Dolls, Dummies & Porcelain Gore: the
Unsinkable Allure of the Talking Dead
Most people would never admit it, but there are no two ways about it: we like Halloween because it’s creepy. We like the gore associated with it, the scary stuff, and the lure of death, breathing coldly upon our neck. Not that there’s anything wrong with it.
What’s curious in American culture, however, is that even talking about death and the departed and what happens to decaying bodies and what we’re supposed to tell our child about their deceased relatives remains taboo for the whole year, except on October 31.
We use the children’s still unguarded approach to the world as a perfect Trojan horse of an excuse for peeking into the depths of our dark corners, where fears reign supreme, and the sun never shines. And tell everyone that it’s all for their own good.
But heaven forbid if they’re to inquiry about the finality of death, or the possibility – fiercely denied by billions but ever and again confirmed by all the evidence anyone can come up with – that this is it, there’s nothing beyond the Big Sleep, and one’d better making it count while it lasts.
We entrust the wee ones with the task of facing the most terrifying recesses of our psyche, while at the same time disenfranchising them from developing a critical mind about, say, coma, or rigor mortis, embalming, or cremation, and all fun things in between. No wonder they place so much currency on material goods these days.
Whether there’s a point in this cheap thrill of vicariously exposing children to dread towards the unknown, which we all share throughout life, just so they get use to feeling frightened, is truly up to discussion.
For what we, grownups, get out of Halloween is so rewarding to that nook within us which enjoys being spooked that all damage it may inflict on tender minds seems negligible. After all, we tell ourselves, soon enough, they’ll have to handle all of that on their own.
We’d have no problem assuming whole heartedly that we love Halloween. Even as memories of spending those hot South American days of our youth at cemeteries, visiting families and friends who went before, are not our particularly favorite recollections.
We still treasure that we did the time, and remember the smells of fresh flowers and sweat, mixed with a faint scent of recently dug up graves still encrusted deep in our brains. Not quite like the Mexicans, who actually party and camp at the gravesite on the Dia de los Muertos, but still a day to honor all souls, specially the finados.
So we could now proceed to tell rehashed tales about ghosts, goblins, strange apparitions and odd Jack O’Lanterns, stories about unexplained occurrences supposedly told to trustworthy people, rumors from the friend of a friend who’s heard an eerie chime echoing somewhere, perhaps even a dead celebrity sighting or two. But we’d rather not.
As usual, we’ll divert, digress, er, depart from that general theme and find our own niche to mark the date. We’ll focus, (more)
* The Flours of Evil
* All Hallows Eve
* Hallow Ground
instead, on three icons through which we hope to convey the idea of how good it is to immerse oneself into the effluvia of the great beyond: evil dolls, grim porcelain figures, and haunting dummies. Have a good fright.
HANGING MACABRE DOLLS ON TREES
Speaking of Mexico, there’s an island where hundreds of old, mutilated dolls hang like sinister fruits from trees, and for half a century, and it’s been attracting tourists year around. The story goes that the Isla de las Muñecas, as it’s known, started when a young girl drowned in one of the canals surrounding Mexico City and a hermit began collecting dolls found floating around the island.
Even without comparing in appearance with the lure of the supposedly sentient children companions turned evil populating countless tales of horror, the Muñecas still preserve an unbeatable allure, since they’re thought to host themselves the spirit of that unfortunate little girl.
Books and movies have helped to extend such allure through contemporary times, and the concept of action figure tracks more or less closely the same script that dolls did for centuries: designed to serve as playmates for children, they also enact extensions of human qualities, some good, and some terribly sinister.
Horror pictures have been the inspiration to this second generation of creepy toys, and depending on the success, or cult following, of the movies they serve as merchandise, their sales tend to spike around this time of the year. By the way, have you already picked your own The Shining action figure yet?
THE CABINET OF DOCTOR DERANGED
Skipping right over the voodoo doll, as it’s become such a cliche of lately, along with zombies and scary clowns, let’s just say that the medical establishment also plays a part in boosting this haunting tale of the walking undead parading around, or severed limbs suddenly acquiring a like of their own.
Take the almost two-hundred year old Royal College of Surgeon’s Hunterian Museum, in London, or the now closed but already missed Morbid Anatomy Museum, in New York, for instance, both focused on providing an education on the catalog of oddities that informed the evolution of the study of human anatomy.
While the diseased New York place never reached maturity, consisting of only a library and a blog, it did spend its first Halloween aiming at becoming what the British institution, founded by John Hunter, still is: a favorite hangout for the imaginarium, gore-inclined souls who deserve nothing less.
A tour through these storied halls of science helps put in perspective what actually makes us so fixated with the natural or man-made freaks of the human body. It certainly beats a visit to your local morgue, which may be loaded with tabloid oddities but a bit short of real insight. Either way, you may want to skip lunch before you go, though.
Back to death-derived decorative art, there’re the horrifying porcelain figurines of Danish artist Maria Rubinke and Oregonian Tom LeBonty, to match the demonic portrait of Shelley’s monster, and the exquisite Transylvania landscapes adorning your living room. Or your crypt. Your friends will be impressed.
TALKING HEADS FROM HELL
But perhaps the champions of fright, who have been instilling fear at the heart of Music Hall aficionados and moviegoers alike are still dummies, those alter egos that many a ventriloquist has gone mad over, and who continue to masterly ravage the sleep of children of all ages and pretty much all nationalities.
A dying art in more ways than one, ventriloquism has had its heyday during the latter part of the 18th century, when its preternatural poise inspired books, stage, and the silver screen, along with the then emerging Psychology science. In fact, a certain Dr. Freud from Vienna is known to have dabbled a bit on the subject.
‘There’s a hypnotic quality to peering into those incredible eyes,’ says photographer Matthew Rolson of the vintage dummies he recently introduced in a portrait show. To select the few dozen presented on the show, he photographed some 700 dolls, belonging to the Vent Haven Museum, in Kentucky.
Those piercing, unblinking eyes are the stuff of nightmares, that’s for sure. But they were once the faithful, if not silent, companions of celebrated performers who’ve spent their lifetimes mastering the art of speaking flawlessly through a wooden figurine’s movable mouth.
Apart from the dark thoughts such artistry may evoke, one can only imagine the stories those mouths have told to enchanted audiences, self-mocking tales, confessional moments shared, and probably forgotten right after, with enthralled crowds whose lives were turned a bit more bearable by them.
THE EVIL THAT MEN ASSIGN
In the end, however, dolls, dummies, and clowns, as well as zombies, spirits, and ghosts, are all just what we have been making of them all along. In our desperate drive for companionship, we’re capable of anything to bridge the ever widening gap that separates us.
As deeply solitary beings, we need to build the automata, the mechanical sitter, the robot, all on our own resemblance, so we don’t feel so lonely in this vast universe and ever brief life. We need them around, and we need them docile, servile, obedient. Until they are not.
No animal will ever be so submissive, given a choice, and while some have been martyred under our rule and command, others have never accepted our dominance. We will never know whether our pets really regard us the way we require from the androids we make.
Deep down, our fear that these monsters may one day awake and rebel against us, just like they already do in our imagination, nightmares, and works of art, is already part of our compulsion to build them. And as we do it, there’s a level of unredeemable guilty that we will never be able to compensate.
Thus, we build these elusive beasts, the all too powerful, avenging ghosts, to come after us, no matter how loud we scream, or how fast we run. We expect nothing less from them. They will remain just out of our sight, lurking in the wings, haunting our memories. Until the moment is ripe and we finally say: it’s time.
(*) Originally published on Oct. 29, 2014.