is great and I won’t be hearing any arguments to the contrary” but it’s close. Time travel is always a dicey proposition and the confusing nature of the narrative is both the source of frustration for this movie’s detractors and ultimately the downfall of the franchise as a whole as it moved into Apocalypse and Dark Phoenix. But this was everything I wanted in an X-Men movie, bringing together both parts of the cast and telling a magnificent story with a flair that feels more like the animated series than any other entry from this franchise. I’ve watched this movie perhaps more times than all of the other X-Men movies combined, and I always find it compelling.

2. X2: United (2003)
As mentioned previously, I think the first X-Men is a great achievement in comic book filmmaking. But I thought it was a GREAT movie, maybe even as good as an X-Men movie could possibly be, until X2 dropped in 2003. Then it was like, “Oh. So, THAT’S what a great X-Men movie looks like.” The maturation of the actors in their roles, the introduction of a few new characters, the improvements in shot selection, set pieces, and the like all combine to make X2 not just a great X-Men movie but one of the great, (and now, I think, overlooked) comic book movies ever made.

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1. Logan (2017)
The best of the X-Men movies is oddly the least enjoyable, at least for me. I’ve gotten beaten down by the rise of gritty superhero movies, though not because of their edge so much as the often-uninspiring stories they tell. The decision to make this an R-rated feature and to let Wolverine go “Full Wolverine” was an important one, to be sure, but it’s not THE reason it’s so good. Logan sets itself apart from most of its post-Dark Knight contemporaries by telling a strong, compelling story that pairs beautifully with its broken, exhausted hero. Jackman is incredible in this role and he gives the movie all he has left to give but it is his pairings with both Stewart’s addled Professor X and Dafne Keen’s Laura that bolster Logan’s overall quality. Through these relationships, the movie offers redemption to Logan, a character who has literally a century of sins for which to atone, and it does so with equal measures of grace and heartbreaking brutality.

Brian's MCU Rankings

With Avengers: Endgame opening this weekend, I felt it only right to take a look back at where we have come over the course of the last 11 years and 21 movies. The Marvel Cinematic Universe is historic in a number of ways, unlike anything that came before, and laying the foundation (for better or for worse) of what is likely to come in the future. You may suffer from superhero fatigue, and you are right to find yourself in such a state, but what Disney and Marvel have done with these films is undeniable and immeasurable feat. I did a ranking of the Marvel movies back in 2017 and in 2015 but for such a momentous occasion as Endgame, I thought we should bring in a few more voices than just my own. We started off with the rankings of Megan Spell from the On the Download podcast. Yesterday, we featured Ariel Rada from the Geek101 podcast. And I’ll conclude the series tomorrow with my updated rankings. Thanks for reading! -Brian

NOTE: I put the movies in tiers in part because I have the NFL Draft on in the background and it feels right and in part because, for me, so many of these movies are very close in overall quality. Consider each tier to be a handful of movies that are, by the letter grade system, all about the same grade in my book.

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TIER VII
21. Thor: The Dark World
Still the only MCU property that I consider to be actually bad. Lots of these movies have flaws but Dark World is an entire movie of flaws. It took the shine off of both Hemsworth and the titular character and it is, frankly, completely pointless.

TIER VI
20. The Incredible Hulk
I think both Ed Norton and Tim Roth give strong performances here and the movie itself is far from a lost cause. It feels disconnected, however, from the rest of the MCU and it just lacks most of the craftsmanship you come to expect from these movies.

19. Iron Man 2
IM2 is incredibly watchable and mostly competent. That’s…about it? Perhaps its greatest sin is having Sam Rockwell at its disposal and making him a beating. Still, there’s plenty of fun Tony Stark-iness and it’s fine overall.

18. Ant-Man
I really, really like elements of Ant-Man, starting with the casting of the immortal Paul Rudd, and the movie has some great moments. But there’s a real struggle to translate (and, perhaps, dumb down) Edgar Wright’s script and as a result, I always walk away from this one feeling like it could amount to so much more. (Turns out they just needed another go round to get it right. See below.) 

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TIER V
17. Doctor Strange
Strange has two big factors in its favor. One, the visuals are stunning. The fight scenes are relatively bland, but the look of the movie is outstanding. Two, it’s got a great cast. Cumberbatch, my beloved Rachel McAdams, Tilda Swinton, Chiwetel Ejiofor, etc. are all excellent actors slumming it for a silly superhero movie. I love that. The plot, though, is very lackluster and I think it feels like a 2010 movie, not a 2016 movie. For me, it’s one of the least rewatchable MCU movies.

16. Thor
I have a soft spot for Thor because it launched Chris Hemsworth and for that, we all owe the movie a great debt. I also think Kenneth Branagh did yeoman’s work in making this movie work AT ALL even if its actual returns are mostly above average. The settings and themes should’ve made this movie inaccessible but instead it ticks along quite well for the most part. A miserable usage of Natalie Portman, however. At least this was rectified in Dark World oh wait it super was not.

15. Captain America: The First Avenger
This is a strong, capable origin story. No more and no less. The stroke of genius comes in the final scene when Steve Rogers is brought out of the ice into the present day rather than succumbing to the temptation of having Cap spend two or three movies in the 40’s before jumping him to the future. You get just enough of Cap’s righteousness, his war-era moral fortitude, and then drop him into the modern age where his virtues are dorky but refreshing instead of obnoxious.

14. Captain Marvel
There’s a lot to like here: Brie Larson is excellent in her role, and of course I love the 90’s vibe. It’s a fun movie but one that feels a bit insubstantial in its actual content compared to the best of the MCU. Like Doctor Strange, there’s a bit of origin story fatigue in play here as well.

13. Avengers: Age of Ultron
There are some real highs within Ultron that I greatly appreciate. That said, you can also see the studio interference on this one more so than anywhere else in the MCU. But it does feel like Whedon lost the plot a few times and Spader’s Ultron never quite reaches the heights that we expected and the movie demands.

TIER IV
12. Iron Man 3
This is, somewhat shockingly, the most divisive movie within the MCU. Its fans will argue its virtues vehemently and its detractors will go so far as to compare it to the worst of the worst superhero movies. I come down much closer to the former rather than the latter. In fact, I LOVE two thirds of this movie and I think Shane Black brought out the absolute best in both Tony Stark and Iron Man. The issue for me is the last 30 minutes. The movie squanders a great twist on the Mandarin character and then drowns us in a sea of Iron Man suits (ALL OF THE IRON MAN SUITS!!!) and by the end you’re just like, “Enough. Please. Please stop.”

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11. Guardians of the Galaxy Volume 2
My expectations for Volume 2 were very high. Too high, it turned out. Separating the Guardians from one another had mixed results and I think James Gunn rested on his laurels a bit too much when it came to copy-pasting the formula. But still, what a fun movie! And, as I’ve said many times, no movie or franchise has ever been made worse by the addition of Kurt Russell.

10. Ant-Man and the Wasp
This movie got everything right that the first movie missed on but still maintained the tone that Edgar Wright’s original script was going for. It just feels more comfortable overall and thus, it flows much better than Ant-man does for me. The addition of Evangeline Lilly’s Wasp as a character who is equal to or greater than the established hero is AWESOME and it strengthens this franchise moving forward exponentially.

TIER III
9. Captain America: Civil War
Captain America is the least interesting of the core Avengers to me and thus, you have to stick him into interesting storylines to make his movies work. Mission accomplished here in what is basically Avengers 2.5. It is remarkable that the Russos were able to pit our heroes against each other without making any of them unlikable (except Vision who, I think we can all agree, can kick rocks). My issue with Civil War remains the pacing (there are, like, 450 scene changes in the first 30 minutes) and the overstuffed nature of the plot. I get it, I understand why this was necessary, but still, it’s a lot to take in and it doesn’t always flow seamlessly.  

8. The Avengers
I think this remains the greatest achievement in comic book movie history. The team-up thing has almost become blasé at this point and I’m not sure younger generations, like my son, who were born into a movie world dominated by cinematic universes can quite understand what a massive undertaking this movie was for Joss Whedon and how risky the entire phase one was for Disney/Marvel. We’re now seven years and 157 Marvel movies out from Avengers and still, it looks good, the characters mesh well, the stakes feel significant, and the movie works really, really well. It’s almost impossible that this thing worked, and still works, as well as it did.

TIER II (Stands alone for the time being.)
7. Avengers: Infinity War
I’ve had Infinity War both higher and lower on my list because, in actuality, it’s an incomplete. Until I see Endgame later today, I don’t think I can properly evaluate and understand the implications of Infinity War. Regardless, this movie has a grand story, the fight sequences bang, and, against impossible odds, they brought the long-awaited reveal on Thanos home in a big, spectacular way. 

TIER I (Truly, these could go in almost any order and I’ve rearranged them several times.)
6. Iron Man
The OG of the MCU, much like Avengers, deserves so much credit for setting the stage and building the foundation not just for this universe but for the modern blockbuster in general (for better or for worse). It’s an outstanding example of how to do a true origin story, how to stoke interest in your universe, and how to cast your characters. Can you imagine Tony Stark being played by anyone other than Robert Downey, Jr.? NO! And the entire MCU rests upon his shoulders.

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5. Spider-Man: Homecoming
Finally. Finally, we got a Spider-Man movie that got both Peter Parker AND Spider-Man right. FINALLY. Tom Holland is outstanding in both parts of this role, the John Hughes-esque feel of the movie is the perfect conduit through which to tell the story, and Michael Keaton gives us the best villain within the MCU and does so with grit. 

4. Captain America: Winter Soldier
You can make a strong case (as Ariel did yesterday) that Winter Soldier is the best movie in this universe. Much like its descendant Civil War, the story surrounding Steve Rogers is what makes the movie work and boy, is this an exciting, well-designed story that essentially turns the movie into a spy thriller with incredible action. (INCREDIBLE action.) The only dips in quality are Robert Redford’s mailed-in performance (so disappointing to me) and the weird Nazi Computer scene that really goes off the rails. The Winter Soldier himself, however: AWESOME.

3. Guardians of the Galaxy
Of all the movies on this list, I remember my first Guardians viewing the best. It was an INCREDIBLE theater experience, one of those all-too-rare occasions where the audience was totally with it and the movie brought us all pure, unadulterated joy. It was a wholly unique experience and while the vibe has been copied (by its own sequel, even) since, it still retains its brilliance after many, many viewings.

2. Thor: Ragnarok
Ragnarok did so much to restore Hemsworth’s movie star status while casting the character in a whole new light. I remember thinking Taika Waititi was a weird choice for director and holding a bit of skepticism going in and then, within the first three minutes, understanding exactly what the movie was going for and knowing that it was perfect. To top it all off, whereas Guardians suffers a bit from a mediocre villain, Ragnarok brings in Queen Cate Blanchett who absolutely nails her role and gives the movie some bite. ALSO JEFF GOLDBLUM!!!

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1. Black Panther
This is a perfect comic book movie and very nearly a perfect movie overall. It has substance, it has style, it has an outstanding lead actor surrounded by even more outstanding supporting players, and it has a great villain. Black Panther is the total embodiment of what can happen when a studio gives a great director a ton of money and total freedom to make the movie he/she wants to make. The cultural importance of this movie cannot be overstated but I think that, in some ways (for all the right reasons), has come to overshadow how good the movie is just as a movie. I see lots of movies every year that have great intentions and tell an important story but are not actually good movies. Black Panther is a great movie.