Halloween has always been my favourite time of year. The autumnal season itself, alongside the traditions and beliefs around Samhain. I also like all things a bit dark and creepy. One particular memory from my youth was at the age of 13, when I had friends round to watch some horror movies. The Blair Witch Project had recently come out, and so we eagerly sat down to watch.
For unknown reasons, my mum was a fan of a porcelain doll. Myself and my older sister had been given several as gifts and these were displayed in a shelf unit in the wall in the corner of the room. The room we sat in to watch a horror film at age 13. One of those dolls was even musical, whose seat moved round when played.
We ended up covering the front of the shelves with a sheet, so we could not see the dolls during the viewing.
And that brings me to the term pediophobia – the fear of dolls.
Pediophobia is classified under another phobia category – that of automatonophobia (the fear of humanoid figures). And as an aside, the related pupaphobia is the fear of puppets.
I would not say I personally had a fear or phobia myself (I admit I used to love Living Dead Dolls and Little Apple Dolls as a young ‘goth’ teen), but I definitely appreciate the creepiness of a doll!
It’s not surprising that horror films have used dolls on several occasions; Chucky in Child’s Play, the clown doll in Poltergeist, ventriloquist dummies in Dead Silence (a small shout out to Night of the Living Dummy of Goosebumps fame), in one of my teen favourites May, and more recently in the film Boy and the Annabelle series of films from The Conjuring universe. There are many, so dolls are clearly something that make many of us scared.
Some of these films were inspired by real dolls that were allegedly haunted or cursed. The origins behind the Annabelle doll came from that of Ed and Lorraine Warren (played by Vera Farmiga and Patrick Wilson in the Conjuring series), and a Raggedy Ann doll which is now kept at the Warren’s Occult Museum in Connecticut. The Warren’s were also famously linked to the Amityville Horror and Enfield poltergeist investigations.
Some have suggested that the origin story behind Annabelle also inspired Chucky in the Child’s Play series, but others have linked the inspiration to the story of Robert the Doll, who currently resides at the Fort East Martello Museum in Key West, Florida, where you can even get a Robert the Doll experience. More on the origins of Robert can be found at a favourite site, Atlas Obscura.
Edinburgh itself also has a Toy Hospital, where you can even choose to stay over while your dolls and toys are being fixed (not during Covid sadly), which to many edges towards more on the creepy side. Images from a previous toy hospital in Edinburgh can be found here.
Toy museums such as Edinburgh’s Museum of Childhood, have display cabinets filled with dolls of many shapes and sizes, from many different eras, that feel as though they look at you as you walk past, invoking fear in many, mostly adults.
As children we were probably not so fearful of dolls, and most of us have probably felt that emotional state of fear because of the social and cultural depictions such as in films and their stories of origin, rather than the phobia itself. This probably stems from the fact many dolls look human.
In a recent study, Thalia Wheatley, a cognitive neuroscientist from Dartmouth University, discusses the reactions of looking at different faces, human or otherwise: looking at a doll’s face relates to the way people detect and pay attention to faces in general. Wheatley noted that when reacting to a doll’s face, a person’s brain creates some signals to say it is alive, even though they know it is not – “and that juxtaposition is really creepy.”
Then there is the Uncanny Valley hypothesis – when aesthetically a robotic or humanoid figure starts to resemble a human so much it invokes specific responses. An interesting article on discussions around the Uncanny Valley can also be found here.
The ‘creepiness’ most of us feel with dolls is more of suspicion; that something feels threatening but we are not sure why – a paper on the subject of ‘creepiness’ talks of the idea that although we do not have information on why there is this possible threat, our reactions make us stay highly attentive.
So perhaps most of the fear people have around dolls is from when culturally they started to look a little more human, into the late 19th and early 20th centuries. When eye movements were added, or the musical movement in some porcelain dolls like the one at my Halloween gathering as a young teen. Followed, of course, by all those used in the horror genre of movies.
The creepy is, alongside being disturbing, very intriguing and fascinating…to myself anyway!
And to end I leave you with a selection of images to perhaps ‘creep you out’…