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This is the science behind why you find dolls so freaking terrifying

What is that thing up there on the shelf? KILL IT

This is the science behind why you find dolls so freaking terrifying

Oh god: dolls. No thanks, not a fan, get them away etc. Whether they’re tiny little porcelain toddler ones, giant mannequin ones, or even stupid clown ones, I don’t like them, trust them, nor desire to be in the same room as them at any point. As such, I have spent a lot of my life avoiding them, and it’s worked out just great, thanks. No dolls = no worries.

But it’s not just me - there’s a reason why there are so many horror movies about killer dolls, and it’s because everybody hates them. Chucky, Annabelle, Dolly Dearest, they’re all universal fright-merchants, and they will continue to be as the horror genre trudges defiantly on. This is because most humans are hardwired to be afraid of dolls - there’s a scientific reason behind it.

Science Of Us did a bit of digging into those demonic little bastards and found that, as you could have guessed, they fall within the so-called ‘uncanny valley’. This is a term for the uneasy feeling you get when you watch one of those weird semi-realistic Robert Zemeckis films like The Polar Express, where everyone looks human-like, but there’s something just a tad off about them. As such, a children’s film is instantly transformed into a screaming hellscape of possessed, dead-eyed husks. I hate it/them.

The term was coined in 1970 by Japanese robotics engineer Masahiro Mori, and essentially describes that peculiar middle ground between something that is definitely a human and something that is definitely not. You recognise the main, important parts, but there’s something missing. A soul, basically.


And the same effect applies to lifelike humanoid dolls. Were you to describe them, you would list all the human characteristics, but looking at one, you know, without a shadow of a doubt, that there’s nothing human about its godforsaken, hollow shell.

If you’re proper scared of them, not just pretending for attention (like me), then you’ve got pediophobia, which roughly translates as ‘fear of little children’. An actual fear of children is the very similar ‘pedophobia’, but the two are different - pediophobia comes under a wider set of fears classified as automatonophobia, which essentially encompasses a strong aversion to things that look like humans, but aren’t. So: robots, statues, holograms and yeppo, dolls.

Of course, the more something looks like a human, the scarier it gets - so your two Rosie and Jim dolls won’t put the willies into someone like a lifelike Little Lord Fauntleroy staring at you from across a darkened landing will. Linda Rodriguez McRobbie wrote about the history of creepy dolls for Smithsonian last year, and she found that a fear of dolls wasn’t even really a thing until about the 19th Century, when innovations in toy-making made it possible for dolls to have opening and closing eyes - horrendous stuff like that brought it on, basically.


She says:

“Our brains are designed to read faces for important information about intentions, emotions and potential threats; indeed, we’re so primed to see faces and respond to them that we see them everywhere, in streaked windows and smears of Marmite, toast and banana peels.”

Very true, there is a man that lives in my curtains who is always very upset, I try to cheer him up by feeding him rats but he won’t stop frowning. Anyway, she continues:

“However much we know that a doll is (likely) not a threat, seeing a face that looks human but isn’t unsettles our most basic human instincts.”

So to boil it down, it’s just an over-reaching and clamouring feeling of nope, which I think we can all fully understand. So, to send you off to bed tonight, here’s a true story that is just about one of the most sinister things I’ve ever heard.

Back in 2014, residents in San Clemente, California, got all up in a panic because their community was being plagued by a horrendous threat. Basically, dolls were mysteriously appearing at their front doors of families who had young daughters, and, fucking hell, the dolls all looked like whichever girl lived in the house.

Yes, correct, that is the most terrifying thing you have ever heard.

Eventually, they tracked the dolls back to a local woman who was making them “as a kind gesture”, so not as hellish as originally thought. But ha, yeah, put one of those twats on my porch and I’m booting it into the International Space Station. Kind gesture my porcelain arse.

(Image: Gary Bendig)