Columns > Published on August 24th, 2012

LURID: Welcome to the Dollhouse, Pediophobes and Agalmatophiles!

LURID: vivid in shocking detail; sensational, horrible in savagery or violence, or, a twice-monthly guide to the merits of the kind of Bad Books you never want your co-workers to know you're reading.

…dolls, the undead, who cannot live at all and yet who mimic the living in every detail since, though they cannot speak or weep, still they project those signals of signification we instantly recognize as language.”

― Angela Carter, Wayward Girls and Wicked Women

Dolls are creepy.  There’s no denying it.  Whatever shape, size or form they come in, whether they’re constructed from plastic, porcelain, bone, string, wax, bisque, corn, rubber, rag, clay or wood (or an amalgamation of these), they’re chilling caricatures of the human form.  We know a doll as soon as we see one: two sticks crudely tied together or a roughly hewn stone can be instantly recognizable as arms, legs and a head.  Even in their simplest form, just by being, they mock us. We are you, they seem to say, but not youWe are not mortal, fleshly, corruptible.  We are immutable and eternal. The dolls found in the tombs of ancient China, Egypt, Greece and Rome have outlasted their one-time owners by millennia.  Even the most basic Barbie fashioned from polymers today is likely to last beyond humanity, her faded blue eyes bearing witness to the epoch when giant cockroaches rule the Earth.  These toys ‘R’ not us.

Dolls are creepy.  There’s no denying it... We are you, they seem to say, but not youWe are not mortal, fleshly, corruptible.  We are immutable and eternal.

From earliest times, dolls have always been associated with magic, religion and superstition, viewed as potent talismans by diverse cultures.  Throughout history, the act of making a doll – or a poppet - is the act of investing the inanimate with power.  We know this, but we forget it. We welcome these humanoid artifacts into our homes, give them to our children as playthings and happily gather them in large numbers all in the same room. We quite literally put them on pedestals, like the Infant Jesu of the Our Lady of Victory Church in Prague, who has a wardrobe of more than a hundred outfits, hand-stitched specially for him by nuns.  But it’s not only in churches that dolls are more revered and valued than the flesh they simulate.  For some people (mainly women), unique Reborn Dolls costing many hundreds of dollars (with a wardrobe to match) serve as substitute children.  For others (mainly men), owning a Real Doll (costing around $6K, plus shipping and accessories) means a permanent end to the humiliations of online dating. These toys ‘R’ our significant others.

Doll Horror runs the gamut from pediophobia (fear of dolls) to agalmatophilia (where individuals are attracted to dolls, mannequins or statues, dress as dolls or fantasize about being transformed into dolls).  It’s the ultimate love/hate relationship; repulsion or attraction is a compulsion either way.  In his seminal 1925 essay The Uncanny, Freud identifies dolls as "unheimlich", the strange within the ordinary that has the power to terrify. He suggests "the impression made by waxwork figures, ingeniously constructed dolls and automata" will trigger the sensation of fear, especially as it relates to our suspicion of "reflections in mirrors, of shadows", of anything that ‘doubles’ the human form.  We find dolls fascinating because they look like us but are not us; we think we should know them but they are utterly alien.  We welcome them with open arms, then recoil from their rigid embrace.

This essential duality in our relationship with dolls begins at an early age.   With one hand we’re gifting pre-pubescents with the super-creepy American Girl Dolls (Buy the doll that looks uncannily like you and wears exactly the same outfit! Bring it home! Don’t worry your pretty little head about Soul Transference until after it’s happened!), with the other, we’re pointing them towards the well-stuffed ‘stories about dolls that come to life after the adults have left the room’ shelves in the local children’s library. There are definitely some mixed messages in here - it's no wonder little girls grow up to be neurotic teenage wrecks.

Some of the best children’s authors have attempted Doll Horror, and, frequently, the result is a tale that will send chills up a mature reader’s spine.  Diana Wynne Jones’ The Time Of The Ghost revolves around a quartet of sisters’ ill-advised game which positions an old rag doll, Monigan, as a goddess who can grant wishes – at a price.  Swedish favorite, Agnes Cecilia by Maria Gripe, is part ghost story, part detective thriller, as the young protagonist Nora discovers that a strangely lifelike doll can provide the keys to the mystery of her past.  Ian McEwan includes a doll-transformation in The Daydreamers, involving a suitably grotesque doll, “a pink that no human had ever been. Long ago its left leg and its right arm had been wrenched from their sockets, and from the top of its pitted skull grew one thick hank of black hair.”  In The Witch Doll, Helen Morgan tells the story of Clothilde (Tilda to her minions), an ancient witch who seeks immortality by jumping in and out of the bodies of hypnotized little girls – whom she promptly relegates to doll status as soon as she’s made a wig from their hair. It’s all good, clean, family fun, until you consider that the target readers are likely to finish their bedtime story and then go to sleep in a room containing row upon row of glassy-eyed dolls, borderline mental torture for a sensitive child.

In the 1980s and 1990s, Ruby Jean Jensen was the undisputed queen of lurid Doll Horror.  She leapt on the V.C. Andrews ‘children in jeopardy’ juggernaut, but, instead of being threatened by incest and homicidal grandmothers, her child protagonists were placed in mortal peril by killer dolls.  Not as hardcore as some of the other horror writers doing the rounds at the time – although the cover art, involving grinning, bloodstained dolls wielding sharp implements may have suggested otherwise - Jensen nonetheless knew what her primarily young, female audience wanted and served it up time and time again.  The blurb on the back of Mama tells you all you need to know about her oeuvre:

Once upon a time there lived a sweet little dolly. Her porcelain face was so smooth, just like a baby. Her mouth even had a tiny hole so she could eat and breathe. But her one beaded glass eye gleamed with mischief and evil. She had waited a long time in the attic for someone to set her free...

Buy the doll that looks uncannily like you and wears exactly the same outfit! Bring it home! Don’t worry your pretty little head about Soul Transference until after it’s happened!

In Annabelle, the emotionally starved Jessica explores the abandoned house next door and discovers a family of possessive, vengeful dolls who claim her as their own.  Identical twin dolls reside at the malevolent core of Victoria, one of them with a penchant for causing fatal accidents. Baby Doll features a life-sucking faux-infant that preys on several generations of the same family over the course of a century.  Jensen weaves a good ghost story into all of these and there’s an interesting subtext about the transmission of female knowledge and power: totems (the dolls) get handed down from mother to daughter, without the necessary oral tradition – which contains dire warnings about what NOT to do with the dolls – being passed on alongside them once the twentieth century is breached.  Oh, how we wish we knew as much as our great-great-grandmothers about folk magic!  Jensen’s books are mostly out of print, but are definitely worth picking up at thrift stores if dysfunctional dolly daydreams are your thing.

Of course, there's plenty of Doll Horror for grown ups. We may relegate childhood toys to the attic, but out of sight is most definitely not out of mind. These stories come, like their subjects, in all shapes, colors and sizes, but often the diminutive stature of dolls is best explored in short story or novella form.  M.R. James’ classic ghost story, The Haunted Dolls’ House, is even more spooky when you consider it was commissioned especially for the miniature inhabitants of Queen Mary’s Dolls House in 1922.  D.H. Lawrence riffs on poppet power in The Captain’s Doll, introducing us to the mournful Countess Hannele as she toys with a “slender, delicately made… dark-skinned, with a little, close-cut dark moustache, and wide-open dark eyes” replica of her lover.  Unfortunately the suave perfection of the doll and its malleability in Hannele’s hands symbolize everything the crazed, obtuse real Captain is not.  For his part, the Captain resents it, believing it represents Hannele’s desire to own and control him. “If a woman loves you, she’ll make a doll out of you. She’ll never be satisfied till she’s made your doll. And when she’s got your doll, that’s all she wants” he rants at the end, acknowledging he’s trapped in a web of crazydoll logic.

One of the best-known examples of Doll Horror is Richard Matheson’s The Prey.  It originally appeared in the April 1969 edition of Playboy magazine, and Matheson subsequently adapted it as one third of the Trilogy of Terror TV movie.  Unlucky Amelia orders an African doll as a birthday gift to impress her “anthropology buff” boyfriend:

It was the ugliest doll she’d ever seen. Seven inches long and carved from wood, it had a skeletal body and an oversized head. Its expression was maniacally fierce, its pointed teeth completely bared, its glaring eyes protuberant. It clutched an eight-inch spear in its right hand.”

The doll is labeled “This is He Who Kills... He is a deadly hunter” and it supposedly contains the entrapped spirit of a Zuni warrior. Distracted after a telephonic row with her overbearing Mom, Amelia forgets to put the doll back in the box correctly – with terrible consequences.  Dolls are a cheap and easy effect in horror movies and no one who’s seen the Trilogy of Terror segment ‘Amelia’, with Karen Black being chased around her apartment by the predator doll, ever forgets it – without He Who Kills there’d be no Chucky.

Writers continue to use dolls in creative and frightening ways. Dean Koontz confronts his Vietnamese-American protagonist, Tommy Phan, with a doll demon in Tick Tock.  Tommy hears the doorbell ring, one dark and stormy night, and finds only an unfinished doll, made of “white cotton fabric, unclothed, without facial features or hair” on the doorstep.  Even though it’s of decidedly sinister appearance, “where each eye should have been, two crossed stitches of coarse black thread dimpled the white cloth”, Tommy brings the rag doll indoors - he clearly wasn’t given the right reading material as a child. He then has to spend the rest of the night fleeing from the scaly, toothy “mini-kin” that emerges from the ragdoll chrysalis and is determined to destroy him before dawn breaks.  Neil Gaiman took the doll-transformation trope to an extremely dark place in Coraline – if the heroine ever submits to the terrifying buttons on her eyes, she will become the doll plaything of Other Mother, forever.  The dolls in Gaiman’s fantasy are the victims, rather than the perpetrators. Just last year, J.C. Martin wove her novella, The Doll, into the legends surrounding Mexico’s most disturbing tourist attraction, La Isla de la Munecas.  This island is part of the canal network south of Mexico City, and attracts thousands of visitors.  It’s certainly a memorable sight.

Dolls of all sizes, in various states of decay, hung from trees like grisly Christmas ornaments. Most have lost limbs, eyes, or entire torsos to the passage of time. With their still-plump cherub cheeks, they would have been pretty once upon a time, looking at home in a little girl’s bedroom – a little girl like Taylor. Now, their grimy, cracked complexions and missing eyes made them look more like mutant Chucky dolls.”

Her protagonist, Joyce, runs afoul of the curse attached to this grim locale, discovering that the dolls hanging in the trees aren’t sinister or malevolent in themselves.  They’re prisoners of a much older, very powerful entity that will not be denied the playthings it desires.

There's no point resisting. We're haunted by the pitter-patter of tiny feet - especially when those feet are plastic. Dolls continue to scare us both inside and outside the pages of books.  Even Anne Rice got rid of her doll collection, officially citing ‘lack of space’ as the reason for selling it – we can but guess at the volume of her shrieks the morning she went into the ‘Doll Room’ and found, not-so inexplicably, it wasn’t as she left it. And  Robert The Doll, currently resident in Key West, is just one of many mini-mannequins around the world who keep our doll-fears real by messing with tourists’ cameras – and their minds.

Stacey Leigh Brooks has done a marvelous job of confronting our collective fears about what those broken, abandoned dolls in your attic are really thinking in her two twisted little tomes, Creepy Ass Dolls and Diary of A Creepy Ass Doll.  In our first ever Lurid competition, judged by Stacey herself, we have a signed copy of Diary of… to give away to the person who submits the best creepy doll photo in the comments below before September 8th, 2012.  Does your creepy doll have history?  Include some sinister tidbits about its past lives for bonus points.

About the author

Karina Wilson is a British writer based in Los Angeles. As a screenwriter and story consultant she tends to specialize in horror movies and romcoms (it's all genre, right?) but has also made her mark on countless, diverse feature films over the past decade, from indies to the A-list. She is currently polishing off her first novel, Exeme, and you can read more about that endeavor here .

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