Dolls, like clowns, have a long and powerful history of symbolic meaning for human beings. We think of most dolls now as playthings for children, but dolls have always been much more than toys.
The old word for doll was “poppet,” related to the English word “puppet.” In many cultures, dolls were used for spiritual rituals and magic, and as oracles. They are perhaps most famous as tools of black magic, but were also used for healing, fertility, and romantic and protective spells. From the Far East to Africa to the Americas, dolls have been an important social instrument for centuries.
There exist in the world a small handful of haunted dolls, both in museums and collections and for sale on sites like eBay. Several horror movies have been inspired by famous haunted dolls, such as Robert and Annabelle.
As a child I didn’t have dolls, and didn’t want them. A toy doll to mother and care for was not nearly as much fun as a pet, which we had an abundance, and nothing was as lovely a plaything for me as a book. Some things never change.
No, I didn’t have a doll until I was nearly 50 years old, when I decided I needed a very specific kind of doll for a very specific reason. Most traditional dolls were handmade out of whatever materials were available. As a child of the twentieth century, I went shopping online, trusting I would know her when I found her. I already knew her name.
I wanted a new doll resembling myself. I looked at hundreds of dolls, mostly hideous, plastic and cheap, trying to find good old-fashioned rag dolls or soft dolls. There are some, but they’re few and far between. Alas, there are no dolls depicting (ahem!) maturity. Most of them simper, lowering plastic eyelids over improbably shiny blue or brown eyes. They have equally shiny and synthetic hair and frilly clothes. It was a little like shopping for candy in the candy aisle during Halloween. Slick, artificial, patently synthetic color, all sugar and no substance. Certainly, I found no dolls with even one grey hair or crow’s feet around the eyes. I thought about making a dried apple doll, but it was a fleeting thought. For some reason, that wasn’t quite what I wanted.
I persisted until I found a plain rag doll with brown yarn hair tied into two bunches with ribbons and blue eyes. She wore a yellow dress and white felt shoes on primitive club-shaped feet.
I grew up doing all kinds of embroidery, cross stitch and needlework, but I never learned to use a sewing machine or do practical things like make clothing, so I had to ask for help to get more appropriate clothes made. I found a young woman who sewed and asked her to make my doll a pair of denim jeans and some kind of a top. I told her the doll was for a niece of mine who was something of a tomboy and a mountain kid. I didn’t want to admit the doll was mine.
Dolls are commonly used for therapy for adults and children. In my explorations, I’d run across the idea of working with one’s inner child many times, and I knew making a doll to represent oneself is a common therapeutic activity. As I’d never had any meaningful kind of relationship with dolls, this didn’t attract me.
Until it did. I’m not sure exactly why my interest in dolls changed at that particular point in my life. All I can really say is I was suddenly ready to figure out if I could love myself. A doll seemed an obvious way to externalize the parts of me that felt so chronically unloved and unwanted. Beyond that, I really didn’t think. I just felt the need, and obeyed it.
When the clothes were ready (jeans, a T-shirt and a zippered sweatshirt), I dressed the doll and cut her brown yarn hair short. After spending most of my life with long hair, I’d recently cut mine, more as an act of rebellion and self-mutilation than anything else.
I cut the doll’s hair with a mixture of anger, resentment and grief, and a strange thing happened. Instead of looking at her with loathing, I had the completely unexpected and spontaneous thought that the short hair was cute. It wasn’t ugly. It didn’t make her look like an old hag, used up, dried up, sexless and powerless. That’s what I saw when I looked in the mirror at myself, but when I looked at the doll I saw something else entirely. As a child I had begged to be allowed to have long hair. I was eventually allowed to, when I was old enough to care for it. This was reasonable, as my hair is thick, curly and unruly, to put it mildly. For years, though, as a slim, short-haired, active child in the same tough jeans my brother wore, I was taken for a boy.
Somehow, looking down at that helpless rag doll and the short ends of yarn scattered around her, it seemed I was looking at a long-vanished version of myself, and I didn’t hate her. She wasn’t loathsome. She merely had short hair. I’d meant to hurt her, even mutilate her, but her innocence turned a hostile act into a reluctant feeling of wanting to protect her from any who would seek to hurt her, including myself.
This was a powerful moment. It was so powerful I doubted myself. What would people say if they knew I’d bought myself a doll and lied about it in order to get the clothes I wanted for her? What would they think of me? What did it say about me, these feelings of self-hatred mixed up with an uneasy need to protect? Protect the doll from me? Protect the doll from others? Protect myself?
I was confused, embarrassed and compelled. I kept the doll with me as I moved around my little log cabin, not to handle, but just to look at. Occasionally, I talked to her, in the same way I talked to the cat I belonged to at the time.
Then, one day, something distressed me. I was trying to calm down and think more clearly, and I saw the doll, sitting propped on a table. I picked her up and held her against my shoulder, patting her back and swaying on my feet in the age-old motions of comforting a baby. I had worked for years with chronic and terminally ill children and their families as a young woman and then raised two kids of my own. I love and understand children, and the familiarity of holding one again made me weep.
I was also instantly comforted, as though I myself was being held in spite of my age and ugliness. I’ve been aware all my life of the longing to be safe, secure and loved in someone’s arms, a longing I rarely admit, always endeavor to bury deep, and feel much shame about. Something about holding the doll assuaged that longing. In a strange sort of way, I was holding myself, or at least some part of myself.
I can’t explain the neurophysiological effect of being able to hold and comfort my doll. Perhaps a neurologist or a good psychiatrist could. What I do know is it’s been enormously and unexpectedly healing. The gnawing need for nonsexual physical reassurance and affection has been something I’ve learned to live with, never revealing it or expecting to have this need met. If I could not find it as a young, reasonably attractive woman, I’ll surely never find it now. I can’t hold myself, but I can hold my doll. I don’t always treat myself with unconditional love, but I can give it to my doll. In fact, I’m incapable of giving her anything else. I’ve always found it much, much easier to love others than myself. Loving others is a beautiful way to live, but it’s not always reciprocated or even recognized for what it is, and much of the love I’ve given has walked away from me, never to return. With the doll, somehow my love comes back into my own starving skin and heart.
I’ve had the doll for about six years now. I’ve turned to her in times of fear, insomnia, emotional pain, panic attacks and PTSD. I’ve wept with her (and perhaps for her), rocked her, kissed her, practiced Havening with her, snuggled her and slept with her in my arms. Until now, I’ve kept her presence in my life a secret from all but one person. She’s been more useful to me than any psychological therapy or pharmaceuticals I’ve ever tried, with the single exception of emotional intelligence coaching.
I’m writing this post now because I thought it would be fun for Halloween, haunted dolls being a thing in our culture. As I write, however, I’m slightly sobered. I’m not prepared to debate whether haunted dolls or haunted anything else are “real.” The belief in such things is what fascinates me, along with the history of such objects, investigation into this kind of phenomena, and the way it captures our imaginations. What I will say is if an object or person can be haunted or possessed, I would assume intense energy or emotion is associated with such possession.
It’s not hard for me to understand why dolls, like clowns, have so captured our imaginations. I’m quite certain my doll is the most intimate object in my life. I would never want to see her in another’s hands. God forbid she ever takes it into her head to talk about my demons and vulnerabilities. I don’t mind if she wants to move around in my attic space, though, or even look out the windows, as other haunted dolls are alleged to have done.