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Shopping for a Ghost: Haunted Dolls

From collectors to those who suffer from pediophobia, dolls have come to possess the spirits of the dead, and the minds of many.

Yes, we're talking about dolls. In the context of the global humanity that creates and utilizes them, there've been thousands of years of doll use by cultures around the world. Humanoid stone figures used in play and as toys have been found by archeologists, and the doll phenomenon has found a resurgence of astounding heights within recent Western culture. Dolls were created for centuries as small versions of adult humans, and became more childlike and cherubish as the 1800's and 1900's transformed the understanding of childhood. The concept of children as innocent and pure took hold at the turn of the 20th Century, and babydolls became the ideal toy for girls, inserting a maternal aspect to the use of the toy, and reinforcing gendered play between girls and boys. In the 1900's, boys were given action figures and the acceptance of playing with dolls once again. Dolls have changed shape and dress and style over the centuries, but their life-like appearances have only become more close to reality. The Reborn baby dolls are a fright to some people, and a pure delight (and sometimes even treated as sentient) to others. But those very realistic dolls are a part of the vast array of items created to look like humans, yet are not. As far as Reborns, watch the show Servant on Apple+ and get back to me - it'll get to you. 😱

In the context of pop culture, dolls as a vessel for a human (or otherwise) soul has been a phenomenon in existence for well over a century. The writings of E. T. A. Hoffman, specifically, The Sandman, are widely considered to be where the uncanny valley was first applied to the puppet of an attractive girl who is believed by the main character to be real. From this first publishing in 1816, dolls have been applied to horror in various ways, from the generally benign, to the serial killer-level murderous. That'd be Chucky, if you couldn't guess.

I love how his name is "Robert the Doll", like how dare he be just "Robert"

Within the realm of the paranormal, which for all intents and purposes is considered to be far closer to reality for many (me included!) than Hollywood will ever get, dolls have made their indelible mark. Robert the Doll, Annabelle, Okiku, Mandy, Chatty Cathy, there've been numerous well known dolls accompanied by intriguing and curiously horrid stories that have left people frightened enough to stay away from them completely. Others, still, strive to see and photograph these particular dolls in person and interact with them under the assumption of truth to the legends of their haunting, and sometimes even downright evil intent. How "evil" a doll can be, while it cannot move on its own, is not something I'm going to try and articulate. If you believe that, well, write about it and let me know how you got to that belief. I can't find the same one within my brain is all. ツ

What we can tell now, within the paranormal, is that dolls have grown in popularity to what seems like a fever pitch, with no indication that it's slowing down. Aggregating public attention for owning an allegedly haunted doll causes all manner of responses from other people, and a large response happens to be fascination and curiosity. That alone is indicative of a belief already present in many people: that dolls carry an unsettling aspect to them, especially so if a trapped soul or a sentient being of some sort is included. Implying a doll is haunted by something gives anyone who encounters this object, be it in person, through a YouTube video, Instagram post, or other means, an immediate reaction. The reactions can range from disbelief and disinterest (scrolling on) to fear and the compulsion to write "I do not claim negative energy from this pic/video", in the comments section.

*Again, if you're someone who feels compelled to write that in the comments of spooky content on the internet, tell me. I want to know what's going through your mind in those instances, where your fear is birthed from. I'm serious.*

From Travel Channel - where else?

Haunted dolls are so popular they're now sought out purposely through means of online retailers, namely eBay. The listings have grown in the last ten years alone, I've slowly perused the internet as the obsession with haunted objects has become its own strong, niche portion of the paranormal. John Zaffis has to be mentioned, for having brought the concept to a wide audience via Haunted Collector, since he gave the concept of a "haunted item" a new and prominent place in the collective paranormal culture of the last 20 years. Those who actively investigate the paranormal have sworn they've come up against haunted items of their own or those belonging to others, causing disruptions and strange activity around them.

Having investigated for over a decade, and 4 years of that spent investigating people's homes when they came to the team hoping for "help" (of what sort is still a mystery to me), I can honestly say I have never encountered a haunted object within the dwellings of any of the families I spent night after night with, let alone a haunted doll. I can't honestly say much about haunted dolls besides speculation, but I can say I've had my eyes and ears open for the last decade and watched people run headlong into the phenomenon of them and capitalize on the concept in various ways.

Haunted dolls don't seem to cost much these days. Inflated market? Also how is it not obvious there's one seller behind most of these listings?

The potential spirit-filled dolls available online range from EVIL and SCARY to just PLAYFUL and FRIENDLY spirits. Some have names already, and some have terrified their owners into trying for some profit on Ebay, instead of simply sending the thing to the town dump. Does the terror of unexplained activity people attribute to a doll actually cause them to want to profit from it by passing it on via internet retailers? Realistically, no.

In 2021 as a society, we have normalized shopping for a ghost. That sounds a little absurd, but if we boil down to just internet shopping in an offbeat and potentially spiritual niche, I'm fairly certain it means people are enjoying the acceptance and availability of shopping for personal ghosts, or at least shopping for potential paranormal activity. What they intend to do with said ghosts, and whether they fully believe in it's existence or not, varies just as widely as the types of dolls for sale and the sometimes elaborate backstories the dolls come with. Anyone can Stephenie Meyer a decent ghost story together for the sake of a big price tag, but out in the vast internet spaces of doll listings there are people who fully believe they're selling a doll filled with the conscious spirit of a once-living human, and they've been affected by it.

The variety here is wonderful, truly something for everyone.

The subjectiveness of the paranormal and the deeply personal aspect to it are far-reaching and for another time, but belief is a scarily powerful thing people can utilize. If a person believes the little Raggedy-Ann doll on their couch is capable and culpable of unexplained or negative things occurring in the home, then it's that simple - that belief is lodged in their brain, to them the doll is haunted. To anyone else that doll may very well not be, and that's the caveat of the haunted doll, and any haunted item, really.

The growth potential for haunted dolls bloomed with The Conjuring movie franchise by implying that a demon (the ultimate villain in the paranormal) inside an angry-looking, oversized doll could torment and kill people. Did this negatively impact the collective consciousness toward dolls in some way? Maybe. But it's Hollywood, and an inability to distinguish between reality and movies is on the viewer, not the movie makers. Did Annabelle keep the trope of haunted dolls alive and well where it may have waned over the last several years? I believe she did. She's inanimate, an oddly ugly doll based on the supposed misadventures of a famous mid-century ragdoll in the hands of Ed and Lorraine Warren, and yet she holds a very real power over the massive, general audience of paranormal content.

Dolls are built and designed to look like young humans, and the implied innocence of babies and children dichotomized against the potential villainy and ill intent of an angry, trapped spirit, make for a most curious item. It just shouldn't be, the most pure and precious thing turned into the most vile and cruel thing? It's an abomination that's both human (the potential sentient being) and not (the doll), placing the whole thing somewhere in uncanny valley territory. For some people, it's too psychologically attractive to look away from, and they want one. The use of complete fakery on the part of an online seller may not make a difference to the purchaser, who searched, found and bought what they wanted. To the buyer it's a doll, at least, and potentially an entire conscious spirit residing within it, at most. (Or it's an attractively easy opportunity to hoax the whole thing, if that's what someone is into.) It sounds like the morals of the seller might not even matter when the buyer is at home with their doll and attributing anything in their environment they can't explain to it's alleged spirit. They believe they have a haunted doll, whether the person who sold it to them believes it or not, it doesn't matter.

That power of belief - it's like the spray foam insulation of the paranormal, building on itself and expanding all the time. If anything, I've come to see the haunted doll phenomenon as a new way to interact with the paranormal, and for many people a far more accessible one than they'd otherwise be able to obtain. Maybe that's an unpopular opinion to hardcore paranormal investigators who take this field and themselves very seriously and want to put everything to the test, but I think the haunted doll thing is not so bad after all. An overnight rental of a haunted location can be hundreds if not a couple thousand dollars, let alone the costs of travel and gear. Alternately, a $40 doll shipped directly to one's house from Ebay is accessible to a much wider audience of paranormal enthusiasts. I think that's part of why the popularity holds on so hard for spooky dolls, and alleged haunted items of all sorts as well.

The uncanny valley is curious, and people are curious. There is an inherent want to experience the unknown for some people, and dolls, like their cousins the automatons and robots, are the ultimate item for creating the uncanny valley. (Psychologists have argued whether that even exists or not, but I'm not one, I'm an anthro/religious studies and archeology person, so I'm not even going there. To me it exists, so that's enough.)

I could probably argue for some sort of anthropological aspect to the dolls, and how it gives people a sense of ease and control to have a physical object as the "paranormal source" which they can attempt to exert control over, and in that way not be constantly subjected to, etc etc. But we're talking about disused kid's toys and making extra money online using the trope of "haunted item", here. Keep it surface level. The advent of haunted dolls is nothing new, historically, but it's been altered and morphed with the internet, media and social media. Haunted dolls can be divisive, curious, fear-inducing, silly; they can be anything, really. They're what people make of them, and they're probably around to stay for a while.

Thanks for reading,



I'm Amy L. Bennett, a writer, multimedia artist, recovering archaeologist and YouTuber from Upstate, New York. I've been invested in all things strange and unusual since my dad gave me the Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark trilogy when I was way too young. Along with my fiancé, Ryan, we've explored countless haunted locations in the US and abroad in search of the Weird.
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