Annabelle, Chucky, Brahms… why do we find dolls so bloody scary?

If you’re unlucky enough to suffer from a fear of dolls – called pediophobia (careful now) at the very extreme of the spectrum – chances are that you haven’t been to the cinema all that much this year. Last month saw a Child’s Play reboot hit cinemas. Last weekend the third Annabelle movie, Annabelle Comes Home, opened. And, to cap the year off – a Christmas treat if you will – December will see the release of Brahms: The Boy 2, the sequel to the underrated, extremely upsetting 2016 horror The Boy, directed by William Brent Bell.

But why do we find dolls so scary? Kate Wolitzky-Taylor PhD, a faculty member at UCLA in the department of psychiatry and biobehavioural sciences, recently told the Prevention website that it’s not something any of us are born with. No, just as how clowns weren’t scary until the first time someone found them so, a fear of dolls is a fear which is acquired. It’s circular – the more we’re scared of dolls, the more we position them as an item worth fearing, the more the fear of dolls spreads.

“This consistent pairing of dolls with other creepy, scary stimuli may lead to experiencing fear or nervousness when confronted with a doll or an image of a doll,” says Wolizky-Taylor. “Learning is a big factor, whether it’s direct learning experiences, or vicarious learning through others.”

The new look Chucky in Child’s Play

But it’s also believed that the reason we find dolls scary is because, biologically, we’re not programmed to be able to deal with ‘fake faces’. This theory forms the crux of the ‘uncanny valley’ – the term given to explain objects which aren’t quite lifelike and yet are more realistic than not. It’s a term that came out of the research in this field done by the Japanese robotics engineer Masahiro Mori in the early 1970’s. Not human. But sort of. Almost. In a way.

See also: clowns.

The closer the doll looks to a human, says Mori, the scarier it is. This backs up something the journalist Linda Rodriguez McRobbie wrote when penning a history of creepy dolls for the Smithsonian in 2015. A fear of dolls wasn’t a common fear – and make no mistake, the reason why horror movies like Annabelle and Child’s Play are made, is because it’s very common – until toy-making innovations in the 19th century meant dolls started to be mass produced. Dolls – opening eyes, real hair – that could pass as a glassy eyed child.

“Our brains are designed to read faces for important information about intentions, emotions and potential threats,” writes McRobbie. “Indeed, we’re so primed to see faces and respond to them that we see them everywhere, in streaked windows and smears of Marmite, toast and banana peels.”

By the way, if you still haven’t booked your summer holiday, why not consider Mexico’s Isla de las Muñecas aka The Island of the Dolls? Created in the 1950’s by a man called Don Julián Santana, the island features dolls of all shapes and sizes, hung from the island’s trees and fauna. Santana believed that in doing so he was protecting the island from the spirit of a young girl who’d drowned there many years before. Then in 2001 he also drowned, in what’s said to be the exact same spot as where the aforementioned girl’s body was found. The island is now one of Mexico’s popular tourist attractions (according to Tripadvisor).

isla de las muñecas

Mexico City’s Isla De Las Muñecas by Sebastian Perez Lira / Barcroft Images

One interesting aside to the recent trend for what we’re calling ‘scary-fucking-doll-movies’, is the current boom for the sale of dolls that are actually believed to be haunted. Alabama based paranormal investigator Kevin Cain owns hundreds of the things. “I lost count [of how many I have] a long time ago,” says Kevin. And he’s not the only one. On eBay, on Etsy, there are plenty of ways to get yourself a haunted doll, though really, you shouldn’t be thinking of spending anything less than three figures on one. Why not try Kat Blowers Etsy shop FugitiveKatCreations, where she says, her best sells are dolls she believes are inhabited by female spirits.

“We have a lot of goddess-type spirits or women who have survived terrible situations and thrived.” Each doll comes to you after vigorous investigations her end – Kat blasts the thing with a K-II EMF meter, a device used to detect electromagnetic energy that’s a favourite of paranormal investigators.

Let’s end this with a nice story shall we? In 2014, a woman from San Clemente is reported to have been apprehended by local police after anonymously leaving porcelain dolls on the porch of at least eight families in the area. Which is a nice gesture, right? Oh by the way, each doll left was said to resemble a young woman living in each house. The unnamed gift-giver – who, it transpired, attended church with many of the aforementioned families – said she’d done it because her own daughters had grown up and stopped playing with dolls. She just wanted to pass them on. To spread the love…

Sleep well you guys!