Dolls - Harmless Toys or Channels of Terror?

Sarah Todd

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I’ve never been a doll person. When I was a child my dolls were discarded in favour of our pet dogs, and my siblings and I carted them around in various toy trolleys and prams. Fortunately my parents were partial to a small breed of dog called a Welsh Corgi – imagine trying to fit a fully grown Rottweiler into a dolls’ pram! My attitude towards dolls changed as I grew older, but instead of growing to appreciate them I became apprehensive. I blame this on my increasing awareness of the horror genre, and television shows like “Tales From The Darkside” that often featured malevolent dolls. I had a friend who had one of those dolls that blinked, and it absolutely terrified me. It always seemed to be watching us through pale, lifeless blue orbs in its head. Watching… and waiting. Blinking yet sightless. Or was it?

In Helen Morgan’s “The Witch Doll” the title character’s hair grows when brushed. Her name is Tilda, and she’s a doll who trades souls with humans.

Dolls have been an integral part of the horror genre for many years, and Hollywood has been a major exploiter of this phenomenon. There have been countless films about the voodoo religion, particularly voodoo dolls. Although their origin can be traced to identifying pressure points for use in healing it is thought that slaves exploited the myth as a form of self defence against ruthless slave owners. Thus the belief that a specific individual can be cursed through a voodoo doll was born, and exploited. Such is the popularity of the voodoo doll myth today that tourists can buy voodoo dolls in Port au Prince, Haiti – the centre of the voodoo religion!

A more authentic use for dolls in voodoo is the practice of nailing the doll – together with a shoe - to a tree near a cemetery. They are supposed to act as messengers between the lands of the living and that of the dead. However the myth of the voodoo doll appears to owe its origins to ancient Europe…

The pagan cults used a poppet to symbolise the fertility of Nature during festivals and harvests. The person who produced the poppet was said to infuse the doll with life, and it was considered to be a little person. Poppets were also associated with witchcraft, and were often produced to cast a fertility, healing or binding spell upon an individual. These dolls were usually produced from natural products such as clay, a potato, a root or a tree branch, a corn shaft, an apple or a lemon. Paper and wax were also used, together with cloth that was usually filled with herbs. The poppet was then used for image magic, and whatever actions were performed upon the effigy would be effective to the human subject. Does this sound familiar? To counter the usually dreadful effects of the poppet a wax figure could turn the spell against the one who cast it, and counter the witchcraft… if the evil was discovered in time!

A family boating on a lake find a large doll floating in the water. They rescue it, and soon wish they’d never laid eyes on it. Donna Lee Wallock’s “Troll Doll” is possessed by evil spirits, and it’s not long before strange accidents and unexplained deaths surround the doll.

It seems that dolls are usually produced in the female form, but they have also replicated the male gender. Scarecrows, corn dollies and the druids’ wicker man are all male! Scarecrows evolved because of the need for farmers to discourage birds from disturbing their crops. In 1592 they were described as: That which frightens or is intended to frighten without doing physical harm. Literally that which scares away crows, hence the name - scarecrow. Originally fashioned in human form from straw, scarecrows were dressed in clothes with hats, with faces made of fabric with stitches providing the facial features. Today scarecrows are still widely used by farmers all over the world. Corn dollies were hollow shapes manufactured from the last sheaf of the crop at the end of a harvest. Ancient cultures believed that once a crop had been harvested the corn spirit would be homeless, and would leave the field to search for a new home. The corn dolly would remain in the fields during winter, providing refuge for the corn spirit until the new harvest was planted in spring.

The Wicker Man is an icon that has featured in modern culture. A tall humanoid shape, a Wicker Man was traditionally woven from flexible branches – much like wicker furniture – and usually burned at neo-pagan festivals to mark spring. It sounds horrific, but fire was originally considered a form or purification, and the act of burning a human effigy was to create a messenger to liaise between the community and its deity.

Popular culture has made the Wicker Man a symbol of horror. There’s a famous British horror film called The Wicker Man, which places live sacrifices to burn inside the Wicker Man during a pagan ritual. A remake of this film, starring Nicholas Cage, is being released at time of writing this article. In the book “The Vampire Lestat” one of Anne Rice’s characters describes witnessing the burning of a Wicker Man containing human beings during Roman times. Heavy metal band Iron Maiden recorded a song title “The Wicker Man”.

The title character of Jane Toombs’ “Hugger Doll” is a killer, something the hero’s grandmother warned him about year earlier. Once he laughed at her superstitions; now he wishes he’d paid more attention!

The most famous doll in the horror genre today must be Chucky, aka Charles Lee Ray. Chucky’s creator derived his name using three notorious killers: Charles Manson, Lee Harvey Oswold and James Earl Ray. Created for the “Child’s Play” series of horror films, Chucky is a doll that is possessed by the soul of a killer. The doll begins killing people, and all sorts of storylines have evolved around him/it. Eventually the doll’s face and body is maimed, his human girlfriend becomes a killer doll called Tiffany and the dolls manage to produce a gender-confused doll child called Glen/Glenda… it’s an extremely successful franchise, and to date there have been five Chucky films.

Dolls may look human, but their characteristics and emotions are a blank sheet, waiting for our imagination to bring them to life. Be they in films, books or music dolls are an intrinsic part of our culture. And from where I’m sitting their future looks bright.

The writer was born in Africa, and lived there for the first 38 years of her life. She worked in the world of public relations for over five years, running her own PR company and dealing extensively with the world of journalism and the print media. She is an author on http://www.Writing.Com/ , a site for Writers . Her blog can be visited at:


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