Cult-TV Theme Watch: Dolls, Dummies and Puppets

Automatonophobia is the (irrational?) fear of anything that falsely represents a sentient human being.  A resident, perhaps, of the Uncanny Valley, the automaton — the doll, the dummy, or the puppet — is often featured on cult-tv programs, especially of the horror variety.  The long-standing fear of automatons may originate from ancient religious rituals, which suggested that inanimate objects could sometimes house the voices of the “unliving.”

Both Rod Serling’s Night Gallery (“The Doll”) and Chris Carter’s The X-Files (“Chinga) showcased episodes about children’s dolls “coming to life” under the auspices of witchcraft or sorcery.  In each case, the doll was not only dangerous, but actually murderous.  In “Chinga” by Stephen King, for example, the evil doll caused unlucky souls to gouge out their own eyes.  Scully (Gillian Anderson) finally found an appropriate venue in which to dispense with the evil doll: a microwave oven.

As recently as September 2011, evil dolls have appeared on cult television, in this case on the sixth series of Doctor Who.  “Night Terrors” involves the Doctor’s encounter with creepy, living “peg dolls” that are the embodiment of one young child’s overwhelming fear.
Interestingly, not all dolls in cult-tv history have been straight-up evil.  The Twilight Zone’s Talky Tina (“Living Doll) for instance, had a nasty mouth on her (“I’m Talky Tina, and I’m going to kill you…“), but her goal was to protect her master — a little girl — from a cruel and abusive adult (Telly Savalas).  
Likewise, Sid the Ventriloquist’s Dummy of Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s “The Puppet Show was actually a heroic demon hunter, a man who had been cursed to live out his days in that wooden form. He proved to be a steadfast (if horny…) ally to Buffy in that installment.  He later re-appeared as a sidekick in the Buffy video game, Chaos Bleeds.
In the Amazing Stories (1985 – 1986) first season segment, “The Doll,” a lonely man, John (John Lithgow) buys a lovely doll for his niece from a strange old man’s toy shop, but the doll is not evil.  Instead, John finds that the doll fascinates and intrigues him.  In fact, it leads him to the love of his life.  And more bizarrely, the woman he loves (who resembles his doll…) possesses a doll that is a dead ringer for him!  As we learn at the conclusion of the episode, the doll maker’s name is “Liebemacher,” which means “maker of love,” you see, and so with the dolls he has acted as matchmaker for lonely John and his lady love.

So while our memory most often jumps to evil dolls or evil ventriloquist’s dummies, cult television has actually probably done as much to defuse automatonophobia as encourage it.  If you run into a living doll, just hope that it’ more Amazing Stories or Buffy and less Twilight Zone or X-Files…


One response to “Cult-TV Theme Watch: Dolls, Dummies and Puppets

  1. Sad to say I've always been the quivering scaredy-cat when it came to automatons. I think it lies in the fact that, growing up, I only really saw the evil variations of those characters, so I had it ingrained in my mind that dolls were soulless vessels that only wanted to kill humans. I wrote about this a little more extensively (and specifically about dummies) over at Kindertrauma a while back:

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