How to write a scary doll in children’s and YA horror

1024 683 Writer and the Wolf Editorial

As I write this, my Chucky doll sits silently on my windowsill, staring at me and contemplating how he will murder me in my sleep tonight. If I don’t make it to the end of this post, tell my son I love him.

It’s no surprise that dolls have been a stalwart of horror films and novels since time immemorial, not just for children but adults, too. Taking something that’s meant to be cute and playful, a symbol of childhood fun and innocence, and giving it deadly intentions is just creepy and no mistake. I mean, children sleep with those things in their beds for goodness’ sake. There’s even a name for the fear of dolls: pediophobia.

 

As kids, my friends and I delighted in telling each other the scary story ‘Katie, I’m on the first step’ in which a little girl forgets to bring her doll to bed with her one night. She’s too tired to go back down and get it so drifts off to sleep. Unbeknownst to her, the doll is not happy about the situation and starts climbing the stairs one by one, quietly calling out, ‘Katie I’m on the first step, Katie I’m on the second step, Katie I’m on the third step’… you get the idea. Eventually the doll gets on to Katie’s bed, then her pillow. The story climaxes with the teller screaming ‘Katie you’re DEAD!’ at the top of their voice in everyone’s faces. Cute, huh?

But this story really captures something about our relationships with dolls. As children, lots of us have a doll we love and take everywhere with us but as we get older we lose interest, maybe even become embarrassed by dolls, and they get cast aside. How do the dolls, you know, feel about that?

All toys suffer this fate eventually but there’s something about dolls’ human-like features that make them more alive, emotional, needy.

And they’re a natural choice of antagonist for a middle grade or YA novel because young readers either still play with dolls or can clearly remember a time they did. Dolls are familiar and that’s what makes them a really fun horror villain: they’re the everyday, the safe, turned upside down. It’s the uncanny.

The uncanny is the experience of encountering something familiar in strange or scary context. Here’s what Freud says about dolls and the uncanny:

‘Now, dolls are of course rather closely connected with childhood life. We remember that in their early games children do not distinguish at all sharply between living and inanimate objects, and that they are especially fond of treating their dolls like live people. In fact, I have occasionally heard a woman patient declare that even at the age of eight she had still been convinced that her dolls would be certain to come to life if she were to look at them in a particular, extremely concentrated, way. So that here, too, it is not difficult to discover a factor from childhood.’

At once, children might wish their dolls would come to life but find the thought terrifying, too.

So, if you’re thinking of writing a creepy doll into your current MG or YA work in progress, I’ve got some tips for you! Just be sure to turn your Barbies’ heads away from the screen because we don’t want them to know we’re on to them.

Decide what role the doll will play

Dolls are often the monster in horror, with the likes of Chucky, Annabelle and Slappy turning to murder in their respective stories. But maybe you’re going to use creepy dolls differently in your novel. Perhaps they’ll just be there in the background, like props adding to the eerie atmosphere as your hero explores a haunted house or spooky attic. Maybe your story’s villain carries a doll around with them, so it becomes a symbol of the threat that villain poses to your protagonist even though it doesn’t harm them itself. You might write a doll who’s possessed by a spirit who doesn’t have nefarious intentions; the spirit might need help solving a mystery or getting justice or they could be warning your protagonist of another danger. A spooky doll doesn’t have to be evil, even if your protagonist suspects they are at first.

Play with dolls!

You can’t write about dolls if you haven’t actually seen any in real life since your childhood. If you have or know children who have dolls, spend some time watching them playing to get a feel for how they interact with their dolls. Do they act out make-believe scenes and stories? Do they make them fight? Do they prefer to just brush their hair and change their outfits? Knowing how dolls get played with can help you think about your bad doll’s backstory and motives. Are they sick of having all their hair cut off? Fed up with riding around the house on the dog’s back? Repulsed by the Ken doll you keep trying to set them up with? Imagine this play time from both sides. Then, have a go yourself! How do you naturally play with the dolls? How does it feel? What memories does it evoke?

 

Visit some dolls

There are lots of museums and shops around the world with fantastic doll collections and exhibits so go take a look and be inspired (or scared). Many of these exhibits are available to view online so you can freak yourself out from the comfort of your own home.

Research real haunted dolls

There are several famous dolls reported to be haunted or possessed. Dive into their history for some inspiration for your own story:

  • The 117 year old Robert the doll supposedly responsible for numerous accidents and even deaths. If you live in Florida you could swing by a visit him at the Fort East Martello museum!
  • The real Annabelle, who remains inside a locked box to this day
  • Evil Elmo, who continually threatened to kill the little boy who owned him after the batteries were changed
  • Marionette Letta, complete with real human hair and a little toy brain, who makes it rain whenever he’s taken outside

Consider different types of dolls

Will your villain be a life-size baby doll, an action figure, a puppet, a ventriloquist’s dummy (check out these Christian ventriloquist albums if you want nightmares tonight), a wartime make-do-and-mend doll, vintage porcelain, battery operated, brand new, falling apart? Some types are inherently more scary than others but with the right tone and language you can turn even the cutest, most innocent looking doll into an axe murderer.

Watch some doll horror

Make it authentic

Research your chosen doll type and the historic period it hails from to add authenticity. The more your reader believes this doll is real, the more scared they’ll be.

For example, check out this doll genius, burke_no_sleeps, on Reddit:

So this doll is clearly a Halloween prop, made to look like an aged doll.

The crackling effect on the face and feet is what happens when composition dolls start to break down. Composition was a common material for mass produced dolls prior to the 1930s, and it was usually a blend of wood pulp / sawdust, glue, and resin.

These wet materials were then poured into a mold where they hardened, and were painted. Sometimes a layer of wax was added before or after painting to enhance the face.

The face, or the bust (upper chest, shoulders, neck, and head), as well as hands and feet, would be made of composition, while the rest of the doll was cloth stuffed with sawdust (or corn starch or flour). A full composition body with articulated joints would be a rarity.

When composition ages, the wood pulp in it absorbs moisture from the air and the resin separates from the expanding wood particles, creating a distinct cracked look. It typically starts in the folds of the face and spreads outwards. Here, that effect has been replicated with paint.

A genuine doll from this time period would have had painted or inset glass eyes. Baby dolls had wispy hair painted on, or a few strands of hair glued to the top of the head (human or horse hair). Dolls made to resemble toddlers often had a full wig with a cap, glued to the top and back of the head; the glue would break down along with the rest of the composition.

Adult body / “fashion dolls” were mainly popular with older children and adults, but rarely made of composition, and would have had either hair sculpted to their head or a bald head with interchangeable human hair wigs.

When trying to describe this doll, ask yourself what it’s made out of, what its history is, why it’s appearing in your story, and what its effect on the reader is meant to be.

All this detail and historic knowledge can really help you paint a convincing picture of your doll with all the senses.

It’s thought dolls date back to the Palaeolithic era, the oldest discovered so far being from 4,500 years ago, and there’s evidence they were still popular in Ancient Greece, Rome and Egypt. Dolls made from clay, wood or bone were found in children’s tombs and it’s likely they were used in rituals as offerings to gods, too.

So, there could be a lot of old dolls floating around out there, just waiting to appear in your story! Do some research and dig into the history and see what you come up with.

 

Watch YouTube clips

You’ll find lots of vintage dolls and dollhouses on YouTube which could help you get the details right:

Listen to music and sound effects

When I’m trying to write an atmospheric scene, I love listening to ambient music or sound effects to help get me in the right frame of mind. If you’re working on a doll scene, think about the sounds your characters might hear and pop them on YouTube or Spotify while you write. Here are a few examples to get you started:

Describe the doll with all your senses

When I write these posts I usually include a few examples of descriptive language from the fantastic Rural and Urban Setting Thesaurus but alas they don’t cover dollhouses! So I’ve had to come up with some of my own:

Sight

Cracked porcelain skin; dead eyes; broken pieces that have been glued back together; limbs that have been put back on at the wrong angle; old-fashioned clothes; light skin bleached by the sun; long lifelike hair in ringlets; rosy cheeks; hairline cracks in the skull where it’s been dropped on the ground.

Sound

A distorted voice box; creaking limbs on an old doll; the cries or giggles of a lifelike baby doll; the smash of porcelain on a hard floor; tinny music from a wind-up music doll.

Touch

The lace of a vintage dress; cold, smooth porcelain; a splinter from a wooden doll; the skin-like matte feel of bisque; the squishy stomach of a stuffed doll; wispy stuffing coming out at the seams.

Smell

A musty or mildew smell from the attic its been kept in; the fruity smell of Cabbage Patch Dolls; a vinegar or acetone smell from Hard Plastic Disease; baby powder that some companies add into the plastic to replicate that new baby smell; the thrift store smell from a doll you bought second hand; smoke from a house fire; perfume from whoever owned it previously.

Read how other middle grade and YA authors write scary dolls

  • Doll Bones by Holly Black
  • The Collector by K.R. Alexander
  • Frozen Charlotte by Alex Bell
  • Hide and Don’t Seek (and other very scary stories) by Anica Mrose Rissi
  • Don’t Turn Out the Lights edited by Jonathan Maberry
  • Only if You Dare by Josh Allen
  • A Taste of Darkness by various authors

Think about how your young readers would respond to dolls

If you’re writing middle grade, your readers will be roughly between eight and twelve years old. Lots of children in this age bracket still play with dolls or at least have some at home so you can really tap into that connection they might have with their own dolls. How would children this age talk about and interact with dolls around their friends? They might feel they’re getting too old for them and downplay their interest, lying about owning any or passing their beloved doll off as a collector’s item or a family heirloom they’re not allowed to throw away. Or perhaps their parents or grandparents think they’re too old for dolls and try to throw them away (as in Holly Black’s Doll Bones). How might this make the child feel?

If you’re writing YA, your readers will probably have very different relationships with dolls. At 13+, they may still own or play with dolls but might choose to frame it differently when talking to their friends: ‘they’re action figures’, ‘they’re collectibles’, ‘they were my grandmother’s’, etc. Maybe they hide them when friends come round. If they’re not doll fans, how might they feel if they come across a scary looking one during the story? It might bring back memories of playing with dolls when they were younger, or the fact they were never allowed to have them because their parents couldn’t afford them or didn’t approve. They might think they’re stupid and babyish and treat them with disdain, throwing them around or even tossing them in the bin. And what’s the doll going to think about that?

 


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Siobhan O'Brien Holmes

Siobhan O'Brien Holmes is a developmental editor working with middle grade and YA authors. She specialises in speculative and genre fiction, particularly horror, fantasy, mystery, sci-fi and anything with a dash of magic or macabre. She is a member of the SfEP, EFA, ACES, British Fantasy Society, Horror Writers Association and SCBWI. She has an MA in Novel Writing and an MA in Children's Literature.

All stories by: Siobhan O'Brien Holmes