Why are Dolls in Movies so Terrifying?

If you’ve clicked on this article, it might be because you recently had the bejeebers scared out of you after watching Annabelle Comes Home at the movie theater. Alternatively, you may have caught the Child’s Play reboot earlier this year or you may be looking forward to watching The Boy sequel (Brahms: The Boy II) in December.

The theme that connects all of these grizzly horror films is not ghosts, vampires or demons. No, it’s something that gives many far worse nightmares… a creepy-looking doll. So why exactly are we so frightened of these harmless, (mostly) inanimate objects?

Well, the answer may actually be that we are naturally programmed to fear dolls. Sure, the arrival of Child’s Play in 1989 probably made things worse, but there was actually already a name for people that have an irrational fear of dolls – pediophobia. The uneasiness that people experience around dolls involves a psychological phenomenon known as “the uncanny valley.”

The uncanny valley refers to a category of things which do not comfortably fit in our current psychological schemas. For example, we know that an inflatable giraffe toy is obviously fake. It looks unrealistic and is a source of entertainment. A smiling person, on the other hand, fits into our idea of something which is friendly and safe.

If you take a realistic-looking china doll, however, our experience falls somewhere in between these two states. On one hand, we know rationally that the doll is just a toy. On the other hand, it has an appearance similar to a human and this causes a feeling of uncanniness. To put it more simply, it gives us the creeps.

Essentially, human brains aren’t really equipped to deal with “fake faces”. The more realistic a fake face looks, the more unsettling it becomes. This innate uncomfortableness is then exaggerated by doll horror movies, where the doll comes to life. What is strange is that you may recall a time when you were a young child that one of your biggest fantasies was one of your childhood toys coming to life. One day, almost out of nowhere, this fantasy transformed into a disturbing nightmare.

So yes, the Anabelle franchise uses and abuses jumpscares, Childsplay gets stuck in with the gore and The Boy is an altogether creepy movie. But, these films all lean on a natural uneasiness around dolls which is present within many of us. For psychologists, this revolves around the idea of the “uncanny valley” but for the rest of us, the feeling is best described as “the creeps.”