As her eBook exclusive novella, The Doll's House, is published today, 13th September, Niki Valentine muses on the recurring presence of children's toys in the horror tradition.
I’ve always been deeply suspicious about the kind of toys they make for little girls. My mum and dad described me, aged less than five, taking off my dolls’ heads to play football with them. I don’t remember this very well, and there’s no doubt that I was a complete Tomboy who loved football, so that could have been all there was to it. But it’s also true that I found many of the toys designed for girls, and dolls, particularly, sinister and frightening.
Children are very imaginative but there is a big difference between the toys that girls and boys play with. There are all sorts of social theories about this, and feminist issues over girls being stereotyped from a young age, but I don’t think it’s as simple as that. My theory about girls’ toys, and the games girls play, is that they appeal to the developing sense of empathy in the female mind, and help girls develop the kinds of skills they will need to negotiate the world in a distinctly feminine way.
As such, though, a lot of girls’ toys are created to look like people, or mock ups of the world around us. Dolls are creepy because they are designed to look like a real baby and, at the same time, they are completely lifeless. In this sense, they disturb us in a very deep and elemental way. Lying around the untidy bedroom, or abandoned on the living room floor, a quick glance of a lifeless baby is extremely unsettling. The Toy Story franchise plays with an idea I’m sure we all had when we were little, that of our toys coming to life whenever we weren’t looking. Enid Blyton’s Toyland stories do similar. Bizarrely, though, our toys actually feel safer when animated in this way, alive rather than dead. Also, it’s the eyes that are the problem. A bit like those on well painted portraits, they follow us round the room. Doll’s eyes are often stones or marbles that can be removed, to grotesque effect. Doll’s eyes look alive, and dead, all at the same time.
Then there are smaller figures, ones that come with houses, schools, hospitals and garages. As a child, these were my favourite kinds of plaything, and I would spend hours lining up the figures and moving them around the buildings. As an adult, though, they take on a very different aspect. They evoke all sorts of chilling scenarios, associated with voodoo. Their homes and workplaces do not help, the really good ones so detailed that the closer you look, the more real they seem. You can even buy a set of the 50 Shades series, for your dolls to enjoy in their house. Shudder.
Ironically, one of the toys that unnerves me the most these days, is the disembodied head of the Girl’s World. My step daughter owned one and when she left it in the bedroom on the weeks she wasn’t staying with us, I had to cover it up if I was in the room. It’s the expressionless face that gets to me, the dull eyes that follow me around, no matter how bright and cheery the make up and hair style applied by its eight year old owner. No matter what you do it, a disembodied head is just wrong. Except, perhaps, if you close your eyes and kick it hard into the distance. All the way down to the bottom of the garden, perhaps…
One last thought on just how terrifying dolls can be. La Isla de la Munecas (the Island of the Dolls) near Mexico City is possibly the scariest place in the world. Its story only adds to its creepiness. I certainly wouldn’t like to find myself there at night, alone. Hmm… I feel another story coming on.
The Doll's House is the eBook exclusive prequel to Niki Valentine's upcoming psychological thriller, Possessed, which will be published in paperback on the 25th October. The Doll's House is published as an eBook by Hachette Digital on the 13th September 2012, £0.99
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