Back in my day, dolls rarely tried to kill you.
I didn’t own any dolls, exactly, but I trusted my stuffed animals completely. In fact, I used them as little plush shields from the real evil that lurked in my house—a disembodied statue of a head that, in my dreams, would hop after me, laughing, in an effort to catch and eat me. I couldn’t stay up all night watching, so sometimes I’d take every single stuffed animal in the house and pile it on top of me in bed, hoping that the statue wouldn’t be able to tell the difference between me and, say, Snoopy.
I apparently assumed the statue was both evil and dumb.
If I grew up today, Snoopy might’ve felt like the bigger threat. Dolls are having a moment: a particularly terrifying moment.
In the next week, movie theaters will be stuffed with no-good sentient dolls. Child’s Play, a reboot that takes the perennially evil doll Chucky and gives him an AI twist, opens today. Annabelle Comes Home, featuring the super-wicked plaything from the Conjuring Extended Universe—comes to cineplexes next Wednesday. And we can’t forget Toy Story 4. Yes, that’s right: Toy Story 4, which feels, at times, like a kid-friendly horror story. Gabby Gabby is the deceptively sweet ringleader of TS4’s legion of evil, but the dolls that’ll really haunt your nightmares are her quartet of identical ventriloquist dummies.
Why are dolls so scary in the movies? Some scientists will tell you that it’s partly because we’ve been conditioned to be scared of them. Years of Chucky and Annabelle movies will do that to you, apparently. But remember, the original Twilight Zone was terrifying us with talking dummies years before our current fascination, so clearly our fears go deeper.
It seems like most supernatural movies are predicated on one basic element: Life where it shouldn’t be. Corpses lurch through a mall. Sentient cars terrorize the streets. The spirits of folks that really should’ve moved on by now haunt our bedrooms. Our world contains lively stuff and “dead” stuff, and when one moves into another category, it bothers us. The fact that these things want to kill and eat us only adds to the terror.
But dolls heighten that inherent fear. They look like us, for one thing: They mimic us living beings, and yet we know full well they’re not. And the more realistic a doll looks, the more likely we are to be bothered by them. (Thus your instinctive revulsion to all those beautiful china dolls your grandma owns.) There’s a reason why the makers of the Annabelle films decided to turn her into a much more human-like doll than the Raggedy Ann doll that inspired her.
But dolls are treated as living, breathing humans when they’re played with, and that blurs the line even further. Kids feed their dolls, play with them, change their diapers. They imbue them with habits, inclinations and personality. In some ways, we ourselves give these non-living things a sort of life.
And that brings us to, what I think, is the inherently spiritual side of all these creepy dolls. They drill down to the curious act of creation—and how the doll’s unnatural life feels like an echo—and often a disturbing, even unholy echo—of our own.