Dolls, by their nature, are weird.
Think about it—they’re (often) miniature representations of people meant to be played with. They’re inanimate objects. With another person or an animal, there’s an exchange, an actual relationship of some kind. But with a doll, there’s nothing inside the doll to interact with. Yet we design them specifically to encourage that interaction. In fact, we craft dolls specifically to invite children and adults alike to construct identities for their dolls, to feel like there’s some kind of relationship there. Because dolls demand that the person invent a personality for the doll, a narrative for the doll, a ghost of a person to live within the doll.
That’s weird, right?
Consequently, it’s no wonder horror movies love dolls. So much dark and twisted stuff can be explored through dolls, everything from our fear of small, intimate objects that look like people but definitely aren’t people to terrifying extensions of our own unhinged personalities. It’s all well and good if they remain lifeless. After all, they’re in our homes. They sleep in our beds or our children’s beds. They see things. They hear things. They can look like children. They can look like nightmares. The last thing anyone wants is for them to start doing things. Especially if you weren’t particularly nice to your toys.
Just think about how unsettling it was when you thought you put your teddy bear in your toy chest but it was waiting for you on the rug. When you thought you left your GI Joes in your room, but you found them in the living room. When you thought you left your Molly American Girl doll tucked safely into her Molly-sized doll bed, but she somehow ended up on the dining room table in the middle of the night. Seeming to stare at you.
“You’re Friend Till the End”
That’s the inherent tension embodied in a doll. As much as we want to play with them, we don’t actually want them to play back. A doll come to life feels wrong on an existential level, one made worse by the fact that, more often than not, a doll gained our trust and complacency by seeming so sweet and unthreatening. Our fear is that the doll was never sweet or unthreatening—it was always just biding its time, waiting for its moment.
So yeah, dolls are creepy as hell and thus, a solid and dependable source of horror for audiences looking for a good scare. When you think about it, there’s really a fine line between Toy Story, and well, Child’s Play. The only difference is that the dolls in Toy Story don’t want to mess with their humans…for the most part…except when they do.
As such, I decided to commemorate the new remake of Child’s Play but exploring the 13 dolls that messed me up so bad I couldn’t look at my American Girl doll for weeks at a time. Specifically, I wanted to share with you the movies that had dolls that I found to be legitimately disturbing, not just vaguely creepy. So, sorry Billy from Saw and Annabelle. You didn’t make the cut.
In no particular order:
Chucky – Child’s Play (1988)
I can’t have this list without referencing the most famous evil doll movie of all time—Child’s Play. Say what you want about how cheesy this movie is (it is, don’t worry), but it still scares the crap out of me. I mean, look at Chuck’s face in this clip.
I mean, seriously, what the hell is that!!! What would you do if a doll came to life and bit you like that? I just…words can’t describe how utterly terrifying that is to me. The success is due in large part to some A+ creature design here that capitalizes on the uncanny valley like whoa. Note how sweet and cherubic his face is, how carefully the designers have been to make his body mimic the size and proportions of a toddler; it all makes his angry little face and growly adult voice all the more shocking when he comes to life and starts murdering people. Also, the fact that Chucky has a wicked sense of humor and a flair for depraved violence doesn’t help either. On all fronts, Chucky is the exact opposite of what anyone wants in a doll.
The Clown – Poltergeist (1982)
God, I love this movie so much. It was the very first really scary film I remember liking (despite how much it scared the crap out of me). That’s due, in no small part, to the completely horrifying scene where Carol Anne is stolen away by the spirits, a scene where the poltergeists animate all the toys in Carol Anne and Robby’s bedroom to terrorize them. And the star of that scene is this. Fucking. Clown.
The scene speaks for itself. Though I will mention that the part the scares me the most is how its face changes during this scene. *shudder*
First of all, why the hell would you ever have this doll in your room? Why would your parents ever let you have this doll? As a parent, I’d be pissed if someone gave my daughter a doll this obviously evil. That’s as if you’ve literally said, “Hey, I want your kid to be scarred for life by this little plastic demon.” Hard pass.
Billy the Puppet/Mary Shaw – Dead Silence (2007)
Full disclosure: I don’t actually think Dead Silence is a good movie, but damn if it doesn’t have good scenes. Overall, the movie is a hilarious mess with that, despite the ludicrous and horrendous ending, nevertheless possesses moments of genius. For example, despite the ridiculous opening sequence (which demands the audience suspend all disbelief that a young couple just accepts a freakin’ creepy doll someone dropped off at their house) the flashback scenes feature some genuinely well-executed scary doll moments. Like this almost-too-real ventriloquist act:
Or this very atmospheric and tense scene starring a little boy and a doll-ified corpse in a morgue.
Fats – Magic (1978)
Did you know that long before he terrorized Jodie Foster in The Silence of the Lambs, Anthony Hopkins was in this bonkers horror movie playing a magician/ventriloquist with a crazy psycho doll? ME NEITHER. That move is Magic, and it’s an excellent example of the doll as an extension of a disturbed person’s personality. Or is it? This doll is just…hard to look at. I like how he seems to share some of Hopkin’s facial features, which is a straightforward but effective way to underscore just how strange the relationship is between Hopkins and the doll. On top of that, the movie seems pretty set on convincing us that the doll is merely the passive receiver of Hopkins’ delusions, except for those scenes where it seems to move on its own. Either way, Hopkins’s performance is equal parts unsettling and vulnerable, as evidenced by this scene:
Susan’s Doll – “The Doll”: Seinfeld (1996)
When I was doing research for this post, I stumbled across this Seinfeld episode. I had never seen this episode before, and having watched Seinfeld reruns sporadically (I was too young to watch when it aired). I thought this episode was hilarious. At first. But then something about the doll stuck with me. Despite this entry being a humorous inclusion, there’s just something so effing creepy about the doll. I mean, look at it! It’s so lifelike. It’s probably the most lifelike doll on this list, and that alone is terrifying. It’s like the uncanny valley came to life. Of course, this episode touches on all the establish horror movie tropes of a controlling doll, in much the same way that George’s mother is overbearing. But there’s something truly messed up about how the episode plays that codependent relationship for laughs. Especially when the funniest (and most unsettling) bit comes when George’s father confronts the doll.
(Also, what the hell kind of little girl would have that doll?)
Chinga – “Chinga”: The X-Files (1998)
So, this isn’t the best episode of The X-Files ever, but it definitely messed me up when I first saw it as a 10-year-old. It also forever ruined that old recording of the Hokey Pokey for me. I can’t listen to it without thinking of this episode. This doll is, quite simply, straight-up mean. The other dolls on this list all had a reason (however strained) to act out, but Chinga just likes to feed on her little girl’s anger and hurt people. The story combines both our adult fears of little dolls and little children into one hell of a double whammy.
Co-written by master of horror himself, Stephen King, the episode is one of the more violent episodes that I can recall. (Side note: Stephen King never meant to co-write the episode with series’ creator Chris Carter—Carter rewrote whole portions of the script which undoubtedly led to some of the uneven tone. Carter, like George Lucas before him, is an idea man and should have left the writing to an actual writer.) The best part of King’s script is how normal the doll looks. One of my major gripes with haunted doll horror is that the dolls always look way too creepy. Not this doll—she looks sweet as can be. Even though she’s an absolute monster.
Amy – May (2002)
Sometimes dolls aren’t always the source of evil and madness; sometimes, dolls are merely evidence of a deranged mind. That’s the case in May, a seriously underrated movie about an intensely lonely young woman (the titular May) who has struggled her whole life to make and maintain meaningful relationships. The only special relationship she has in the world is her doll Suzie, which her mother made for her after telling her, “If you can’t find a friend, make one.” After a string of briefly intense relationships and devastating betrayals, May decides to take that advice a bit too literally. Her new doll, named Amy, is as nightmarish as it is heartbreaking, taking the time-honored trope of the doll as an extension of personality to a fresh, horrifying level. (Spoiler: This scene is the end of the movie. The violent, depressing end of the movie.)
Talky Tina – “Living Doll: The Twilight Zone (1963)
That damn Talky Tina. She does everything! Including murder.
This episode of The Twilight Zone is a classic example of how dolls see and hear things we don’t want them to know about. In this episode, Talky Tina is a constant, vocal reminder of how husband and stepfather Eric is failing at both of those things. And, to be honest, he’s pretty shitty to his wife and his stepdaughter, which makes me team Tina. Even though she’s scary.
Tina is effective as a scary doll for many reasons, one of the major reasons being that she looks so normal. It’s hard for anyone to think of her as evil, which she clearly uses to her advantage. She’s also got a knack for gaslighting, as all the best demonic dolls have. But above all else, she has a true gift for getting under Eric’s skin and getting him to spill his guts about his family troubles. His paranoia and fear are simmering underneath the surface, and Talking Tina is here to bring it all out in the open.
What scary dolls from movies or television scare you the most? Let me know in the comments!