In many horror films, toys such as dolls, teddy bears, and puzzle boxes are used as objects which the spirits/ghosts use to scare people. Some examples would be Annabelle, the crooked man musical box from The Conjuring 2, Billy, Chucky, Jigsaw... Why are they used when there could be scarier objects like knives, guns, etc.?

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    Related: Why do many horror movies involve children?
    – Napoleon Wilson
    Aug 30, 2016 at 8:00
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    Its the juxtaposition between the mundane and the terrifying that causes a cognitive dissonance, leading to an underlying feeling of unease.
    – SeanR
    Aug 30, 2016 at 10:12
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    The knife is safely tucked away in the kitchen drawer. The doll is sitting there, in your room or even your bed, watching you sleep.
    – user25696
    Aug 30, 2016 at 13:47
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    Some kid had a creepy doll once, became a horror director/producer/writer/propmaster. Thought, "I'll put a creepy doll in my movie." Young kid sees the movie, gets creeped out, begins think dolls are scary. That kid becomes a horror director/producer/writer/propmaster, puts a creepy doll in his movie. Another young kid sees the movie..OH MY GOD IT NEVER ENDS!
    – n_b
    Aug 30, 2016 at 14:57
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    I'd blame it on the Uncanny Valley. Dolls are almost human-like but not quite. That explains at least one. From Wikipedia: Uncanny valley -- In aesthetics the uncanny valley is the hypothesis that human replicas that appear almost but not exactly like real human beings elicits feelings of eeriness and revulsion among some observers. Valley denotes a dip in the human observer's affinity for the replica, a relation that otherwise increases with the replica's human likeness. Examples can be found in robotics and 3D computer animation among others. Aug 30, 2016 at 16:31

4 Answers 4


This great source provides some answers given by people related to horror genre (filmmakers, writers and experts).

Below are some quotes from their answers to the question Why are dolls and clowns, similar tropes that are often depicted as children or children's companions, similiarly creepy?:

Dolls are frozen in time—human, but not human. There's no life inside. There's a "dead" quality to dolls that can be creepy since their eyes are open, and they are often smiling and lifelike. It's the ultimate dichotomy that brings to mind a child's corpse.

Dolls can be creepy, because we expect them to be our playmates, bodyguards, and best friends when we are young and vulnerable. We also control their actions completely. So, for them to get up and run around the house on their own, or try to strangle us, that leaves us powerless and terrified.

It goes back to the imagination of a child, which is so very vast—because, again, a firm grasp on reality is not yet established. If a child plays with a doll or a clown as if it were real, then it's an easy gateway to bringing it to life. We were all once children and have the memories of struggling with fantasy and reality. I think it's probably often used within these films, because many can identify with that feeling.

As filmmakers, it's our job to reverse the expectation of the audience—whether that means to shock, delight, or a combination of the two. We all had one toy as a kid that we reflect back on and now appears monumentally unsettling. Plenty of filmmakers take that anxiety and amplify it with a big "what if" scenario.

This is specific to anthropomorphic toys, like dolls and teddy bears. However, all toys are inseparably related to children and children are also a common theme in horror. We generally think of our smaller versions as pure and innocent and we project the same feelings on the toys. Weapons or similar objects are generally perceived negatively. If you deal with an evil toy instead it simply adds an additional shock value.

In the modern world, nothing is more revered than children, as they are the embodiment of innocence. And for that innate innocence to be contaminated by something evil or corrupt or dangerous is inherently mysterious and disturbing.

I think at its core, horror is about the unpredictability and vulnerability of life; the knowledge that, as safe and serene as things may seem, and as much as we strive to create a bubble of safety and continuity for ourselves, around any corner and at any future moment may come death, pain, loss, psychological trauma, or another form of terror. Depictions of evil or otherwise unsettled children play into this so well, as we often view them as human life at its most "innocent" and "uncorrupted"; to see them as an agent of evil is to know that nothing and no one in life can be completely trusted. Along the same lines, children are also seen as human life at its most "cute," and so a dangerous child pushes some of the same buttons in a horror movie as would an evil dog, gremlin, robot, alien, or other exaggerated "cute" form that transforms into something dangerous.

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    A horror version of the Toy Story. Now that would be EPIC! Aug 30, 2016 at 10:08
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    @KharoBangdo: I believe there was an element of that in Sid's house.
    – Stephan B
    Aug 30, 2016 at 11:50
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    I am glad they never used killer rabbits in a movie. Oh wait.
    – Pete B.
    Aug 30, 2016 at 14:00
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    That first quote briefly touched on it, but the unblinking eyes play a HUGE factor in why dolls are considered creepy. Even when we're awake - even staring at something - it is natural for real humans to blink regularly. So the staring-without-blinking quality that many dolls have makes them feel rather unnatural to begin with - and then add to that the fact that this quality also gives them the appearance of constantly watching/staring at you? Pretty creepy!
    – ghostdog
    Aug 30, 2016 at 16:25
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    This is so good that I don't want to post a "competing" answer, but I did want to bring up the Uncanny Valley. Human minds get very disconcerted with objects which appear to be almost-but-not-quite human. The uncanny valley for inanimate objects happens to be right smack on top of the almost-but-not-quite-human of a fresh corpse. When the thing moves, the uncanny valley shifts further from almost-human. Zombies actually hit square in it when they're moving. I think this accounts for why horror movie dolls opening their eyes gets so freaky so quickly.
    – Cort Ammon
    Aug 31, 2016 at 0:18

I think the reason why is because they portray innocence. It is easier for nobody to suspect anything and therefore fear related things are hidden in them. Nobody would willingly hold a knife or gun. I have heard also that spirits need to dwell in bodies so since they can't dwell in knives or guns being objects of violence they go through cunning means like teddy bears, dolls etc. After all, who doesn't love them? Children especially.

  1. enhanced contrast - seemingly innocent actually dangerous. The same work with "demonic possessed children"

  2. I suspect it also plays with a certain amount of guilt one feels when, stepping into teenage year, abandons their old toys.


Because of our associations.

We often associate bears, dolls, etc. with something cute - So when these things comes to our mind, we feel good.

Now, if you put these elements in a horror movie with all the scary elements, chances are that the audience will "override" the cuteness they see in these objects with horror, they will leave the movie with emotions changed towards horror instead of joy - which is exactly the purpose of these kinds of movies.

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