The question is, does she wake back up again after you have gone to sleep?
Perhaps it isn’t that ridiculous a question, apart from the fact we’ve always known stories of dolls coming to life (1816’s Nutcracker, 1883’s Pinocchio, all the way up to 1988’s Chucky and 1995’s Woody) it seems our brains might be wired to be creeped out by dolls. Scientists measured it only takes us a split second (170 milliseconds) for our brain to distinguish between a face and an object. To detect a face with such speed we’re relying on spotting a special arrangement of features – eyes, nose, mouth. We’re looking for a match to the template.
This helps to explain the fun concept of pareidolia – seeing a face in an object, in everything from plug sockets to vegetables to buildings. We find a match to the template before we can reason, hang on, this isn’t a person.
When we see a doll it’s going to tick all the right boxes for being a person, more so than a plug socket, in fact it’s going to tick enough boxes for us to carry on processing it as a person, looking for emotional attributes. We expect to see signs of life, to use expression to determine friend or foe, and when we can’t find them the brain encounters a problem.
In 1970 the phrase “uncanny valley” was coined by Masahiro Mori, a Japanese roboticist. His hypothesis was that we have more empathy and positive feelings towards a robot the more human it looks but only to a certain point. When it reaches a stage of almost human our feelings dip into a valley of uncanny. It is smiling, so why are its eyes blank? Why isn’t it breathing? It has signs of being real but something isn’t quite right.
Unsurprisingly, Sigmund Freud had something to say about the fear of dolls too (spoiler alert: it’s repression). In his 1919 essay on the uncanny he drew upon an earlier study, ‘on the psychology of the uncanny’ by Ernst Jentsch in 1906. Jentsch believed that the uncanny is that which is unfamiliar, with being uncertain whether an object is alive or not being a perfect example (he specifically referred to Madame Tussaud’s style wax figures). Freud chose to take this further, believing that uncanny was once familiar, but through repression had become unfamiliar. He was adding a feeling of haunting into the emotional mix.
Freud’s essay made one interesting observation to justify his theory, that “children have no fear of their dolls coming to life, they may even desire it.” If as children we are not able to distinguish clearly between living and inanimate objects, treating our dolls as real people, then as adults our uncanny feelings are caused by those long-gone infantile beliefs being recalled.
But what makes an old doll creepy and a new doll just a doll? Signs of aging and decay are an obvious factor, exposed joints, missing hair, chipped paint. Rather ridiculously, as I try to pinpoint why the decay makes it creepy, I find myself envisioning a doll that has been discarded, mistreated – this doll will have a vendetta (The Toy Story 4 antique shop dolls certainly did).
A mass-produced doll, duplicated in an endless line across a toy shop shelf is clearly man-made. An antique doll is singular. It sits in the shop next to other dolls, all unique, all with their own history. Its history is more about makers than machines, its face created by a worker’s brushstroke, carrying the marks of its maker and the wear marks of its owner.
Its eyes may be dead, its head just a shell, but inside it holds the imprint of childish thoughts, and the superstitions of adults.