Chucky? Annabelle? How Dolls Became a Symbol of Horror

Take a look back at the history of spooky dolls, their origin as innocent ancient playthings, and their rise to (probably) cursed objects. 

You don’t have to be a horror movie aficionado to know that dolls, no matter the shape or size, can be terrifying. With his menacing grin and wild hair, Chucky set the gold standard for creepy dolls. But, in the right setting, even an average Barbie can send shivers up the spine.

Image via Jakub Krechowicz.

But how, exactly, did children’s toys become so frightening? Gather ’round, kids . . .

Ancient Doll History

Dolls have been a staple of human history for almost as long as humans have existed. Papyrus-stuffed rag dolls dating back to the 1st century have been found at excavation sites in Egypt. And, in 2004, archaeologists dug up the remains of a 4,000-year-old stone doll on the Mediterranean island of Pantelleria.

Dolls like these, however, are usually not as scary as the ones that appear in modern horror movies. They don’t have faces, for starters, and their body shape is more abstract—envision a child’s drawing of a person rather than the more physically accurate baby dolls of today. 

Rag dolls remained popular all over the world through the 19th century and beyond, and puppets eventually joined them in the realm of “toys that freak people out.” Early puppets, however, share that same unreal quality that older rag dolls have. Their features aren’t highly defined, and their bodies are disproportionate in size to their heads.

Early Pinocchio puppets, for example, often have huge heads and stick-thin legs and arms—not really scary, just kind of funny looking. 

Dolls didn’t really begin to earn their reputation as bringers of nightmares until the 20th century, when manufacturing improved and materials like plastic became popular with toymakers. At that point, dolls gained the feature they needed to become terrifying—they started looking real. 

The Early Days of Doll Horror

Scary Baby Doll
The more lifelike a doll looks, the scarier it becomes. Image via guillermo_celano.

There’s not a ton of research out there on pediophobia, the official name for fear of dolls, but one of the most popular theories has to do with the uncanny valley. Robotics professor Masahiro Mori coined the term in 1970 to refer to the way people relate to robots that look like humans. If a robot looks just human enough, observers feel empathy toward it. But, if it looks too human, those feelings turn to revulsion.

Dolls fall on that same spectrum. A colonial American rag doll isn’t that humanoid, but a baby doll with realistic eyes and hair is. While the brain knows it isn’t a real person, it’s still hard to shake the idea that something is just slightly off. 

Almost as soon as dolls became more lifelike and, thus, more terrifying, filmmakers exploited their newly realistic features and started incorporating them into their fright fests.

In 1929’s The Great Gabbo, a ventriloquist becomes incapable of communicating except through his wooden dummy, Otto. Ventriloquist horror quickly became its own subgenre, with 1945’s Dead of Night and 1964’s Devil Doll also featuring murderous dummies. 

Outside of the ventriloquist realm, there was 1936’s The Devil-Doll, where Lionel Barrymore played a wrongly convicted man who shrinks two humans to doll size so they can carry out his revenge.

In 1963, The Twilight Zone got in the game with the famous episode “Living Doll,” in which a doll named Talky Tina (based on the real-life Chatty Cathy) sassed her owners and eventually led a man to his death. 

Chucky and His Brethren

By the time the 1980s arrived, children’s toys were more realistic than ever, and filmmaking techniques had progressed, too, making villains and monsters look more lifelike than they did in the Lon Chaney days.

As slasher movies like Halloween and Friday the 13th became box office hits that morphed into franchises, it was only logical that the next step would be a horror film where the doll is the slasher—enter Chucky.

In 1988, Child’s Play burst into theaters, scaring adults and children alike. It eventually spawned seven sequels, a TV series, a 2019 reboot, and countless Halloween costumes that spooked the pants off trick-or-treaters everywhere. Chucky wasn’t the first haunted doll of course, but he was the biggest. Talky Tina walked so he could run. 

Chucky dominated scary doll culture through the ’90s, but he was hardly the only game in town. In a 1998 episode of The X-Files, Mulder and Scully investigated the case of a seemingly murderous doll named Chinga who was terrorizing a small Maine town. The episode was divisive among critics at the time, but it remains an important part of X-Files lore due to the fact that it was co-written by none other than Stephen King

The craze spilled over into children’s programming, too. In 1994, Nickelodeon aired an Are You Afraid of the Dark? episode called “The Tale of the Dollmaker” that’s still haunting millennials to this day.

There was also R.L. Stine’s Goosebumps, which tapped into the early history of dolls on screen with Slappy the Dummy, an evil puppet capable of mind control. 

Annabelle and the New Generation

Annabelle Doll
The Conjuring‘s Annabelle doll. Image via Tinseltown.

After Chucky’s reign of terror started to wane, haunted dolls went slightly out of fashion. That changed in 2013 with the release of The Conjuring, which bore the ominous tagline “based on a true story.”

The movie followed real-life paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren as they investigated a series of strange occurrences at a house in Rhode Island.

But, the real star of the show was Annabelle, the ostensibly possessed doll they kept locked in a glass case in their house. She was barely in the first Conjuring at all, but fans were hooked. And, in less than a decade, the studio followed up with not one but three Annabelle-centered films.

The real Annabelle became a star, too, with the Warrens’ son-in-law, Tony Spera, hosting meet-and-greet events where eager horror fans could “encounter” her from behind glass. 

In 2016, Lauren Cohan starred in The Boy, in which an older couple hire her to “babysit” their seemingly inanimate doll son, Brahms. The disappointing twist—spoiler alert—was that Brahms was being manipulated by an actual human, but some audiences must have been into it because a sequel followed in 2020. 

Obsessed Doll
Image via Klochkov SCS.

On the non-horror side, Steve Carrell led an ensemble cast of humans-turned-dolls in 2018’s Welcome to Marwen. But, the movie was ultimately a flop, at least in part because audiences thought the doll people were too creepy. After half a century of Chucky, Tina, and the like, there’s no going back—dolls are scary, full stop.

A few more haunt-y inspirations for you:

Cover image via Nadezhda Mikhalitskaia.

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