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Psychology

From Chucky to Annabelle, How Creepy Dolls Became Our Favorite Fear

Dolls have kept us entertained for thousands of years. Way back when, ancient civilizations created these playthings from whatever they could get their hands on: wood, clay, stone, and even bone (gross). Most recently, archaeologists discovered paddle dolls inside Egyptian tombs dating from 2000 BC. But don’t get your hopes up. These human replicas, carved flat like an oar yet highly stylized to depict the female body, likely symbolized fertility and rebirth and were never used for kinky, prehistoric sex. Over time, with industrialization and new materials, dolls became more articulate and took on human qualities.

Like many children, I had an extraordinary collection of dolls. They filled every corner of my room and formed a small mountain on my bed. Wooden nesting dolls, Raggedy Anns, and porcelain creations, with painted smirks and dainty limbs, populated a dozen or so display shelves hanging on my walls. I also had a small army of “sleepy-eyed” dolls and others that could talk, cry, and move with the pull of a string. And then, one day, my fondness for these lifeless playthings changed. That was the day my grandmother brought home an old Victorian-era doll from a yard sale.

The doll, which I named Samantha, looked pissed to be in my presence. Her worn dress and faded facial features gave her a sad, pathetic appearance. I felt empathy and overlooked her unnerving scowl. But soon after her arrival, weird things started happening. Doors began opening and closing. Strange knocks and whispers pierced the silence of the night. I noticed, so I thought, Samantha's expression shift from anger to being very pleased with herself. Although all of this was likely my overactive imagination, I promptly gave Samantha the boot. She spent the rest of her days locked away in our moth-infested attic. Take that, you little monster.

The fear of dolls has been heavily exploited in pop culture, from movies to Halloween events. Dolls occupy a horror subgenre that has kept us morbidly fascinated and terrified for decades. Some people even suffer from pediophobia, an actual fear of dolls. “In the grand scheme of phobias, pediophobia is pretty far down the list,” says Frank McAndrew, a professor of psychology at Knox College who has written extensively on the science of phobias and creepiness. “However, that does not mean that it is not an unsettling problem for someone who suffers from it. I’m confident that many people who do not suffer from pediophobia still think of life-like dolls as more than a little bit creepy.”

[Doll collectors] adopt these toys, and the lost spirits living inside, in the same way one might adopt a pet or even a child.

It’s these human characteristics that can push an endearing inanimate object into questionable territory: the uncanny valley. The uncanny valley, pioneered by robotics expert Masahiro Mori, encompasses the area between when we like something because it looks or acts human and when something makes us uncomfortable because it has too much humanness.

On the other side of the fear factor are those who embrace inanimate humanoid figures: collectors. The United Federation of Doll Clubs boasts on its homepage: “Doll collecting is one of the largest hobby groups in the world enjoyed by enthusiasts everywhere!” And for some, the creepier, the better. Many people collect so-called haunted dolls, and the hobby is apparently on the rise.

Kat Blowers inherited hundreds of alleged “haunted” dolls after buying a variety of mystery boxes at an Arizona auction. She now sells these discarded playthings on Etsy. “I honestly think people are searching for a connection to the other realm,” she says. “Many of my customers have lost someone and are trying to reach out to that realm. Also, the haunted doll movies have really pushed this as a trend.” She cautions that only serious collectors should buy these dolls as “spirits are just like people.”

There are countless Facebook groups and pages for haunted doll collectors. Many of these communities make it clear that they don’t buy or sell haunted objects—they adopt these toys, and the lost spirits living inside, in the same way one might adopt a pet or even a child.

For those in the market for one of these prized “possessions,” haunted dolls carry a spooktacular price tag. Blowers sells her dolls for between $20 and $100 each. On eBay, these red-hot items have purportedly sold for thousands. Currently, one doll, said to be possessed by “5 or so head demons,” is listed on the site for $3,900. Another “haunted antique composition doll with a spirit attached” has a “But It Now” price of $2,000.

Cinematic horror dolls have led people to believe that all haunted items are evil, but they aren't all bad.

Still, many collectors are gifted their first dolls, whether as a practical joke or an act of desperation on the part of the giver. Kevin Cain, a haunted doll collector, paranormal investigator, and author of the book My Haunted Collection, received his first doll, Patty, from a friend who was terrified of the toy. Cain admits he was skeptical and nervous when he brought Patty home. But, as it turns out, she is one of the good dolls. “Patty is the spirit of a very sweet little seven-year-old girl who once owned the doll and died from an accidental drug overdose in 1986. The doll was her most prized possession in life, so she chose to stay around it in death since it made her feel safe,” Cain explains.

Today, Cain has hundreds of these devilish playthings lingering around his home. As his collection has grown, he claims he has heard “little footsteps in the night, the sound of doors opening and closing in otherwise empty rooms, giggles, knocks, items getting moved around, and apparitions of little girls.”

Blowers has had countless experiences as well. “I’ve seen images of people wandering the halls. We have had all our pots and pans pulled out of the cupboards by a child spirit, dolls move from one room to the other, televisions and radios turn on or off randomly, and light bulbs burst. Sometimes, it’s like a haunted house in here, especially if we have a ‘negative energy’ spirit in the house.”

Cain says he recently had to bless a doll that a client sent to him from Baton Rouge, Louisiana. “This doll had a demonic entity attached to it. It was scratching the client and her roommate, giving them violent nightmares, pulling their hair, and even tried to strangle one of them in her sleep,” he explains.

After he received the doll, Cain blessed and bound it with holy water and then sealed it in a case that also contained holy water. Since, he claims, the doll has caused no further trouble. “It hasn’t attacked me, and the client's home went back to normal soon after.”

Ironically, it’s the possibility, the very notion, that a doll might be possessed by a threatening spirit that attracts some people to the world of collecting. “Cinematic horror dolls, like Chucky and Annabelle, have led people to believe that ALL haunted items are evil, but they aren't all bad.” Most of the ones Cain deals with, he says, are “nice and harmless, and just like to be mischievous.”

But do you really want to take a chance?

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