Dolls have been with us for a very long time. Ancient Egyptian, Greek and Roman tombs contained children’s dolls. Americans, Europeans and peoples from Africa and Asia have all indulged in a doll culture at one point or another. Despite the widespread popularity of dolls, these miniaturized approximations of the human form are also famed for giving us the heebie jeebies.
Let’s face it. Dolls can be damn creepy. Just ask Chucky, Billy from the “Saw” films or a dozen other unnerving, killer cinematic dolls. Regardless of this fact, many of us tend to ignore the unease these molded toys invoke, and so we produce and play with them on a massive scale.
The eerie quality dolls manifest in the human heart is wonderfully exemplified by Nagoro, an isolated Japanese village on Shikoku, the smallest and least-densely populated island among Japan’s four main islands.
More than a decade ago, Ayano Tsukimi returned to the village of her youth and found it practically deserted. Most of the residents had left for larger urban centers in search of work. Tsukimi took it upon herself to repopulate her town. She began creating giant dolls to represent the villagers who had left. Her new, not-quite-alive friends now dominate Nagoro. She placed her dolls in positions once occupied by flesh and blood human beings, including school children and teachers, folks working in the field, taking part in ceremonies or simply chilling out.
German filmmaker Fritz Schumann decided to tell Tsukimi’s story in the documentary film “The Valley of Dolls.”
With 350 dolls, and less than 40 living residents, Nagoro is definitely not a prime holiday choice for anyone suffering from automatonophobia (the fear of humanoid figures), or pediophobia (the fear of dolls). If you get a phone call one day, and the caller suddenly hangs up, that just might be one of the dolls warning you to stay away.
Freud believed the fear of dolls stemmed from the wild imagination of children picturing dolls coming to life. The German psychiatrist Ernst Jentsch expanded on this notion and described the “uncanny feeling” that rattles our nerves when we can’t discern if something is alive or not.
Masahiro Mori, a well-known Japanese roboticist, took these ideas even further. He published a hypothesis detailing the “uncanny valley.” As human-like figures (robots) approach human form, a point comes where our empathic response turns to disgust. This creepy “valley” can only be overcome when the figure in question becomes more lifelike and sheds that last, almost lifelike residue.
If you don’t suffer from pediophobia, or else you’re just a glutton for punishment, you can head to Nagoro and get your fill of dolls — or perhaps make a trip to Mexico.
The Island of the Dolls (Isla de las Munecas), located among a network of canals near Mexico City, is crawling with spine-chilling dolls. Well, hopefully theses Mexican dolls don’t actually crawl about. A man named Don Julian began hanging dolls all over the island in order to placate the soul of a girl who had drowned nearby. While his intentions might have come from a good place, the result is an island now governed over by dolls — and various doll body parts.
If you ever do venture to the Island of the Dolls, or perhaps Nagoro, your mental health will most likely determine how you react to the dolls you encounter. Are they just lifeless sculptures you pass by during the day and comment on as a curiosity — or do they come to life at night, walk around, and whisper your name?
Carl Pettit is a contributing journalist for TheBlot Magazine.