There’s something about porcelain dolls that scares the hell out of us. The ORIGINS of dolls give you all the reasons why: they are intermediaries, used for magic, and can cause bodily harm. Yes, dolls are the greatest of all my fears. Is it possible that dolls could be alive? Are they capable of hurting us or is that just a byproduct of our imagination?
ORIGINS is written and produced by award-winning author Jaimie Engle.
When I was a little girl, I spent the night at my cousin’s. She had one of those elegant porcelain dolls on her dresser with the marble eyes, frilly gown, and delicate skin. Only the dress felt scratchy to the touch and the skin was hard and cold. And those marble eyes seemed to follow you no matter where you moved. We fell asleep with the doll watching over us like a guardian angel, her eyes downcast and hands neatly tucked by her sides; however, when we woke up before the sun, both startled awake by something we couldn’t place, the doll had changed. Her eyes stared ahead, wide open as if in fear and her arms had lifted high above her head like a lace soldier preparing to strike. Needless to say, that doll was rushed up into the attic, where she stayed for almost thirty years.
Dolls are perhaps the most chilling of all inanimate objects. Their faces made to reflect the innocence of a child’s tend to portray the exact opposite, lending to ideas that they are harboring trapped souls or possessed by the devil himself. Collections of these crafted works of art become dark shelves where doll army’s wait for you to fall asleep so they can do their master’s bidding. Or so the imagination would have you believe. The fear of dolls is actually called pediophobia. A similar fear, automatonophobia, is the fear of humanoid objects falsely representing sentient beings, more like the ventriloquist dolls then their porcelain cousins. This particular fear makes me think about those eyes in paintings that seem to follow you no matter where you walk in the room.
Dolls like Toy Story’s Woody and Buzz, even Bo Peep, take on a slightly less creepy version of the concept of doll’s coming to life. What kid hasn’t wondered what their toys do when they are alone? Other dolls like Chucky leave us afraid of the playroom in the same way Jaws leaves us afraid of the ocean. We might go in, but our guard will never be down again. Historically, dolls have been around since the 21st century BC, found in the tombs of ancient Egyptians. Made from wood, clay, stone, and ivory, dolls were dressed and played with much in the same way as they are today. But their ORIGINS are deeper and darker than that.
In Africa, dolls were considered to be supernatural intermediaries, manipulated for ritualistic purposes. In Japan, they were used in religious rituals and for protection. For example, Daruma dolls, used as good luck charms, have white bodies with red faces framing pupilless eyes. Multiple cultures utilize dolls for magic, ritualistic, and spiritual connections. Some choose to give the used dolls to little girls once finished. In others, the dolls were deemed to hold too much magic and discarded.
One of the most well-known magic dolls is the poppet. Birthed in European folklore, these dolls are used to cast spells upon a particular person of the poppet holders choosing, a practice mimicked in Native American and African rituals as well. Using sympathetic magic, the effigy is transferred from the poppet to the person the spell is intended for. Witches made this practice famous. Similarly, African American dolls were used to perform Hoodoo folk magic, where dolls were created in the image of a specific person, sometimes with pieces of the person’s hair or clothing. By slipping pins into the doll’s body a chosen recipient would feel the inflicted pain. The Voodoo doll is technically a poppet, made famous in popular culture because of the sheer fear that idea conjures. To think that someone could create a doll resembling you and hurt you from a distance, completely anonymously, removes all sense of security from the world.
Dolls are a way to hide behind a persona, much the same as wearing a mask bolsters the courage of whomever wears it. In Islam, women are forbidden from dancing, but using dolls to express the same action is not a taboo practice. Iranians have used puppets to accuse policies and social conditions without fear of recompense. This very real use of dolls is precisely what makes them so creepy. They are so easy to manipulate and manifest into whatever you need them to be, leaving you wondering if spirits or demons don’t look at them the same way From the other side.
A 1970s Japanese roboticist developed the “uncanny valley” theory which implies the closer a face gets to resembling a human’s the more uncomfortable the humans become. We are not built to be gods to beings created in our likeness, unless, of course, they are identical. Once the face grows to reflect a human’s without any noticeable difference, we relax again and accept what we see as okay. It reminds me of shows like Westworld, where the AI is so close to being human it doesn’t even know it’s artificial. Or television’s Humans, where the robots are so real they begin to fill voids in the lives of their owners. The question of human beings and our need for relationships is shaken when films like Her present a world where romance is possible between people and their technology. Modern day dolls are just as creepy as their predecessors, only they come in the form of robots in tomorrow’s world.
The Uncanny theory was not a new theory at all, as it was explored by Freud who was inspired by the work of other German psychologists who came before him. The idea that something can be both familiar and alien simultaneously is the very thing that makes dolls our worst enemies. They are toys, yet they are humanoid. We become uncomfortable and project that fear to become our worst nightmares, namely: Chucky.
At some time or another, I think everyone has felt spooked that there is something or someone watching them when no one is there. Naturally, that means another pair of eyes are upon us, be it a ghost, a creepy painting, or an even creepier doll. Here’s what German psychologist Ernst Jenstch said about this in a 1906 essay, one that inspired our dear friend Freud’s research:
“Among all the psychical uncertainties that can become a cause for the uncanny feeling to arise, there is one in particular that is able to develop a fairly regular, powerful and very general effect: namely, doubt as to whether an apparently living being really is animate and, conversely, doubt as to whether a lifeless object may not in fact be animate – and more precisely, when this doubt only makes itself felt obscurely in one’s consciousness.” (From moviepilots.com-see footnotes)
In other words, can a doll be alive?
One doll who resides today in Key West is believed to be alive in his own way. His name is Robert the Doll. I stood in a room with him, and I’m not going to lie…it was horrifying. Sure, it could have been the hype of the crowd on the ghost tour hoping to be scared, paying to see something from the other world on a bus ride with a costumed curator leading the way. It could have been the EMF transistors they handed each and every one of us that beeped and blipped like we were the damn Ghostbusters. Or it could have and most likely was simply the terrifying doll encased in glass in the center of the room.
Robert the Doll originally belonged to a little boy of the same name (though the child went by Gene, the name I will use to avoid confusion here). Gene played with his toy, loved his twin, talking to Robert as if he were a living entity and never seen without him. Then the line was crossed and an imaginary friend began to create very real problems. Robert was blamed for mishaps in earnest, while Gene swore it wasn’t his doing. Still, the two grew together and even as an adult, Gene shared an unhealthy relationship with his beloved doll, who he would sit in the window to look outside while Gene was busy. Schoolchildren who passed on the street below swore Robert would appear and disappear in the window on his own. They avoided that street altogether. The mischievousness of this doll makes me wonder if he wasn’t possessed by something like Loki or a distant relative of Ted the Bear.
When Gene passed, the new house owner also became Robert’s new caretaker. Visitors to her home swore they heard the giggling laughter of a child in the attic where Robert resided. They heard footsteps walking across the creaking attic floor. People even swore to see Robert’s expressions change when Gene was talked about in a negative light while others promised to have found him in different places in the house with no one having moved him. I never heard the doll laugh or saw his mouth change, but I did hear from multiple sources that he would be found in different rooms of the building, reports of giggling, and incidents of pranks, like misplaced keys within the Fort East Martello Museum where 111+ year old Robert the Doll lives.
But Robert’s past isn’t the scary part. People blame Robert still, as Gene did as a child, for mishaps, such as job loss, divorce, broken bones, and even car accidents. Letters pour into the museum not from fans, but from those who did not heed the warning of the museum workers and disrespected the horrifying doll who placed a hex upon them. The letters beg for Robert’s pardon and plead for him to remove the hex. The curators told us we had to ask for permission to take a picture with Robert. People who didn’t do so or who didn’t believe, would find strange things happening to them like unexplained sickness. These people’s letters scrolled on television screens as warnings of the reality that we already knew: dolls are evil in nature.
You see, the most interesting thing about this particular Florida doll is that Robert the Doll hexes those who he feels deserve it. Whereas most often a doll is used by a person to hex another person, the ghastly nature of this story is that the poppet is the one doing the hexing. Whether you believe it’s true or not, it’s worth the drive to see this doll for yourself. And if you’re curious about my childhood doll from the attic? My cousin finally climbed the attic stairs and threw that doll away. So far, nothing out of the ordinary has happened to her. Yet…
I’m Jaimie Engle and you’ve just discovered ORIGINS.
ORIGINS is a bi-weekly podcast that shares the story behind legends and lore, where myth and science meet; written and produced by me, award-winning author Jaimie Engle of The Write Engle. If you like stories with a supernatural slant, I happen to write them. In fact, I have a new book releasing this summer. It’s a collection of my supernatural, humor, and historical short stories titled The Toilet Papers: Places to Go, While you Go, found in the BOOKS tab. Please follow on all social media @theWRITEengle. I follow back. As always, subscribing, liking, and sharing this podcast is your greatest compliment. Thank you. And finally, if you’d like to stick around you can hear a sample from The Toilet Papers titled “The Falcon” a story about a man who puts his faith in a robot that seems too human to be true.
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