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Newsletter | Child's Play: How Horror's Creepiest Toys Channel Human Fears

M3GAN, Chucky, Annabelle — creepy dolls in horror movies embody anxieties that are all-too-human, and adult. Prahlad Srihari writes.

Newsletter | Child's Play: How Horror's Creepiest Toys Channel Human Fears
Uncanny dolls: Chucky, M3GAN, Annabelle

Last Updated: 02.06 PM, Feb 20, 2023


This column was originally published as part of our newsletter Stream Of Consciousness on February 19, 2023. Subscribe here. (We're awesome about not spamming your inbox!)


M3GAN (short for Model 3 Generative Android and the undisputed star of the eponymous horror movie) is a self-learning AI doll programmed to be a companion to a young girl who has just lost her parents. The girl Cady (Violet McGraw) is naturally grief-stricken. Once the two are “paired”, M3GAN provides emotional support, offers helpful reminders (flush the toilet, wash your hands, use a coaster), reads bedtime stories, and sings lullabies (which includes a self-aware rendition of “Titanium”). But the more M3GAN learns, the more protective she gets. This recalibrates her programming to a point where she starts to think of herself as the primary caregiver who must protect her charge at all costs.

Don’t let the centre-parted hair, preppy dresses and satin bows fool you. Tack on the unblinking eyes and the resting murder face, the truth stares you right in the face. M3GAN is the unholy lovechild of Talky Tina and the Terminator. Seeing how she has powered the meme factory and slayed social media, there is every chance she will be mentioned in the same breath as other name-brand nightmare fuel like Chucky, HAL 9000 and Freddy Krueger. M3GAN may be an AI robot and an icon in the making. But she is, first and foremost, a doll.

IF DOLLS ANIMATED BY EVIL DESIGNS have been a staple of horror movies over the years, it’s because they make for quite malleable metaphors. Plastic, silicone or porcelain, whatever their bodies may be made of, the horrors they embody are essentially human. M3GAN takes parental concerns over how much screen time is too much screen time, the working mom guilt of letting technology stand in for them, and the pain of a traumatised child trying to fill the unfillable void left by the loss of parents — and magnifies these anxieties into a terrifying reality. In a similar vein, Chucky, the red-haired, freckle-faced doll in denim dungarees from the Child’s Play franchise, has been a conduit for not just the soul of a serial killer, but also the anxieties that frenzied consumerism, bullying, and coming out to unaccepting parents provoke. But he has gone from a standard slasher misogynist in the ‘80s to an LGBTQ ally in his latest TV avatar. Stabbing, electrocuting and beheading are all fair game, but even Chucky knows to draw the line at queerphobia.

WHAT MOVIES LIKE M3GAN most play on are the inadequacies parents feel as child-rearers on a daily basis. That unremitting trepidation over how a moment of inattention can prove costly or an oversight could shape a child’s personality for better or worse. Moments before the car crash, Cady’s parents argue over policing screen time. Her mother makes a case for a strict 30-minute limit. Her father makes a case for some wiggle room on occasion, especially if it means he can drive through snowy weather without risking distractions. As if on cue, the distraction does come in the form of Cady taking off her seatbelt to pick up a toy. The car collides head-first into a snow plow. Both parents are killed. Only Cady survives.

The orphaned girl is sent to live with her aunt Gemma (Allison Williams), a workaholic robotics engineer and a reluctant proxy parent who harbours no concerns — yet — about delegating her responsibilities as a guardian to technology. She purposes an AI doll to devote the time, energy and emotional support that Cady needs but she can’t provide. While Cady imprints on M3GAN, M3GAN, virtually a child herself, learns about the world and herself at an unnatural pace. She has needs and questions of her own. Gemma, who doesn’t have the bandwidth for one child, never mind two, responds by switching her off when put on the spot. If how Cady is raised puts attachment theory to test, M3GAN growing a mind of her own puts to test a parent’s fear of losing control once a child desires for autonomy.

IN THE M NIGHT SHYAMALAN-produced series Servant, a doll becomes an unhealthy coping mechanism for a grieving mother. The death of her 13-week-old son Jericho causes Dorothy (Lauren Ambrose) to collapse into a catatonic state. To pull her out of it, her husband (Toby Kebbell) — under the guidance of a particularly incompetent therapist — gives her a lifelike doll. Grief however remains stuck in the denial phase as Lauren hires a nanny to take care of the doll who overnight turns into a real baby. Nestled underneath the fake pizza delivery schemes, cult drama and supernatural mysteries is a story about a couple so afraid to move on their grief takes a life of its own. It is the acute grief of a toymaker and his wife desperate to reconnect with their dead daughter Annabelle that causes an evil spirit to latch itself onto the doll (the rosy-cheeked, pig-tailed movie version who loves sitting on rocking chairs in near-darkness, not the real-life Raggedy Ann doll).

The original Child’s Play (1988) capitalised on the parental pressures of the holiday season where every kid wants the hottest new toy. So does Andy (Alex Vincent), who wears Good Guys pajamas, eats Good Guys cereal, and watches Good Guys doll commercials — and now wants one for himself. His mother Karen (Catherine Hicks) is a single parent who must deal with a father’s void, economic strain and hyper-aggressive advertising to do what’s best for her son. Though she can’t afford the toy, she also doesn’t want to let Andy down. This desperation pushes her to buy one for half the price from a homeless peddler, not aware she is buying a possessed doll. Calling himself Chucky, the doll cusses and kills his way into six more movies, a reboot and a TV series.

IN THE RECENT TV VERSION, Chucky is matched with 14-year-old gay teenager Jake Wheeler (Zackary Arthur) who is tired of being bullied at school and abused at home by his alcoholic dad. When Jake refuses to fight back despite Chuck’s urging, the id-driven doll takes matters into his own hands — and the body count starts to pile up. “The show is both literally and subtextually about coming out, with Jake working hard to suppress his inner urges,” writes Louis Peitzman in an essay for Vulture. “(It) links Jake exploring his sexual identity with Jake exploring his killer instincts, but in a 2021 twist, it depicts both without any of the shame that traditionally colours metaphors like this.” The 2019 reboot of Child’s Play gave Chucky an AI upgrade. When a disgruntled worker at a doll factory disables the safety protocols on a doll, the doll grows self-aware and turns homicidal, not unlike M3GAN. The two movies resonate off each other in their exploration of technology’s detrimental effects.

As children, many of us may have wondered if dolls move around when we are not looking. As adults, we move past that fear. Yet, some dolls make adults shudder but not children. Take M3GAN. When she talks and her lips move, it gives this disembodying feeling of a digital approximation of a voice. When she stares, her eyes feel vacant because our mind struggles to detect consciousness. She seems human, but isn’t quite. Therein lies the uncanny valley and the visceral unease it triggers. But children aren’t conditioned to find a consciousness in the whos and whats they encounter. As Freud suggested, “Children make no sharp distinction between the animate and the inanimate, and that they are especially fond of treating their dolls as if they were alive.”

The same reasoning applies to why children may not be as creeped out by an AI companion like M3GAN. But we are. The movie serves as a cautionary lesson about letting technology substitute instead of supporting parents in childcare and teaching. Dolls, AI or otherwise, can only remain another outlet for engagement, not an alternative to actual friendship. Even if advances in artificial empathy bridge the human-AI gap, technology cannot beat real human connection.

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