Dolls, are creepy. My apologies to little girls and doll enthusiasts around the world, but it’s a fact. Innocent things can take on the most sinister sides to them. A child’s room could be filled with dolls at night and you’d think nothing of it. But visit your grandma’s house and be forced to sleep in her guest room, which also houses her massive doll collection. You’re not sleeping. In the same vein of creepiness as dolls, are puppets. Puppets, however, step up the creepy a notch or two. They have a fluidity of movement that dolls just don’t have. The puppeteer makes it talk, dance, laugh and mimic all types of activities. Once done, the puppet sits or hangs lifelessly.
Perhaps is more than just lighting or your eyes playing tricks on you that is making you fear puppets. It might be a real fear, automatonophobia. Automatonophobia is the fear of anything that falsely represents a sentient being. This can be the fear of puppets, muppets, ventriloquist figures, marionettes, automatons, or other mechanical creatures. I think in a way, we all have little of this phobia in us. For me it’s not the puppets I’m scared of, it’s the puppets coming to life and attacking me that gives me the willies. There is a lot of potential scares in puppets. Just imagine them moving and acting without the aid of their human manipulators. Not cool. If you’ve ever seen Poltergeist (1980) or Pinocchio (1949) you know what I’m talking about. There is also this idea that the puppeteer has embedded some portion of their own personality into the puppet. That maybe, the puppet has acquired some of the owner’s spirit. This is especially the case in that of ventriloquist figures. Ventriloquists are known to talk to their figures when not in use. Many times the figure or dummy is given elements which caricature the artist themselves. Further exasperating the idea that the doll in imbued with elements of the master.
The idea for this post came after watching Attack of the Puppet People (1958) on TCM. This movie has no puppets, save one, and it doesn't attack. It gets demolished by a very small man. They should have really gone with one of its pseudonyms, I Was a Teenage Doll, which is more closely related to the actually plot of the film. Although there are no teenagers in the film. I won’t bore you with this film, but it did lead me to think about puppet movies. Child’s Play series aside, which is technically a doll movie, I came up with a few films involve puppets. They’re all related to the art of ventriloquism. They are Devil Doll (1964), Magic (1979), and Dead Silence (2007).
Now I know there are many, many other puppet movies out there. I mean there are like four Puppet Master films, and let’s not forget Black Devil Doll From Hell (1981) or Black Devil Doll (2011). Technically, those last two are also doll movies. All of the films I chose to discuss here have commonalities to them such as ventriloquism, and the supernatural. While Black Devil Doll and Child’s Play use the supernatural to move the plot, I wanted to stay away from serial killer doll possession films. As much fun as those are. These three films also speak to the different ways in which we identify with puppets. And how this identification can lead to the automatonophobia we all have.
The word ventriloquist comes from Latin, meaning to speak from the stomach. Ventor meaning stomach, and loqui meaning speak. In Greek, this type of act was referred to as gastromancy, which sounds more like the ability to tell all gasses to do your bidding. Throwing one’s voice has long been associated with the supernatural. Often this ability was either feared or revered. While initially seen as sorcery, this skill became more widely used for entertainment purposes, hitting its peak in the days of vaudeville. Yet associating ventriloquism with the supernatural has lingered in our collective minds. As society became more secularized, this supernatural association led to the linking ventriloquism with those who are gifted with supernatural powers to perhaps just mentally unstable.
In the opening credit sequence of Devil Doll (1964) we see the Great Vorelli riding in a car with a doll next to him as if he was his partner or maybe even a sidekick. The figure looks aimlessly straight ahead. Vorelli, carries the figure up to a poster outside the venue to show him that their show is a smashing success. It is sold out. We also learn that Vorelli’s sidekick has a name, Hugo.The name Hugo may be a nod to the ventriloquist figure from Dead of Night (1948).
A reporter named Mark English is on assignment to cover this Vorelli act. He’s enlisted the aid of his friend, Maryanne (Yvonne Romain), to attend the show and be hypnotized by Vorelli. At first she is reluctant, but eventually makes her way up to the stage. She is hypnotized and told to dance with a man. No, she doesn’t think she’s a chicken. They’re just dancing, nothing more. As a final trick, the show stopper, Vorelli brings out Hugo and places him on his lap. After some disdainful banter between the two, Vorelli orders Hugo to walk to the edge of the stage. A feat that astonishes the crowd. After the show Vorelli puts Hugo in a small cage and says to him “ You never win, you always lose.” Odd thing to say to a puppet, though perhaps true.
Mark wants to find out what is up with the puppet. He seems to think there is a small man or boy inside that is manipulating the puppet. Why not a girl or a small woman Mark? Rather sexiest I'd say. So he convinces Maryanne to invite Vorelli over to her grandmother’s charity ball to perform. She meets with Vorelli, and has some wine with him. Unfortunately she’s also hypnotized during this encounter. Vorelli is a player. I mean he drinks wine at 10 a.m. During the performance at the dinner party Vorelli and Hugo have an argument over a ham sandwich. Vorelli’s point being that Hugo can’t eat anything because “You are a dummy Hugo” as he puts it. Hugo’s insistence on acquiring a sandwich makes for a very awkward situation for those watching. I don't know if that was part of the act or what. That night Hugo escapes from his cage and visits Mark. He tells him “Find me in Berlin, 1948.” So Mark begins to investigate this encounter. Meanwhile, Maryanne has grown ill and they don’t seem to know what’s wrong with her. Vorelli knows what can cure her disease, his bad medicine. When visiting Maryanne, Vorelli tells her to ditch the zero and get with a hero. Maryanne tells Mark she’s in love with Vorelli and is going to marry him.
While not directly related to the mental state of the ventriloquist, Devil Doll does tell the story of a desperate mentally unstable man. Vorelli’s inability perform illusion forces him to use real magic. This beg the question, if he had real magical abilities, why was he just a performer? Devil Doll addresses one of our biggest fears driving automatonaphobia, that a figure can be possessed by the soul of a person. Forced to do the master’s bidding like a zombie, never to enjoy a sandwich ever again.
Flash forward, to a sold out show. Corky is beginning his act as he did before. Someone heckles him from the audience. Turns out that it was his puppet, Fats, that heckled him. The crowd loves it. His agent Ben Greene has invited a big television executive with him to catch Corky’s act. The executive is not impressed at first, but by the end of the show he is on board. There is a catch, the broadcasting company requires both a physical and mental examination. Corky doesn’t like this one bit. Neither does Fats. Corky refuses to meet with a shrink. Facing the now uncertainty of his television career he decides to get away.
The film begins with a lie. Corky lying to his mentor about how his first solo gig went. Almost every other interaction within the film is based on lies. It is as if Fats is the only one who can tell the truth. This type of behavior is commonly seen in movies involving ventriloquists. Fats is a characterization of Corky. They dress the same. Fats has exaggerated features of Corky. He says what Corky can’t say. He is the Mr. Hyde to Corky’s Dr. Jeckyll. Much like that of Devil Doll, Corky speaks to Fats in a harsh tone, arguing with him. Unfortunately for Corky, Fats is not a boy trapped in a puppet, but the imaginary creation of Corky’s own mind. He is in a sense a coping mechanism for Corky’s intense stage fright. As Farryl Hadari states “A puppet represents a human being without being a human. Thus it is an excellent vessel for projection. Projection is attaching one’s feeling or actions to another object or person. The puppeteer endows the puppet with characteristics that reflect his or her own inner view of human nature, self and others.“(from Do You Speak Puppetry) Fats is the voice that Corky refuses to use. And in some cases he speaks out of turn, which causes trouble. Corky is projecting his secret thoughts onto Fats.
While it has been noted that during performances the ventriloquist figure, will say things the ventriloquist did not intend to say. Taking them by surprise, it is most likely Corky doesn’t have this problem.
The origin of the word ventriloquist opens Dead Silence with a little history lesson "In the 6th Century B.C. it was believed that the spirits of the dead would speak through the stomach region of the living." This sets the tone for the entire film. That this is going to be a film about the supernatural nature of ventriloquism.
Jamie Ashen is a hipster, on the cusp of the modern age of hipsters. He lives with his young wife, who sports a Mia Farrow ala Rosemary's Baby haircut. They listen to records, play guitar, and are do-it-yourselfers. Jamie drives a red 1971 Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme. They have it all going for them. They also now have a ventriloquist figure, care of an unknown delivery. Billy is one of the creepiest ventriloquist figures ever to appear in film. The couple makes their first mistake after opening the package and seeing this, Jamie’s wife plays with the figure. Who plays with a creepy dummy that arrived on your doorstep via an unknown person? Hipsters, that's who. Their second mistake is they order take out, and don't have it delivered.Isn't it the point of take out to be as lazy as possible?
When Jamie goes out to get Chinese, his wife takes Billy and puts him on the bed so he can watch her. So when Billy attacks her we aren't surprised. Jamie is though, as he returns with the food and a rose to find the mangled body of his wife. Once in the custody of the police we meet Detective Lipton (Donny Wahlberg). He is adamant that Jamie killed his wife and is trying to cover it up by telling a local ghost story. He also has a sever case of five o'clock shadow that won't seem to go away no matter how much he shaves. Jamie is released and decides to go home to bury his wife, along with his new pal Billy, of course.
When he arrives home he notices that the town of Raven's Fair is basically deserted. All of main street is shut down. He first heads to his father's house. His father lives in a large mansion with his hot young wife. There is some animosity between father and son which is immediately apparent. Jamie goes to the funeral home to make the arrangements. At funeral of his wife he happens upon the grave of Mary Shaw and the graves of her 100 dolls.
Jamie snags Billy and they go visit the local coroner. He tells the tale no one else is willing to speak of, the story of Mary Shaw. Basically, a little boy made fun of her and she shut him down. Then the boy goes missing, to which everyone blamed Mary. So they killed her. After her she had some crazy request to be turned into a doll herself. A frightful idea. Now the ghost of Shaw is scaring people and removing their tongues if they scream. Hell hath no fury like a woman scorn. So Jamie is off to fight a ghost in what will most likely be a failed attempt to try and find a way to prove that he didn’t kill his wife.
Not convinced that Jamie is innocent, Lipton accompanies Jamie to the theater on a tip from the coroner that he has proof that Mary has been committing murders.
At the theater Jamie and Lipton find a secret room that contains a very creep case. Perhaps hearkening back to Poltergeist, there is a doll of a clown lite by the only light in the room, creepy no? The case contains all 100 dolls of Mary Shaw. The boys also find Jamie's great uncle. Reunited at last, wait, no. They attempt to destroy all the dolls, but are forced to leave in a hurry. Lipton doesn't make it. At least his razor still works. Jamie makes his way back home. There he finds out that his father has possibly been dead for a while, and that his hot wife is actually a doll. Created by Mary as the perfect doll. Indeed.
So, what do these films tell us about automatonaphobia? First, that fear can be partially derived from fiction. I am creeped out by dolls, not because of their intrinsic creepiness, but mainly because I saw films like Poltergeist when I was younger. Which also happened to compound my fear of clowns at the time. Secondly, the distrust of ventriloquist is not completely without merit. They are in fact deceiving us, or they wouldn't be very good at what they do. There is a concept in psychology called visual capture. Visual capture is the dominance of our vision over other senses in how we perceive the environment around us. The ventriloquist effect is a form of visual capture. It is a process by which we perceive sounds to be coming from the figure's mouth rather than the ventriloquist's because our visual capture is overriding the fact that we know the ventriloquist is making the noise. This gives the figure, at least in our minds, a voice.
Now you may be thinking "what do I do if I have this phobia?". I would advise that you stay away from ventriloquist acts, don't watch the Muppet Show, avoid the doll isle at the toy store, and don't go near an American Girl store. Most of all, have no fear, they're just dolls, they can't hurt you. Unless they're possessed. Then run, toss them in the fire, do not stab yourself or others, and if necessary, share your ham sandwich.
And then there is the Vent Haven Museum. I wonder if they do overnights...