Let's be honest: even when they're not haunted, dolls can be creepy as hell. Their expressionless little faces! Their freaky, limp limbs that splay out all weird and make them look like a crime scene photo from CSI every time they tip over! Remember in Jaws, when Quint is describing what is so terrifying about a shark, and he says, "Y'know the thing about a shark, he's got... lifeless eyes, black eyes, like a doll's eyes"? He is saying that dolls are scarier than sharks. And guess what? HE IS RIGHT. DOLLS ARE HORRIFYING.
OK, perhaps I'm overselling it (I personally had a traumatic experience with a Baby Alive in 1990 that I'm still clearly not quite over). But why do I, and so many other people, find dolls so creepy — and have such an easy time believing that a malevolent spirit would choose to call their tiny, stuffing-filled bodies home? Well, it probably helps that humanity and supernatural dolls have a long and somewhat uneasy history — magical dolls, which are known today by magic practitioners as "poppets," have been recorded as far back as ancient Egypt, where dolls made to look like Ramses III were said to have been used by his enemies to bring about his death. These dolls weren't only used for harm, though; according to the Spring 2017-Spring 2018 issue of the Witches' Almanac (yes, I have a subscription, what of it), ancient Greek poppets called "kollosos" were used for good, to enhance relationships or counter negative spirits.
But in modern America, we don't spend much time considering good magical dolls; in our cultural minds, dolls are about two degrees more trustworthy than an actual convicted serial killer. Why? You could trace our own cultural doll-phobia to the 1929 film The Great Gabbo , which created the delightfully enduring trope of the evil ventriloquist's dummy; or, it could be the 1963 Twilight Zone episode "Living Doll," which brought the idea of a mass-produced doll possessed by an evil energy into American popular culture. Or, perhaps, it's just because dolls truly are primed for evil...which is why it's so easy to believe these five stories about haunted dolls.
1. Robert the Doll
If there's such a thing as a most famous haunted doll in American culture, it's certainly Chucky, the diabolical plastic star of the Child's Play movies. But Chucky supposedly had a real-world inspiration — Florida's Robert the Doll. Today, Robert resides at a museum in Key West, but back in the day, he was the beloved companion of Robert Eugene Otto, who received the doll in childhood as a gift from his grandfather. Young Otto supposedly blamed any accidents he caused around the house on the doll, but he was also intensely attached to it. In fact, as an adult, Otto was noted around Key West for having a...let's say unusual relationship with Robert, in that Otto was reportedly a grown man who continued to take his doll everywhere he went and speak of it as if it were an actual person.
When Otto died, the person who bought his home also bought Robert, which, you'll be shocked to hear, proved to be something of a bad move! She reported that Robert moved around the house on his own, and guests heard mysterious footsteps and giggling in the attic. After two decades of eerie attic-giggles, the owner donated him to a local museum in 1994. Did you read that, and think, "You know, bringing this evil-ish doll into contact with more people is probably not the answer?" You are right! Your prize is this demonic doll I've been trying to get rid of! (Sorry.)
But once he made his new home in the museum, Robert was believed by many visitors to be accountable for all sorts of bad things — electronic equipment was said to often malfunction in his presence, and visitors who acted disrespectfully towards the doll or took his photo without first asking his permission have been said to experience bad luck afterwards, and sometimes even wrote him letters begging his forgiveness, in hopes of reversing his curse.
All of this, of course, leads to a much bigger question: Why are so many of these haunted dolls so obsessed with getting respect? Why do they act like bedraggled high school school math teachers whose students won't stop making fart noises every time their back is turned? Some mysteries, I suppose, will never be solved.
You may have seen Annabelle , the prequel to the movie the Conjuring that focuses on an evil doll with very nice bangs, who is supposedly haunted by the spirit of a Satanically murderous woman. But the actual story of Annabelle is a tad different — for starters, IRL Annabelle is a blood-thirsty rag doll instead of the more nefariously picturesque porcelain doll depicted in the film. She also wasn't the center of some very obvious devil worship cult; the real Annabelle story is a bit more subtle (and way less full of giant murder-demons).
According to the achieves of Ed and Lorraine Warren, the real-life couple the Conjuring films are based on, Annabelle the doll was given as a gift from a mother to her daughter, Donna, a nursing student in her early twenties. Donna soon found that Annabelle seemed to move around the house of her own volition while she and her roommate, Angie, were out, turning up in different rooms than where they had left her. About a month into life with their spooky third roommate, Donna and her friend said they started finding messages around their house, written in pencil on parchment, that said things like "Help Us" and "Help Lou." Bizarrely, Lou was a male friend of the roommates.
Donna and her roommate kept the doll around despite this, and when it appeared to have mysterious blood droplets on it one day, they sought out a medium, instead of doing the sensible thing, which is changing your name and moving to a country where dolls are illegal. The medium told Donna that Annabelle was the innocent spirit of a sweet little girl who had been killed on the spot where the apartments now stood, but if you've ever seen a horror movie or even a trailer for a horror movie, you know that this was totally not true.
However, Donna believed and was moved by the story, and gave Annabelle permission to stay in the apartment. This was bad news for Lou, who had an encounter with Annabelle that was either a horrific dream about the doll strangling him, or the doll actually trying to strangle him; he also experienced an encounter with the doll where harsh scratches appeared out of nowhere on his chest.
Donna, FINALLY no longer into this doll, contacted clergy, who contacted the Warrens, who said that Annabelle was inhabited by an inhuman demonic spirit, not the ghost of a dead child (obvi). After some light exorcism of the apartment, the Warrens took the doll home with them, where she also seemed to move through the house and exert a threatening power over others (one clergyman who made a negative remark towards the doll later reported his brakes failing while driving home from the Warren home). Eventually, the Warrens had a special case made for Annabelle which seemed to prevent her from harming people, with the supposed exception of a young man who antagonized the doll on a tour of the Warrens' home by banging on the case and demanding the doll prove herself to him; he died in a motorcycle on his way home.
Which bring me to a personal story: guys, I never meet celebrities, but I HAVE MET ANNABELLE IRL. I grew up one town over from the Warrens, who were real-life local celebrities when I was growing up. A few years ago, I took a tour of the basement museum maintained by Lorraine (Ed passed away in 2006), where visitors can gaze upon a wide variety of haunted, demonic, and otherwise freaky objet. Annabelle was a perfect gentlewoman (gentle-doll?) to me, but I also didn't antagonize her. I'm no fool — I'll screw with the forces of darkness, but I draw the line at dolls, dude.
Harold is the first, and most famous, of the "haunted eBay dolls," aka dolls that are sold online with a (usually pretty detailed) description of the forces supposedly haunting them and the specifics of the problems they may cause in your home, which makes them different from most of these haunted dolls — people bidding on haunted dolls are intentionally getting themselves into a potential Child's Play-type scenario, rather than just unluckily purchasing an innocent-looking doll that happens to also be Lord Glorkon, Tenth Minion of Satan or whatever.
Harold made his big star turn on the Travel Channel show Ghost Adventures, where he was pronounced to be "one of the most haunted dolls in the world." Harold's backstory claims that he was the property of a small boy who died; soon after, the family of the boy, who held on to the doll, claimed to witness the doll move, laugh, and sing on its own. Though the family contacted clergy, who attested that the doll was possessed and needed to be burned, supposedly the doll wouldn't even singe — so the family, of course, sold it at a flea market so that this demon doll could be someone else's problem.
The doll's myth holds that it has brought paranormal activity into the life of every subsequent owner, and in some cases, real-life violence and death. Is it true? Well, someone is running around the internet claiming that they completely made up the Haunted Harold story to get a good price selling a pretty beat-up, run-of-the-mill antique doll. But who are you going to believe? Someone admitting to fraud on the internet, or someone who has their own TV show? I know my own answer, personally.
Mandy the doll is the subject of the classic Barry Manilow song of the same name, which of course includes the famous lyric: "Oh Mandy/ you came and you were a doll that was evil/ So I sold you away on eBaaaay."
Mandy makes her horrific home at the Quesnel and District Museum in British Columbia, where she took up residence after her previous owner could no longer tolerate Mandy's antics. What were these antics, you very reasonably ask? Seems that when Mandy was in the house, the home would fill with baby cries at night, despite the lack of any real-life babies on the premises. Once situated at the museum, the staff blamed everything from curiously misplaced lunches, pens, and books to damage to other dolls on her.
And like many other allegedly haunted dolls, Mandy stands accused of causing electronics to malfunction in her presence, and, of course, moving around of her own volition. Does Mandy truly have mysterious powers? Or do people just get so wigged out looking at a rotted old doll that they start to basically hallucinate? I hope to never know the answer — these are the kinds of mysteries that make life INTRIGUING, people.
Well, that's quite a mysterious note above, don't you think? She's just a doll! Show us the doll! WHY WON'T YOU JUST LET US LOOK AT THE FREAKING DOLL? The legend of Peggy, of course, holds that to look upon Peggy is to court danger; according to her owner, paranormal investigator Jayne Harris, the doll has caused physical ailments like nausea, headaches, and in one case, an actual heart attack, as well as "visions" of mental institutions, in 80 people who have looked at videos of even pictures of the doll.
As Harris tells it, various metaphysical expert have testified that Peggy feels "restless, frustrated and was persecuted in life," which I think any of us might if we were a plastic doll that got blamed for strangers' chest palpitations. A few investigators have also claimed that Peggy "has links to the Holocaust and was possibly Jewish," which offends me in a way I can't quite articulate (inability to clearly explain why you're offended by a medium who says a doll is inhabited by the spirit of someone who died in the Holocaust because the claim seems to kind of make light of a genocide — another of Peggy's villainous powers? Actually, I guess I just explained it pretty well!)
I, of course, immediately decided to see if Peggy the doll could give me a heart attack, because I am a journalist. I tempted fate by watching this video, where Harris talks to Peggy and waves a tape recorder at her silent, plastic face. I'd like to say that Peggy was responsible for the brief headache I felt afterwards, but I feel like the true culprit was being dehydrated from drinking too much coffee, rather than the bad vibes of an angry doll. But hey, why can't it be bot, right?
Images: David Wall/Moment/Getty Images; Giphy; Wikipedia