10 of the Most Unsettling Moments in Doll Horror (Originally published for Bloody-Disgusting.com)

The original post can be found under “Editorials” at Bloody-Disgusting.com.


There is a very specific reason why I asked my mother to return the many porcelain dolls she bought for me when I was a kid: I watched too many horror movies. Porcelain dolls, baby dolls, life-size dolls, and especially ventriloquist dummies: I had seen far too many of those damn things open their eyes, come to life, and kill people in movies, and I wanted no parts of it.

Of course, when you become an adult, it feels silly to be terrified of lifeless, plastic objects that barely come up to your knee— especially after witnessing a fair share of ridiculous doll horror movies that make us laugh more than scare us. (Pinocchio’s Revenge, anyone?) However, when done effectively and with the right amount of terror, doll horror can contain some of the most disturbing moments in the genre: anything from dolls cutting out their victims’ tongues, to attacking children, to even screaming in anguish as they die themselves.

And with the releases of this weekend’s Child’s Play remake (which is also going toe-to-toe against Toy Story 4), next week’s Annabelle Comes Home, and (allegedly) next month’s Brahms: The Boy II, summer 2019 is shaping up to be an interesting battle of the (vindictive) dolls in the horror genre. In anticipation, let’s take a look back at 10 of the most unsettling moments in doll horror history.

The opening sequence of Dead Silence (2007)

Filmmakers James Wan and Leigh Whannell were riding off the massive success of Sawwhen their follow-up Dead Silence came to theaters.  Sadly, the movie failed to be a critical or box office success, but its scares, visuals, set design, score, cinematography (and those dolls!) have now made it a cult favorite in the doll horror subgenre that it deserved to be.  And don’t even try to pretend like Billy the dummy didn’t haunt your life in 2007.

While the movie indeed has its flaws, Dead Silence’s opening sequence is near perfect.  After the Ashens receive a mysterious and creepy ventriloquist doll named Billy at their door, Mrs. Ashen (Amber Valletta) stays at home as her husband leaves and thinks it’d be hilarious if she hides it under the covers to scare him when he returns.  Unfortunately for her, Billy has other plans.  The music starts to slow down; the clock slowly ticks; the teakettle screeches.  Mrs. Ashen begins to hear faint whispers coming from the bedroom where the doll sits.  As she lifts the covers up to check on it, the sounds of scraping knives and shrieks cause her to get thrown across the room, crawling for her life.  Blood pours from her mouth, and she gets yanked again.  Her husband Jamie (Ryan Kwanten) soon comes home to a bloody mess and hears the mimicking of his wife’s voice, before discovering his dead wife propped up on the bed with her mouth gaped open and sans tongue, as Billy watches on from the bedroom floor.

The mechanical doll enters the room – Deep Red (1975)

Sure, you could argue that there is little logical rhyme or reason for Dario Argento’s choice to include creepy prop dolls in several of his kill scenes in his 1975 giallo masterpiece Deep Red, but they really do add something special.  Particularly, when Professor Giordani (Glauco Mauri) returns to his office after endless nights of investigating who could be behind this slew of murders, he feels as if someone or something is watching him; he senses a threat.  Instead of taking a peek around the office to see who is lurking, he grabs the nearest weapon and waits it out.  And soon enough, he gets a real surprise when a laughing, smirking, mechanical doll comes barreling into the room— quickly floating in the air as it makes its way towards Giordani, flailing its arms and rotating its head towards him, as he is understandably horrified and confused.  Giordani cracks the doll’s head open and starts to laugh at the ridiculousness of it all…but just as he starts to let his guard down, the gloved killer comes from behind the window curtain and savagely murders him.  The doll was used as a mere trick to distract the professor, and he paid the ultimate price because of it.

Hugo the dummy stands up – Dead of Night (1945)

In this classic horror anthology’s most memorable story, party guest Walter Craig (Mervyn Johns) is haunted by the tale of an anxious ventriloquist who is convinced that his amoral dummy Hugo is alive.  Hugo— with his crisp white bow tie, his unnerving high-pitched voice and deadpan, dark humor— set the bar for terrifying dummies in horror.  So when Walter finds himself inside of a confined jail cell with the nightmarish Hugo staring at him from across the room, we are treated to some hair-raising visuals.  Hugo’s eyes widen, before he slowly gets up from his chair and starts to walk over to Walter’s bed.  There is just something so creepy about a doll that gets up and walks like a person would.  He never loses eye contact with Walter, as he starts to climb onto Walter’s bed and begins to put his hands around his neck.  Wouldn’t I?  Hugo taunts, as he chokes Walter more forcefully, and the camera zooms out of the room.  And, as this is far from the only disconcerting Hugo scene in this film, I had a difficult time choosing which one to include here— so do yourself a favor and seek Dead of Night out immediately!

May makes her own doll – May (2002)

(Contains Spoilers) A dissociated loner whose only friend is a glass-encased doll from her childhood, May (Angela Bettis) can’t seem to find what she’s looking for in a friend or soulmate— and, as her mother always told her, when you can’t find a friend, you make one.  Too bad she likely did not mean that to translate literally.  In this 2002 cult favorite, May’s super freaky-looking doll named Suzie is not even the most unsettling doll in the movie.  Instead, what takes the cake is the climactic reveal of May’s homemade doll: she has taken the best parts from each of her dead former friends and lovers: hands, legs, neck…not to mention gauges out her very own eyeball to complete this mesh of human parts plus doll parts creation she has named “Amy.”  We may have seen this coming from a mile away, but nothing can prepare us for the visual nightmare of this Frankenstein’s Monster-like creation that May eventually lies next to, touches, and talks to, as if it can understand her.  Equal parts upsetting and tragic, May still hasn’t found what she is looking for, as sadly, the film ends with May even lonelier than she ever was.

Zuni doll attacks Amelia – Trilogy of Terror (1975)

In what many regarded as the scariest 25 minutes of a TV movie ever during the time, this final story within Dan Curtis’s anthology Trilogy of Terror pinned Karen Black’s Amelia against a Zuni hunting fetish doll whose fallen gold chain unleashes a cruel spirit which is out for blood.  As Amelia settles in for the evening after feeling guilty for ditching plans with her mother, she gets distracted and loses sight of her newly bought Zuni doll.  The lights flicker off, and she stumbles in the darkness, only to begin to feel her legs getting hacked and slashed.  The imagery of the Zuni is unsettling enough, but the doll’s scratchy growls, baby-like screams, illogical jibberish, and swiftness as it chases Amelia throughout the rooms make it horrifying.  We watch with anxiety as the doll jabs the knife from under the door until it busts through the bathroom and screams for its life as Amelia attempts to drown it.  Of course, whatever attempts Amelia makes to stop the Zuni, the Zuni is always one step ahead, and even after she viciously stabs it, the unleashed spirit would go on to enter Amelia herself.  This sequence contains some solid jump scares as well as Curtis’s brilliant, kinetic camerawork from the doll’s POV that would influence Child’s Play a decade later.

Fats busts out the switchblade – Magic (1978)

In this slow-burn psychological horror, troubled ventriloquist Corky (Anthony Hopkins) begins to experience some fame with his new act that includes his vulgar dummy, Fats.  After suffering from some apprehension over his newfound success, Corky returns home to the Catskills where he grew up, and reunites with his former crush Peggy-Ann (Ann-Margret) and her now-husband, Duke (Ed Lauter) which becomes the start of an affair between Corky and Peggy-Ann.  As Duke grows more suspicious of the affair and especially of Corky’s odd behavior, he decides to confront Corky, so he makes his way into Corky’s cabin to dig around for evidence or anything he can find.  Unbeknownst to Duke, Fats is watching him root through Corky’s things and decides to teach him a fatal lesson.  We see a blurred shot of Fats watching Duke through the mirror behind him, slowly moving his head around and preparing to make his move.  As Duke feels Fats’s stare, he makes a huge mistake by walking towards the dummy, right before Fats busts out a switchblade and stabs him.  The most unnerving aspect of this scene is watching Fats’s grin spread across his face, deriving pleasure from every bloody stab into poor Duke.

Clown doll chokes Robbie – Poltergeist (1982)

Not only did Poltergeist traumatize us with a sinister doll— it decided to ruin our lives with a clown-doll hybrid that is considered one of the scariest aspects of this 1982 beloved film.  As young Robbie gets ready for bed, he decides to throw a blanket over the creepy, smiling doll that sheepishly sits in the rocking chair, so it isn’t staring directly at him during his slumber.  (And who could blame him.)  The doll seems to telepathically reject the blanket, and Robbie decides to give up and attempts to go to sleep, but to no avail.  The child senses that something is amiss, and looks over to see the doll missing from the chair, to which he begins to panic.  He peeks under his bed; the doll isn’t there.  And suddenly, in one of the most iconic jump scares in horror, the clown doll is standing right behind Robbie, wrapping its never-ending arms around him, wanting to choke him out.  It starts to drag Robbie under the bed, while the other family members suffer from various other supernatural forces throughout the house.  Luckily, Robbie bravely fights back, and the doll doesn’t get away with its shenanigans.

Talky Tina speaks for the first time –The Twilight Zone, ep. “Living Doll” (1963)

Creeping out generations of The Twilight Zone viewers for years to come, this quintessential episode of the Rod Serling-hosted show reached all encompassing levels of unsettling when it introduced the world to this sentinel, wind-up doll.  After a hurt Christie (Tracy Stratford) leaves her new doll on the couch with her cruel stepfather (after he just berated her and her mother) Erich (Telly Savalas) decides to check out the doll’s abilities for himself, winding her up to see what she says.  Talky Tina wastes no time in expressing her hatred for Erich, as she stops moving her arms and looks at him dead in the eyes and says, “My name is Talky Tina, and I don’t think I like you…I think I could even hate you. You’ll be sorry.” And with her judgmental eyes and her knowing smirk, Talky Tina just looked like she despised him, especially after he throws her across the room and her eyes catch up to his.  From this moment on, we knew Talky Tina was a real threat, and the rest of the episode proved this to be true.  But nothing can beat that pivotal first moment when Talky Tina showed us her true colors…

Annabelle glares at Judy – The Conjuring (2013)

The Conjuring is first and foremost a well-crafted haunted house story with an innocent family trapped within its throws— however, the movie’s porcelain doll named Annabelle, which was based off of the Warrens’ actual “haunted” ragdoll of the same name, really stole the show.  When the Warrens’ daughter Judy (Sterling Jerins) gets woken up from a tug on her sheets in the middle of the night, she does what every kid would do and wanders into her parents’ room full of possessed objects, of course.  Searching for her parents, she runs into a different room in the house, where she locks herself inside.  After thunderous banging on the door, Judy turns around to see a ghastly sight: the ghost of witch Bathsheba holding an uncaged Annabelle on her lap in the rocking chair.  Annabelle slowly begins to twist her head around and stares threateningly at Judy, to which Judy is mortified.  As Judy cries for help, the rocking chair gets thrown over her head, just in time for the Warrens to come in and rescue her.  Even as Annabelle became the star of her own movies since then, we still haven’t shaken off this scene.

Chucky’s first kill – Child’s Play (1988)

In 1988, we were not prepared for the world’s deadliest, most foul-mouthed, voodoo-loving Good Guy doll.  After little Andy (Alex Vincent) is gifted Chucky on his birthday, he quickly makes note that the doll is communicating to him, to which his dear Aunt Maggie (Dinah Manoff) brushes off.  But after tucking Andy (and Chucky) into bed, Maggie starts to hear strange noises lurking around the apartment: tiny footsteps and pitter-patter that she assumes is Andy avoiding his bedtime.  When she makes her way into the kitchen, Maggie gets temporarily distracted by a phone call from Andy’s mother and a mess all over the floor— to which the film cuts to someone picking up a hammer.  Before she can even calm herself down from the “alone-at-night willies” Maggie turns around and catches a flying hammer to the eye and falls out the window to her harrowing demise.  What a way to kick off a killing spree as a 3-ft doll.  And the fact that we know right off the bat that it was Chucky but never even get a glimpse of him is genius— instead, Tom Holland opts for chilling POV shots from Chucky’s perspective and tiny footprints in the mess in the kitchen that give us the right amount of suspense for what’s yet to come.  Plus, who isn’t disturbed to see Marty from Grease die so brutally!~