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