In his 1906 essay “On the Psychology of the Uncanny”, psychologist Ernst Jentsch wrote, “In telling a story one of the most successful devices for easily creating uncanny effects is to leave the reader in uncertainty whether a particular figure in the story is a human being or an automaton...” Japanese roboticist (i.e.: person who builds robots) Mashahiro Mori later connected Jentsch’s theory to fear response when he coined the term “uncanny valley”: the closer a human-made object comes to looking like a human, the more humans are repulsed by it. Whatever the psychology behind puppet terror is, it seems to be one of our most pervasive phobias, and creators of fiction have exploited it since long before Mori posited his theory in 1970. So now in luscious chronological order, here are ten of the most petrifying of these perilously pernicious puppets!
The spoilers are coming...
1. Hugo from Dead of Night
There had already been a few creepy cinematic dummies (Lon Chaney’s mouthpiece in The Unholy Three; Gabbo in Eric Von Stroheim’s early sound film The Great Gabbo) the one that seems to have really sparked off the trend of evil puppets was Hugo in the British portmanteau Dead of Night. While the film is often sited as the finest horror anthology, I think it’s pretty uneven. The wrap-around is nice (a man arrives at a country house to join a roomful of strangers gathered to discuss their recurring nightmares), but most of the stories are either too slight or too flabby (I’ve never been able to make it through the silly “golfing ghost” episode without fading out) to have much impact. The one that registers most is the final segment in which Michael Redgrave plays a mad ventriloquist convinced that his dummy, Hugo, has come to life and intends to murder him. Dead of Night is worth viewing for two truly disturbing sequences: Redgrave, after going completely around the bend, speaking solely in the dummy’s squeaky voice, and the absolutely terrifying grand finale in which… well, you should really watch it yourself. Every fiction that follows on this list owes a debt to Dead of Night and every petrifying puppet owes one to Hugo.
2. Max Collodi from “The Glass Eye” episode of “Alfred Hitchcock Presents”
In one of the most insidiously memorable episodes of “Alfred Hitchcock Presents”, William Shatner relates the weird tale of Eleanor Rigby-esque Julia Lester (Jessica Tandy). Lonely Julia is a sort of ventriloquist groupie (who isn’t?), and after she falls for puppet master Max Collodi (Tom Conway), who performs with a bizarrely lifelike figure named George, she stalks him until he agrees to a meeting. The bizarre conclusion of “The Glass Eye” proves that one should never meet ones heroes, lest one discover that said hero is actually made of maple and being controlled by a little person (Billy Barty) in a creepy dummy mask. I can’t quite decide what is more unsettling:
the deathly image of Max’s lifeless, one-eyed face or the sight of masked George tossing a leaping tantrum after his secret is revealed. Eh, let’s just say it’s all pretty goddamn unsettling so we don’t have to think about “The Glass Eye” anymore. Shudder.
3. Willie from “The Dummy” episode of “The Twilight Zone”
“The Dummy” is the first “scary puppet” fiction that really gets it right. Tighter than the sequence in Dead of Night and more unsettlingly ambiguous then “The Glass Eye” (is Willie the dummy really alive or is Cliff Robertson’s Jerry Etherson simply suffering a bad case of the DT’s?), “The Dummy” may provide the single most disturbing image on “The Twilight Zone” when puppet and master switch roles during the dénouement. The queasy way the camera sweeps over the damned pair— the new ventriloquist grinning right into the camera lens for just a moment— still wrings my stomach. There were “evil puppet” stories before “The Dummy”, and there would be many more to follow, but this is still the best.
4. “Spike” from Eraserhead
I have to admit that I never found the puppet that Eraserhead star Jack Nance nicknamed “Spike” to be particularly frightening. But a quick stroll across the Internet reveals that I am very much in the minority on this matter. More than a few Midnight Movie attendees were permanently scarred by the sight of the mewling, malformed infant that makes Nance’s life a living nightmare (or at least, greatly contributes to the nightmare it probably always was) in David Lynch’s debut/masterpiece Eraserhead. There has been much speculation on the baby’s creation, the most popular theories being that Lynch fashioned it out of some sort of organic materials. Some suggest he may have made it out of a skinned rabbit or a calf fetus (!), but the director refuses to reveal his secret, much to his credit. Admit it, Eraserhead freaks, you’d be devastated if you found out “Spike” consisted of nothing more exotic than wires and silly putty. Whatever Lynch used to bring “Spike” to life, the articulation of the puppet—with its grotesquely rolling eyes and fat, probing tongue—is amazing and begs the question of how one could ever bring such authentic life to a calf fetus (!!).
Yeah, I get that she was supposed to be funny, but that does not alter the fact that Madame was far scarier than she was hilarious. I for one recall Madame more for the way she traumatized me as a youth than her bawdy one-liners (and let’s face it, however funny those one-liners could have been, there is nothing more painfully unfunny than one-liners delivered by a puppet). So what we’re left with is a grotesque, jaw-flapping monstrosity that is a dead ringer for the equally horrifying witch from Snow White and the Seven Dwarves. I’ve already devoted, an entire installment of my series Things That Scare Me to Madame, so I really see no point in dwelling on her any longer than necessary here. Let’s just forget about her… forget about her and her cruel, unblinking eyes and shrill cackle, and that gaping maw that was the source of so many boyhood nightmares.
I said forget about her, dammit!
6. Fats from Magic
I apparently had a real problem with puppets when I was a kid, because Fats from the 1978 film Magic had an effect on me not unlike that of Madame. He too was a Things That Scare Me subject, but I had far less exposure to him than I did to Madame, who had her own show and a regular guest slot on “Hollywood Squares”. I did not see Magic until I was an adult, and it’s pretty so-so and nothing new to anyone who’s seen Dead of Night or “The Dummy” episode of “The Twilight Zone”. My exposure to Fats was via an infamous television commercial (which you can view in the Things That Scare Me post) that apparently so traumatized America’s youth that a phone call campaign by irate parents got it pulled from the air.
7. The “Spitting Image” Puppets
For a brief moment in the mid-‘80s, America became infatuated with a troupe of puppets resembling celebrities with melting faces. Masterminded by British puppet-makers Peter Fluck and Roger Law, “Spitting Image” ran as a satirical series on British Television from 1984 through 1996, but the team’s horrifying replicas of Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher, Pete Townshend, and Paul McCartney were most familiar to we yanks via Genesis’ “Land of Confusion” video. I for one had to turn away from the TV every time the Madonna puppet’s puffy-lipped belly button sang along with the endless choruses of “whoa oh!” Gag.
8. The Skeksis from The Dark Crystal
The characters that adhere most closely to the “uncanny valley” in Jim Henson’s weird all-puppet fantasy The Dark Crystal are the humanoid gelflings. Despite those characters’ dead eyes, they’re still a little too cute to really get under ones skin, especially when appearing alongside such grotesqueries as the witchlike Augra, who has a penchant for yanking her eyeball out of its socket, and the skeksis, which resemble rotten vulture carcasses with appalling table manners. Henson really crosses the line from creepy-kiddie flick to child abuse during a scene in which Chamberlain, a constantly whimpering skesi (is that the singular of skeksis? Maybe I should consult my twelve-sided dice) defrocked by his peers, pleads with one of the gelflings to follow him into certain peril. As Chamberlain’s pleas persist, his musically keening voice grows increasingly shrill and demented, ensuring that audiences full of children across the world would require hours of psychiatric treatment to dislodge the sound and image of the Chamberlain from their impressionable minds.
9. The puppets of Jan Švankmajer
The debate about whether or not David Lynch used some sort of animal carcass to create the baby in Eraserhead may still be in full force, but no such debate regarding the puppets of Jan Švankmajer is necessary. That’s because the Czech surrealist blatantly uses taxidermied animals, real animal bones, and meat as puppets in his films. These creations are most disturbingly displayed in Alice, his nightmarish take on Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, which is usually subjected to cute, kid-friendly interpretations on the screen. The melding of Victorian taxidermy with a classic of Victorian literature is pretty brilliant, but Švankmajer’s allusive reasons for using dead animals in Alice will hardly be at the forefront of your thoughts while watching the White Rabbit leaking sawdust from its punctured chest and eating the excretion or a google-eyed skull chattering across the screen or a hunk of beef slithering around. Švankmajer’s non-organic puppets are equally unsettling, such as the sock-puppet Caterpillar that snaps at Alice with human dentures before sewing its own eyes closed.
10. Coco the Clown from the “Strung Along” episode of “Tales from the Crypt”
“Tales from the Crypt” had scary puppets in spades. The show’s host is a rotting corpse puppet with the mouth of a Catskills comic and “The Ventriloquist’s Dummy” episode sports one of the all-time great shockers when Don Rickles reveals that his dummy is actually his conjoined brother Morty. While the Crypt Keeper is among the most recognizable creatures, he’s too goofy to be truly terrifying (my girlfriend would disagree, though). Even though “The Ventiloquist’s Dummy” may be the series’ greatest episode, Morty is too funny to really whip up the fear. So my nominee for the “Crypt’s” creepiest puppet is Coco the Clown from the excellent fourth season episode “Strung Along”. Donald O’Connor plays Joseph Renfield, a Buffalo Bob-type puppeteer from the golden age of television. Now a depressed shut-in convinced his young wife is cheating on him (this is “Tales from the Crypt”, so whether or not she is should be pretty easy to suss out), Joseph takes up with a young puppeteer in an effort to revive his career. The usual “Crypt” twists and turns ensue, but what really makes this episode stand out is the freaky Coco, who melds together those two great terror-icons: puppet and clown. Forgoing the incessant wise-cracking that undercuts the scare-factors of the Crypt Keeper and Morty, Coco is a more subtle killer puppet. A little appearance from out of the shadows here, a little eye movement there, until the terrifying conclusion that pays homage to “The Dummy” episode of “The Twilight Zone”, bringing the classic era of petrifying puppets full circle.