There’s a reason why adults are more afraid of dolls than children.
If the sight of your grandmother’s old china dolls gives you goose bumps, you aren’t alone. While very little research has been conducted about the fear of dolls, all you have to do is look at the abundance of popular movies and television shows featuring the (often murderous) children’s toys to realize that a lot of people shudder at the sight of them.
Halloween is just around the corner, and you are pretty much guaranteed to see at least one creepy doll costume. But why exactly are dolls so scary to some people? We spoke to a psychologist to find out.
Why do so many people have a fear of dolls?
It’s important to note that most youngsters aren’t actually afraid of dolls, explains clinical psychologist Kate Wolitzky-Taylor, PhD, a faculty member in the department of psychiatry and biobehavioral sciences at UCLA. “People aren’t born being afraid of dolls,” she explains. “In fact, many kids like them.”
Instead, the fear you feel is conditioned over the years, likely by all of the evil dolls you see in pop culture. Anyone who has seen one of the many Puppet Master, Annabelle, or Chucky movies, viewed one of their posters, or even just heard the chilling music accompanying their trailers might be able to understand how this could happen.
But why do you fear dolls that aren’t in movies?
You begin to associate the fear you absorb from specific fear-inducing situations with other dolls, even those that are seemingly innocent. “This consistent pairing of dolls with other creepy, scary stimuli may lead to experiencing fear or nervousness when confronted with a doll or an image of a doll,” says Wolizky-Taylor. “Learning is a big factor, whether it’s direct learning experiences, or vicarious learning through others.”
While few people have studied the specific fear of dolls, there has been research conducted on what gives us the heebie jeebies in general. In 1970, Japanese roboticist Masahiro Mori coined the term “uncanny valley” to describe the discomfort that arises in people when they see robots that are very similar to, but not quite human.
At first, people respond well to robots even as they become more realistic, but at a certain point that changes. It usually happens when the robots are very close to being life-like, but then do something that is out of human character. That’s when you start to find them unnerving and possibly creepy. Basically, while we are attracted to just how similar they are to humans, we are also a bit afraid because they are different.
In one international study, researchers surveyed more than 1,000 people about general “creepiness” and concluded that ambiguity—when something is open to more than one interpretation—is a big factor in what triggers those feelings of fear. For instance, you see a doll (or even a clown, also feared by many) in a scary movie, and it understandably provokes fear. But when something or someone may not be dangerous at all—say, a doll on a shelf—it may still seem unpredictable to you, and therefore, totally creepy.
What is the extreme fear of dolls called?
Some people are so afraid of dolls, they cross over into phobia territory—but that’s very uncommon. Pediophobia, the fear of dolls, doesn’t really conform to typical types of phobia, such as those involving animals, natural environment, infections, or injuries, according to Wolizky-Taylor. In fact, she has never come across it in her practice or years of clinical research.
To meet the criteria of pediophobia, an individual would have to be debilitated by a persistent, excessive, and unreasonable fear or avoidance of dolls to the extent of causing significant distress or impairment to live their day-to-day life. Being simply creeped out by them doesn’t make the cut.
If you are genuinely scared by dolls and think you may suffer from pediophobia, Wolizky-Taylor explains that it is highly treatable, along with any other specific phobias. A treatment plan would likely involve exposure, “which is gradual confrontation with feared stimuli,” she says. In this case, it would mean slowly coming face-to-face with dolls. Someone might start by being in the same room as a doll, and eventually work up to holding a variety of different dolls of varying creepiness in their hands.
But if dolls just leave you feeling a little bit squeamish and uneasy? You might want to just say no when one of your pals suggests binge-watching Chucky movies.