Dolls are great companions for tea parties, sleepovers, adventures, and more. But for many people, they’re also creepy toys that watch you sleep and popular vessels for demonic possession. Basically, they’re homicidal effigies made of stuffing or porcelain. Unsurprisingly, from Talky Tina of The Twilight Zone fame to Fats from Magic, and the Clown from Poltergeistto Chucky in Child’s Play and Annabelle in The Conjuring Universe, dolls have long been go-to monsters in paranormal pop culture.
But millennia before Talky Tina told Telly Savalas “I don’t think I like you,” dolls have existed, going back to Ancient Egypt and Rome. Present in nearly every culture, they were placed as servants in a pharaoh’s tomb, were said to aid in fertility, teach a child how to parent, or be a listener to tell all your worries to. They could as much be items of art or religious signifcance as a child’s plaything.
Why, then, are they so damn scary? It turns out there is a scientific reason… and a paranormal one.
Dr. Margee Kerr, a sociologist who specializes in fear, says that while our childhood experiences with dolls may have been a source of joy, comfort, or even safety, seeing dolls out of context can freak us out as an “ultimate betrayal of innocence.”
“Fear can be understood as a measure of the distance between what we expect and what we experience, and if a doll is too lifelike, and our brain can’t figure out if it’s a human or toy, that can generate a powerful sense of unease,” Kerr says. “This dissonance turns to fear as the doll moves further away from what we expect—the object that brought joy and comfort—now trying to kill us.”
Beyond the psychological explanation, there is also a supernatural connection with dolls. According to author and paranormal researcher Rosemary Ellen Guiley, dolls have historically served as links to the spirit world and afterlife, and as conduits of magic.
“Throughout history, dolls have been made to attract and house spirits that can be summoned forth in a ritual,” Guiley tells us.
She adds they top the list of things most likely to have residual haunting attachments (which is supposed to be a ghostly energy imprint that plays over and over like a scratched record). Guiley notes many reasons for this, including the “sheer proliferation” of dolls throughout the ages, and the simple fact that most people have likely owned one at some point.
“Another reason is that dolls replicate people,” Guiley says. “Dolls, even funny dolls, are representative of human beings; in a child’s play, they substitute for a living person and even take on a persona of their own.”
As a result, Guiley said people invest a lot of emotional energy in dolls, even if they are adult collectors. So thus suggests that because dolls replicate people and are believed to have energetic links to the living, they can be used in “sympathetic magic.”
“What is done to the doll is done to the person” says Guiley.
If you’re not creeped out yet, also consider the Guiley’s point that the more objects are handled, the more they can absorb psychic and emotional energy from people, and that energy builds up enough to create a haunting residue—which can be experienced by others after the doll has passed to new owners.
“Spirits that lodge in dolls may not be deliberately attached; spirits who are attracted to the living can, in certain cases, latch on to possessions a person has,” says Guiley. “Dolls are the most likely candidates … people who acquire haunted dolls often find the poltergeist phenomena around them unpleasant and unsettling, such as disembodied voices, dolls that seem to change position or location on their own, and outbreaks of other phenomena in a household.”
So if you’re now ready to sleep with the lights on—while keeping your eyes locked on that antique porcelain doll on the shelf (has its head always been slightly turned like that?)—read ahead for the scariest real-life dolls that allegedly bring evil to playtime.
When The Conjuring introduced Annabelle to mainstream audiences in 2013, it was in the visage of an antique porcelain doll with a pallor and ruby red, mischievous smile that was the focus of Ed and Lorraine Warren’s most recent case file.
The actual Annabelle is far more mundane, and looks like a Raggedy Ann doll about the size of a four-year-old child—and attached to an inhuman entity. Before she made her big screen debut in James Wan’s movie, Annabelle was introduced in Gerald Brittle’s 1980 book The Demonologist: The Extraordinary Career of Ed and Lorraine Warren.
The Warrens account of Annabelle has it that in 1970, a mother purchased the Raggedy Ann doll from a hobby store as a birthday gift to her adult daughter Donna Jennings. Jennings, a nurse, lived with fellow nurse Angie Stapleton; Stapleton’s fiancée, Lou Carlo, was also a frequent visitor to their modern apartment.
The Warrens were allegedly called into the case by Episcopal clergy because the doll had begun to move around the girls’ home. At first, Jennings said the doll’s position would change while she was away at work, or would appear to be standing or kneeling on its own. Stapleton said the doll would change rooms while they were gone, and then handwritten notes in parchment began to appear—with writing that looked like a child’s—saying “Help Us” or “Help Lou” (the trio told the paranormal investigators they didn’t own a pencil, and didn’t have parchment around). One night they discovered blood on the doll’s hand and chest. And even, weirdly, a piece of chocolate seemed to appear.
The name Annabelle Higgins was introduced by a medium the nurses consulted. The medium claimed Annabelle was the spirit of a seven-year-old girl who had lived in happier times when the apartments were still fields. The girl only wanted love, said the medium, and requested permission to stay with the women, and to enter the doll—which they granted, much to Ed Warren’s dismay.
Activity increased over the course of a year, culminating with Lou having a dream about the doll floating over him, hands on his neck, strangling him. On another occasion, he heard sounds in Donna’s room and went to investigate, encountering the doll on the floor while something attacked him from behind, leaving seven bloody claw marks (which they said was a symbolic mark of the beast).
The Warrens said they determined an inhuman spirit was manipulating the doll (as opposed to possessing it), and the recognition it received from the roommates empowered it as it looked for a human host. Enlisting Father Cooke of the Episcopal Church, the apartment was exorcised, and the Warrens ended up with the doll.
The celebrity ghost hunters said they believed a “vicious hatred” tried to run them off the road as they transported the doll home. Despite building a special case to contain Annabelle at their Occult Museum, they claimed a Catholic priest’s life was endangered and a young man killed on his motorcycle shortly after they challenged the doll. Also, the doll supposedly arrived at the museum with a spectral black cat that would stalk Ed’s office and dematerialize by the doll’s side.
Currently the Warren’s Occult Museum is closed after Lorraine recently passed away. As with each of these dolls, the story should be treated with healthy skepticism considering the lack of corroboration. However, Annabelle is the most famous allegedly real haunted doll.
Robert the Doll
Before Annabelle made her big screen debut in The Conjuring, Robert was the most famous doll out there. The doll looks almost more simian than human, with black beady eyes, tiny distressed cuts on his face, a peculiar grin, and wearing a little sailor outfit likely originally worn by his owner, Robert Eugene Otto of Key West, Florida.
Robert the Doll’s story goes back to 1904 when the real Robert, a boy who went by Gene, acquired it from his grandfather, who’d recently returned from a trip to Germany. Manufactured by the Steiff Company, which made the first Teddy bear, the wood-wool-stuffed life-sized doll was possibly intended as more of a display mannequin (though some say a maid to the Otto family gave Gene the doll, imbued with voodoo magic).
Robert was a constant companion for Gene, and it was accused by the boy of various misdeeds and mysterious movements by the boy. Toys might be mutilated, furniture overturned, and eerie giggles might be heard throughout the Otto home—and Gene always placed the blame on Robert.
As he grew older, Gene became an artist, and his inherited home was known as the Artist House. There Robert would be perched in a window on the second floor turret room, where people claimed he may change position. After Gene died in 1974, Myrtle Reuter purchased the home, and Robert came with it. She said the doll would move on its own, giggle, and change expression should anyone disparage Gene.
In 1994, Reuter donated the doll to the Fort East Martello Museum, the gallery of which was designed by Gene. Even before Robert became an attraction, he began attracting visitors who had heard of him.
Kept in a glass display case, Robert “lives” at the museum still where people claim to be cursed by him should they insult him or take his photo without asking for permission. The doll is also credited for interfering with electronic devices. The doll is thus a bit of a celebrity, receiving about three letters a day that range from apologies for bad behavior toward him to letters asking for advice. Robert is said to be a fan of sweets as well, and some people send candy. Interestingly, Robert the Doll sits with his own doll: A dog with a gaping mouth that resembles the “This is Fine” meme.
Whether Robert is cursed with voodoo, or somehow inhabits the energies of his former owner, and lifelong friend—or even if he’s just an old doll with a creepy story—you can find out for yourself by visiting him at the Fort East Martello Museum. Just err on the side of caution, and be polite to him.
Ruby the Haunted Doll
Dana and Greg Newkirk’s Traveling Museum of the Paranormal and Occult have an extensive collection of supposedly haunted (and definitely creepy) objects worth seeing. Among them is Ruby the Haunted Doll, a porcelain, paint, and fabric doll from the early 1900s that originated in Southern Ontario.
According to the museum’s description, Ruby spent decades in attics and basements as she was passed along by people who wanted nothing to do with her. The Newkirks report that previous owners came to believe she is still the possession of a young girl who died while holding the doll.
Like the other dolls listed here, Ruby is said to be able to move on her own. But what makes her especially interesting is the feeling of sadness or nausea that overcomes anyone who holds her.
The Paramuseum’s Ruby exhibit is not necessarily threatening or “evil,” as associated with other dolls on this list. But if you do get to check out the traveling museum (and you most certainly should), you can say hello to Ruby before hanging out with famous “Idol of Nightmares,” Billy.
As far as haunted dolls go, Peggy looks fairly mundane with blue eyes and blonde bob. But she might make you sick. Something of an internet sensation, Peggy was owned by British investigator Jayne Harris of Haunted Dolls, and has been reported to cause nausea, dizziness, headaches, and perhaps even heart attacks in those that simply see her photo. Those that encounter her in person might even go mad.
Harris came into possession of Peggy courtesy the previous owners who said the doll was causing bad dreams. And mediums who have visited the doll have claimed she is inhabited by a spirit persecuted in life, possibly with ties to the Holocaust. Harris and her team came to believe Peggy’s spirit is a woman from 1946 London who died of an illness that ailed her chest. The woman also apparently hated clowns (which is ironic for a ghost inhabiting a doll).
Apparently in order to avoid having too much information out there about her, Peggy also made Harris’ notebook go missing following a séance.
Most recently, Peggy was acquired by Zak Bagans of Ghost Adventures, who is displaying the doll at his Haunted Museum in Las Vegas. Bagans said Peggy has affected him more than Robert the Doll, claiming a typewriter began typing on its own during a séance with Peggy. He added that, since taking over ownership, Peggy has manifested flies and poltergeist activity. To view it at his museum, he requires visitors to sign a waiver (which is either a great safety measure, or brilliant publicity stunt).
Whether or not it is factually correct, Harold the Doll has the reputation for being the first of many haunted dolls to be sold on eBay in 2003. His auction earned him media attention, and later, an appearance on Ghost Adventures (Zak Bagans hates dolls, but it’s also good television to feature allegedly haunted dolls on a ghost show).
The initial story behind the badly worn doll is that he belonged to the young son of a Florida man who had passed away in the 1940s. When the son died, the man and his wife reported hearing crying and singing from the boy’s bedroom. A priest advised him to burn the doll, but it wouldn’t burn, so the man kept it in his shed for about 60 years—allegedly. And then the original eBay seller put “Haunted Harold” up for sale, after blaming the doll for his cat dying and losing his girlfriend to the pool man two days after buying it off the man.
After being purchased for $300, Harold was passed along from one owner to the next, and some believed he caused misfortune everywhere he went. Noises were heard, and occasionally it would seem Harold’s expression had shifted to a smile. According to the Ghost Adventures episode, a friend of one of the owners developed a brain tumor shortly after visiting Harold.
Anthony Quinata purchased the doll in 2004 and said there were souls imprisoned in, and by, the doll. He chronicled attacks by Harold on him, and others, in a book about his time with the doll.
The story of Letta is one of those that, if only portions of it are true, it’s damn creepy. Owner Kerry Walton said he discovered the doll in the 1970s under the floorboards of an abandoned house he was scavenging in Wagga Wagga, New South Wales, Australia. Wooden and with glass eyes, the doll was put in his trunk. Walton then proceeded to drive home—until, that is, he heard movement and a howl of “Letta me out.” Hence the name Letta was born.
Upon bringing Letta home, Walton said his children were terrified of it and said they heard it talking to itself and moving on its own. Also dogs apparently acted aggressively toward it. Those who encountered Letta may have vivid nightmares, or feel nauseous. Plus, Walton suggested Letta walks around at night.
When he had it examined, Walton claimed Letta dated back 200 years, made with real human hair by Eastern European gypsies. And it was supposedly haunted by a restless spirit of a drowned boy. Unsurprisingly, Letta made the television rounds and became a famously haunted doll, and Walton has vowed not to get rid of it, despite the inky cloud of dread and anxiousness hanging around it. Then again, he does travel with the doll, and charges for photographs with it.
Written by Aaron Sagers