Big old dolls: creepy or divine?

A note. Let’s get our terms straight. Horrifying dolls are those possessed by evil spirits and get “invited” into your home to wreak havoc. Creepy dolls are merely unsettling. Something about them is a little too… human.

My story. Last Sunday, I spied these oversized companion dolls in an antique shop and thought they’d make a fun photo prop or lawn ornament. They made me smile.

Stella and Maddie, as purchased

At home, their retro look made me think of the spooky twins in “The Shining,” so I posed them looking eerily at Jim. Good for a Facebook laugh.

Dolls get creepy with Jim

The only moment of real creepiness I got was when I posed them next to a pair of Baule tribal sculptures. In my head, I heard the sculptures say, “Are you kidding? Are you seriously reducing us to a prop next to these stupid dolls as if we just popped out of a cheesy horror flick?”

Stella and Maddie, with Baule figures

Ouch. This made me think.

I do believe that material things have spirit. The older they are, the longer they’ve been preserved, the more spirit they gather. In addition, ritual objects have the special character of religious culture and our yearning to connect the human with the divine. Toys have the special character of childhood. They reflect our innocence and absorb our anxieties.

On Monday, I visited the Toddler aisle at the thrift store and bought fancy new duds for the dolls, now revealed as Maddie and Stella. Dressing them up got me into the holiday spirit. Their old clothes were tattered and not worth saving. In fact, it looked like Maddie had been expertly reconstructed from two, maybe three, different “Pattie Play Pals.” Both dolls were manufactured around 1960, so they are in Velveteen Rabbit territory and definitely full of spirit.

I’ve had a good time on Facebook, trading thoughts about featuring Maddie and Stella in a wintry, lakeside horror story. And I actually considered some truly terrifying scenarios.

But wait.

I live in a home full of ethnographic material, from Taiwan to west Africa to coastal Peru. Masks, textiles, jewelry, and ritual objects are continually disclosing their stories of artful belonging. Jim began the collections out of his love for history and his curiosity about other cultures. They reflect his openness to the Other.

But consider this concept of Other. You pick up lovely silver-rimmed bowl and find it was made from a human skull. Your first reaction is to be creeped out. But then what? Do you shrink away, spinning a story in your head about the primitive and godless people who would make such a thing? Or do you lean in and learn more about the sacred rituals of Tibetan monks?

Tibet: ritual bowl
Tibet: ritual bowl

Othering is the basis for much of the world’s strife. Those people don’t fit into our orderly community. They look funny and they eat strange things… maybe puppies… or babies. Their rituals are odd, a lot of mumbo-jumbo… what devils are infesting them? They scare the hell out us… let’s chase them away, build a wall…


I love a good horror story. I love make-believe. But in a home where ritual masks, divination tools, and religious effigies are welcomed as a means to learn about history and culture… and Others, it is difficult to turn a Pattie Play Pal into a Chucky or an Annabelle.

Buddhist, Yoruba, Baule, and Ideal Toy Company (U.S.A.) cultures share their stories

It feels wrong. The momentary sense of creepiness, of something uncanny, shouldn’t be spun into fear and suspicion. It should make us pause.

I am generally a rationalist. While I have no reason to believe in Satan, I do believe there are evil forces in this world. And yes, I guess I do believe that you can invite evil into your home, maybe less out of intention and more out of stupidity and disrespect and making games out of the sacred objects of other cultures. And maybe that evil is simply a psychological shift to the dark side — choosing fear, abandoning hope, embracing paranoia, losing optimism.

I have no interest in traveling to the dark side. Death is lurking in the background for all of us. Why conjure up complications?

Maddie and Stella definitely have spirit. But they are light-hearted. They make me chuckle. They connect me to a little girl who loved dolls. That feels more divine than demonic.

Whiskey poured


Further reading: “The History of Creepy Dolls,” by Linda Rodriguez McRobbie. Smithsonian Magazine, July 15, 2015.

Featured image at the top: Maddie and Stella pose with a santos doll, hastily dressed for the occasion. Santos “dolls” are androgynous figures that can be dressed as either male or female saints for saints’ days parades. As I have gathered, they were used by poor Catholic churches who could not afford statues of all the important saints. Ours in a mid-20th century French reproduction. Repros have also become decorator items known as “cage dolls.”

Maddie and Stella with the santos doll

One Reply to “Big old dolls: creepy or divine?”

  1. Glad you got that all figured out: The difference between good and evil casting for your new companions. We agree that Stella and Maddie are charmers. I think they and their spirit has found a wonderful home with you and Jim and your other treasures. Hey! What are you getting them for Christmas? I bet they’re going to get a new outfit. People decorate their mailboxes and I decorate my flower boxes with the change of seasons and holidays. I bet Stella and Maddie are going to be so blessed. And you enjoy, just as I do, making those seasonal changes. Have fun.


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