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The Uncanny; or, Why We Fear Toys

As a little girl, an older and wiser neighbour – a worldly preteen to my naïveprimary-school child – promised me that at night, once I had fallen asleep, my toys would come to life and have secret, thrilling adventures in my absence. I can’t help but imagine that this elder child, more attuned to the ways of the world, was simply trying to inject some wonder into my prosaic existence. However, her attempt to weave a magical tale centred on the night-time escapades of teddy bears and Barbie dolls ultimately failed as I spent each subsequent night lying wide awake, frozen in horror at the thought that my once familiar toys transformed under cover of darkness into something alien and malevolent. Once the lights went out, my childish mind was animated by horrifying visions of dolls, bears and action-figures suddenly imbued with a terrible sentience. I closed my eyes and imagined their fitful stirrings, their frozen limbs slowly acquiring motion. At night, I would dream of their placid faces and envision their stiff, rigor mortis grins melting into vicious, hungry snarls.

While these nightmares eventually faded, replaced by some other object of terror, I’m still, to this day, startled by the potency of such fears, and perhaps even more stunned by the realisation that these anxieties were not mine alone. From 1934’s Devil Doll up to the Child’s Play franchise (1988-2017) and The Conjuring (2013), there is something about animate toys thatremains fundamentally unsettling. Perhaps it is the sense of inversion surrounding these objects-cum-antagonists that casts them as nightmare creatures, their transformation from a child’s plaything, an emblem of innocence, into a thing of violence and evil. Certainly, I am not the first small child to imagine that a malignant sentience resides within my toys. There is something about the blank faces and rigid poses of dolls and figurines that renders them ghastly. They appear morbid and corpse-like, even in the most innocuous of contexts.

(video link here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1rQrQVVuDr4

One of the earliest popular texts to explore the unsettling morbidity of toys and childhood fears was the German writer E.T.A. Hoffmann’s surreal masterpiece “The Sandman” (“Der Sandmann”), published in 1816. A strange amalgamation of feverish childhood nightmares, doppelgängers and living dolls, the tale centres around the fear-ridden childhood and equally anxious young adulthood of a student named Nathaniel. As a little boy, Nathaniel is hurried to bed with threats that if he does not quickly relinquish himself to slumber, he will fall foul of a nocturnal monster known as the Sandman. TheSandman “is a wicked man, who comes to children when they won’t go to bed, and throws a handful of sand into their eyes, so that they start out bleeding from their heads. He puts their eyes in a bag and carries them to the crescent moon to feed his own children, who sit in the nest up there. They have crooked beaks like owls so that they can pick up the eyes of naughty human children.”

The Sandman’s horrific owl-beaked children (by Andy Lang)

The grotesquery of this image combined with the metamorphic horror of the Sandman’s beaked, owl-like children clamouring to devour the eyeballs of naughty children creates a horror born out of the darkest fantasies of childhood terror. Nathaniel grows older and, like many of us, while he comes to realise that the far-fetched tale cannot be entirely true, a vague impression of its terror still remains. The figure of the Sandman recedes from Nathaniel’s conscious mind, but it nevertheless endures somewhere deep inside. With the insidious power unique to childhood fantasies, the Sandman takes root in Nathaniel’s subconscious, becoming an increasingly potent figure of menace after the boy’s father is killed in a strange event involving a sinister lawyer named Coppelius.

Coppelius is a repulsive man with hairy fists whose appearance horrifies Nathaniel and his siblings. While his role in the death of Nathaniel’s father is ambiguous, perhaps amounting to little more than the delirium of a child’s nightmare, Coppelius haunts Nathaniel even into adulthood, appearing in various unsettling guises that evoke memories not only of his father’s death but of the predatorySandman. At this point you may be wondering what this has to do with creepy toys and our perennial human fear of these disturbing, lifelike objects. Well, as he grows into adulthood, Nathaniel’s terror of the Sandman/Coppelius becomes closely bound up with his burgeoning love for a mysterious young woman namedOlympia. The daughter of his physics teacher, Professor Spallanzani, Olympia is kept under close watch by her father, confined to their house and alienated from society. Nathaniel is initially only able to spy on his love from a distance, and in doing so perceives how:

 “A very tall and slender lady, extremely well-proportioned and most splendidly attired, sat in the room by a little table on which she had laid her arms, her hands being folded together. She sat opposite the door, so that I could see the whole of her angelic countenance. She did not appear to see me, and indeed there was something fixed about her eyes as if, I might almost say, she had no power of sight. It seemed to me that she was sleeping with her eyes open. I felt very uncomfortable, and therefore I slunk away into the lecture-room close at hand.”

Although his closest friend dismisses Olympia as a wax-faced “wooden doll,” Nathaniel’s love for Olympia continues to burn with a passionate intensity until he one day discovers her father, Professor Spallanzani, and a figure he imagines to be the terrible Coppelius fighting over the girl. Their quarrel grows brutal, with each man pulling Olympia towards him. As the fight becomes more violent and the struggle increasingly physical, it is revealed that Olympia is not a living, breathing woman, but an automaton, an incredibly convincing simulacrum of life:

“Nathaniel stood paralyzed; he had seen but too plainly that Olympia’s waxen, deathly-pale countenance had no eyes, but black holes instead- she was, indeed, a lifeless doll. “

Moira Shearer as Olympia in Powell and Pressburger’s 1951 film adaptation The Tales of Hoffmann

This story is important to our understanding of why toys are frightening not just because of its unsettling depiction of a man who unwittingly falls in love with a disturbingly lifelike doll and how this obsessive love becomes intertwined with the image of the monstrous Sandman, but also because this particular tale is actually the foundation for two of the twentieth century’s most comprehensive attempts to explain our fear of inanimate figures. In 1906, a psychiatrist named Ernst Jentsch published a lengthy essay entitled “On the Psychology of the Uncanny.” In this rather detailed psychological exploration of “uncanniness,” Jentsch attempts to explain an ill-defined yet deeply disturbing sensation known as the uncanny or, in Jentsch’s native German, “das Unheimliche.” Although Jentsch discounts the possibility of adequately capturing the essence of the uncanny, it is, nevertheless, a feeling we all know: a creepiness as opposed to an outright terror, a sense that something is a little bit off. You know it well; it is the moment when you glance at something and discover it is other than what it initially appeared to be. In his article, Jentsch explains that the German word unheimlich (unhomely)perfectly encapsulates this sensation: “someone to whom something ‘uncanny’happens is not quite ‘at home’ or ‘at ease.’” For Jentsch, the uncanny derives from a sense of uncertainty, particularly that which arises when one is confronted with something “new/foreign/hostile.” This seems like a logical explanation; the feeling of uncanniness derives from “something new and unknown that can often be seen as negative at first.” This theory apparently explains our tendency to fear something as ostensibly innocuous as a toy or doll because, according to Jentsch, the most powerful sensation of uncanniness is evoked by “doubt as to whether an apparently living being really is animate and, conversely, doubt as to whether a lifeless object may not in fact be animate.”

We fear toys because they so often conjure up a deep uncertainty about their existential status. Dolls, especially lifelike ones, unsettle the boundary between living and dead, animate and inanimate. Jentsch claims that this is why “The Sandman” is such a terrifying tale: the horror of the story resides in the figure of Olympia and her liminal status as a young woman who is simultaneously a mechanised doll, an object rather than a subject. Jentsch would probably say that this is also why we find Chucky, Annabelle and The Twilight Zone’s “Talky Tina” to be so frightening. They occupy an indeterminate space between human and inhuman. Consider Child’s Play’s Chucky, a legendary figure in my early-nineties childhood: the evil living doll was created using a mixture of animatronics and real actors, and, as a result, it is often difficult to determine whether Chucky is animate or inanimate. Likewise, his visual similarity to his owner, Andy, helps to reinforce this confusion about whether the doll is human or merely an object.

Just over a decade later, the father of psychoanalysis and, later still, the butt of countless dick jokes, Sigmund Fred published his own theories on spooky sensations in an essay entitled “The Uncanny.” In this 1919 analysis of the phenomenon, Freud refutes Jentsch’s theory and undermines his argument that the primary source of uncanniness within Hoffmann’s story is the automaton Olympia. In contrast to his predecessor’s theory, Freud asserts that the uncanny atmosphere of “The Sandman” derives not from the intellectual uncertainty aroused by the mechanical doll, but instead is directly associated with the Sandman and his penchant for stealing eyes. Being robbed of one’s eyes is, to Freud, the true horror of the story. Of course, being Freud, he immediately connects this fear of eye-loss to an unconscious fear of castration, claiming that by blinding himself, the mythical Oedipus Rex was actually enacting a mitigated form of self-castration. Like many contemporary readers, I am sceptical of Freud’s tendency to claim the eye as a penis substitute. However, as a theory of horror, his construction of the uncanny is a useful means of explaining the fear of toys once it is divorced from these phallic connotations and considered in terms of psychological repression as a whole.

Sometimes an eyeball is just an eyeball

Sometimes an eyeball is just an eyeballEarly in his essay, Freud explores the etymology of the German word unheimlich, noting that it appears to be the opposite of the terms “heimlich, heimisch,” meaning “familiar,” “native,” “belonging to the home.” As a result, Freud observes that we may be led to believe that the uncanny is frightening because it is alien, unfamiliar and strange. However, this would be naïve because the uncanny actually arises not from the strange or unfamiliar, but from the reappearance of something that has been repressed. Essentially, Freud says that the “uncanny is in reality nothing new or foreign, but something familiar and old-established in the mind that has been estranged only by the process of repression.” This sense that heimlich and unheimlich, rather than being opposites, are closely related actually makes sense from a linguistic point of view. In German, the two terms are synonymous, so what is at home is also something that is disturbing at the same time. Those things that excite feelings of uncanniness are those things with which we are intimately familiar, but, for some reason or other, have buried deep within our psyche and refuse to acknowledge. When they return, as such things invariably do, they bring with them an unease. The unheimlich, the unhomely, is not the opposite of the home; rather, it is the home that is known all too well, the home whose hallways and rooms are an extension of ourselves. It is the home in which we grew from children to adults, and so it is the repository of all our darks memories and childish fears. It is the home that has made itself strange by burrowing into our psyche; it is the haunted house and the memory of night-time shadows forming themselves into strange clusters by the glow of the nursery nightlight.

My synopsis of Freud is brief and somewhat simplistic. However, in his notion that the uncanny is a product of those things that are familiar but have become estranged through the process of repression, we may yet again find another explanation for why toys are so unsettling. Toys are tangible links to our childhood, a time when ghosts and monsters and other phantasmagorias were not just the stuff of fiction or superstition. To a child, horror is not a genre or a style; it is a very real part of their lived experience. When we are young, monsters are real, powerful aspects of reality. They weave themselves out of stories to lurk in closets, under beds, in the gnarled branches of trees. As we grow older, the memory of a world so infused with terror fades, but toys serve as physical reminders that this world was once as real to us as the adult world of job interviews and tax forms. When we see childhood toys again as adults, they often retain an air of creepiness because they recall distant, perhaps even repressed, memories of childhood terror. Understood in this way, Olympia in “The Sandman” is not frightening because of her uncertain, in-betweenness but because she, as a toy, reminds Nathaniel of his childhood trauma and the terrifying Sandman.

Return of childhood terror: The Poltergeist clown

Perhaps having read too much Freud and Jentsch, I am over analysing things. Maybe toys scare us simply because they so often appear almost human but not quite. Those of us who have spent enough time on the internet will be familiar with the concept of the “uncanny valley”: it’s a term frequently applied to the not-quite-human appearance of video-game characters and CGI creations. Coined by Japanese roboticist Masahiro Mori in 1970, the “uncanny valley” is the theory that a human appearance can make an artificial figure seem more familiar for viewers — but only up to a point. As Jeremy Hsu notes in Scientific American, “the sense of viewer familiarity drops sharply into the uncanny valley once the artificial figure tries but fails to mimic a realistic human.” 

Visual representation of the uncanny valley

Certain toys can definitely be seen to reside within the uncanny valley. Their faces are often close to human, but frozen and lacking in emotion. Mechanical toys move in an unnatural manner, their jerky movements appear as a perversion of human motion. In “The Sandman,” Olympia’s rigidity and wax-like face undoubtedly bring to mind the unease of the uncanny valley. She is almost a perfect simulacrum of humanity, but there is something slightly off, and this ambiguity unsettles us.

An automaton built in 1784 by the German cabinetmaker David Roentgen

Toys and dolls are ubiquitous villains in horror fiction and film. Likewise, the terror associated with these seemingly innocuous objects has been the subject of much scrutiny, with theories put forward by everyone from psychiatrists to roboticists. However, perhaps the horror with which we so often regard these childish playthings defies categorisation; perhaps it is something more instinctual, a primal unease about those things that look like us but are somehow different and Other. Perhaps there is a terror in trying to read the inscrutable expressions on their inert faces, a disconcerting sense that we are looking at a twisted version of our own reflections. In any case, the innumerable monstrous toys and dolls that populate contemporary horror provide us, as viewers and readers, with a useful fictional outlet through which to explore these fears, and while we may never understand them fully, they nevertheless create the most exquisite nightmares.

About Miranda Corcoran

Miranda Corcoran currently teaches American literature in University College Cork, Ireland. Her research interests include Cold-War literature, genre fiction, literature and psychology, and popular culture. She also enjoys researching and writing about topics related to horror, the supernatural and witchcraft.

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