Where I live, there used to be a museum devoted to all the styles of toys from older generations. It was a deeply cursed place, filled to the brim with eerie, off-kilter playthings, and I delighted in bringing friends to enjoy the spoils of childhoods past. No room elicited more joy than “the doll room,” where hundreds of different dolls sat staring in unison at any museum patron unfortunate enough to be caught by their glassy-eyed gaze. It doesn’t matter if they’re porcelain, wooden, plastic—the chills and thrills unanimously felt at these toys confirms the universal, age-old creepiness of the doll.
In the olden days, toys were simply made creepier, but there’s something about the disarming innocence associated with dolls that can be inverted into terror. They only ever “come to life” in the imagination of a child when unobserved by grown-ups, but this also makes them the perfect inanimate object to turn sinister and violent when nobody’s around to help you. Plus, they’re often the subject of demonic spells to create a cursed vitality in the most unexpected host. With the sinister but campy thrills of M3GAN imminent, which will catapult the haunted doll into the domain of modern tech, it’s high time we assessed the heights of haunted dolls across the cinematic medium.
Here are the 10 most haunted dolls in movies:
10. Mechanical doll, Deep Red
Like his entire oeuvre, Dario Argento’s Profondo rosso has a profoundly uneasy effect on its viewer—not due to supernatural characters or creatures, but in the stunning discordance of its construction. The killer and their kills are grounded in reality, but through slick and unsettling filmmaking, everything in Deep Red takes on a heightened creepy feeling. This is never more tangible than when the taut atmosphere before a kill is broken by an animated dummy speeding out of hiding. It giggles and careens towards our soon-to-be victim, not even stopping after he smashes it with a knife. The sudden intrusion of its babyish expression and infantile laughter when we know a brutal stalker lurks out of view is a great summation of how to utilize a doll for maximum fear.
9. Demonic clay figurines, Vampire Clay
There are a lot of rules to follow when sculpting, but number one should probably be “don’t use vampire clay.” You’d think it was a no-brainer, but after the kill count racked up in art academy J-horror Vampire Clay, I’m not so sure. The actual dolls made out of the clay look simplistic, elemental and debatably laughable, but witnessing the perverse, disgusting ways the plasticine morphs and consumes its victims is delightfully squelchy. While textually the dolls are some of the most haunted of any included on this list, they don’t do a lot of the actual killing in Vampire Clay. Instead, the clay spreads and infects other victims, substantially reducing our killer doll content. Don’t fret—one of the clay dolls does get melted in a gleefully outrageous way.
8. Fats, Magic
In between his more prestigious efforts of A Bridge Too Far and Gandhi, Richard Attenborough made a psychological thriller about a deeply unwell ventriloquist and the monstrous dummy (an extension of the puppeteer’s id) who starts commanding his whole life. Anthony Hopkins plays Corky, an insecure performer, who possesses a dummy (or does the dummy possess him?) called Fats—your bog-standard creepy-looking puppet boy. Fats, it so happens, is a dark influence on the susceptible Corky, convincing him to kill and himself even being capable of murder. Yes, there may be no supernatural element in the story, but nothing screams “haunting” more than the dark, uncontrollable recesses of the human mind. He may be an extension of the repressed and unexplainable corners of Corky’s consciousness, but it doesn’t stop Fats being one very creepy doll.
7. The Dummy, The Dummy
Acquired on release to be regularly broadcast as a “bumper” between horror films and anthologies on cable, this short film is cited as a foundational influence on the entire killer doll subgenre. It received 10 years of repeated airtime on HBO and USA Network (the longest a short film has ever been shown on cable), and is a core memory for late-night horror fanatics across the country. Its lo-fi (read: no-budget) style means it’s difficult to take seriously—especially seeing as it’s filled with shots of the dummy being comically raised into frame by some off-camera crew member—but the goal with any haunted doll film is not necessarily to terrify, but to plunge an audience into a realm of off-putting weirdness. This proto-haunted doll film certainly does that.
6. Creepy Clown Doll, Ghosthouse
A less sophisticated Italian horror entry on this list, Ghosthouse (released as La casa 3) is wise enough to know that clowns + dolls = very creepy. As her parents are murdered, a young girl is comforted by a harlequin doll from her basement, and afterwards their spirits are seemingly bonded inside the house to meet any unwelcome future intruders. Able to transform its fixed expression into a sharp-tooth snarl, this clown doll has powers of self-animation, able to fling itself across a room and grapple with its victims. The extent of its evil influence seems to be limited to a single house, though the shots of the doll in the arms of its young ghostly owner are bound to creep you out.
5. Sanzia, Dolly Dearest
The first thing they tell you when you buy a Mexican doll factory is to make sure it’s not close to ancient Mayan demon tombs. But accidents happen, and this one gets the spirit of a devil child known as Sanzia trapped in a young girl’s new favorite doll. This is as haunted as one doll can get, and it soon graduates from turning its head when nobody’s watching and scuttling about basements into full-blown gruesome murder—including stabbings, electrocutions and bodily mutilation. It turns out Sanzia is susceptible to the exact same weaponry tactics as the Terminator, because it takes irreversible damage from a shotgun to the chest and an exploding fireball. If it ain’t broke!
4. The Horde of dolls, Dolls
Listen up, everybody: Stuart Gordon made a haunted doll movie. Why are you still reading this? Go watch it. This is the first film on our list where the number of haunted dolls outnumber their victims—this film is chock full of evil toys. They’re hexed by a magician couple to “test” any houseguests to see if they still value the joys of childhood (???), and more often than not they resort to horrible violence, dragging bodies across the floor with freakish strength, stabbing them with petite blades, and piling onto victims from every direction. With their freakishly expressive faces and veiny, bloodshot eyes, these make for some of the most unsettling toys on this list—and that doesn’t even include the man who turns into a Punch and Judy puppet.
3. Annabelle, The Conjuring Universe
Annabelle isn’t just one of the most haunted dolls around, she’s found a way to franchise her haunts too. A scene-stealer in The Conjuring, rumor has it that Annabelle impressed director James Wan so much in the cold open (where the Warrens inform some students that they, unfortunately, have a haunted doll problem) that he was open to her negotiations for a larger role in the film. Soon, every horror fan in the country had Annabelle Fever, and not only did she have a trilogy of her own, but she reappeared in several other Conjuring Universe films, as well as Aquaman and Shazam! Not just your run-of-the-mill creepy porcelain plaything, Annabelle proved she was the most business-savvy haunted doll in town.
2. Chucky, Child’s Play series
In a world of retcons and soft reboots, there’s something to be said for every single iteration of a franchise being canon. In this regard, the Chucky series is the most respectable franchise around, as every one of the Don Mancini/Brad Dourif properties exists in one uninterrupted timeline. Over the course of seven films and two seasons of TV, the Good-Guy-doll-crossed-with-a-serial-killer has been killed and resurrected a half dozen times, but it’s ostensibly the same type of curse that’s bringing him to life each time. This means Chucky gets points for being the haunted doll with the most longevity, or at least the most dogged persistence to reappear as haunted as possible.
1. Pinocchio, Pinocchio’s Revenge
The OG haunted doll has enjoyed a large variety of adaptations over the years (thank you, public domain), including a recent darker folklore reimagining from Guillermo del Toro. But only a few filmmakers were brave enough to take a hard psychological horror slant on the Italian fairytale, and direct-to-video master Kevin S. Tenney proved he was such a man. A child murderer’s acquittal depends on a recently discovered piece of evidence: A Pinocchio doll that the defense attorney’s unstable daughter grows unnaturally close to. She’s initially the only one to witness the doll speak or move. Is Pinocchio only in the young girl’s head? Is she really the one breaking out in violence? Is this animated doll coming to life through witchcraft or shared psychosis? Who knows! But this puppet is by far the most haunted-looking one ever imagined. Whether flames are flickering in his big dead eyes, or he’s puttering about on a killing spree, the high-pitched cheery tones of cartoon icon Dick Beals help sell him as an icon of all dolls creepy and cursèd.
Rory Doherty is a screenwriter, playwright and culture writer based in Edinburgh, Scotland. You can follow his thoughts about all things stories @roryhasopinions.