Why Are Dolls Creepy? The Uncanny Valley Might Be What Makes Them So Unnerving

Each Halloween, the fears we happily ignore during the rest of the year — the ones that push our sleeplessness button several times over — come skittering out of the shadows. As someone who personifies Piglet, the list of things that keep me up until 3 a.m. is perhaps a little longer than it is for others, but there's one question that comes up repeatedly in October: Why are dolls so creepy? Because let's face it: They are creepy. Almost as creepy as clowns. And very few people will refute that fact.

In theory, dolls are nothing more than toys that allow children to act out fantasies, but in practice, they're rather more sinister. Thousands of creepy doll makeup tutorials pop up on YouTube around Halloween, and haunted figurines feature in dozens of urban legends. Perhaps most tellingly, dolls and ventriloquist dummies are a staple of the horror genre; Child's Play and Annabelle have both traumatized thousands of moviegoers with their doll-centered storylines, and they're far from the only ones. Clearly, an awful lot of people find the beloved toys unnerving, to say the least — but what gives?

The answer has something to do with a phenomenon called the "uncanny valley." Japanese scientist Masahiro Mori coined the term in 1970 to describe the sense of unease people feel when something looks humanoid, but not quite realistic — a figure that falls just short of mimicking humanity. It usually refers to robots, but the same basic principle applies to dolls. They're designed to resemble people, but with their glassy eyes and fixed smiles, the effect doesn't quite stick.

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During the early 20th century, psychologist Ernst Jentsch explored what makes some objects so unnerving. In On the Psychology of the Uncanny, he wrote, "Among all the psychical uncertainties that can become a cause for the uncanny feeling to arise, there is one in particular that is able to develop a fairly regular... effect: namely, doubt as to whether an apparently living being really is animate and, conversely, doubt as to whether a lifeless object may not in fact be animate." He wasn't speaking specifically of dolls, but it's easy to see why a doll would evoke such a sense of apprehension. We may intellectually know that they're inanimate, but they resemble humans enough to put us on alert.

This idea came up again nearly a century later, when Knox College researcher Frances McAndrew and his graduate student, Sara Koehnke, tried to define creepiness. Their results, published in a 2013 study and expanded upon this year, indicated that it comes down to ambiguity. When something (or someone) appears downright dangerous, people get scared. When something isn't quite dangerous but still seems unpredictable, people get creeped out — and that's the territory occupied by dolls. Some part of our brains is occupied trying to decide what to expect from this object that appears lifelike in some ways, and in the meantime, we feel a creeping sense of unease.

Then there's the cultural reinforcement. As Smithsonian magazine points out, the "creepy doll" trope has been around since the 19th century, but it certainly doesn't hurt to have dolls at the center of so many horror movies. When dolls are already spooky, it certainly doesn't hurt to see murderous versions appear on the silver screen.

Of course, not everyone finds dolls scary. But it's safe to say that if you're out of ideas for Halloween, a porcelain doll costume will send trick-or-treaters fleeing from your path. Isn't that what the holiday is really about?

Images: Giphy, Fotolia