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Weird History: Being Afraid of Dolls

Updated: Oct 10, 2023


Recently, Frightful was contacted by US Ghost Adventures, the makers of the Lily Doll, about potentially featuring

Lily in an upcoming holiday gift guide. This got me to thinking about creepy dolls in general. The history. The legacy. Why they unnerve us so much. Back in August we even did a round-up of "11 Books to Read if Love/Hate Creepy Dolls". There is just something about dolls...


When I was in middle school, a friend and I got bored one December and decided to make straw and stick dolls. Unfortunately, the doll we made freaked us out so much that we buried her in my friend's yard to never speak of again. A few weeks later, once the snow we buried her in melted, my friend put her in a box and tried to give her to me as a birthday present. It was horrifying. I think we'd named the doll Ann but it's also possible I've entirely blocked the name and face of the doll out as a self-preservation tactic.


The fear of dolls is known as Pediophobia. According to Healthline, this is a "specific" phobia. One that poses no real danger but still stirs strong reactions of fear and distrust. A little over 9% of adults in the United States experience "specific" phobias.


So, why are we afraid of dolls? These human-like figurines have been around for thousands of years, beloved and feared in equal measure. There have been stone dolls. Wooden dolls. Wax dolls. Cloth dolls. Plastic dolls. Sometimes they are cute and cuddly but other times, and often we see this with very old dolls no longer keeping step with the cultural zeitgeist, we find them creepy. They unnerve us in a way we can't always articulate.


“We shouldn’t be afraid of a little piece of plastic, but it’s sending out social signals,” says

psychologist Frank McAndrew in Smithsonian Magazine. “They look like people but aren’t people, so we don’t know how to respond to it, just like we don’t know how to respond when we don’t know whether there is a danger or not... the world in which we evolved how we process information, there weren’t things like dolls.”


That said, dolls often aren't intended to be frightening. At least not to the people who care for them. The purpose of dolls throughout history is vast and complex. It differs dramatically based on time, place, and cultural practices. These uses can range from play (Barbie) to protection and spirituality (Voodoo dolls) to demonic infestation (who can forget Annabelle?)


Basically, there is a lot to say about dolls. And a lot of ambiguity in between what there is to say about dolls. So far, Lily has been in my home for 23 days. She has yet to do anything strange. But that doesn't mean she won't.


You can never be too careful with dolls!


[Image Credit: vintage doll photo courtesy of the Auckland Museum via Wikimedia Commons, Lily doll and box courtesy of US Ghost Adventures with photos by Emily Ruth Verona]

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