The Halloween season is upon us, and you know what that means. It’s time to get obsessed with all things creepy, crawly, and bump-in-the-night scary. With the release of the movie Annabelle, everyone at the Moviepilot office has been coming forward and unabashedly admitting a fear of all things dolls. Specifically the porcelain kind, but we try not to be exclusive when it comes to our mutual fears.
When I was a kid I played with dolls constantly. But I decidedly chose ones of the non-terrifying variety. They were always distinctly different from the ones that my parents and grandparents played with when they were young. You know the ones that, for no apparent reason, fill you with a sense of fear and sadness. If you find dolls to be inexplicably creepy, have no fear! You are far from alone, take Channing Tatum for example. We aren't scared of dolls because we grew up watching movies like Child's Play and [Annabelle](movie:1217914). We're scared of those movies because dolls are genuinely frightening. So I'm going to explain why with science and a touch of speculation.
Pediophobia and Automatonophobia
Pediophobia is a very real and common fear. It is often linked to automatonophobia, the fear of humanoid objects falsely representing sentient beings (think ventriloquist dummies). I think that almost everyone has had that feeling at least once. When I get that idea that something is watching me I always turn my attention first to objects with eyes. In most cases, this ends up being a doll of sorts. There was a psychological theory posited by Sigmund Freud which stated that children sometimes fantasize their dolls coming to life (Toy Story, anyone?) and it permanently affects their psyche. Speaking of Freud, let's move on to his concept of the Uncanny.
The Uncanny was an question first brought up by the German philosopher Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph Schelling and later expanded upon by the German psychologist Ernst Jentsch. In his 1906 essay, "On the Psychology of the Uncanny," Jentsch brings up points like this that go on to influence Freud:
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.
At the time, Jentsch was not talking about dolls specifically, but all inanimate objects. Objects are supposed to be inherently lifeless, so what happens when we inject lifelike characteristics into something we know isn't alive? Basically, this idea of a latent yet animate being is cause for unease - our brains reject it.
Freud discussed the Uncanny as being a feeling that someone is both familiar and alien at the same time. While he found truth in Jentsch's arguments, he believed that there was a deeper explanation than Jentsch's notion of it being based solely on intellectual uncertainty. In his essay "The 'Uncanny'" (1919) he states:
...children do not distinguish at all sharply between living and lifeless objects, and that they are especially fond of treating their dolls like live people… the idea of a “living doll” excites no fear at all; the child had no fear of its doll coming to life, it may even have desired it.
In this instance, which I'm sure many of us have felt, we can't blame uncertainty for inciting the feeling of fear or Uncanny. If a child's favorite doll came to life, they would probably be pretty excited about it, rather than be scared or confused because it is already familiar. Children already treat dolls like real people, that's the fun! So what turns this childhood fantasy from a dream to a nightmare?
Well, my theory combines Jentsch and Freud. Yes, intellectual uncertainty alone cannot explain the Uncanny in the instance of children, but it might be able to in adults. While, as a child, a person might revel in the idea of their toys coming to life, as an adult they are well aware that the line between animate beings and inanimate objects should be distinct. The disconnect between real and imagined is so much more clear as an adult, but we hold onto the notions that we had during adolescence. So when the lines become blurred we become less certain and more uncomfortable.
The Uncanny Valley
While the Uncanny Valley was already discussed in another Moviepilot post by Mark Newton, it definitely needs to be mentioned when discussing a fear of dolls. So what is the Uncanny Valley theory?
Essentially, this theory created by 1970s by Japanese roboticist Masahiro Mori, says that as objects like dolls, robots, etc. become more lifelike, they will gauge a positive emotional response response until they quickly reach a point where these feelings turn to revulsion, when familiarity becomes unfamiliar. This gap is the Uncanny Valley. The deeper the point on the chart, the more sinister and uncanny the objects appear. Once the objects start becoming more dissimilar, we once again become comfortable knowing that they are artificial objects mimicking human characteristics.
This is why stuffed animals, dolls, or even C3PO are generally less scary than their more lifelike counterparts - they're too far away from resembling actual humans for it to unsettle us. It also explains my fear of porcelain dolls. They share human features and characteristics, but they're just different enough so that something is slightly off when you look at them. They have light, sometimes white skin, they're stiff, and they're breakable. Yes, humans are breakable too, but not to the point of shattering on the floor. They resemble humans, but not enough and somehow too much at the same time.
I have another theory. It's not at the level of Freud, but just bear with me. I think that in the modern era, the gap between the real and artificial is beginning to close. If the CGI in films and video games is any indication, we are getting pretty close to creating a near-indistinguishable digital human (think Beowulf or The Polar Express). Or at least we're trying to. Check out Emily.
Sure, there's still something pretty off about Emily, but that's not to say the animators aren't getting damn close. In reality, there are hundreds and hundreds of facial cues that subconsciously alert us as to whether or not the face we're looking at is in fact a human one.
Furthermore, we are constantly seeing less human versions of people that we know exist in real life. No, I don't mean we have robot doubles walking the streets (well, we might). I'm talking about the far too prevalent use of Photoshop. Walk up to any news stand or simply look online and you're bound to see celebrities that look...not entirely human. In an effort to correct physical imperfections of the human form, we are actually turning real people into pseudo-people in print. Take these pictures for example.
Check out the dead eyes...
The flawless skin and hair...
And the all-around doll-like features and posture...
Once a real image of someone that we know exists becomes digitally altered enough to become unfamiliar, it starts to take a slow plunge into the Uncanny Valley. Therefore, the lines between real and imagined, animate and inanimate, begin to blur again and the feeling of uncertainty increases.
The director of [Annabelle](movie:1217914), John Leonetti, told The Huffington Post in an interview what it was about dolls that he thinks makes them scary.
"As inanimate objects, they are just scary...If you think about them, most dolls are emulating a human figure. But they’re missing one big thing, which is emotion. So they’re shells. It’s a natural psychological and justifiable vehicle for demons to take it over. If you look at a doll in its eyes, it just stares. That’s creepy. They’re hollow inside. That space needs to be filled."
So there you go! If the psychological reasoning isn't enough, it can be simply explained by them being creepy because they're attempting to be human while still missing what makes humans human! Emotions, thoughts, feelings. Dolls are easy to attribute these characteristics to since they look so much like us, but they're basically just a demon vessel waiting to happen. It's science.
Annabelle is not the first scary movie focused around scary dolls, and she definitely won't be the last. So I guess we have to start getting used to the idea of dolls just being really creepy forever, or set all of the scary ones on fire!