Dolls Are Creepy Because Your Brain Can’t Handle Fake Faces

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Why let creepy clowns get all the attention? From now until Halloween, Science of Us is investigating the psychology behind some of the most common fears.

In 2014, police in San Clemente, California, found themselves dealing with a very unusual kind of threat: Dolls were mysteriously appearing on the stoops of several different families, each one bearing a resemblance to a young girl who lived inside the house. The dolls were eventually traced back to a local woman who “intended it as a kind gesture” rather than any sign of malice, according to a police statement. Which is sweet, maybe, in a weird way. But to think that these dolls were a kind gesture is also to fundamentally miss an important point about dolls: It doesn’t take much to make them spooky. There aren’t any hard and fast statistics about the prevalence of pediophobia, or the fear of dolls, but just a quick glance around the internet will show that plenty of people wouldn’t want to be left alone with one.

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Part of it is circular logic: People find dolls creepy because there’s plenty in pop culture about creepy dolls. Chucky from Child’s Play. Annabelle from Annabelle. That episode of The Twilight Zone. This list of monstrosities, if you were in the market for something to haunt your dreams tonight. There’s even a creepy Mexican tourist attraction called Isla de las Muñecas, or the Island of the Dolls, where travelers flock to see dilapidated old dolls strung up on trees to appease the spirit of a local girl who drowned; the man who originally spearheaded this strange decorating project, incidentally, has come to believe that the dolls are possessed.

And the narrative of the haunted doll certainly plays a role. But there’s a reason dolls came to be a horror trope in the first place: They reside smack dab in the middle of the “uncanny valley,” the space occupied by humanlike things that provoke a sense of unease in actual humans. The term, coined in 1970 by the Japanese robotics engineer Masahiro Mori, describes that uncomfortable middle ground between lifelike and clearly inanimate: not quite fully human, but not quite something else, either.

Pediophobia, is one branch on the larger tree of automatonophobia, or a fear of things that look like humans, like robots, wax figurines, statues. (For the record, pediophobia translates to “fear of little children,” and is linguistically just a hop and a skip away from the word for fear of actual children: pedophobia.) And dolls, like rest of the automatonophobia gang, become more fearsome the more lifelike they appear; rag dolls don’t evoke the same spookiness as a baby-size thing with real hair. As Linda Rodriguez McRobbie wrote in a history of creepy dolls for Smithsonian last year, fear of dolls wasn’t really a thing until the 19th century, when innovations in toy-making — like eyes that could open and close — meant more realistic-looking products.

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And those products began messing with people’s minds in all kinds of ways. “Our brains are designed to read faces for important information about intentions, emotions and potential threats; indeed, we’re so primed to see faces and respond to them that we see them everywhere, in streaked windows and smears of Marmite, toast and banana peels,” McRobbie wrote. (More neurotic people are also more likely to see faces in inanimate objects, which, some researchers argue, is because their brains are more attuned to potential threats.) “However much we know that a doll is (likely) not a threat, seeing a face that looks human but isn’t unsettles our most basic human instincts.” The fear of dolls, in other words, shares a lot with the fear of clowns: Both are reactions to ambiguous, slightly off versions of a normal face.

And if that doesn’t sound eerie enough, you can always buy your own haunted doll on eBay. 

Dolls Are Creepy Because Your Brain Can’t Handle Fake Faces