A Short History of Creepy Dolls in Movies

With their blank eyes and stupid smiling mouths, it’s easy to imagine dolls have evil motives. And in movies, they do!

Considering how many horror movies have featured evil dolls, it’s surprising that Toys R Us is still in business. Almost as long as there have been movies, there have been films about creepy dolls turning on their owners or creators, and there’s no sign of that trend stopping any time soon with The Conjuring spinoff Annabelle getting its now very own prequel titled (what else?), Annabelle: Creation. But this is merely the most recent film to make parents shudder at the sight of their offspring’s favorite toy.

So why are we so scared of dolls? What is it that makes them creepy? Let’s look at creepy dolls throughout film history, and see how we convinced ourselves to become increasingly scared of evil toys…

The Great Gabbo (1929)

The Doll: Otto

Ad – content continues below

Creep Factor: 3/10

Probably the earliest example of a creepy doll in the movies is in The Great Gabbo. Most creepy dolls fall into one of two categories: children’s toys or ventriloquists’ dummies, and Otto is the latter. He’s the puppet of The Great Gabbo, and the main selling point of their act is that Gabbo can make Otto talk and sing even while he’s eating, drinking, or smoking.

Like so many creepy dummies to follow, Otto seems eerily capable of thinking and speaking on his own behalf, but unusually, he’s not evil – it’s Gabbo who’s the monster, an egomaniac who can’t form meaningful relationships or even say a kind word to anyone else unless it’s through his dummy.

So maybe it’s only from a modern perspective, looking back through so many years of evil dolls, that Otto seems at all creepy. But it’s hard to look at him and not shudder.

Dead Of Night (1945)

The Doll: Hugo

Ad – content continues below

Creep Factor: 9/10

The next doll on our list is also a dummy. This time though the dummy is definitely the less pleasant partner. In the final story of this anthology horror, Hugo is the dummy of ventriloquist Maxwell Frere. Unsatisfied with their act, the cruel Hugo decides he needs a better puppeteer, and approaches a rival ventriloquist on his own accord. The other ventriloquist doesn’t realize, at first, that Hugo is alive, and pays for it with his life. And that’s not even the creepiest bit of the story.

This is basically the story most people think of when you say “evil dummy.” It’s got a bit of everything, from an abusive dummy to an increasingly desperate ventriloquist, murder, and horrible, unfair consequences. And Hugo is appropriately creepy looking, too.

Devil Doll (1964)

The Doll: Hugo

Ad – content continues below

Creep Factor: 5/10

The idea of a creepy ventriloquist’s dummy seemed to disappear for a bit after Dead of Night, but in the ’60s it came back with a force. There were two episodes of The Twilight Zone based around evil dummies (The Dummy and Caesar And Me), and there was also this full length movie starring Bryant Haliday as The Great Vorelli. His dummy Hugo is also alive and prone to disagreeing with his puppeteer, but again we’re back to the ventriloquist being the baddie. Vorelli not only murdered his former assistant and stuck his soul into a doll, but he’s also got designs on a young heiress…

It’s all a bit daft, and Hugo isn’t as creepy as he could be – though he does get his revenge in the end.

Asylum (1972)

The Doll: Various mannikins

Creep Factor: 7/10

Ad – content continues below

Moving away from ventriloquist’s dummies for a bit, this Amicus anthology included a segment on another kind of creepy dolls: One of the asylum’s inmates, Dr. Byron, reckons he’s figured out a way to live forever by transferring his consciousness into a mechanical doll.

Maybe “doll” is pushing it a bit since these are called “mannikins” in the story and are actually tiny androids, but they evoke the same sort of uncanny valley horror as other humanoid miniatures, and this is another example of a doll becoming ‘alive’ thanks to the transference of a human mind. It’s hard to know which is scarier: the idea of a tiny, sentient robot scuttling around, or the idea of being trapped inside a shonky heap of clockwork.

Trilogy of Terror (1975)

The Doll: He Who Kills

Creep Factor: 6/10

Another anthology, another creepy doll, but this one is both really, really hard to buy into, and a bit racist. Amelia is an anxious, meek woman who can’t stand up to her mother, so she buys herself a Zuni doll that supposedly hosts the spirit of a hunter known as “He Who Kills.” And sure enough, the doll comes to life and tries to kill her. I mean, it’s not like she wasn’t warned.

Ad – content continues below

This might be the first instance of someone in a movie buying a doll that turns out to be murderous, though it’s predated by almost a decade by the Twilight Zone episode, “Living Doll,” in which a Talky Tina doll gets revenge on a cruel stepfather. It’s kind of interesting that this is a fetish doll (in the voodoo sense, rather than the sexy sense) rather than a cutesy one. But that’s probably the only interesting thing about this film.

Deep Red (1975)

The Doll: Unnamed clockwork doll

Creep Factor: 7/10

In the same year as Trilogy of Terror, but on the other side of the world, a super creepy doll popped up in Dario Argento’s Deep Red (or Profondo Rosso, if you must). It’s not a creepy doll film, and the doll gets even less screen time than most of the dolls that appear in anthology films, but it makes an impression, zooming across the roll, laughing horribly just before Professor Giordani gets murdered. Why? It’s never really explained, which just makes it scarier.

This seems like a pretty obvious precursor to the creepy doll that appears throughout the Saw franchise, which would make it something like Annabelle’s great-godfather, but we’ll get to that due course. There are quite a few more creepy dolls between here and there, after all.

Ad – content continues below

Magic (1978)

The Doll: Fats

Creep Factor: 8/10

Just the trailer for this evil dummy movie was deemed too scary for TV. Angry parents called broadcasters to complain that it had given their children nightmares. You can kind of see their point – look at that thing!

The plot is yet another tale of a vulnerable ventriloquist falling foul of his domineering dummy’s murderous urges. By now the trope of the evil dummy was pretty well established, but the filmmakers really went all out to make sure Fats looked super scary. The end of this film has a particularly nasty twist, and Anthony Hopkins’ dummy voice is really quite horrible.

While standards of creepy have evidently changed over time – originally, ventriloquists’ dummies were meant to be funny, not horrifying – by the late ’70s, there was no doubt about whether bulging eyes and jointed mouths were scary any more.

Ad – content continues below

Dolls (1987)

The Dolls: Mr. Punch and others

Creep Factor: 8/10

Dolls is finally a movie about children’s toys – and it also brings back the idea of human minds being trapped inside creepy mannequins. The dollmakers here are a lovely old couple who live in a house full of toys and love to welcome visitors inside to stay with them… especially if those visitors are horrible, awful people no one will miss when they’re murdered and turned into dolls.

Something we haven’t really seen in horror movies so far is a reference to Punch and Judy shows, which seem like another artifact from the past that’s become super creepy in retrospect. Here, a Punch doll is given to a child (who’s called Judy, because of course) and there’s something immediately eerie about it, because we associate that doll with politically incorrect humor and, not to put too fine a point on it, domestic violence. Funny how things change, isn’t it?

Child’s Play (1988)

The Doll: Chucky

Creep Factor: 7/10

No list of creepy dolls would be complete without Chucky. And he’s yet another instance of a doll that harbors a human soul; like in Dolls, it’s the soul of a wrongdoer, but he hasn’t ended up there as a punishment. Serial killer Charles Lee Ray deliberately transfers his soul into a doll to avoid being arrested, and ends up continuing his killing spree from inside Chucky.

Dolls and Child’s Play are both great examples of how even something totally innocuous can start to become creepy by virtue of, well, moving around and killing people, basically. Like Dorian Gray’s painting though, the Good Guy doll soon starts to show signs of its evil nature on the outside, as Chucky starts to become the kind of doll you can’t imagine anyone ever buying.

Puppet Master (1989)

The Dolls: Jester, Shredder, Blade, and others

Creep Factor: 7/10

There are a lot more living doll movies from the late ’80s and early ’90s that I could include here; there are the Child’s Play sequels; there’s Dolly Dearest; and there are the interlinked Dollman, Demonic Toys, and Puppet Master franchises, all created by Charles Band. For the sake of brevity, let’s just include Puppet Master and move on.

So Puppet Master sees a puppet maker create several living toys before killing himself to escape Nazi spies. Some 50 years later, the dolls reappear and get their murder on, trying to keep the secret of their animation (and potential eternal life) to themselves. The victims might be different, but you can see how, again, the idea of escaping a human lifespan by transferring consciousness into something that can’t die has resulted in some super creepy dolls.

May (2002)

The Doll: Suzie

Creep Factor: 4/10

“If you can’t find a friend, make one.” That’s the lesson May learned from her mother, when she was presented with this doll. Locked inside a glass case for safekeeping, Suzie isn’t exactly the cuddliest of friends, but she’s the only one May’s got. At least she is until her box gets broken by a class of blind children. Then May decides she needs to make a new friend of her own.

Suzie herself doesn’t really move or do much, but she seems to have some influence over May’s mind – or maybe that’s just May projecting. She definitely looks the part, though. The difference between a cute doll and a scary one is just a matter of dimensions and angles, and Suzie’s expression, with her pursed lips and oddly angled eyes gives her a look of… well, it’s not friendly, is it?

Saw (2004)

The Doll: Billy

Creep Factor: 9/10

James Wan is a one-man creepy doll revival. It all started with his first movie, Saw, in which the serial killer Jigsaw used a dummy to deliver messages to his victims. He’s often seen on a video screen, though sometimes he turns up in person, tricycling into a scene in a way that’s sort of reminiscent of that clockwork doll in Deep Red.

Billy – who’s never actually named that in the movies – has all the hallmarks of a ventriloquist’s dummy with his hinged mouth and exaggerated features. But rather than the traditional side parting and flesh-toned skin, Billy’s got messy black hair and deadly white pallor with bright red spirals daubed on his cheeks. There is absolutely no universe in which this doll would be considered cute, especially since a sighting of him usually means you’re already in a Jigsaw trap.

Dead Silence (2007)

The Dolls: Billy (and others)

Creep Factor: 7/10

Not content with creating one nightmarish new creepy doll, James Wan handed the reins of the Saw franchise over to a succession of other directors and went on to make a film about an evil ventriloquist. The cycle of evil ventriloquists vs. evil dolls has looped back around; rather than being terrorised by her dummy, Dead Silence’s Mary Shaw uses her dummies to terrify children.

For the most part, the dummies in Dead Silence aren’t really alive in their own right; they’re just the avatars of the now undead Shaw. Or something. The mythology is a bit muddy, and the bizarrely unrhythmic poem concocted for the movie doesn’t really help, but Dead Silence gets points for quantity if not quality – it boasts a whopping 101 ventriloquist’s dolls, plus at least one person who gets turned into a doll. Chucky, eat your heart out.

Annabelle (2014)

The Doll: Annabelle

Creep Factor: 9/10

And that brings us, finally, to Annabelle. First introduced in The Conjuring, she’s now got a whole spinoff franchise dedicated to her history.

There’s no ambiguity here, this doll is evil. Or, more specifically, she’s a vessel for evil. When a Satanist took a liking to this already creepy-looking doll, she got even creepier. Now wherever she goes, she brings a horrifying demon that wants to harvest souls. Her repertoire of tricks includes slamming doors, setting things on fire, and making sewing machines malfunction before luring innocents to their doom.

Annabelle is actually terrifying, and a lot of it is down to the design of the doll. Like Saw’s Billy, to whom she bears a sort of familial resemblance, you can see echoes of the ventriloquist’s dummy about her face; she doesn’t have the smooth, blank complexion you’d expect from a collector’s doll, but rather has lots of crevices and folds. That means she looks extra creepy in the shadows. You really, really wouldn’t wanna see this doll staring out at you from under the bed, would you?

Read and download the full Den of Geek Special Edition magazine here!