In last week’s episode of Doctor Who, the Doctor, his companions, and various tenants in an apartment complex find themselves in a creepy dollhouse. I figured out where they were fairly early on; as a child I was particularly traumatized by an episode of Are You Afraid of the Dark? where a girl similarly finds herself in a dollhouse, turning into a doll. I imagine there’s now a new generation of children who will give Victorian dollhouses the side-eye.
Or will they? I loved dollhouses and that didn’t actually change once I looked at them by the light of day. Still, nearly any time you see a dollhouse in television, movies or even novels, they’re usually creepy as all get-out. And that got me thinking: what else is fairly benign in the real world, but routinely besmirched by fiction?
You may think dolls deserve to be lumped in with dollhouses; I disagree. Dollhouses operate like another dimension, a contained world of their own. Evil dolls, on the other hand, can come to get you at any time, and they’ve got the extra creep factor of something animated that shouldn’t be. I don’t know when the first “evil doll” story was filmed or written – the earliest one I can think of is that Twilight Zone episode with Talky Tina – but dolls nearly always look disturbing on film. In the real world, on the other hand, we wouldn’t give the majority of them a second glance – well, unless we’ve just had a viewing of Child’s Play. I can’t be the only one who witnessed a My Buddy doll being defenestrated after one of those.
In the real world, music from the past is considered annoying, or interesting at best. Early recording methods left relics that sound scratchy, tinny and weak. Most people would much rather hear a live performance of an old piece of music than an old recording. So where does that leave these little samples of history?
To the horror fans, of course! It doesn’t matter if it’s jazz, bluegrass, opera, or even early rock-n-roll; an old-timey recording sounds sinister without fail. What would the Tower of Terror or The Shining be without a clarinet warped by the passage of time? Would BioShock be half as creepy without its music?
What is it about children that we’re so easily freaked when we look at things from a slightly different angle? All it takes is a recitation of a nursery rhyme to get people anticipating the worst. Double that if it’s an actual child doing the speaking. Sure, some nursery rhymes have disturbing origins – like “Ring Around the Rosie” – and some scary movies have written their own creepy rhymes, like Nightmare on Elm Street. But let’s face it: stick a little girl in a pinafore and patent-leather Mary Janes and have her recite “Little Miss Muffet” in front of a camera, and we’re afraid to take another sip of our soda in case a sudden scare causes it to shoot out our noses (no? Just me, then).
“Oh, come on, J,” you might be saying. “Scarecrows are scary all the time!” Really? See many scarecrows, do you? The fact is, scarecrows are few and far between nowadays, and almost the only time we ever see them is in film. And almost without exception, they’re scary – in the movies. However, have you ever tried to actually make a scarecrow, say, for Halloween? It’s hard to make them as sinister as they are in your head, because in person, they’re… kind of dopey. A silhouette, from far away, with the right lighting and right music is scary. A lumpy dummy dressed in your dad’s old windbreaker? Not so much. Store-bought is no better – a few years back I wanted to do a spooky Harvest decorating theme, and the only scarecrows I could find had big goofy grins and neon clothes. And that just takes us back to the “Dolls” category – most of the time they’re not scary at all.
What about you? Can you think of anything familiar that has been made frightening by fiction? Something you haven’t been able to see the same way since?