Friday, October 16, 2015

Monsterology: Dolls

In this ongoing feature on Psychobabble, we’ve been looking at the history of Horror’s archetypal monsters.
 Before kids have the social skills to make human friends, they often find companionship in little blobs of cotton or plastic. A child clutching a doll, pretending to nurse the toy while he or she is still gnawing on a pacifier, is a familiar—and adorable— sight. Thanks to the ways storytellers love to twist signifiers of innocence, images of dolls gnawing on children have become pretty common too.

Sorry. That was just too easy a transition to pass up. In truth there aren't a ton of images of dolls gnawing on kids. More often the doll will settle for a good, sharp kitchen knife. Or maybe its limbs will grow to monstrously ropey proportions so it can drag the tyke under his own bed and start strangling the lad. And maybe dolls menacing kids isn't even the most common way these playthings menace. If we were to do an official tally (we aren't going to), we'd probably discover that dolls most often pick on adults. Sometimes the dolls in question are really protecting the little ones from grown ups who would do the youngsters in question harm. In that way, these killer dolls are still doing the jobs of all dolls: helping children deal with a very difficult world.

The idea of a beloved doll coming to life has been a literary staple for centuries. In his 1986 essay “A Few Small Corrections to a Commonly Held Image,” Walter Scherf wrote of an old fairy tale in which a doll comes to life and starts shitting gold. When a prince pisses on the doll, the doll grabs the prince's ass. Just to be clear, Scherf notes that this is a children's story. More typical are tales such as Paddington Bear and Winnie the Pooh, in which cute (if neurotic) teddy bears come to life.

This golden pooh is a little different from the kind in that other fairy tale.
Yet dolls have also long been totems of evil far worse than anything the Pooh has ever perpetrated. The poppet is a sort of voodoo doll long used by British wizards and witches to torture (and, to be fair and balanced, assist) the people they represent with magical spells. From such mythical objects came the more familiar voodoo doll that imperialists pinned on practitioners of Haitian Vodou, or as E.C. Comics prefers to spell the practice, voodoo. More benignly, cultures in the Congo Basin used their own dolls called Nkisi as Tupperwear for spirits. This would be a key concept in most scary stories involving killer dolls.
Ol' Nkisi Nkonde here dates to the late 19th century.

In cinema, our first killer doll worth noting is really a killer puppet: Hugo in the groundbreaking British portmanteau Dead of Night. But let's not get too hung up on this picture, since killer puppets are really their own things. So we are forced to leap ahead considerably to find a genuine killer doll in visual entertainment, since the monsters in films such as The Devil Doll (1936) and Attack of the Puppet People (1958) were really shrunken people not too different from Dr. Pretorius's homunculi in Bride of Frankenstein (1935). That lands us in 1964 and on the small screen with what may be the most terrifying of all killer dolls. In its final season, “The Twilight Zone” tended to have more lazy misses than chilling hits, but “Living Doll” was most definitely a hit and most definitely chilling. In this tale by Jerry Sohl (ghostwriting for Alzheimer’s-suffering Charles Beaumont), a doll inspired by the popular Chatty Catchy stands up for a little girl against her louse of a stepfather, played with icy brutishness by Telly Savales. For much of the play, the doll’s nature is unclear. Are its threats and taunts figments of Savales’s guilty imagination? Or is it a Nkisi, possessed by some protective spirit back at the Talky Tina factory? Things only become clear when the girl’s mom picks up the doll over her husband’s body, and this nice lady with terrible taste in men gets a threat of her own. I once told the tale of “Living Doll” to a friend who’d never seen the episode, and he told me it gave him chills. That is proof of strong storytelling that translates well from TV to the oral approach, but it also speaks to how strong our fears of scary dolls are.
Dolls are not known to mince words.

And yet these current horror staples were still years from being inescapable. In the 1968 sci-fi goof Barbarella, Jane Fonda encounters some truly terrifying wind-up dolls with snapping jaws. That same year, Karloff cheated by using life-sized killer dolls in House of Evil, and there is a strong killer doll sequence in Roy Ward Baker’s 1972 portmanteau Asylum, but we’d have to wait until 1975 for the first unquestionably iconic monster doll since 1964's Talky Tina. Once again, we have a “Twilight Zone” writer to blame, as Richard Matheson was the scribe behind the short story “Prey” that became the most effective episode in the made-for-TV portmanteau Trilogy of Terror. The story features a true Nkisi, though it is described as a “Zuni fetish doll” called He Who Kills. With a name like that, there could only be one direction for this story to take, and after picking up He Who Kills at a tchotchke shop, poor Karen Black is hunted by the spear-wielding creature. This unbearably tense piece of television ends with the spirit exiting the smoldering doll and entering Black, something only hinted at before being confirmed in the film’s most terrifying image.
"The Simpsons" satirized both "Living Doll" and "Trilogy of Terror" in one of its best Halloween episodes.

As many nightmares as Trilogy of Terror surely handed out, killer dolls still were not everywhere. That began to change in the eighties, around the time Tobe Hooper and Steven Spielberg unleashed Poltergeist (1982). In one of the nastiest tricks the title apparition plays, a boy’s grinning clown doll—which freaks him out even before it comes to life—comes to life. The sight of that doll, now hideously transformed, dragging the boy beneath his bed may have caused more bad dreams than even He Who Kills. After all, this was not a sculpted hunter intended to sit on an adult’s bookshelf; this was a boy’s best friend betraying its central duty (never mind the fact that the boy clearly never wanted to be best friends with this particular doll). You’d have to go to the dog attacking its child owner in Cujo or the evil parents menacing their daughter in Coraline for a crueler example of supernatural betrayal against a child. 
Feel free to shit yourself.

I wonder how many dolls ended up in the trash after underage viewings of Poltergeist? Probably a lot since that blockbuster reached such a huge audience. And in the eighties, there were lots of potentially evil dolls to chuck in the bin. This was the decade that began just two years after the unprecedented success of Kenner's Star Wars figures, the products that turned toys into big, big business in the eighties. Moms and dads acted like a bunch of He Who Killses when smashing each other over the heads while trying to grab the last Cabbage Patch Kids off the shelves of Toys ‘R’ Us stores across the nation. The best-selling talking doll Teddy Ruxpin probably caused an injury or two too, while My Buddy was similarly marketed with the aggression only seen in Saturday Morning TV commercial breaks.  
The horror.

Those three dolls inspired Tom Holland to create the definitive killer doll. It was a cheery beanbag in overalls like My Buddy. It talked like Ruxpin. It inspired parents to clobber each other like Cabbage Patch Kids did. And with the spirit of deceased, voodoo-practicing serial killer Charles Lee Ray coursing through its plastic veins, Chucky became deadlier than Buddy, Ruxpin, and Cabbage combined. With a series of films spanning 1988 to 2013, he had a much longer lifespan too. 
Chucky: undisputed king of the killer dolls.

Effective TV episodes and fleeting sequences in popular films are one thing, but there’s no stopping the influence of a true star, and that is what Chucky became. So up popped pretenders like Dolly Dearest (1991), Demonic Toys (1992), and Blood Dolls (1999), though none were fit to wear Chucky’s overalls (a killer doll sequence in Tales from the Hood was worth a watch, though). Even the master Stephen King failed to cut the mustard when he tossed off a hackneyed killer doll plot for “The X-Files” in 1998. So prevalent killer dolls may be, but perhaps not versatile, even as they continue to pop up in movies, such as the mindless Saw (2004), which featured a weird doll on a tricycle for no sensible reason aside from “weird dolls are creepy,” the dumb Catholic tract The Conjuring (2013), and its doll-centric spin-off Annabelle (2014). More often, killer dolls are the monsters of direct-to-video movies, possibly because they’re so easy and cheap to put on screen. Cheap and easy killer dolls may be, but they will always raise goose bumps because we will always shudder at how they pervert childhood innocence.

Required Viewing

“The Twilight Zone: Living Doll” (1964)

Barbarella (1968)

Asylum (1972)

Trilogy of Terror (1975)

Poltergeist (1982)

Dolls (1987) (I really wanted to mention this fun Stuart Gordon horror flick in the main discussion but couldn’t figure out how to shoe-horn it in).

Tales from the Hood (1995)

Bride of Chucky (1998)
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