Every week, Megan Condis and a group of friends get together for Documentary Sunday, a chance to dive into the weird, the wacky, the hilarious and the heartbreaking corners of our culture. This column chronicles all of the must-watch documentary films available for streaming.
Human beings have always been fascinated by dolls. Archeologists count dolls among some of the oldest known artifacts and they were integral parts of the ancient Egyptian, Greek and Roman societies. Many cultures assumed that these miniature doppelgangers were infused with magical properties and they were sometimes used during religious rituals. Others utilized them as training tools to teach children about their future roles in the adult world. Still others created intricate replicas of important cultural or political figures that served as collectors’ items.
Today we have integrated dolls and other human simulacra like robots and virtual avatars into nearly every aspect of our lives. Yet, there is still something irresistibly eerie about an old-fashioned toy doll. They populate our popular horror movie franchises and regularly appear in our haunted houses. Why do dolls creep us out so much? Francis T. McAndrew of Knox College writes that, when we feel the hairs on the back of our neck rising up, it is because we are experiencing
anxiety aroused by the ambiguity of whether there is something to fear or not and/or by the ambiguity of the precise nature of the threat (e.g., sexual, physical violence, contamination, etc.) that might be present. Such uncertainty results in a paralysis as to how one should respond…. It maybe that it is only when we are confronted with uncertainty about threat that we get “creeped out,” which could be adaptive if it facilitates our ability to maintain vigilance during periods of uncertainty.
If you are walking down a dark city street and hear the sound of something moving in the dark alley to your right, you will respond with a heightened level of arousal and sharply focused attention and behave as if there is a willful “agent” present who is about to do you harm. If it turns out that it is just the wind or a stray cat, you have lost little by over-reacting, but if you fail to activate the alarm response when there is in fact a threat present, the cost of your miscalculation may be quite high. Thus, humans have evolved to err on the side of detecting threats in such ambiguous situations.
In other words, we find dolls creepy because they trick our primitive brain into questioning whether or not they actually have agency. We know that they are inanimate, but they imitate living beings closely enough that we can’t quite shake the idea that they might one day decide to get up and go about errands of their own.
In robotics, this feeling is described as the “uncanny valley effect,” which describes the way that the empathy that human beings feel towards humanoid robots craters just as they reach the threshold of realism. This is why we find ourselves reacting positively to robots like WALL-E or the Iron Giant and negatively to the pseudo-humans in movies like The Polar Express and Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within or to this interactive creepygirl (click at your own risk).
Living Dolls: The Subculture of Doll Collecting (Judge 2013), examines the lives of several collectors who have set up shop down in the uncanny valley and are now living there amongst their playthings. Take Debbie, who responded to her own husband’s obsession with videogame avatars (themselves doll-like object that we use to fulfill our own fantasies and to experiment with different aspects of our personalities) by creating her own family of expensive Ellowynne dolls to keep her company. Or Mike, a gay man who became obsessed with Barbies as a way to explore his sexuality before he felt ready to come out to his family and friends. These folks do not so much “play dress up” with their dolls as use them to try on different roles for themselves. They live through their dolls in addition to living alongside them, imbuing them with the agency that they feel unable to claim for themselves.
Real Doll aficionado David, on the other hand, uses dolls to fulfill a different kind of fantasy: one in which he can become a more idealized, more masculine version of himself using his dolls as props. Fucking his dolls, he tells the camera, makes him feel young. One gets the sense that this feeling of virility comes from the artificial sense of power that one can derive by dominating an object that looks like it might have a will of its own, even if it actually doesn’t. In order to become a “real man,” he subjugates an unreal woman. As a friend told me while we watched him romancing his possessions, “In this post-Weinstein era, I guess that it could be much worse.”
RoboMike, on the other hand, plays God by granting his dolls some autonomy of their own. A former visual effects artist, Mike creates short films using stop-motion animation to explore what it might mean for a robot or a doll to have a sexual fantasy (as opposed to the ones that we manufacture for them for our own ends). Although his films are pornographic, they do not come across as particularly titillating. They are more like a Natural Geographic film exploring the mating and procreating habits of a fantastical new species, one that cares little for what gratification we might wish to extract from them.
The human beings in Living Dolls are each a bit uncanny themselves, in their own way. But they invite us to think about how we interact with our own totems, whatever they may be, and to re-think the way that we define agency in ourselves and in other beings.
Megan Condis is an Assistant Professor of English at Stephen F. Austin State University. Her book project, Gaming Masculinity: Trolls, Fake Geeks, and the Gendered Battle for Online Culture, will be released May 1, 2018, by the University of Iowa Press.