Child’s Play and the Very Human Horror of Creepy Dolls

The 1988 film introduced an iconic villain in Chucky—just one of many living toys that have haunted cinema for decades.

A still from 'Child's Play'
A still from Child's Play (Everett Collection)

“Hi, I’m Chucky. Wanna play?” His blue eyes and adorable bibbed overalls were deceiving. Tack on the freckled cheeks and playful red hair, and it was hard to imagine this toy as the embodiment of evil. Possessed by the spirit of a fictional serial killer named Charles Lee Ray, the doll unleashed a bloodbath in the 1988 horror film Child’s Play. At the time, Roger Ebert called the movie slick and clever, noting that it “succeeded in creating a truly malevolent doll. Chucky is one mean SOB.”

I was 14 when the film came out. At the time, dolls filled every corner of my childhood bedroom. But I was never genuinely frightened of them—let alone imagined one of them attacking me with a switchblade—until I saw Child’s Play. Any scary movie can cast mundane objects in a sinister light, as The Ring did for wells and as It did for red balloons. But Tom Holland’s film turned Chucky into a chilling and iconic villain who went on to star in six more movies. Today, Child’s Play is a reminder that dolls have been a mainstay of the genre for decades, in part because of how they tap into fears about corrupted innocence and bodily possession. At their best, creepy-doll movies underscore the notion that however plasticine or artificial the conduit, the evil and horror on display is inherently human.

In the tense opening scene of Child’s Play, viewers meet Ray, a voodoo-practicing psychopath known as the Lakeshore Strangler. After a short chase, Ray is shot by cops inside a toy store and left for dead. “Oh God, I’m dying,” he cries out—one of the movie’s most quoted lines—before performing a ritual that transfers his mind and soul into a nearby doll. His desperate final moments reveal a cunning and methodical personality; Ray is a character without an ounce of morality who’s willing to project his malicious intents onto a child’s plaything. Soon after, a peddler finds the toy and sells it to a single mother named Karen (Catherine Hicks), who gives it to her young son, Andy (Alex Vincent).

It doesn’t take long for Ray’s twisted spirit to emerge. Chucky befriends Andy, encouraging the boy to do things like skip school and repeat foul language. But these acts are mild compared to the doll’s ultimate goal: continuing Ray’s murder spree. Ray’s physical form may be removed from the equation, but his traits—his deep voice, maniacal laugh, and nasty humor—live on in Chucky. When I first watched Child’s Play, there were moments when I’d forget Chucky was a doll. I ricocheted between seeing Ray in every swing of Chucky’s blade and seeing Chucky as a toy that was simply much too human.

Dolls like Chucky often meet the Freudian description of the uncanny, or a quality where something that was once familiar has become strange. “The more lifelike a doll, the more likely it is to be unsettling to people,” said Frank McAndrew, a professor of psychology at Knox College who has written extensively on the science of phobias and creepiness. He refers to this concept as the “uncanny valley,” or the bizarre middle ground between “cute, but not quite human” and “fully human.”

Chucky and Andy in a scene from Child’s Play (Everett Collection)

When something falls within this narrow band—such as a doll that behaves like a person, even if it doesn’t necessarily look realistic—it can prompt feelings of revulsion rather than attraction. “The fact that mannequins, ventriloquist dummies, and creepy lifelike dolls frequently show up in horror films is no accident,” McAndrew said. Though Chucky has cartoonish features, he feels unexpectedly human, thanks to Ray’s memorable appearance in Child’s Play’s first scene.

Like with Ray, Chucky’s many violent crimes are intentional and sometimes even premeditated. The doll has a humanlike intelligence; even when he’s seemingly trapped, he manages to outwit those around him (and when he cannot outsmart his enemies, he resorts to black magic). Part of the way he exerts his control over Andy is by feigning lifelessness when adults are around, so that Chucky’s many misdeeds—turning on the TV, committing murder, causing a gas leak—are blamed on Andy. Eventually suspecting Andy has gone insane, his mother checks him into a hospital for observation, which was perhaps the most frightening consequence of Chucky’s manipulativeness for younger viewers like myself. It isn’t until halfway through the movie that Andy’s mother picks up the box that the toy arrived in. The batteries fall out; the doll’s ghastly secret is revealed.

Chucky is far from the first cinematic effort to depict dolls as creepy. One of the earliest examples of the doll-horror genre, The Great Gabbo (1929), sees an egocentric ventriloquist slowly consumed by his delusions. Eventually, his only means of expression is through his wooden dummy, Otto. Even though Gabbo himself is technically the monster—a mentally unstable narcissist who demeans his female assistant—Otto becomes the one that audiences are meant to fear. Otto’s gaping eyes and frozen smile give him a sickly look—but it’s when he appears to speak on behalf of his master that he crosses into uncanny territory.

After The Great Gabbo came Dead of Night (1945), Devil Doll (1964), Magic (1978), and a handful of other flicks that followed a similar premise: A deranged ventriloquist runs afoul of his dummy’s homicidal urges. At the heart of many of these films was a kind of sublimation, where the human characters have ugly subconscious impulses that they themselves cannot act on—because they fear punishment, guilt, or shame—but that they easily carry out through their dolls. Since the dolls are inanimate, they cannot question their master’s motives or leave. Despite this initial helplessness, many dolls become even more powerful, and more devious, than their puppeteers. By the late 1970s, the trope of the evil ventriloquist doll had become well established.

Then, Dolls hit the screen in 1987, a year before Child’s Play. Dolls features a group of stranded motorists who take refuge in a roadside mansion inhabited by an old dollmaker and his wife. Unbeknownst to the visitors, the exquisitely handcrafted creations are alive and willing to protect their creators at all costs. When night falls, the dolls attack the guests, while the older couple cackle in the shadows. Dolls essentially cut the cord between human operator and wooden dummy and gave horror-movie fans one of their first forays into independently motivated dolls—those that seemingly could move and think on their own, even when possessed. But Dolls fell short of making its rampaging toys believably threatening. In one scene, which should’ve been among the most traumatizing, a group of toy soldiers forms a brigade and shoots a woman. Yet, given their tiny size and clunky movement, the dolls feel inconsequential, a shortcoming that persists for the film’s 80 minutes.

Child’s Play succeeded where its predecessor failed, striking a nerve with mainstream audiences. It helped that viewers got to witness the exact transformation that turned Chucky evil, and the film traces his arc from a “Good Guys” brand doll meant to entertain kids to a serial-killer proxy who exploits them. “Dolls appearing in horror films have made [dolls] into a sort of horror fetish item, one that can be associated with animism [the attribution of a soul to plants, inanimate objects, and natural phenomena] and sympathetic magic, where a doll can be animated with human characteristics through magic or haunting,” Peg Aloi, a critic and media-studies scholar, told me. Chucky easily fits this description—he’s a toy imbued with a soul who, through Ray’s expertise with voodoo, can behave like a person.

Unlike the creatures in Dolls, Chucky has a singular identity. He also looks more like a human child, in size and appearance. In this way, Chucky resembles another, newer horror doll that audiences know by her first name: Annabelle, arguably the second most famous scary doll in cinema. The 2013 horror smash The Conjuring, directed by James Wan, first introduced viewers to Annabelle, a vintage porcelain doll based on a toy from the ’70s who was said to be possessed. Like Chucky, Annabelle was designed with exaggerated childish features: rosy cheeks; big, colorful eyes; pigtails; and charming clothing. But neither is presented as cute.

A scene from 2014’s Annabelle (Warner Bros. / Everett Collection)

The iconic first scene of The Conjuring in some ways recalls the opening sequence of Child’s Play, establishing a visceral fear of its doll from the start. The newer film begins with a black screen and people talking in the background. At first, it’s hard to make out what they’re saying. Then, a close-up of a doll’s eye appears on the screen. There’s a wound on Annabelle’s stained cheek, her pupil is split, and the paint on her lips is smeared. Even before Annabelle’s whole face has come into view, she’s a disturbing sight: Her doll-like features bear the marks of real-world harm. The demon toy played a relatively small part in the movie but made enough of an impression to get her own spinoff, Annabelle (2014), and a prequel, Annabelle: Creation (2017).

Both Annabelle and Chucky are good examples of how scary dolls draw power from their symbolic association with youth. “I think dolls are synonymous with childhood innocence, and now, as adults, seeing them come to life in mischievous and murderous ways is terrifying,” said Al Lougher, the director of the indie psychological thriller The Dollmaker. The short film follows a couple grieving the loss of their young son. They turn to a dollmaker who creates crude imitations of deceased loved ones, but the reconstruction he makes of their child only torments the parents further. In this case, the doll lulls the parents into a dreamlike state where they begin to see the toy as their actual, living child. Though the doll isn’t possessed, it acts as both an emotional bandage for the couple and as a mirror for their pain. As Jud from Stephen King’s Pet Sematary would say, “Sometimes dead is better.”

Still, some things won’t die, as is the case in the final act of Child’s Play. Chucky is repeatedly beaten, stabbed, shot, and finally burned alive by the police detective Mike Norris (Chris Sarandon). The doll’s charred remains lie on the floor. He’s dead—or so audiences think—until suddenly he jumps to his feet and runs out the door, paving the way for a sequel and a legacy.

After the original film, which was a more conventional horror work, the franchise crept toward dark humor (with Child’s Play 2 and Child’s Play 3) before veering into horror comedy (with Bride of Chucky and Seed of Chucky). This tonal shift can be seen as a sign of how delicate the line between haunting and silly can be when it comes to humanoid toys. These things, after all, aren’t inherently fear-inducing. Child’s Play set the standard for cinematic dolls as objects that are both menacing on their own terms—with their vacant grins and distorted features—and also as reflections of a darkness that’s much more human than many viewers will want to believe.