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10 weirdest, wildest dolls in history

By Christie Asakem

Dolls make perfect sense as toys – a small human, for small humans to play with – and they have been around forever, unsurprisingly. We had miniature play people way before anyone invented trains, Pokémon or all the other kids’ stuff (OK, maybe we always had slime). A small soapstone human figure was found in a 4,500-year-old Siberian child’s tomb, and there are ancient Greek dolls, while ancient Egypt had “paddle” (flat) dolls then, later, absolutely horrible Roman-era rag dolls. Most times and regions seem to have them: there are Inuit dolls from 1000BC; dolls are explicitly described as playthings in Japan in the 11th-century Tale of Genji.

But if they are so universal, why are they also so upsetting? There’s a name for the fear of dolls – pediophobia – and no wonder. I mean, tell me dolls don’t make you feel funny on some level and I’ll assume you’re a bit funny yourself. The easiest possible shorthand to identify someone as a wrong ’un on screen or in print is to make them a doll collector; dolls are a perennial horror movie trope, from The Great Gabbo (a 1929 ventriloquist’s dummy) to M3gan.

They inhabit an uncanny valley of being human but not, whether they are decrepit wax dainty ladies, soft faces disfigured by age, or hyperrealistic contemporary baby dolls around which a whole subculture has developed. “They look like people but aren’t people, so we don’t know how to respond,” as psychologist Frank McAndrew puts it.

I know how to respond: bury them all in the deepest vault in the least inhabited corner of the Earth and then set fire to it. Twice. But failing that, let’s look at some dolls from history that are definitely scheming to kill us; forewarned is forearmed.

1. Roman doll

10 weirdest, wildest dolls in history
Roman Doll

Starting relatively gently, we have this floating, featureless Slender Woman with unnervingly long arms. Five dolls were found in a child’s grave in Ontur, Spain – four ivory and one amber – estimated to date from the third or fourth century. Roman dolls had “an idealised feminine shape”, elaborate hairdos and “resemble upper-class matronae”. Another from a child’s tomb in nearby Tarragona was found with the remains of gold thread, suggesting it was dressed, and doll jewellery has been found at other sites. A mere 6/10 haunting for me.

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2. Nuremberg jointed doll, c1530

10 weirdest, wildest dolls in history
Female jointed doll

Take that, Barbie – a doll with carved pubic hair is truly iconic. Is it cheating to include what academics believe was in fact an artist’s mannequin? Listen, it’s described as a “puppe” (doll), so I’m including it. Sidenote: why do early-modern artists make women look like buff men with implants (possibly because the normative model for the human figure was male; did I go off on a tangent on this? You bet I did).

3. 1790s American dolls

10 weirdest, wildest dolls in history
American dolls

What’s the relationship between these two dolls? There is no way it’s a functional or healthy one. Is wooden head (right) jealous of the greater realism of wax head (left)? I would sleep with one painted eye open if I were the waxy lady.

4. Wax fashion doll, 1837

10 weirdest, wildest dolls in history
Wax doll

“Pandora” dolls were a way to keep up with fashion before Instagram or Vinted hashtags. Dressmakers and merchants used them to show women what much chicer women in Paris were wearing (plus ça change) and they were considered so important they were granted an “inviolable passport” to travel when England and France were on opposing sides of the Spanish war of succession. I don’t know why this one looks so shocked: maybe she’s just heard about someone (me) still wearing skinny jeans in the year of our Lord 2024.

5. Frozen Charlotte, late 19th century

10 weirdest, wildest dolls in history
Frozen Charlotte doll

An 1840 news story about a girl who froze to death travelling to a ball inspired a cautionary ballad and poem; it may have also inspired these macabre little frozen corpse dolls. Certainly that’s the common story, though evidence is slim (it may be a 20th-century coinage for these Victorian penny dolls). Does it actually matter? They’re horrible either way.

6. Wax doll, c1880

10 weirdest, wildest dolls in history
Wax doll

For me, this creature is the worst of the whole cursed bunch. What is that facial expression? Distilled essence of malice? It looks like a cat you’ve dressed in a bonnet against its will who is now plotting your demise. Wax (usually paraffin but, before that, possibly whale blubber) dolls are the worst. I skipped through a 47-minute video entitled Four Centuries of Wax Antique Dolls, so I’m qualified to say this. None of the dolls featured were as bad as this one and yes, of course that is real human hair.

7. Edison talking doll, 1890

10 weirdest, wildest dolls in history
Edison talking doll

Thomas Edison was a pioneering genius who invented extraordinary things that have transformed our world; however, he also made this. Edison dolls contained a miniature phonograph that played a single nursery rhyme – a technological near-miracle – but they were also expensive, heavy as hell and broke constantly. Edison himself called them “little monsters”. If you never want to sleep again, listen to one reciting Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep. The project was a near-instant commercial failure. I can’t imagine why.

8. Robert the haunted doll, c1904

10 weirdest, wildest dolls in history
Robert the haunted doll

There’s a brisk trade in haunted dolls on eBay; hundreds of enterprising sellers are upselling their car-boot bargains as “a cold and gloomy influence” or “child spirit Great Plague victim”, a sales pitch I can only respect. Robert, here, a 1904 lifesize child doll (why would anyone make such a thing?) is one of the most famous. He reportedly moves, laughs, changes expression and, oh yes, causes unspeakable disasters. He lives in a Florida museum where “many visitors attribute post-visit misfortunes to failing to respect Robert”.

9. Judith the Pregnant Doll, 1991

10 weirdest, wildest dolls in history
Judith the pregnant doll

Judith’s stomach (none of your “uterus” business here) pops off, allowing the user to remove a “spring-loaded baby”, which is, as far as I recall, not the conventional exit strategy. Once the infant is extracted, her stomach snaps back to perfect flatness (“flat stomach after birth,” the box boasts). You’ll be reassured to hear she has a wedding ring and a husband, Charlie; family values are safe in the hands of (checks notes) the Judith Corporation, Lake Bluff, Illinois. The most realistic thing about Judith is probably her enormous maternity pants.

10. Cabbage Patch dolls

10 weirdest, wildest dolls in history
Cabbage Patch dolls

The Cabbage Patch origin story is weird. No, not that the “babies” are incubated in cabbages sprinkled with magic crystals by bunny-eared insects, but the fact that 21-year-old art student Xavier Roberts borrowed heavily from folk textile artist Martha Nelson Thomas’s Little People dolls to create his squidgy-faced monstrosities, then sold 20m of them within a few years. Roberts came up with the cabbagey, crystal stuff and also signed dolls’ bottoms originally, a kind of individualised fairy dust that sent consumers wild, leading to actual Cabbage Patch riots in malls and stores. Fun fact: in 1997, a version that had mechanical jaws to allow kids to pretend to feed the doll “clamped on to the fingers and hair of children and would not let go”. Sweet dreams!

Source: The Guardian

Christie Asakem
Christie Asakem
Christie Asakem is a prolific and passionate writer who specialises in comprehensive story telling.

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