Dolls Aren’t Just For Children

The Doll Collection edited by Ellen Datlow
Written by Ellen Datlow

Dolls, perhaps more than any other object, demonstrate just how thin the line between love and fear, comfort and horror, can be. They are objects of love and sources of reassurance for children, coveted prizes for collectors, sources of terror and horror in numerous movies, television shows, books, and stories. Dolls fire our collective imagination, for better and—too often, for worse. From life-size dolls the same height as the little girls who carry them, to dolls whose long hair can “grow” even longer, to Barbie and her fashionable sisters, dolls do double duty as child’s play and the focus of adult art and adult fear.

—The Doll Collection, Introduction

I’m a doll lover. I admit it. I collect whole dolls and parts of dolls: heads and arms and legs Datlow_VoodooDolland torsos. Voodoo dolls (I used to go down to New Orleans every few years and each time would discover different styles); three-faced dolls, the kind whose faces change from sleeping to smiling to crying with a twist of a little gadget at the top of the head; kewpie dolls, the adorable creatures invented by Rose O’Neill; Japanese kokeshi dolls, made of wood with painted faces and bodies. A changeable Little Red Riding Hood/wolf/grandma doll given to me by a friend. A two headed Chernobyl kitty made for me by that same person, inspired by my account of the tour I took to the infamous nuclear accident site in Ukraine, and given to me by my class, the summer I taught Clarion West. The next time I taught, several years later, my students each made me a doll on a stick modeled after themselves. My love of dolls is no secret. Anyone who enters my apartment can witness that interest.

Why do I collect weird dolls? No idea. I’ve recently found photographs of me as a young child with a doll I was given by my grandparents. She’s pretty normal. I remember owning a knock off of the popular “Ginny” doll of the 1950s. Again, nothing weird about her. My mom wouldn’t buy me or my sister Barbie dolls—she thought they were too mature for kids, but also they and their clothing were expensive.

So I never owned a Barbie doll—until an enterprising friend created a three-faced Barbie Datlow_VampireBarbiefor me: Piranha Barbie (with a mouth made of a wicked-looking sea shell), Vampire Barbie (a couple of very pointy canine teeth) , and the dog-faced girl (not adapted from a Barbie, but instead a baby doll). I’ve also been privileged to visit Japan’s largest private collection of Barbie Dolls, owned by a Tokyo businessman.

I personally am not creeped-out by most dolls (except perhaps the very disturbing, lifelike dolls created by Japanese artist Katan Amano), but I know many people who are. Why might that be? Dolls often reside in “the uncanny valley” a phrase that refers to a theory developed by robotics professor Masahiro Mori in 1970: it posits that objects with features that are human-like, that look and move almost, but not quite, like actual human beings, elicit visceral feelings of revulsion in many people. The “valley” in question refers to the change in our comfort with these objects—our comfort level increases as the objects look more human, until, suddenly, they look simultaneously too human and not quite human enough, and our comfort level drops off sharply, only to rise again on the other side of the valley when something appears and moves exactly like a human being.

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5 thoughts on “Dolls Aren’t Just For Children

  1. I have one of those kid-sized Patty Playpal type dolls (short curly dark-brown hair, takes sizes 3-4 toddler clothes) who has been with me for over 50 years — I must have been VERY good that Christmas, as that was also when I got my first Barbie! More than one of my friends have told me that she seems to have a life of her own, which is not surprising, as she is so “spoiled” after so many years that she even has her own dolls.

  2. I’m SO excited to get my grimy little doll-fearing hands on this! I have a particular aversion to ventriloquist dummies, china dolls with painted faces, and ANY doll whose eyes open and close…yikes! (I even used a doll on the cover of ‘Not Like Other Girls’ …they symbolize ‘scary’ to me so much!)

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