I grew up with two younger sisters who probably owned five million dolls between the two of them. They had plenty of mass-market stuff like Barbies and Cabbage Patch Kids, but also a few “lifelike” porcelain dolls. I wouldn’t say that these dolls “scared” me, but there always was something more mysterious and unsettling about them, with their stiff, white bodies and old-timey dresses.
From Child’s Play to Annabelle to the Twilight Zone episode “Living Doll,” dolls have been mined for their horror potential for a long time. What is it about dolls that makes them so freaky? Author Ania Ahlborn has some thoughts. She saw a doll-centric horror movie early on in life that left such a impression on her, she went on to write scary stories of her own.
Ania Ahlborn is the bestselling author of the horror thrillers Brother, Within These Walls, The Bird Eater, The Shuddering, The Neighbors, and Seed, and the novellas The Pretty Ones and I Call Upon Thee. Her most recent book is 2017’s The Devil Crept In.
(Interview conducted by John Brhel)
CEMETERY DANCE: What is your “first fright”?
ANIA AHLBORN: I’m going to have to say it was horror movies that played on late-80’s cable TV. They’d play movies like Troll and Dolls all summer long, smack in the middle of the day. My cousin and I would watch every scary movie that would run and, of course, be totally freaked out to go to sleep later. It was truly classic kid summer vacation stuff.
That’s awesome. Do you think we could focus on one of those movies? Either Troll or Dolls?
Dolls impacted me a heck of a lot more, so that one would probably be best. It terrified me.
Oh no! Can you tell me a bit about the plot? What do you remember about it?
A group of hapless motorists end up stranded at a creepy mansion full of dolls that come to life. Terror ensues.
Wow. That is mega creepy-sounding. Why does this movie stick out for you?
I was an eight-year-old girl. There’s nothing scarier than the concept of an evil doll. Child’s Play was another one that did a number on me, but the fact that Dolls focused on the types of of toys I actually owned (rather than a Good Guy Chucky doll, which didn’t actually exist) made it way more terrifying. There were quite a few porcelain dolls in that film, and I had a few. After watching that movie, those dolls were relegated to the furthest corner of my closet.
If the movie was so creepy, what made it appealing to you?
The fact that it was creepy. I’ve always been attracted to “the strange and unusual,” even as a kid. It didn’t matter whether or not it made me uncomfortable. I was drawn to that stuff anyway, and still am. Horror is in my blood.
Have you seen the movie lately? Do you think it still holds up as being scary?
I haven’t, but I’m sure if I caught it, I’d think it ridiculous. It’s amazing how our perceptions change as we grow older. The things we find terrifying as children are just plain silly to us as adults.
Why do you think evil dolls are particularly scary?
It’s all about the uncanny valley. The more lifelike a doll looks, the creepier it is. Chucky never struck me as particularly lifelike. He looks like a toy. But when you get into porcelain dolls, the whole point with those things is that they look like tiny people. Put a tiny knife in their tiny hand, and you’ve got the perfect recipe for horror.
Have you touched on creepy dolls in your own writing?
I have. In the novella I Call Upon Thee, I delved into a couple of tropes that bothered me as a kid: dolls and ouija boards. Trust me when I tell you, when it comes to childhood and horror, those two are NOT a good combo if you’re wanting to ever sleep again.
Are you still freaked out by dolls at all? Do you have any in your home?
I want to say no, but your follow-up question makes me chuckle. Because no, I don’t have any dolls in my house. So, why would that be if I’m really NOT still freaked out, right? I think you may have struck on something, here.
I’m glad that I might have diagnosed a serious phobia for you. Do you have anything else you’d like to add about Dolls?
Don’t trust ’em.