My new neighbor has a statue made almost entirely from broken baby dolls. He’s perhaps the greatest neighbor a new homeowner could have: nice, smart, and a contractor. He is always more than willing to help baffled laymen with serious house issues like a broken patio door or how to fix the fence that’s two seconds from falling over. And he is the main creator of the doll statue, a disconnect my brain still struggles to rectify.
The statue stands several feet tall and used to include sound components. I’m told it was a neighborhood effort with several people scouring charity shops and yard sales for broken baby dolls and that it used to be several feet taller than it is now. The base of the statue is a series of battered and dirty plastic arms and legs climbing ever higher. At the top of the statue there is one baby doll head staring out at the world with her blank expressionless face.
To him the statue is a symbol of the very nature of our society, of our desire to get ahead by any means necessary. He jokes that someone once offered him a thousand dollars for the piece and I can’t say I’m surprised. It’s beautiful in it’s gruesomeness, something you don’t want to look at but can’t quite look away from.
He only removed the statue when the previous owners of our new house decided to sell their home. And thank heavens he took down the statue before we saw the house. If I’d seen that statue in his yard when we were house hunting I’d have run away screaming. Literally.
Pediophobia is a funny thing. I’m not afraid of Barbie (I could totally take her), nor am I afraid of toy soldiers or of action figures. My fear of dolls lies in those which look like children- baby dolls with their vacant, glittering eyes. I hate indiscriminately both those with bald scalps and those with the long flowing synthetic hair which flutters in the slightest breeze. Seeing them in the store is bad but having one in the house is enough to make my skin crawl.
And like so many fears, my mother is almost entirely to thank for this glorious phobia I’ve developed.
She was a woman obsessed with a few simple things in life: alcohol, pot, men, and non-stop horror and action movies. If it had Jean Claude Van Dam, Chuck Norris, a talking doll with a quest for human blood, or a knife-wielding serial killer in it then she was down. Thankfully, no one managed to incorporate all those elements in one movie before she died.
I get my fear of dolls from this obsession. By the age of seven, I'd seen every single haunted doll movie existing at the time. I saw Child's Play in theaters (released 1988 when I was but 5 years old). I nearly wet my pants. She was less impressed and actually fell asleep midway through the movie. It took a lot to scare my mother.
Then in 1991, Dolly Dearest arrived. For the uninitiated, Dolly Dearest sounds like a rip-off of Child's Play. Both movies involve a doll infected by an evil spirit who goes on a killing spree. To say Dolly is a rip-off of Child's is like saying The Shining is a rip-off of The Haunting of Hill House. Whereas Chucky spawned a bunch of sequels (including an absolutely absurd pair starring the ever lovely Jennifer Tilly as Chucky’s demonic doll bride), Dolly Dearest was much less successful. For everyone else in the world, Dolly Dearest was a movie that came and went with barely a blip on the horror radar. For my mother, it quickly became her favorite movie.
In Dolly Dearest, an archaeologist accidentally releases a demon from a tomb who, instead of killing him, runs away and hides in a nearby dollhouse. When an American family arrives to run the nearby doll factory, their daughter picks a doll and goes to play in the dollhouse. The doll becomes possessed by this ancient religious demon and then carnage ensues.
It is not a great movie. The special effects are meh and the acting is so-so. Yet when my mother forced me to watch it, I couldn’t sleep for days afterward. So she watched it at least another 15 times before returning it to the video store.
There is something especially sinister about Dolly, the evil doll, and as a child I couldn’t understand why I feared her more than Chucky.
I later realized it’s because, unlike Chucky, Dolly looked like the kind of dolls you see in stores. With few exceptions, depictions of dolls in the late ‘80-early ‘90s were female with long hair and usually pale skin or they were asexual babies with bald pates. Nothing like the red-haired Chucky existed in our local stores prior to the movie opening. But a doll like Dolly? Pale skin, long dark hair, small little smile- they were everywhere. The perfect little ladies for all the perfect little girls playing at adulthood.
Dolly just happened to be pure evil to boot.
I’m a generally anxious person and like so many other anxious people I know my childhood experiences have played a large part in my adulthood fear. And while I love horror in book form, I tend to shy away from horror movies. A few years ago I even had a panic attack in a movie theater because of the intense horror movie trailer running on screen and spent the first 20 minutes of the movie huddled in a bathroom stall trying to convince myself that I wasn’t actually dying.
You’d think a childhood spent watching Candyman, Killer Clowns from Outer Space, It, The Thing etc etc etc would leave me inured to what the genre has to offer. After all, how can I be afraid of dolls coming to life when I’ve seen it happen countless times and (spoiler alert) the humans always find a way to take the evil dolls down?
How can I read books by Stephen King, Jonathan Maberry, Lisa Morton, Bently Little, Cherie Priest, and Peter Straub with glee while squeamishly avoiding watching movies or TV shows based on their books?
With a book, many of the finer details of a scene are left to your imagination. Yes, the author might describe a scene in finite detail but if it’s distressing or too disgusting, you could always skim the text. It is up to you to decide how much blood covers someone’s body, up to you to determine the level of char on their skin, or what sound their eyeball makes as it dangles over their cheek. And at any point in time, you can also choose to close the book for a few moments and walk away. Yes, the horror from books sticks with you, but it’s a slow and, for me, controlled burn.
Once a movie started in my household, my mother refused to let us walk away. After all, we spent much of my childhood without a TV and when we did have one she still had to rent a VCR to watch the movies. She wanted to make sure if she spent the money, we all got our money’s worth. So if you started a scary movie, no matter how horrifying it was, you couldn’t walk away.
As an adult, I know that to some extent, you can make choices when it comes to movies as well. I’m no longer a child sitting on the end of the couch crying because the clowns have broken away from the carnival and are terrorizing a neighborhood, or because the doll is standing right behind a doorway waiting to pounce. Now I can decide to avoid anything in the torture porn genre (although there were many years when this felt almost impossible as the majority of movies hitting theaters were eager to capitalize on the popularity of this subset of a genre). If I’m watching a movie at home, I can choose to pause it, and to walk away if it gets to be too much. But I can’t control the sights and the sounds and the anxiety reaction I have. I can’t stop my brain from replaying the movie imagery on the back of my eyelids as I drift off to sleep. And if I’m in a theater, it gets even harder to get up and walk out if the movie is too overwhelming.
So I line my bookshelves with book after book filled with horror and even write my own stories. I cover my eyes the moment the movie shows a clown popping up from the drain. And I hope against hope that my neighbor decides to leave the statue of broken dolls hidden away in the recesses of his backyard where it so rightly belongs.