Why You’re So Scared Of Dolls

Photo: New Line Cinema/Evergreen Media Group/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock.
Maybe it sits on a shelf at your grandmother's house. Maybe it's hidden somewhere in your attic. Maybe it's right behind you. Everyone has encountered — and shuddered at — a particularly odd, creepy, old doll. Despite their original use as innocent, childhood playthings, dolls have become such a universal symbol of horror that they've been the stars of major films like Chucky and Annabelle.
But why does the idea of a defunct toy strike fear in the hearts of so many adults?
According to David H. Rosmarin, PhD, ABPP,
it's unlikely that we found any dolls, whether of the Chucky or Barbie variety, particularly scary at all when we were children. "Children aren’t naturally afraid of creepy horror symbols. Rather, fear is a conditioned response that we learn over time," he explains.
It likely takes us until later in our childhoods, if not after that, to associate certain dolls with insidiousness or plain old creepiness. And even then, it isn't that we come to this realization out of nowhere. Dr. Rosmarin suggests that pop culture has more to do with our fear of dolls than anything deeply seated in our psyches.
In the same way that we may adopt the fears of others based on how they react, we can learn to fear otherwise nonthreatening things based on the context in which we encounter them. If you're a child who's only ever seen a doll in the comfort and safety of your own playroom, you're probably okay with dolls overall. But, if that doll appeared to you in an unfamiliar, shadowy room, with eerie music playing in the background, you might not be okay with it anymore.
In other words, there's a chance that the entertainment industry was having some fun with the viewing public when it started churning out creepy movies about dolls. The dissonance between the cutesy object and the spooky setting where we see it is, essentially, the source of the film's horror.
The other prevailing theory that gets closer to the heart of dolls' supposed creepiness has to do with the uncanny valley effect, in which something possess human-like traits or even appears to be alive, but is actually lifeless and fails to read as fully "human." It's often mentioned when discussing robots or bad CGI, but it can absolutely apply to more analog objects like dolls. Researchers still don't know exactly why we find the uncanny so off-putting, but there's no denying that it's unsettling when something, like a doll, tries and fails to pass our brain's "human" test.
Whatever your reason for fearing dolls, you probably don't have to worry too much. Dr. Rosmarin says exposure therapy, or gradually increased contact with dolls, can help to treat your fear if you find that it's especially intense or difficult to ignore. But luckily, a fear of dolls likely doesn't point toward anything more existential than that and, unless you have some seriously bad friends, no one's going to force you to see the next installment of the Annabelle series.
If you think you might have a phobia and want to seek help, click here for more resources.

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